Fixing the Service Academies


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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18 Responses

  1. Jason Kuznicki says:

    Government program becomes boondoggle (sometimes, with uniforms).

    Not an issue I know much about, but I can’t say it surprises me.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    What we need is competition.

    Maybe vouchers!Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      We have competition: Army, Navy, and Air Force.

      By the way, a bit of Googling suggests that the Air Force Academy is no longer the cesspit of enforced fundamentalism it had become earlir this decade. Does anyone know more about this?Report

    • Jivatman in reply to Jaybird says:


      Having a competitive bidding system and private contracts based on requirements set forth might be a good idea, but I think this is a rare case where vouchers may not be appropriate; military knowledge and experience is supposed to be proprietary and I’m not sure they want it commoditized.Report

  3. Clint says:

    I assume this tirade marks the end of Dr. Fleming’s tenure at the Academy… Queue my tirad-ical response-

    Consider the enormous institutional disadvantages facing the service academies in any sport with a nominal professional league:
    -A post-graduate committment of up to 7 years;
    -The inability of cadets/midshipmen to transfer in with advanced placement or other college credits or to leave prior to four years of schooling;
    -A rigorous curriculum;
    -Size restrictions; and
    -General underrepresentation of urban/minority in the officer corp.

    It seems astonishing that the service academies continue to compete in Division 1 athletics at all. I don’t condone many of the practices discussed in the article. Add to the list above more sophisticated high school scouting/recruiting generally and 2 ongoing wars, though, and it seems unlikely that the academies could attract another David Robinson or Roger Staubach anytime soon.

    I am sure that at some point in acquiring a PhD and teaching introductory english courses, Dr. Fleming came to the profound conclusion that grades are more important than meaningful participation on sports teams in determining the viability of a military officer. I am much less sure on that point. Anyone who agrees with Fleming should watch the interviews with the Cadets & Midshipment following the Army/Navy football game each year and then try to claim with a straight face that there aren’t substantial leadership benefits developed through a season of gutting it out on a football field agsinst bigger, faster competition with a group of people you will be serving in uniform with.

    It is worth noting that, depending on the student, grades at the service academies are virtually irrelevant. While they play a role in slotting occupations (pilot, military police, etc), they have next to no value in their post-academy military career or their post-military career (in both cases, the academy cachet is obviously far more important, and the additional cachet of playing a sport is more likely to be determinative than a grade in Dr. Fleming’s English 101 course).

    The reason, then, that many students sacrifice years of their lives at the Naval Academy Prep School or tens of college credits via AP classes or time spent at another university, is that they are committed to serving and their acceptance is the critical element. Considering the high GPA and SAT scores of academy students, their primary motivation for attending an academy is not, as Fleming seems to assume, academic greatness or collegiate well-roundedness. If so, many could qualify for more elite universities that would offer opportunities for better paying jobs upon graduation. The students are, instead, motivated by a desire to college at no cost and to serve in the armed forces. For a cadet interested in working in intelligence or as an MP, there is very little motivation to go above and beyond basic graduation requirements.

    Dr. Fleming, in his attempts to “bridge the military-civilian divide,” would be well-served to look a little closer at the motivations of his students and their institution before denigrating the Academy that pays his bills.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Clint says:

      @Clint, one of Flemming’s main points is that what is done by the Service Academies can be and is being done through ROTC programs elsewhere. What say you to that? I like the idea of service academies (and have no objection in principle to their participation in NCAA sports), but I thought he was pretty convincing on that front.

      I would love to hear what graduates have to say. Fleming argues that they’re dissatisfied and/or disallusioned. Are they?Report

  4. Clint says:

    Apologize for the length-
    My argument is not necessarily “academies good, ROTC bad” but rather that Fleming’s emphasis on marginal measurements of academic performance (i.e. close acceptance calls, grade point averages, etc) is a less useful barometer when considering the context and the student body. I think there are a couple arguments in favor of service academies, despite their shortcomings:

    1. The service academies are run like a military institution in which the head of the school and somewhere near half of the professors are uniformed military. They drill, are divided into squads, and train yearround/daily. While I am sure ROTC provides good part-time training in military science, they are much more like regular college students. The various time pressures associated with a rigorous academic schedules (including both liberal arts currcicula, as well as hard science/engineering courses), daily training, a higher population involved in intercollegiate sports, and stricter discipline both approximate many of the challenges of military service and also improve the ability of academy students to prioritize.

    2. Not to impugn the motivations of those accepting an ROTC scholarship, but I assure you that a person that scraps for years to be accepted to a service academy is much less likely to drop out b/c they did not realize the ramifications of service. The service academy service obligations is generally longer and less flexible than for ROTC candidates. The population who seeks appointment to an academy (whether primarily for financial reasons or a pure desire to serve) is better prepared for the military lifestyle upon entry and, perhaps more importantly, making it through four years at an academy (considering attrition) is a pretty good predictor of the kind of person fit to be an officer. To just speak from my own experience, I considered pursuing an ROTC scholarship as a high school student in order to attend a prestigious out of state college of my dreams. ROTC was the only way I could even consider attending and, ultimately for me, would have just been a less than sincere commitment to serve. I can promise you that, despite the high attrition rate, nearly all incoming students at service academies do not have such conflicting feelings.

    One other piece of anecdotal evidence to back up the non-zero-sumness of service academy athletics vis a vis ROTC: Of the recent pool of friends I have had that have pursued ROTC scholarships, a sizable number have found themselves not being commissioned after four years as a result of grades, alcohol, or other disciplinary issues. On the other hand, a sizable number of the students I know at service academies have had to quit involvement on a competitive sports team in order to balance academic and military demands. In other (more direct) words, Fleming is trying to promote his new book from atop a tenured ivory tower and the examples he cites are the exception and not the rule.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Clint says:

      @Clint, thank you for your insights. Do you have any guesses as to how much of the difference of what you’ve seen between ROTC and Academy personnel has to do with environment and how much has to do with the types of people that make each choice (namely, the greater commitment of academy grads)?Report