Academic-military friction

Civilian teachers make waves at the Naval Academy


In the ivory towers of academia, free thought is a virtue and authority exists to be questioned.

But at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, authority is to be revered and obeyed. For the 221 uniformed members of the teaching faculty, that's not a problem. They readily salute their commanders and heed orders.

For the 313 civilian professors, who teach everything from English literature to electrical engineering and often come from a culture that favors the free exchange of views, it can be a source of tension.

"I'm sorry to see so many people who don't understand that academics are not about unquestioned obedience," said Bruce Fleming.

He is a tenured English professor whose criticism of academy policies has drawn the attention of his uniformed superiors.

Early this year, for example, he published an essay in a Navy trade magazine criticizing the school's admissions process. Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt, the academy's superintendent, issued him a private rebuke.

And last month, Fleming was not permitted to sign copies of his latest book - which contains essays that question the academy's affirmative action policies - at the campus bookstore, a practice regularly allowed for other faculty.

Public scolding

In another famous example of a faculty member expressing a personal opinion, a professor was publicly upbraided for his criticism of the institution.

In 1996, just a few days after James Barry wrote a lengthy newspaper opinion piece saying the academy suffered from a "culture of hypocrisy," then-Superintendent Charles R. Larson denounced him in several meetings with the entire faculty, officer staff and brigade of midshipmen.

"He pointed at me and said, `That man there is a liar and a traitor,'" Barry, a leadership professor and hockey coach at the time, recalled recently. "Those were pretty strong words."

Barry was removed from his classes and assigned to write recommendations for how the academy could improve upon some of the problems he highlighted in his opinion piece.

The incident prompted the intervention of the American Association of University Professors, a Washington-based trade group for academics, which threatened to add the Naval Academy to a list it keeps of schools that don't honor academic freedom principles.

Barry returned to classes the next day but eventually left the academy.

Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, spokesman for the academy, said the institution would not comment on the personal opinions of its employees, but he did note that Fleming has not been disciplined for his public comments.

"The U.S. Naval Academy supports the right of our faculty members to express their personal opinions in a responsible and accurate manner," he said.

William Miller, the civilian academic dean at the academy, said that when teachers come to interview at the academy they are often nervous about how they will fit into the military environment.

To assuage any concerns, the academy has them teach a course as part of their interview.

"They'll get a chance to see what it's like to get great questions from the midshipmen," Miller said. "That's usually very stimulating because they'll find out we have a very small average class size. Our average class size is between 17 and 18 students. ... That's really attractive to someone who thinks of themselves as a teacher. That's what we want here."

Most civilian professors enjoy it so much in Annapolis that they stay for their entire careers - attrition is about 4 percent a year. Many say they have come to embrace the school's mission of preparing Navy and Marine Corps officers for their careers.

Civilian role

The prevalence of civilians on campus is unusual among the nation's service academies. Civilians make up nearly 59 percent of the teaching staff at the Naval Academy. At West Point and the Air Force Academy, military faculty members far outnumber civilians, usually by 2-to-1.

In addition, military faculty members at those institutions run all the academic departments; at the Naval Academy, departments are chaired almost entirely by civilians - six of 15 departments are chaired by women.

The Naval Academy uses the tenure system, also unique among the service academies.

Richard Abels, president of the faculty senate and a history professor, said he had to think long and hard when he came to the Naval Academy in 1982. He got his graduate degrees at Columbia University, beginning in 1968 at the height of anti-Vietnam War fervor. While he was no rabid protester, he said, he was an admitted liberal.

"I had to ask myself if I truly believed in the Naval Academy's mission," Abels said. "And when I thought about it, I realized that absolutely I did. They have a duty to be guardians of our society, and I get to teach them to think critically. That's very attractive to me."

Gibbons said that while the Naval Academy holds midshipmen to the highest academic standards, the school is focused on more than academics.

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