Friday, May 28, 2010

The Naval Academy and the ongoing controversy

I was going to write today about Memorial Day weekend—what it is now and what it used to be when I was a kid and you could count on doubleheaders on the holiday.

But I think I need to say something about the ongoing controversy at The Naval Academy that centers on a professor named Bruce Fleming—someone I’ve never met but who I feel I know because I have met academics like him throughout my life.

Let me begin by saying a couple of things. I have been, at least technically, a college professor. I taught journalism—not sports journalism; journalism—at Duke for three years. I think my title was ‘visiting professor.’ I told my students to call me John because (among other reasons) I figured if Ben Bradlee wanted me to call him Ben when I was a 21-year-old intern at The Washington Post, there was no reason for anyone to call me anything other than John.

I enjoyed teaching. I really enjoyed the kids and I’m proud of what many of them have accomplished in journalism since graduating. I stopped teaching for two reasons: After the birth of my first child the extra travel became an issue and the leadership at The Duke School of Communications changed. The guy who took over—honestly I don’t remember his name and don’t know if he is still there—told a student of mine, Beth Krodel, that he wanted to get rid of me because I was influencing too many students to go into journalism instead of advertising.

Gee, I feel bad about that.

I’d like to teach again someday if I can do it locally here in Washington. The closest I came to that was several years ago when Bob Chernak, a vice president at George Washington, asked me if I had any interest in teaching there. I told him I would love to teach at GW: my mom had once been a professor there (music history) and I had taken two summer school courses in journalism there once upon a time since Duke (then as perhaps now for all I know) didn’t offer any journalism classes.

Bob said he would talk to the head of the journalism department and be in touch. Two weeks later he called back. “This is a little embarrassing,” he said. “The head of our journalism department has never heard of you. But she says you can submit a resume if you want.”

Actually I’ve never had a resume since I got hired by The Post right out of college. Plus, if the woman had never heard of me my guess was that my resume if it existed wouldn’t impress her.

There are lots of great teachers at the college level. I certainly encountered many of them as an undergraduate and have met many others through the years. There are also those who think that anyone who is involved in sports in any way is stupid. Every school has them: professors who object to athletes missing a class to play in a game or swim in a meet or do anything jock-related. They resent the attention successful coaches receive. They clamor all the time about academic standards being lowered for athletes.

You know what? They’re right: EVERY school lowers its standards for athletes from Harvard to the lowest-ranked D-3 school you can find. The military academies do it too. The rationale given by the schools is that athletes make the student body more “diverse.” That’s garbage. Athletes with lower grades and SATs are admitted for one reason: they help teams win games.

The question isn’t lowering standards it is HOW MUCH do you lower standards relative to the rest of the student body. To me the test has always been simple: If you start admitting athletes who simply can’t do the work and have no chance to graduate, you’ve gone too far. What’s more, if you bring in too many athletes who get into trouble—whether it’s through cheating or getting arrested or, worst case scenario, committing acts of violence—you have gone too far.

Professor Fleming, who has taught at Navy for 23 years, has been hammering the school publicly (he’s tenured) for years now. His main complaint (although there are others) is this: the school lowers its academic standards for athletes, especially football players, too frequently.

Let me pause to give my disclaimer here: Most people know I’m about to enter my 14th season as color commentator on the Navy radio network. I wrote a book in 1996 called, “A Civil War,” about the uniqueness of the Army-Navy football rivalry and how special the kids who play football at the academies have to be to play Division 1 football and graduate (which almost all of them do) from schools that are as difficult academically and militarily as West Point and Annapolis. I feel the same way, even though I don’t know people there the way I do at Army and Navy, about the Air Force Academy. So, I’m biased.

But the reason I’m biased is the quality of person I’ve met on the football teams at the two schools. Are there bad eggs? Of course. There have been Navy football players caught cheating and I disagreed this past winter with Admiral Jeffrey Fowler (the outgoing superintendent) when he did not follow the recommendation of his commandant, Matt Klunder, in the case of Marcus Curry.

