SHIPPING IN - Higher Education


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SHIPPING IN

by KENNETH J. COOPER

For a second consecutive year, the Naval Academy has admitted its most diverse class, and its work isn’t done.

Sixty years after graduating its first Black midshipman, Wesley Brown, the U.S. Naval Academy has admitted its most diverse class, which boasts the largest numbers and percentages of African-Americans and Hispanics ever to enter Annapolis.

The academy has touted the racial and ethnic composition of the class of 2013 as the result of aggressive outreach and as a future benefit to the Navy, which has a stated priority of diversifying its officer corps to match its enlisted ranks and the country’s changing demographics. The class is 35 percent minority.

That level of diversity tops the previous record, set a year ago.

This year, the number of minority applicants jumped 57 percent, even more than the 40 percent increase in the overall applicant pool. Naval Academy officials say the 15,432 applications received were the most since 1988, when the movie “Top Gun” inspired a rush to get into Annapolis.

“Our depth of talent this year was pretty substantial,” says Bruce Latta, dean of admissions and a retired Navy captain.

To reach the record level of diversity, recruiters went into high schools whose minority graduates might make good prospects.

“There’s talent in every community in the nation, and we have to look for it,” Latta says. “Often we find they don’t know about us until we approach them.” Each summer, rising high school seniors are invited to spend a week on the Annapolis campus to try out life at the academy.

Enrollment in the “summer seminar” has expanded to 2,250; last year, nearly half were minorities.

For the upcoming round of admissions, those efforts will be supplemented by the distribution of 100,000 copies of a graphic novel released in May, “Bravo Zulu,” named for a naval signal that means “well done.” Minority characters are prominent in the 12- page story about five midshipmen on Induction Day at the Naval Academy.

A vocal critic on campus, however, has questioned the fairness of the admissions process, how much minority talent it attracts and the military value of a more diverse officer corps.

Dr. Bruce Fleming, an English professor, says he observed different standards applied to White and minority applicants six years ago when he served on the academy’s admissions board. He insists nothing much has since changed about the admissions process, which he charges violates federal law and the Constitution.

“I’m completely against racial tracking,” says Fleming, who identifies himself as a liberal. “I’m willing to believe they think they’re doing the right thing. It’s just illegal.” With the federal courts dominated by conservative Republican Appointees, such criticism usually sends college or university lawyers scurrying to head off a potential lawsuit. The Naval Academy, though, has not moved into a defensive position.

Latta and other academy officials say Fleming is mistaken about how admissions works now or worked when he was involved in screening applicants in 2002-2003 as a member of the admissions board. That was before the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2003 last ruled limiting the use of race in college admissions.

The court’s ruling against undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan prompted selective universities across the country to review their practices. Senior Navy lawyers who examined what the Naval Academy was doing, Latta says, “felt we were in compliance with the University of Michigan case.” He characterized the changes since adopted based on their recommendations – basically, asking applicants for more information about their personal experiences – as “nothing substantial.” To some extent, how the Naval Academy and the country’s other service academies do admissions differs from what happens at other colleges because federal law and Pentagon regulations govern the procedure.

To be admitted, applicants generally have to obtain a nomination from a member of Congress.

The superintendent of the Naval Academy can also nominate applicants, a power that Fleming has charged is abused to bring in minorities with low SAT scores and GPAs. Latta says the superintendent controls about 50 nominations – not enough to play a major role in shaping a new class that has 1,230 members, 435 of them minorities.

Federal law also reserves nominations for Junior ROTC members at each high school and the children of career military personnel, of disabled veterans, of prisoners of war and of Medal of Honor recipients. The secretary of the Navy can nominate a number of active-duty, enlisted personnel.

The part of Naval Academy admissions that resembles what other colleges do assesses each applicant as a person, including nonacademic factors. The academy uses a “whole person multiplier” to weigh an applicant’s “cultural experiences,” foreign Language skills, ability to overcome “unusual adversity,” other personal factors and academic credentials such as SAT scores, class rank and GPAs, Latta says.

Being a military institution, though, the Naval Academy quantifies all those factors into a single number on a scale of 40,000 to 80,000.

How much the admissions board adjusts the whole person multiplier to refl ect personal experiences, Latta says, is subjective but based on professional judgment. He denies adjustments are made to reach a predetermined level of diversity.

Latta says he has no idea where Fleming got the idea the academy has separate pools for White and minority applicants. The admissions dean suggests that the English professor is unacquainted with how the last round of admissions works because he was not involved in them. That final round, conducted after all the statutory slots are filled, is based on competition among congressionally-nominated applicants who did not make the first cut, Latta says.

An alternate route to Annapolis runs through the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., where academically underprepared applicants are sent for a year of catch-up study. The prep school is, as Fleming maintains, a major entry point for minorities.

Of the school’s 244 graduates admitted to the academy this year, 65 percent are minorities. Their number includes about half of the 125 African-Americans in the class and almost a third of the 175 Hispanics.

The new class also has 102 Asian- Americans, 22 Native Americans and 11 Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders.

Even with the year of additional study, many of these students struggle academically at the Naval Academy and are placed in lower-level courses, Fleming says, based On his experiences teaching some in English courses.

“I have to dumb it down,” he says.

“Instead of three-page papers, I have them write two pages because they don’t have enough to say for three pages.” The Naval Academy points to its graduation rates for minorities, which are somewhat lower than for all academy students but much higher than for minority college students. In the class of 2007, which Fleming helped select, 76 percent of African-Americans and 81 percent of Hispanics graduated, compared with national figures of less than 50 percent for both groups after six years.

But Fleming remains skeptical of the basic premise behind diversity at the Naval Academy. Students there are taught to obey orders, regardless of the commander’s race or ethnicity, he says.

“They go on as if diversity is a good thing, and they’ve never shown there’s a problem” with the Navy’s limited diversity, Fleming says of academy officials.

Commander Joe Carpenter, the academy’s spokesman, says the Navy is trying to head off a potential problem landing enough recruits once the pool becomes majority-minority later this century.

The leaders of two private organizations that help develop African-American or Hispanic candidates as Navy officers say minorities of rank are needed as role models for enlisted personnel and to improve decision-making at the command level. Almost half of the Navy’s enlisted personnel are minority; about a fifth of its officers are.

“People from different backgrounds approach problems differently,” says Bernard Jackson, a retired Navy captain and president of the National Naval Officers Association, which mentors African-American officers. “There’s some synergy in having a diverse officer corps.” Navy Commander Mery-Angela Katson, national president of the Association of Naval Services Officers, which mentors Hispanic officers, says: “We have enlisted minority members and they need role models… . It gives people something to aspire to.” Katson says Naval Academy recruiters attracted more minority applicants by using a familiar strategy.

“They went into schools and showed the Navy,” she says.

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