Report: Cultural competence 'within grasp' at Coast Guard Academy
New London — The leaders of the Coast Guard Academy view the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion to be essential, a new study states, but its authors have 18 short- and medium-term recommendations to build proficiency in "cultural competence."
A panel of the National Academy of Public Administration on Tuesday released a 117-page report assessing cultural competence — "behaviors, attitudes, and policies that enable a system, agency, or professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations" — at the academy.
"The CGA and its team of senior leaders have unique features that give rise to a sense of confidence that significant advances can and will be made in this arena," the report states. "Building a proficient environment where cultural competence is observed as a paramount aim by Academy leaders is a vision within grasp."
The impetus for the yearlong study was the Coast Guard Academy Improvement Act, which was part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021 and called for NAPA to assess the state of cultural competence among cadets, faculty and staff. The study team interviewed more than 290 people, both one on one and in groups, with all interviews voluntary and not for attribution. It held virtual meetings and visited the academy for a week last year.
The report said while the academy has many initiatives that advance cultural competence, "the collection of efforts appears reactive and occasionally not prioritized when other 'urgent' issues arise and divert leaders' focus. In these respects, cultural competence is, at times, perceived by some faculty, staff, and cadets as a side issue instead of a central one."
The panel's highest-priority recommendations are issuing a long-term diversity and inclusion action plan, expanding the responsibilities of the chief diversity officer, improving governance and oversight of initiatives, and tracking metrics to observe progress and guide changes.
Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelly said the diversity and inclusion action plan was written and then vetted by Coast Guard headquarters, but NAPA asked the academy to hold off on publishing, as the cultural competence report would provide more clarity.
"As our nation becomes more and more diverse, our responsibility is to ensure we recruit the diversity of our country," said Kelly, who sat down for an interview Tuesday just before heading to a meeting with Chief Diversity Officer Aram deKoven. "It's incumbent upon leadership up and down the chain to ensure people are included and they can be their true selves."
Kelly said the tangible, measurable outcome of DEI efforts is retention. He noted that the Class of 2025, the most diverse class in the academy's history, has lost only eight students so far, whereas when Kelly graduated, his class had 50% attrition — which he called "a gross misuse of the taxpayers' dollars."
Whether through having the football team wear special uniforms to honor the first life-saving station with an all-Black crew, or dedicating its strength and conditioning center to Coast Guard veteran and NFL player Emlen Tunnell, Kelly said the academy is trying to tell the story of the Coast Guard and show its diversity in a new and unique way, not just through PowerPoint presentations.
"To continue to succeed, you've got to see that people like you can succeed," academy spokesperson Cmdr. Krystyn Pecora said, speaking about her experience earlier in her career when there were far fewer women in the Coast Guard. The Class of 2025 is 40% women.
The report addresses the academy's anti-harassment and hate incident policy. While interviewees described 2020 policy updates as beneficial, several critiqued the implementation "as being too constricting, as it can stifle a victim's willingness to seek advice or counsel ... out of fear of triggering a formal investigation." The report notes there is "a lack of a confidential and informal process for arbitrating or mediating harassment incidents."
"I know it frustrates folks, but those policies and procedures are there to support the members," Kelly said, and to "make sure if an incident is brought to our attention, we adjudicate it fully and fairly." But he said the academy will continue to ensure it gets its policy right.
The report said interviewees indicated that sexual assault and sexual harassment incidents are taken seriously and resources promptly provided but "the follow-up to these incidents during the investigation or adjudication phase of the process is often inconsistent and nontransparent."
The Sexual Assault Prevention, Response and Recovery office has two staff members — a sexual assault response coordinator and a victim advocate — but the report said the demands of running an effective office require more staff.
The report said interviewees "mentioned feeling less inclined to engage with the SAPRR office because of its distinct location and potential to be subject to the rumor mill," but Kelly said the office has since been moved.
Another recommendation in the report is to announce a decision on how to address two murals in the Henriques Room, so the room can be reopened. The academy closed the room in 2019 to decide what to do about the paintings.
The room, which is in Hamilton Hall and was the academy's original library, has a wraparound mural with one panel that shows two Black men working to construct the cutter Massachusetts in 1791 and one panel that depicts an attack on Seminole Indians.
The report notes there is no explanation providing historical context and people may be offended by these two murals.
"The murals are a painful reminder of the American legacy that includes injustice and racism," it states, "but American society has seen a positive metamorphosis that can be celebrated and also needs to be continuously addressed for sensitive issues that are part of the past."
Kelly said the academy needs to bring in a professional curator from the outside and is talking to people at the nearby Lyman Allyn Art Museum to be pointed in the right direction.
Other recommendations in the report include creating a new civilian student affairs position in the Cadet Division and launching an athletics cultural competence and diversity initiative. The report also recommends that headquarters provide permanent funding for temporary billets and other short-term faculty positions, and that it conduct a review of the hiring process for civilian faculty.
The report praises the incorporation of cultural competence in the academy's core curriculum, with courses such as American Social Movements and Introduction to Latin American Culture.
The panel recognizes that putting into effect its recommendations "will require additional resources, including scarce leadership time. But those difficult tradeoffs are essential to success."
Kelly said the academy needs to continue to work with resource managers at Coast Guard headquarters about where the resources should come from and when to ask.
"We have a lot of good things going on here," he said. "We need to make them a little more focused, a little more directed, a little more coordinated."