New Coast Guard Academy superintendent says his job is to "seek out the blind spots"

New London — The new superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy, just over 100 days into the job, said the academy has done much over the years to increase the diversity of its student body. Women now make up 40 percent of the roughly 1,000 cadets on campus, and minorities constitute 32 percent.

Now the question is: "We're at the point where we're diverse, but are we inclusive?" Rear Adm. Bill Kelly said during a meeting Monday with The Day's Editorial Board.

Kelly, a 1987 academy graduate, who was previously the Coast Guard's chief of human resources, has described his return to the academy as a homecoming. He was stationed on campus from 2003 to 2006 as the leader of the Officer Candidate School, and again from 2008 to 2012 as the head of the Leadership Development Center.

He pointed to recent news headlines, which demonstrate the important work of the Coast Guard, whose officers all undergo training at the academy, including rescuing hundreds in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian, responding to the worst maritime disaster in recent California history, and just Monday, rescuing crew members from a capsized cargo ship off the Georgia coast.

"We're out there doing good stuff. We are the world's best Coast Guard. ... That's my perception. That's my reality," Kelly said, adding that he's looking through "a set of glasses that are 54 years old, that of a white male."

"Does everybody on our campus feel the same way?" he said.

As superintendent, Kelly said one of his main responsibilities is "to seek out our blind spots."

The academy, which was ranked one of the top colleges in the 2019 U.S. News & World Report listings, has its challenges, Kelly said, but what he's learned from meeting with his counterparts from across the country since taking the job is that other colleges and universities are facing similar issues.

"They're dealing with mental health. They're dealing with diversity and inclusion on board their campuses. They're dealing with financial constraints," he said.

Kelly took over as superintendent in the midst of a congressional probe into the academy's handling of discrimination and harassment complaints, and a separate review by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General into whether the academy has adequate processes in place for reporting, investigating and acting on such complaints.

He said one of his main priorities is creating a safe and inclusive community on campus, and that he is engaging a cross-section of people on how to best do that. The academy now has a system in place to more easily identify inequities on campus, he said.

After being the first U.S. service academy to undergo a process called the Equity Scorecard, which evaluates institutions on student performance with a focus on equity, the academy put in place a system to collect and analyze this data on its own.

The scorecard found discrepancies in graduation and retention rates, disciplinary action, and academic performance, for example. Speaking to one of the findings, that black cadets faced disciplinary action more than any other group, Kelly said data the academy has collected since shows "the numbers have changed."

"We've raised the understanding of equity across the campus," he said.

The data are allowing the academy to more readily evaluate and address inequities, but another way Kelly said he can gain insight into the culture at the academy is through a course he's co-teaching on morals and ethics for sophomores, juniors and seniors.

"Think about being in a morals and ethics discussion with your cadets, what greater insight can you have than to do that?" he said.

While the cadets are "warming up" to the idea of being taught a class by the superintendent, no one has asked him a question yet. "They haven't said, 'Sir, what do you think about X,'" Kelly said. It's his responsibility, he said, is to create an environment that they feel comfortable doing that."

j.bergman@theday.com

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