USNA article at center of debate

February 25, 2005|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

A U.S. Naval Academy professor's published claims that the college's admissions process is severely flawed has generated a storm of controversy at the Annapolis military college, including a rebuke from the school's superintendent.

Bruce Fleming, an 18-year faculty member who spent one year on the admissions board, challenges the academy's admissions policies in an article in this month's Proceedings, a national defense magazine.

In the article, titled "The Academy Can Do Better," Fleming criticizes preferential treatment for three groups he calls the "set-asides": applicants who are minorities, athletes or already members of the fleet.

"Admission to the Naval Academy is academically competitive for only about half the class," Fleming writes.

The article unleashed a torrent of e-mails from midshipmen to Fleming. The professor said about half of the messages contained expressions of support, while the other half attacked his claims. One e-mail threatened him, Fleming said.

The article also prompted a stinging letter this month from Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the school's superintendent. In it, Rempt wrote that he was "surprised and disappointed" by the professor's article.

Rempt wrote that the college's admissions process strives to develop future combat leaders and also "embraces the ethnic, gender and socio-economic diversity of our society, as well as the Navy and Marine Corps."

"Your action has served to needlessly criticize the Academy, our admissions board, and every midshipmen - past, present and future - who have earned their admission into the Academy, and are serving successfully as officers," Rempt wrote. "I would have expected a much more professional approach."

In response, Fleming said: "It is professional - that's what professors do. They publish."

The controversy comes at a time when the role of race in the university admissions process has become a national discussion. In 2003, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the right of public colleges to consider race in admissions procedures, but struck down a point system used by the University of Michigan for minority applicants to its undergraduate school.

Fleming wrote that the ruling shows that racial admissions policies are illegal, but Rempt countered in his letter that this view "ignores the lengthy legal review and findings reached by the Navy" after the decision.

R. Lawrence Purdy, a Naval Academy graduate and an attorney with the Minnesota-based firm that represented the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, said he couldn't comment on the academy's admissions policies.

However, he added, "I can say that if the admissions personnel is engaged in what Mr. Fleming described, then I believe those sorts of policies are a clear violation of the Constitution."

The academy's admissions policy has been challenged in the past, most recently by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing of Cambridge, Mass. In 2002, the watchdog group accused the military college of improperly preventing students from submitting a full application because of their low SAT or ACT scores.

It's not the first time a faculty member has publicly criticized the military college. In 1996, academy professor James F. Barry wrote a scathing commentary for The Washington Post about the school's "culture of hypocrisy." Barry was removed from the classroom by Adm. Charles R. Larson, the superintendent at the time, but was reinstated several days later.

And Fleming has sounded off on the academy's inner workings before. The professor first denounced the school's admissions policies in a 2003 commentary for The Washington Post.

About eight months ago - still nagged, he says, by complaints to the English department from flag officers saying academy graduates "cannot think cogently in words" - Fleming said he wrote the piece for Proceedings.

Academy spokesman Cmdr. Rod Gibbons said yesterday that Fleming will not be subject to any disciplinary action for penning the article, and that the school supports an individual's right to "express personal opinions in a reasonable and accurate manner." But he echoed Rempt, saying academy officials are disappointed with Fleming's assertions.

Admission into the Naval Academy is extremely competitive. On average, about 1,000 of the more than 12,000 who apply to the academy each year are accepted. To apply, students must be nominated by a public official (such as a member of Congress or the president) and pass a fitness test, among other requirements.

In an e-mailed statement, Gibbons said admissions are determined by a "whole person" concept: one that seeks candidates who, in addition to scholastic excellence, have leadership qualities and a desire to serve their country.

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