Media Archives: Baltimore Sun 11/10/05

Academic-military friction

Civilian teachers make waves at the Naval Academy

The Baltimore Sun

November 10, 2005


In the ivory towers of academia, free thought is a virtue and authority exists to be questioned.

But at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, authority is to be revered and obeyed. For the 221 uniformed members of the teaching faculty, that's not a problem. They readily salute their commanders and heed orders.

For the 313 civilian professors, who teach everything from English literature to electrical engineering and often come from a culture that favors the free exchange of views, it can be a source of tension.

"I'm sorry to see so many people who don't understand that academics are not about unquestioned obedience," said Bruce Fleming.

He is a tenured English professor whose criticism of academy policies has drawn the attention of his uniformed superiors.

Early this year, for example, he published an essay in a Navy trade magazine criticizing the school's admissions process. Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt, the academy's superintendent, issued him a private rebuke.

And last month, Fleming was not permitted to sign copies of his latest book - which contains essays that question the academy's affirmative action policies - at the campus bookstore, a practice regularly allowed for other faculty.

Public scolding

In another famous example of a faculty member expressing a personal opinion, a professor was publicly upbraided for his criticism of the institution.

In 1996, just a few days after James Barry wrote a lengthy newspaper opinion piece saying the academy suffered from a "culture of hypocrisy," then-Superintendent Charles R. Larson denounced him in several meetings with the entire faculty, officer staff and brigade of midshipmen.

"He pointed at me and said, `That man there is a liar and a traitor,'" Barry, a leadership professor and hockey coach at the time, recalled recently. "Those were pretty strong words."

Barry was removed from his classes and assigned to write recommendations for how the academy could improve upon some of the problems he highlighted in his opinion piece.

The incident prompted the intervention of the American Association of University Professors, a Washington-based trade group for academics, which threatened to add the Naval Academy to a list it keeps of schools that don't honor academic freedom principles.

Barry returned to classes the next day but eventually left the academy.

Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, spokesman for the academy, said the institution would not comment on the personal opinions of its employees, but he did note that Fleming has not been disciplined for his public comments.

"The U.S. Naval Academy supports the right of our faculty members to express their personal opinions in a responsible and accurate manner," he said.

William Miller, the civilian academic dean at the academy, said that when teachers come to interview at the academy they are often nervous about how they will fit into the military environment.

To assuage any concerns, the academy has them teach a course as part of their interview.

"They'll get a chance to see what it's like to get great questions from the midshipmen," Miller said. "That's usually very stimulating because they'll find out we have a very small average class size. Our average class size is between 17 and 18 students. ... That's really attractive to someone who thinks of themselves as a teacher. That's what we want here."

Most civilian professors enjoy it so much in Annapolis that they stay for their entire careers - attrition is about 4 percent a year. Many say they have come to embrace the school's mission of preparing Navy and Marine Corps officers for their careers.

Civilian role

The prevalence of civilians on campus is unusual among the nation's service academies. Civilians make up nearly 59 percent of the teaching staff at the Naval Academy. At West Point and the Air Force Academy, military faculty members far outnumber civilians, usually by 2-to-1.

In addition, military faculty members at those institutions run all the academic departments; at the Naval Academy, departments are chaired almost entirely by civilians - six of 15 departments are chaired by women.

The Naval Academy uses the tenure system, also unique among the service academies.

Richard Abels, president of the faculty senate and a history professor, said he had to think long and hard when he came to the Naval Academy in 1982. He got his graduate degrees at Columbia University, beginning in 1968 at the height of anti-Vietnam War fervor. While he was no rabid protester, he said, he was an admitted liberal.

"I had to ask myself if I truly believed in the Naval Academy's mission," Abels said. "And when I thought about it, I realized that absolutely I did. They have a duty to be guardians of our society, and I get to teach them to think critically. That's very attractive to me."

Gibbons said that while the Naval Academy holds midshipmen to the highest academic standards, the school is focused on more than academics.

"The U.S. Naval Academy's mission focuses on developing midshipmen into leaders of character for our Navy and Marine Corps," he said in an e-mail. "Through a rigorous four-year program, midshipmen are challenged to meet the highest moral, mental and physical standards so they are prepared to serve as combat leaders in the Navy and Marine Corps."

Salaries at the Naval Academy for full professors average about $103,000, quite high for a school with no graduate programs, according to published surveys. However, some faculty members complain that their salaries are about 15 percent to 20 percent lower than schools the academy is often compared to academically.

Another sore spot for some professors is that the academy leadership changes every few years. That occasionally leaves the civilian faculty members - sometimes referred to as the academy's "collective" or "corporate" memory - to fight changes ordered by administrators who often have much less experience in higher education than they do.

Fleming said the school's education mission "ultimately seems to triumph, but not without a struggle with every new administration that has to be re-educated about the purpose of education."

Research, teaching

The Naval Academy is also widely regarded as an institution that emphasizes teaching over research, something that has good and bad implications for faculty.

Ken Knowles, who teaches robotics and embedded computing in the academy's systems engineering department, part of one of the most highly regarded engineering programs in the country, said all professors in his department, regardless of the research they might be doing, must teach three classes a semester.

Many senior professors still teach introductory courses, he said, and there are no teaching assistants. This makes the academy quite an anomaly when you consider the renown of some of its professors, he said.

"We have some world-class researchers here, but all of us teach a full load because we're here to educate the midshipmen," he said.

For some professors, working at a teaching institution is a perfect fit.

Sommer Gentry just came to the academy after getting her doctorate in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because applied mathematics is a sought-after expertise inside academia and out, she could have gone to any number of universities. But because of her love for teaching, the Naval Academy was her first choice.

Gentry said that because of how talented the midshipmen are as students, the classroom atmosphere can be electric. The Mids are just as likely to speak openly, ask questions and challenge assumptions as were her students at MIT, Gentry said.

The administration

Professors say that while the classroom atmosphere is completely open, and often invigorating, it's dealing with the superintendent's office that can get them into trouble.

In Annapolis Autumn, the book he was prohibited from signing on campus, Fleming describes attending conferences where other academics questioned whether the academy offers a real education. He always counters that it does.

"I love midshipmen, but I am frustrated by the apparent ignorance of the administration regarding what professors are supposed to do," Fleming said. "My frustration waxes with each contact with the administration, and wanes during periods when I'm left alone to do my job."

Knowles said that like him, most professors who stay at the academy come to enjoy it.

"We take our jobs very seriously on the teaching side," the engineering professor said. "By the time faculty members are tenured, they have bought in to the program here and are usually very proud of the Naval Academy. After all, we could probably make a lot more money somewhere else."