Coast Guard lookout
If the newest superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy succeeds in the strategic planning mission assigned by his boss, Admiral Linda Fagan, the commandant, it will mean that an institution ripe for change has come to terms with the need to catch up and open up.
For while the current corps of cadets may awe Superintendent Mike Johnston with their intellect and dedication, as he says, and campus spirit may be at a high, the academy faces not only challenges similar to those of other prestigious institutions but also the weight of a tradition that has looked inward for its strengths.
In the wake of failure by previous Coast Guard leadership to release the results of an investigation into sexual assault claims, the service is responding to Senate and House demands for reporting on both the findings and the decision to keep them quiet.
And with increased congressional scrutiny — which was brewing for years before CNN last July disclosed the existence of the report — the service is at last looking outward, potentially measuring itself by the openly expressed opinions of its own personnel, actions taken by other institutions, and the overall climate for change in the U.S. military.
One possible outcome is that the Coast Guard and its officer-commissioning institutions in New London, the academy and the Leadership Development Center, will emerge both stronger and with a greater public profile. Certainly that is the goal of the superintendent and the commandant and their staffs. Another possibility, remote, we hope, is that the Coast Guard whiffs again, as it did with the 2018 report.
That would undoubtedly deter many of the nation’s best, brightest and most inclined to serve from putting themselves through what earlier generations stoically faced. Times and values have changed; many qualified young people would not endure harassment that society condemns while their institution downplays it. Why would promising students — particularly but not only women — see that as a worthwhile sacrifice in order to serve? They wouldn’t, not anymore.
Superintendent Johnston told The Day Editorial Board at a recent meeting that service academies, including the Coast Guard Academy, “build leadership of character” better than other institutions by teaching that leadership is about service, not power, and that “deciding is one thing, doing is another.”
Thus, Coast Guard leaders have been consulting with Medal of Honor recipients about what makes genuine heroes. For best practices in academics, Johnston said, they have been talking with other college and university leaders. They are asking cadets and service personnel what they think, need and want.
It is clear from complaints by former cadets that underestimating the damage caused by bullying and abusive behavior has contributed to declining applications for admission and shortened careers for young officers. So have lifestyle demands that worked when a Coast Guard couple was a man on duty and a woman in the home — maybe a thousand miles away.
Specific items on the to-do list include easing the rules that in effect can force a person to leave the service in order to have a family life; revamping the “move up or move out” promotions system to let a good pilot, for instance, keep flying; and re-assessing the tenor of “swab summer.”
In the 200 weeks of life as a cadet, there is so much to accomplish; in the future that has started already there is artificial intelligence to be harnessed; climate change to address with innovation; and the making of a commissioned officer competent in the technology to lead in these areas and more.
Ultimately, the Coast Guard will know it is prepared for the future when a shadow culture that allows impunity for antisocial behavior loses its power; when virtually anyone in the service would freely speak up and say, “Hey, we don’t do that.”
The careers of future officers who have learned their jobs in a culture that respects them individually will transform the service, passing on what’s best in the tradition but refitting it for the 21st century. That’s what the nation depends upon the U.S. Coast Guard to do.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, copy editor Owen Poole and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.