Curry was a sophomore and easily the most talented returning slotback on the football team. He tested positive for marijuana during a periodic drug test that all Midshipmen take. His excuse was that he’d been given a cigar at a party laced with marijuana. (The dog ate my homework). The academy’s policy on all drug use is zero tolerance. Even if one believed Curry’s story, policy said he should be separated (expelled). Fowler let him off the hook.

Everyone connected to the academy knew Curry wasn’t going to be back for his junior year one way or the other (he was later tossed from the football team for an un-related offense and ‘resigned,’ from the academy and has transferred to Texas State) and Fowler just gave critics like Fleming a chance to pile on. In fact, when Fleming was criticized for having his piece—which suggested that all the military academies have become so mediocre they should perhaps be shut down—run in The New York Times a week before graduation, his defense was that he had been “shopping,” the piece since March—right after the Curry incident became public.

Shopping is an appropriate word. Fleming has been shopping his writing as the anti-Navy-establishment guy for years. He’s written at least one book and likes to tell people he has another one coming out.

I don’t think Fleming is anti-football or anti-jock (He uses one player, Craig Schaefer, as proof that he likes football players) or anti-Navy. I think he’s pro-Fleming. He knows he can’t be fired and if anyone at the academy says boo to him he can scream, ‘they’re out to get me because I criticized them.’

There’s nothing wrong with fair criticism. I think there have been times when Navy has pushed athletes along who had to cut too many corners to stay in school. Kyle Eckel’s dismissal from The Navy (he DID graduate) has never really been explained and just recently two more football players who graduated (including another star fullback, Adam Ballard) were thrown out of the Marines for cheating on an officer-training test.

Navy needs to look at all of these cases and figure out where it went wrong and try to do better. Let me say this though: I have met lots of Navy football players through the years. Almost all are exactly the type of person you would want representing your country and defending your country. They’re bright and tough and I would put them up against the football players from anyplace as human beings—forget the wins over Notre Dame.

It’s easy to find a couple of jock failures at any school and harp on them as proof the school is going down the tubes because of the evils of jockdom. If Fleming really wanted to make Navy a better place, I’d respect him for that. Every college in the country has weaknesses and could use some improvement.

I don’t think that’s what Fleming is about. I think he’s about calling attention to himself and making a few bucks while he’s at it. We all try to make money. To do it by publicly attacking the kids who play football at Navy is not—in my mind—an honorable way to go about it.


John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

To listen to 'The Bob and Tom Show' interview about 'Moment of Glory', please click the play button below:


Mr. X said...

Put the grease back on the obelisk!

Chuck B '92 said...

First of all, a great blog posting. I couldn't agree more with your conclusions.

Reading over Fleming's infamous piece, it's hard to escape the ingrained racism in his piece. From irresponsible wording like "It's NO SURPRISE that recruited athletes have been at the center of recent scandals" to an "unofficial affirmative action program in admissions", at absolute best he treads the line on race, and at worst implies that because admissions are letting in more non-white people, the USNA has become "mediocre" It's the height of irresponsibility.

The 2008 APR report from the NCAA gives the USNA football team a multiyear Academic Progress rate of 978, putting it in the top 10% of all Division I programs (and very likely among the top ten programs in all of FBS). In addition, the 1999-2002 graduation rate of football players (the earliest such data is available) is 93%. Most FBS schools would love to be able to boast such a graduation rate.

In light of this data, his wild accusations of "excellence being pushed aside to beat Notre Dame in football" just doesn't hold water. What's the shame is that the NY Times chose to give this joker the time of day.

Anonymous said...

I think many of the problems with recruiting of athletes could be solved by the NCAA creating these two rules:
1. Eliminate all off-campus recruiting by coaches.
2. Require member institutions to hold athletes to the same admissions standards as regular students.

Rich, Denver

Mark said...

Just the fact that Navy requires everyone of its students to pass calculus sets it apart from 99% of every football playing school in the country. And that is just one of many requirements necessary to graduate.

Ok, so they may loosen the requirements some to get some athletes into school. Those guys are still more qualified as far as academics go than the average qualifying student, not to mention the average recruit, at almost any other school in the country.

I don't think Navy needs to worry about criticism over its academics.

bevo said...

"I have been, at least technically, a college professor."

Um, no, you have not been a college professor. You have been adjunct, but not a professor.

