CGA works to address concerns of minority treatment, retention

New London — Despite the Coast Guard Academy's efforts to promote diversity and inclusion within its student body, a group of minority cadets describe discrimination as a systemic problem at the institution that develops the Coast Guard's future officers.

The four cadets, who asked that they not be named so that they could speak openly, said racial slurs, ignorant comments and instances of disrespect are common on campus. At one point, they were meeting privately on a weekly basis to discuss incidents.

"Every day you encounter something. You can choose to either acknowledge it and address it or acknowledge it and move on," a male cadet said.

When discrimination is reported to leadership, they don't take it seriously, and there's a tendency to play it down, the cadets said.

"Issues of sexual assault and drinking are acknowledged. But if you're called the 'n word' or someone says you're from the ghetto, they're just joking," a female cadet said.

Rarely do those who discriminate face repercussions, according to the cadets, and those that report discrimination can be made to feel like they are the problem.

"If you bring it up, it's considered unorthodox. You're looked at as the problem," a male cadet said.

A female cadet offered this point: "If a cadet gets in trouble for drinking, that wakes people up. Nothing happens when people discriminate, so the issue persists."

When these issues are brought up, it's often with the intent of raising discrepancies about the Coast Guard's core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. So when it's met with pushback, the feeling is that the core values are a façade, the cadets said.

Superintendent Rear Adm. James Rendon acknowledged that there have been "some" climate issues at the academy, and said they are taken seriously when brought to leadership's attention.

"We do our best to act on them and make the right decision on how to deal with them," Rendon said during a July 12 interview in his office.

Each situation is different, he said, and they're dealt with in a range of ways, from disenrollment to demerits and extra training.

The Day asked the Coast Guard, through a Freedom of Information request submitted July 21, for the number of reports of civil rights incidents of hate, harassment or discrimination at the academy. Michael Brenyo with the Coast Guard's Office of Civil Rights said by phone Friday that the information was close to being ready and would be released soon.

"The Coast Guard Academy, not unlike any institution in America, is fraught with racism, misogyny and other kinds of discrimination and prejudicial treatment," said Aram deKoven, the academy's chief diversity officer.

He pointed to efforts by the academy to make "real and lasting change. Not window dressing. Not like putting up a flag or like serving a cultural meal."

One example of that, deKoven said, is the academy's new use of an assessment tool called the Equity Scorecard, which looks at metrics such as graduation and retention rates, who receives accommodations and recommendations, who receives leadership roles in the corps, and who is brought up on charges categorized by race and gender.

"This is a tool designed to measure the health of the institution, not of the individuals," deKoven said.

If it works, he added, "it's going to make us uncomfortable. ... We want that. We want to be uncomfortable because through discomfort we can grow."

The academy signed a six-month contract with the administrators of the scorecard. The contract ended in August and academy officials are expecting to receive the data shortly. Rendon said he believed the academy was the only service academy to make use of the tool.

"We hope that it helps us identify some institutional changes that could be made that would help us as it relates to retention," Rendon said.

The academy has a number of methods for gauging the experiences of cadets, such as an annual climate survey taken by every member of the Department of Defense and Coast Guard, a biannual gender relations survey, focus groups, and town halls hosted by Rendon.

"I'd like to think that we are moving in the right direction. I mean, yes, we do have some problems here but I think the fact that we are engaging with one another is progress," Rendon said.

"It's not a one and done deal," he added, noting it requires sustained attention.

Graduation rates need work

A group of alumni has taken note of the climate issues. The Eclipse Legacy Fund Governance Committee, whose goal is to strengthen minority recruitment and retention, recently wrote a letter to Rendon making recommendations on how the academy could improve in those areas. Recommendations include implementing more structured mentoring networks and ensuring a diverse mix of mentors of all ranks.

"The first criteria to take into account in the evaluation of cadet retention is environment and culture where people of diverse backgrounds feel included, valued and respected," the letter says in part. "The climate at the Coast Guard Academy is the dominant factor affecting retention of underrepresented minority cadets."

U.S. Coast Guard Acadmey Graduation Rates by ethnicity and race

Retired Coast Guard Commander Mark Harris, a member of the committee, said the intent of the letter was to keep the pressure on the academy to address these issues, and to show the committee's commitment to working with the academy. Harris, who is African-American, said the same issues existed when he was a cadet.

"My biggest concern is that we've been here before, where we've done great things and then after the attention is gone, people move to the next priority and then we often see failure as opposed to continue to sustain the success," Harris said. "We saw that in last year's class, which was not representative of what Coast Guard stands for and what we're doing in America."

Academy officials, in recent years, have touted the school's efforts to bring in a more diverse group of cadets. There's been progress. Minorities make up 35 percent of the incoming Class of 2021 compared to the 16 percent of minorities in the incoming Class of 2013.

On the other hand, graduation rates tell a different story. 

When the Class of 2016 arrived on campus in June 2012, it was the most diverse class of cadets in the academy's history, with 36 percent women and 35 percent minorities. Of the 248 cadets who arrived on Day One, 16 identified as Asian, 16 identified as African-American and 45 identified as Hispanic.

But only 62 percent of minorities graduated compared to the overall class graduation rate of 73 percent. The graduation rate for white cadets was 79 percent. The graduation rate for African-American cadets was notably low: Of the 16 who were part of the incoming class, only two graduated.

So why aren't minority students graduating at the same rate as their white counterparts?

"It's certainly something we're concerned with," Rendon said. "These folks have heard me say over and over it's one thing to recruit them, it's another thing to retain a diverse corps."

Early signs, he said, show that retention rates are improving.

Two years out from graduation, the Class of 2019 has an overall retention rate of 88 percent. The rate for Asians is 92 percent, African-Americans 87 percent, and Hispanics 73 percent, according to Rendon.

"That's encouraging," he said. "Although it is a 200-week journey, not a 100-week journey."

The cadets interviewed said they knew of a few people who left the academy because of the climate issues.

Leadership not diverse

Given the academy is the primary source of Coast Guard officers, a lack of diversity among the corps of cadets translates to a lack of diversity in the Coast Guard as a whole.

"For 50 years, we've been graduating African-Americans and other minority groups at the academy. However, the senior leadership does not reflect the type of rates of officers that we've put in to Coast Guard since that time," Harris said.

He's hoping the efforts by the Eclipse Legacy Fund Governance Committee, combined with academy officials, will help produce a greater diversity among senior leaders in the Coast Guard.

"Having those people in decision-making positions, that know the concerns we're seeing at this level with the cadets, those concerns will be addressed because you'll have people in there who understand the concerns even more so because they've been through it," Harris said.

The cadets interviewed said they'd feel more comfortable bringing up these kinds of issues in a regular four-year school. But in a military environment, in which promotions and job assignments are heavily influenced by recommendations from superiors, reporting discrimination can give you a reputation of being a troublemaker and follow you in your career, the cadets said.

On top of that, they said, some of their white peers don't believe that the minority cadets deserve their spots, and that they only got accepted to the academy to fill a quota. The same sentiment is expressed when minorities get leadership positions, they said.

Their feelings are mixed at this point as to whether they want to stay beyond their required five years. A female cadet said she goes back and forth between "fiving and diving," and making a career out of the Coast Guard. Part of what makes her want to stay longer is knowing that she could help bring attention to the issues minorities face. Or, she could get out and go into the civilian world and bring them up.

j.bergman@theday.com

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