Reluctant culture change

August 14, 2006

Naval Academy Superintendent Rodney P. Rempt is in a most unenviable position.

After bringing rape charges against Lamar S. Owens, a football star midshipman who was acquitted after a highly publicized court martial, Vice Admiral Rempt must now decide whether to penalize the defendant for less serious infractions. The choice is stark: graduation and a Navy commission or expulsion with a $140,000 tuition debt but no degree. As The Sun's Bradley Olson reported last week, the superintendent is sure to be sharply criticized either way.

But here are two factors that shouldn't play any role in his decision: that expulsion would mean Mr. Owens is punished for rules violations while his accusers are not, and that he is black and they are white.

The superintendent has taken bold steps to try to change the macho culture that still taints the military academies 30 years after women were first admitted. He should be supported by academy faculty and alumni in this difficult campaign instead of attacked by those who still don't seem to quite accept women as prospective military leaders.

A Pentagon task force that investigated sexual harassment and violence at the military service academies urged last year that a high-profile response to victims' complaints is critical to signal that such behavior won't be dealt with quietly or swept under the rug. The culture must be changed so that even minor sexual offenses are viewed in the context of leadership and values, the task force said.

To encourage victims and witnesses to come forward, military officials have found it necessary to grant them immunity for their own offenses. Admiral Rempt granted broad immunity in this case. But Mr. Owens' accuser isn't escaping penalty. Her career as well as his has been damaged by public revelations of irresponsible behavior that will remain on both their records.

As for the racial difference, it's unfortunate that critics suspect that would be the basis for punishing Mr. Owens more harshly than his accuser. Their attitudes can't be helped, though, and shouldn't be a consideration.

There is a perception of the Owens court-martial as a Greek tragedy, tarring everyone involved and the academy itself. Yet a public outing of the misdeeds of what may be only a small percentage of students is the best way to reduce that percentage.

Admiral Rempt, who continued his zero-tolerance campaign last week with the prosecution of a professor alleged to have made rude sexual remarks to a female midshipman, is trying mightily to redirect a very large battleship to a course worthy of that prestigious institution. His critics should get out of the way.

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