You have not done academic research. You have not presented research to your peers. You have not performed service to the department, to the college, or to the discipline. You have not had a set list of advisees.

In short, you know of the classroom but you know nothing of the office.

To follow your logic, a blogger can claim, at least technically, that he is a journalist. Like the journalist, the blogger needs to write simple declarative sentences. The similarities end there.

Like a college professor, the adjunct must prepare and execute a course. The similarities end there.

Your line, though, sets up a rather snotty and arrogant tone throughout the piece.

As one of the few college professors (yes, I have an honest to god PhD in a real discipline) who has also worked in college athletics as a full time administrator, I am tired of the false dichotomy that underpins your piece.

Simply, there is no us vs. them. The academics vs. the athletes, or its equally trite fellow argument, geeks vs. jocks, rings false.

There are people who question the place of athletics within the higher education mission. I questioned the place of athletics as an administrator and, now, as a faculty member. I currently work at a Division III school. I have three basketball players who have to attend two to three hour workouts, six days a week.

The season is over but not the workouts. One of them was whimpering about the workload. I told him, you do not have an academic problem; you have a basketball problem.

When a baseball player misses a third of class time, I wonder where his priorities are. When a golfer cannot meet with her group for an entire term because she is on the road for matches, I wonder where her priorities are. In all three instances, their priorities are not education.

All college professors know that a student's priority should be their education. That's the rub. That’s the tension. I have the same rub with jobs, internships, school organizations, etc. I quite frankly do not care how a student prioritizes their time. I do care when a student refuses to take responsibility for their priorities because that student too often blames the professor.

Regardless of institution, athletes are given favoritism including a thumb on the scale during the admissions process because of some physical ability. Few athletes trade athletic ability for educational opportunity, which is to their shame. To the institution's shame, they continue to provide extra benefits to athletes to ensure those athletes remain eligible.

Because of your arguments reliance on this false dichotomy, you missed the bigger argument from Flemming: his call for academy reform or abolishment.

His argument remains convincing. Less than 20% of Naval officers hail from the academy. An academy education fails to prepare students of today to be service leaders of tomorrow. We can train effectively the same student to be an officer at about 25% of the cost through the ROTC program.

To address Flemming's point, service academies do not do their job well, means you would have to provide a better, stronger argument than simply relying on clichéd argument and trite rhetoric.

For a Duke graduate and former adjunct, I expected better from you than this post. Perhaps, I expected too much.

Mike said...


speaking of snotty and arrogant tones...and since you were so insistent on pointing out that John was not a professor (of which by the way, he's written how many books that required hours and hours of many of those do you have?)...allow me to point out that you are not an Academy graduate nor are you an Officer in our country's how do you come off and claim that my education has not prepared me to be a service leader? I think I'm doing quite well, thanks. I also think all of my classmates from the great class of 1998 are doing quite well, both in the service and out. Perhaps it's because we never had a snotty professor such as yourself...but that is pure conjecture. Perhaps you should jump in the arena before you start criticizing those within it. Mr. Feinstein has at least taken the time to get to know on the other hand have read a singular op/ed piece in the NY Times written by an obviously disgruntled professor and passed judgment on thousands of Academy grads. Shame on you.

John, well written piece, thanks. I think there probably are some areas that USNA could improve (there always will be), but overall still produces a fine the taxpayers should continue to be proud of. I can't argue with the initial accession numbers of USNA vs ROTC vs OCS, but I can tell you this: I'm at "mid-grade" Officer level and it is wild how many Academy guys/girls are still around. Maybe someone should look at those many of us stay in for the long haul. I think you'd see the Academy wins out.

Anonymous said...

Bevo - tell me more on why the Academies should be abolished.....would be QUITE a feat to convince me they should be.

As a person who received undergraduate and masters degrees, I often found elitist professors like you sound to be laughable. I was writing HUGE checks to pay for my degrees, and folks like you often forgot that you don't always know what's best for me, and that while respect should be a given for the student/professor relationships, in quite simple terms students are the paying customer. Professors are not.

Saxa said...


