Does the country need the Coast Guard Academy?

The last time I wrote about the Coast Guard Academy, in early March, I included a brief roundup of the cascading headlines about an abysmal culture at the school: harassment and bullying, racial discrimination and rising reports of sexual abuse and harassment of female cadets.

At that time, the school still was stonewalling requests from Congress for documentation of harassment and bullying complaints, the third request, since the first two produced materials so heavily redacted, they couldn't be read.

I was reminded of that this past week, when the Coast Guard produced its latest response to the congressional demands for documents. Presumably, the latest will be readable.

The story Thursday also reminded me of some essays a reader sent me in March, written by a tenured civilian English professor at the Naval Academy, who had gotten a lot of attention and a following for his suggestions that the country abandon its elitist military academies.

It turns out Bruce Fleming, who had become kind of a crusader for closing or fixing the academies, was fired by the Naval Academy last summer, accused of improperly touching students, among some other allegations, including mispronouncing the name of an Asian student.

He is appealing. He says the firing was retaliation for his criticisms of the academy.

Whether or not Fleming is exonerated or rehired, his criticisms bear some consideration, especially in light of the serious allegations about the culture at the academy in New London.

In a 2010 essay published in The New York Times, Fleming noted that the academies are not needed to produce military officers and provide only 20 percent or less of the officers in each service, at an average cost of nearly a half-million dollars per student — more than four times what an ROTC officer costs.

Students at leading American universities probably get a much better education, he argues.

"The academies produce burned-out midshipmen and cadets. They come to us thinking they've entered a military Camelot, and find a maze of petty rules with no visible future application," Fleming wrote.

Students accepted for their athletic prowess are protected at all costs and so much effort is spent on keeping retention rates high, Fleming says, "instead of zero tolerance, we now push for zero attrition: we "remediate" honor code offenses."

In a piece in The Federalist in 2017, Fleming cites a scathing letter written by a retiring professor at West Point who makes some of the same complaints about the Army academy that he said he observed in Annapolis.

"I have personally taught cadets (athletes) who are borderline illiterate and cannot read simple passages from the assigned textbooks," Fleming quotes from the letter from West Point.

Students at the academies are lackluster at best, Fleming argued.

"The vast majority are going through the motions, sleeping in class, memorizing, then mind-dumping largely technical material they forget anyway and whose utility has never been shown," he wrote.

Leadership is taught in warmed-over introduction to psychology classes, he says.

He also attacks the atmosphere of privilege at the academy, where officers live in mansions, waited on by servants, what he calls " taxpayer-sponsored country clubs."

I might dismiss Fleming's insider complaints as some kind of workplace sour grapes, except for the way they resonate here in New London, certainly in considering the academy's arrogant response to a congressional investigation.

I'm not sure yet the Coast Guard Academy needs to be shut down, but I see that recourse should probably be on the table as the congressional investigation unfolds.

There is ample evidence on the table that the place is broken.

Rising reports of unwanted sexual contact and an alarming percentage of women saying they have been sexually harassed is unacceptable.

The Coast Guard said last week that a supervisor found to have retaliated against a black female officer who reported being subjected to harassment and a hostile work environment "will be departing the service in September."

Anywhere else in the real world, that person would have been fired on the spot, not plan a graceful exit on their own terms.

Incidents like that breathe life into the complaint that the service academies are unnecessary expensive playgrounds of the privileged, white-dominated military hierarchy.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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