Academy tide turns

New superintendent running a tighter ship: `We're a nation at war'

August 18, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

In just nine weeks at the helm of the Naval Academy, Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler has already made waves, vastly cutting back on the free time of midshipmen and insisting that they study three hours a night, attend meals on campus and muster for early-morning formations.

A former submarine commander, Fowler has also canceled pep rallies, scaled back incentives for attending football away games and cut extracurricular activities.

He has dispensed with the singing of old Navy songs and has hinted that the academy could move away from one of the more beloved programs developed by his predecessor: sailing instruction that was designed as a leadership laboratory.

"This is not just a college scholarship," Fowler, 51, said yesterday in an hourlong interview. "We're a nation at war. We're not just doing short deployments or even six-month deployments. Sometimes they are longer, and our midshipmen need to understand that that's what their sailors are going through and that's who they're going to lead."

The slight deprivations midshipmen will experience at the Annapolis institution are nothing compared to eight-month tours at sea or ever-extended duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

Tightening the reins might have been expected after a series of embarrassing sexual assault trials and other misconduct that made national news in the past year, but longtime academy observers say that the tough-guy persona is an old ruse. New leaders often come in and restrict freedoms to display an iron fist and earn respect.

"New slogans are coined, new rules are issued, old ones suddenly focused on," said Bruce Fleming, an English professor at the academy for 20 years. "After a few years, they're gone and the cycle starts again. It would be better if they came in and got the feel of the place for a while."

But so far, Fowler's focus on wartime skills and "core mission" has won over many alumni who thought that the reforms implemented by the former superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt, to make the academy more hospitable to female midshipmen had weakened it.

Rempt turned over command on June 8.

Debating the state of toughness at the 162-year-old naval college - the need for more or less of it - is something of a pastime; alumni from every year believe that their time was more of a trial than for those who followed. So the reintroduction of hardship, or restriction, is often greeted with real enthusiasm.

"I think it's a very strong positive," said Pete Savage, a 1963 graduate who was alarmed to find out that the Naval Academy was just ranked as the 20th-best liberal arts college yesterday by U.S. News & World Report. "That sets the wrong tone for a military college that is training future combat leaders of the Navy and Marine Corps. What we should be emphasizing is strict military discipline."

Academy officials have quickly mobilized behind Fowler's new direction, going so far as to remove old posters that don't reflect the new course. This week, Academic Dean William Miller urged department heads to take down and store posters detailing "Guiding Principles," "Combat Leaders of Character" and "Strategic Goals" - the last of which had a picture of a sailboat.

Miller said leaving them in place while Fowler had asked the staff to focus "on a different set of fundamental beliefs may cause some confusion" when classes resume Monday. One faculty member responded to colleagues wryly: "Please adjust your fundamental beliefs accordingly."

For midshipmen, the changes have been far more drastic. Last year, seniors could head into Annapolis almost every weekday, were required to attend meals on campus only a few times a week and could study whenever they wanted.

Now, three meals a day - and the formations that precede them - are mandatory Sunday evening through Friday, and all Mids must study from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Approved absences for hundreds of previously encouraged nonmilitary activities, such as clubs and organized social events, are being reduced.

Administration officials are also considering cutting almost in half the number of weekends midshipmen have off, although they might allow Mids to earn back some privileges with good performance or behavior.

"We are being treated like children, not soon-to-be officers," said one midshipman, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to a reporter. "Even enlisted sailors don't get treated like this."

Fowler has also irritated some midshipmen by eliminating the perks for students who attend away football games, such as reimbursement for travel and not counting the time off against their allotted leave.

But one change - again breaking in style from Rempt - was immediately popular: Fowler has not been asking the students to sing traditional Navy songs at various events, something many loathed.

"It was embarrassing," said one recent graduate. "We would sing at games, and the alumni would laugh at us."

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