If you use your logic to discredit John, then you also discredit Fleming's as Fleming has never served as an officer in the naval service and therefore cannot possibly evaluate the product of the Naval Academy. As you say, Fleming knows "nothing of the office."

The same holds true when comparing your knowledge of the Naval Academy to John Feinstein. John has spent many years in and around both Annapolis and West Point, even writing books about the schools. While he never held a professorship by title, he has more experiential knowledge of and more passion for service academies than most non-service academy graduates.

You are correct that "all college professors know that a student's priority should be their education," yet you fail to recognize the fact that the Naval Academy education involves much more than academics as does Fleming. The Naval Academy's mission is: "To develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government." [emphasis added] That takes more than freshman English class to fulfill.

Your argument about cost is also off the mark. The actual federal burden to produce an ROTC officer is approximately 33% of a USNA graduate per CBO study, but this perceived savings does not reflect the burden that state governments share in the production of ROTC graduates. While the Federal government bears 100% of the cost of a USNA graduate, it pays only 36% of the cost of an ROTC graduate, with the rest of the cost borne by states and individuals.

But what's more, USNA produces more senior officers. To produce the same end strength of senior officers, ROTC and OCS both cost more to access and maintain the necessary distribution of officers required to fill the senior officer ranks. While the up front costs are higher, it is cheaper to use USNA accessions to generate the senior officer end strength, particularly in expensive pipeline training for pilots and submariners. The combination of ROTC, USNA, and OCS commissioning sources actually complement one another to fill the required line officer billets in the fleet.

While I applaud your effort to defend a fellow academic, your arguments not only fail the test of accuracy, they reflect a presumptive perspective that you do not have.

And neither does Fleming.

Gordon said...

First to Mike and all the other readers of this blog who went to one of our fine military academies or who have or are now serving in the military THANK YOU for your service and dedication to America. We appreciate and admire your courage and service.

As for bevo. You are the definition of "Those who can do those who can't teach" How dare you?

I'd much rather learn from those who have actually been successful in their chosen field like John and my father, a former chairman and ceo, of a fortune 40 corporation than a person who "thinks" he or she knows what the real world is like.

My question to professor Fleming is this. If you are so disenchanted with Annapolis why do you stay? The obvious answer is TENURE. STOP stealing from the taxpayers.

As the father of a div 1 college golfer I know the challenges she goes through to keep up with the course load. Thankfully her professors realize that she has the opportunity to get an education and chase her dream.

John everytime you relate the story of Bob Woodward introducing himself to you at the Post I smile as he must not realize he is BOB WOODWARD! Either that or he is one very humble man who cares deeply about every journalist.

Jeff said...

I competed in a Division I sport. At the beginning of one semester, a professor asked if there were any athletes in the class. There were three of us. After class he said he wanted us to let him know in advance if/when we would miss class because of competition. We rarely missed classes because of competition (we were in the Patriot League) but for our conference championships we were going to miss two lectures. On the Monday after our conference championship, he asked us to meet him in his office at 4pm (the end of the academic day). He took the three of us to a classroom and gave us the two lectures we missed - complete with writing out everything on the blackboard. It was not a summary - it was 2 hours of classroom time. Talk about a class act. His name was Professor Van Horn.

Captain - Special Duty Cryptology said...

Your balanced, unemotional assessment is just what is needed to bring the discussion back to center. Great job.

OldGoat said...

Since I am both a Naval Academy graduate AND a professor at the Naval Academy I think I do have some cache here.

First Fleming is a little over the top, but he is on with many things. Sure all schools do give athletes a little cushion, but Navy, Army and Air Force are not schools. They are military institutions. Honor and integrity mean something to ALL graduates. Marcus Curry, Nate Frazier, Adam Ballard and Kyle Eckel make up a minute fraction of the outstanding young people that graduate and become commissioned. Unfortunately, they are given too many opportunities because they are very good athletes. If these opportunities were universal, few USNA graduates would be concerned.

The bottom line is there is just as much concern with the leadership at the Naval Academy as there is with the assistance/special treatment afforded the blue chip athletes. Multiple opportunities to pass an english course (see a recent Hawaiian Graduate who played quarterback) is one thing. Lying, cheating, stealing and doing drugs are not the foundation on being an officer.