A shortage of sea legs

Officers: With fewer professors from active-duty ranks, the Naval Academy risks robbing midshipmen of exposure to instructors with recent fleet experience.

January 22, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Naval Academy is facing a severe shortage of military faculty that some Navy officials say could threaten its ability to train students for life at sea.

Post-Cold War cuts in the armed services and a Navy promotions system that fails to reward officers who teach at the academy have thinned the supply of active-duty teachers to worrisome levels, says William C. Miller, a retired rear admiral who is the academy's provost and academic dean.

Civilians already outnumber officers on the academy's 562-member faculty. And officials say that a further tilt from the historically even split between civilian and military teachers would rob students of exposure to instructors with recent experience aboard ships, submarines and Navy aircraft.

Over the past eight years, the number of military teaching slots that the academy has been unable to fill with active-duty officers has climbed from zero to about 37, or about 15 percent of the military faculty.

Some officials liken the problem to a medical school faculty without enough practicing doctors.

"We feel we're hanging on by our fingernails," Miller said in a recent interview. "The trends are getting worse, not better."

The top academic official at the Navy's graduate school in California says if the trend isn't reversed, the Navy could suffer.

"My concern is that while we're meeting today's needs of the Navy, we're not educating the next generation of leadership," said Richard S. Elster, the provost of the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, Calif., where enrollment of Navy officers has nose-dived during the past decade. "I think the long-term cost is a reduction in the future readiness of the Navy."

Academy officials have tried to blunt the impact of the decline by hiring reservists for the faculty and giving officers a free ride through graduate school in return for a pledge to teach at the academy until retirement.

But they describe these as imperfect solutions that bring in teachers with less know-how about the workings of the modern Navy.

And officials see more problems ahead.

Last year, the U.S. Military Academy backed out of a 25-year-old faculty exchange program with the Naval Academy after the Navy failed to come up with enough professors to send to West Point. The program's demise means the loss of six Army teachers, some with expertise in hard-to-fill areas such as chemistry.

West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy have much higher proportions of military faculty and have not had similar trouble filling vacancies, officials there say.

Those academies have for decades had incentive programs to ensure a predictable supply of young officers with advanced degrees - programs that the Navy is only now putting in place.

"We're constantly trying to grow potential people to come here and be instructors," said Lt. Col. Karolen Fahrni, who oversees the search for military faculty at the Air Force Academy. "It sounds like what's happened to the Navy is they're playing catch-up."

Military officials say that the Navy, much more so than the other service branches, values the front line over the ivory tower. About 70 of the Navy's 54,000 officers have doctorates, compared with nearly 1,000 of the Air Force's 70,000 officers.

One reason is simple logistics: Even during peacetime, a Navy officer is at sea - beyond commuting distance to the local university.

Moreover, said Michael C. Halbig, the Naval Academy's associate dean for faculty, "The Navy culture is one that's heavily biased toward success in the operating forces."

To counteract those biases, the academy in 1998 started the Permanent Military Professor Program, which pays full tuition - as much as $25,000 a year - for an officer to pursue a doctorate. In return, officers must teach at the academy until mandatory retirement, usually after 28 to 30 years in the military. But even this effort has failed so far to offset the decline in active-duty teachers.

In a few cases, the academy has had to temporarily fill military teaching spots with civilian graduate students from nearby universities. Though by all accounts competent, these teachers are not the product of the intensive national searches or of the rigorous interviews and reviews of scholarship that would precede the hiring of other civilian faculty.

Cmdr. Bill Spann, the academy's chief spokesman, said that active-duty military officers are an integral part of the faculty, injecting classrooms with anecdotes from the real world. "They're colloquially known as `sea stories' - they are the day-to-day, deck-plate examples of how the theories they're learning in Annapolis are going to affect their lives in the future," he said. "It's critically important to their overall experience."

Spann and others maintain that while the faculty crunch is worsening, it has yet to reach the point of hampering the school's mission as an incubator for Navy leaders. "The bottom line," said Spann, "is we're still graduating midshipmen from a fully accredited university."

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