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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    Coast Guard Academy superintendent retires

    Rear Adm. William Kelly, superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy, talks to an ensign after handing her the diploma Wednesday, May 17, 2023, during the U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony in New London. Rear Adm. Kelly is retiring. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Rear Admiral William Kelly, Superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy, speaks Thursday, March 2, 2023, during Billet Night at the Coast Guard Academy in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Rear Adm. William G. Kelly, center, Rear Adm. James E. Rendon, back right, and Adm. Karl L. Schultz, back left, salute as Kelly's colors are posted as he assumes command as superintendent of the United States Coast Guard Academy from Rendon in a change of command ceremony Thursday, May 30, 2019, in the academy's Leamy Hall auditorium. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Schultz presided over the ceremony. Kelly is the 42nd superintendent in the history of the academy. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day file photo)
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    New London ― Rear Adm. William Kelly jokes that he always wanted to be president of a small college during a pandemic. But he says in all seriousness being superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy was his “dream job,” and he hopes he was the right person at the right time.

    His four-year tour at the academy is up, and after 36 years in the Coast Guard, he’s retiring from the service. But Kelly said he and his wife, Angie, knew that at 58 years old, he “was not going to just retire and put my feet up.”

    On July 1, Kelly becomes president of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. The school announced its new leader in February, adding a play on its mascot into the headline: “The Admiral Becomes a Captain.”

    While not a service academy, he thinks “the similarities are going to be greater than the differences, and probably the greatest similarities are the energy and passion the students and faculty will bring to the things they do.”

    The Coast Guard Academy held a change of command and retirement ceremony Friday.

    The new superintendent is Rear Adm. Michael Johnston, who in his most recent role as Ninth District Commander was the senior commander for the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway. He serves on the board of trustees for the academy, from which he graduated in 1990.

    Reflecting on the past four years, Kelly said he’s “most proud of how we navigated through COVID” and thinks it “gave us an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we do and how we do it.”

    The superintendent said three things he learned were to over-communicate rather than under-communicate, not just ask for but demonstrate trust, and “fortify your shipmates with information” as quickly as possible.

    He said the academy had to be more inclusive and welcome more voices, providing the example that they “completely whiffed” on childcare and eldercare at first, because there were no moms in the room.

    Kelly also said the academy learned during the pandemic how important it is to get high school students on campus “to see what we do.” The academy also altered its training schedule so there’s more acclimation and assessments up front.

    The retention rate for the Class of 2023 was 88%, and Kelly said the Class of 2024 ― which started in the fall of 2020 ― is currently retained in the low 80s. But he said the Class of 2025 is at 94%, “which is off the charts.”

    “This generation of students has been told to ask for help if they need it,” Kelly said when asked about mental health, and he thinks this is a good thing. “We are struggling to keep up with their requests.”

    Asked how this compares to his experience in the Class of 1987, Kelly laughed and said, “You didn’t ask for help. You kept your head down, and you just tried to survive.” But he said his class started with 255 cadets and graduated 130.

    “Attrition is not the mission,” Kelly said, adding of his class’ graduation rate, “That’s not a good investment. That’s a poor use of the government’s money.”

    Kelly graduated the same year as Rear Adm. Eric Jones, who is now deputy for personnel readiness and chairs the academy’s board of trustees.

    “It’s just really impressive the work Bill’s done, especially during the challenging times of COVID,” Jones said, “especially to produce the phenomenal officers who have gone out into the fleet, to help increase the diversity of the Corps of Cadet, to help modernize the way that the academics are governed.”

    Addressing challenges at the academy

    Kelly said his plan was to do five years in the Coast Guard and get out. But that’s obviously not what happened, and he said it was the people and the mission that kept him around.

    He gained other experience in training and education before becoming superintendent, serving as commanding officer of Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, director of the Leadership Development Center, and school chief for Officer Candidate School.

    Kelly said he came to the academy “thinking I knew pretty much how this place needed to operate and needed to run” but found out he didn’t know nearly as much as he thought he did.

    Compared to expectations, he said, “The things that I thought were going to be good about the academy were way better, and the things I thought would be challenging were way harder.” The hard parts could mean handling disciplinary or academic issues, or seeing a graduating cadet not be able to get her commission just yet because she dislocated her elbow at a recent softball game.

    In the months leading up to Kelly’s start date as superintendent, federal investigators determined the academy retaliated against a Black female officer after she complained of bullying and harassment, and the academy faced a congressional investigation over harassment, bullying and discrimination against minority cadets.

    Kelly said last week, “We follow the Coast Guard policies for anti-harassment/hate incidents, and I think we do a pretty good job of investigating those, and we have held folks accountable over the past couple years ― over the past four years ― for any transgressions in that area.”

    The “Equity Scorecard” released in 2018 showed racial disparities in graduation, disenrollment and disciplinary action rates. Data from the academy show a decline in disenrollment rates among Black cadets graduating in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and a 100% graduation rate for Black cadets in 2022.

    But the rates of Black cadets departing the academy ― though not by being disenrolled ― spiked for the classes of 2024 and 2025, and is higher than rates for their peers. Academy spokesperson David Santos noted that when looking at data overall, a particularly high percentage could be due to a small number of people in question.

    Kelly thinks the environment today is more conducive to having discussions about equity and inclusion than it used to be. He thinks this year’s Eclipse event ― an annual summit on diversity and inclusion ― was one of the best yet and cited the important cadets “telling their own stories and sharing their own experiences.”

    Aram deKoven, chief diversity officer at the academy, thinks Kelly has led from the top when it comes to equity-minded leadership.

    A big step that stands out in deKoven’s mind is the creation of a diversity and inclusion action plan, which came out last summer and has 17 action items. DeKoven also said Kelly strengthened the academy’s Diversity Peer Educator program.

    Changes over four years

    A major organizational change in Kelly’s time was the restructuring from a dean and nine majors to a provost, three vice provosts and three schools: School of Engineering and Cyber Systems, School of Leadership and Management, and School of Science, Mathematics and the Humanities.

    Amy Donahue became the academy’s first provost in 2021, and she said Kelly took a leap of faith and listened to the faculty about why this new model works. She said colleges “generally are moving to more porous boundaries across disciplines, because that’s where the really interesting work is,” and that the new model better connects faculty to their broader academic disciplines.

    “I’m not sure anybody could have been more prepared than he was for this job, given his particular career path, and he was very passionate about doing this work from the beginning,” Donahue said. She added, “new to higher education really and stepping into a complex job like this and then hit with COVID, it was kind of astonishing.”

    Kelly and Donahue also saw the first cyber systems majors graduate last year; this was the first new major created at the academy since the 1980s.

    The alumni association also built the new Maritime Center of Excellence and gifted it to the Coast Guard earlier this month. Kelly said the academy also just got congressional authorization create a 501(c)(3) to support the athletic department.

    e.moser@theday.com

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