Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

USNA prof to USMA flack: Ricks is basically right

Here, entirely unedited by me, is a note that Bruce Fleming, a longtime professor of English at the Naval Academy, sent out to his Annapolis colleagues last week. I don’t agree with all of it — but let him speak: Subject: USMA response via LT Schatz/Ricks article Ls and Gs, A number of you have ...


Here, entirely unedited by me, is a note that Bruce Fleming, a longtime professor of English at the Naval Academy, sent out to his Annapolis colleagues last week.

I don't agree with all of it -- but let him speak:

Here, entirely unedited by me, is a note that Bruce Fleming, a longtime professor of English at the Naval Academy, sent out to his Annapolis colleagues last week.

I don’t agree with all of it — but let him speak:

Subject: USMA response via LT Schatz/Ricks article

Ls and Gs,

A number of you have sent me the USMA PAO’s (Director of Communication’s) response to the Ricks op-ed, via an LT in our Poly Sci Dept, and have asked what I thought. My intention in responding is not to give definitive answers; for me the discussion is what counts. But I do want to add my two cents of response, partly in order to be able to move on in class-for plebes, back to the stories; for CW, more Bills and Billettes (actually all Bills from here on out).

First, cost of academies. Ricks is right; the USMA PAO is not. It’s true that nobody seems to actually know how much the academies cost, as the quoted figures vary. When I wrote the USNA PAO last year to ask what figure we were quoting, he said he’d have to get back to me as “the Supe hadn’t decided on the figure” yet. So it’s clear that these figures are rather liquid: what do they include? Letherneck/Quantico? YPs? Still, generally accepted figures exist, and they’re far closer to Ricks than the USMA guy-in fact Ricks goes with more conservative numbers than those generally shown. The US COmptroller gives about $352,000 per USNA officer, and a bit more than $448,000 per USMA officer (!!!!). (Go to USNA Intranet and type in “cost of service academies.”) So it’s disingenuous of the USMA guy to pick a much lower figure out of the hat to make a debater’s point that we don’t cost much more than, say, ROTC at MIT. In fact, the case is even stronger than Ricks makes it that the academies are money pits. To quote from an article I’m working on: “The study of “Comparative Analysis of ROTC, OCS and Service Academies as Commissioning Sources” put out by the Advanced Management Program of the Navy Supply Corps School’s Advanced Management Program (Tench Francis School of Business) notes that “DoD invests approximately four times as much to produce a single academy graduate as it invests to produce a single ROTC graduate. Academy graduates cost approximately eight times as much as Officer Candidate School (OCS) graduates.”” FOUR TIMES AS MUCH AS ROTC ON AVERAGE. (Ricks’s 130K for ROTC is the SINGLE MOST EXPENSIVE ROTC OPTION at an expensive school like Vanderbilt, NOT the average.)

(Read on)


Second, “community-college education.” The context for this is Ricks’ noting that most USMA faculty members lack PhDs. The person writing the USMA memo does too, as does the USNA LT who disseminated it: that people like this teach seniors is our soft underbelly, and Ricks is right to take a jab at it. The USMA PAO tries a “tu quoque” argument by saying that at many major institutions undergraduates are taught by TAs or people without advanced degrees. True, unfortunately. But that’s comparing us to research universities. If you compare us to the undergraduate institutions which are our ranking class on the US News polls (more on those below) you’ll find that’s not true. At Haverford, where I went, there are no graduate students, and hence no TAs. All students are taught by professors with PhDs and usually many years and publications in their fields. You can argue that seniority and publications do not make effective teachers-that’s one of my repeated points, and it’s true. But that’s not what at issue here. There are certainly lesser liberal arts colleges that hire MAs for “freshman comp” and the like, but we don’t like to compare ourselves to them, and it’s not much of a point to say that we’re only as bad as they are on that score. At issue here is the undeniable fact that at the academies, we tend to hold the position that being an 0-3 makes up for lack of professional qualifications in the classroom-or perhaps, that this IS the professional qualification. If you compare us to civilian schools, as we’re doing here, only academics are on the table for comparison. The fact of an LT’s having been in flight school doesn’t add anything to their ability to teach, for example, Shakespeare. It has some sense in the Leadership, Ethics, and Law dept (for the first of the three, anyway)-where most LTs are lodged at USNA. Even here it’s unclear how being a JO translates to the ability to educate undergraduates about leadership, except through sea stories (perhaps they’re the point). Outside of “Leadership” the relevance of being a Navy 0-3 seems slight. Bottom line: here again Ricks is right. It’s community colleges whose faculty members are largely MAs. Ricks’s primary target is USMA, of course, and USMA has exponentially more MAs than we do, because they only recently got any civilians, and these aren’t tenured: USNA has always had civilian PhDs. Still, this is a sensitive point, and it’s understandable why the people who are screaming are doing so. The USNA LT who forwarded this has an MA from Georgetown and is here on a 3-year tour; he’s just the kind of instructor that Ricks is dinging-and the USMA PAO’s job is to make his boss and his institution look good to the outside world, not provide an objective assessment (that’s what his fitrep is based on). So the source of the argument needs to be considered too.

Third, the rankings. Here the USMA guy is on what seems to be thicker ice. It is perfectly true that our rankings are out of sight. But that’s a bit like saying that because everybody thought the economy was good last August, that it was: both were beauty contests (no, I’m not saying we’re a bubble: my point is that we have a great PR apparatus, including the PAO at USMA who wrote this “rebuttal.”). Let me explain: let’s go to the click on US News that explains the methodology. 25% is “peer assessment”-i.e. a beauty contest of sorts. It seems true that USNA and USMA have hugely high approval ratings in the world outside. If you further go to the click that ranks undergrad education based on what the guidance counselors at the most highly rated high schools think the best undergraduate education is, you find at the top of the list-yes, drum roll, USNA! USMA is not far beyond. Now those of us who live here may have a different or at least more nuanced view: my point is that if enough people sing our praises, these are actually incorporated into the numbers as the appearance of objective fact. Further, 15% of the rankings are based on “student selectivity.” USNA and USMA have always claimed a 10/1 application ratio, i.e. 10 apply for one seat. This year we’re claiming 15 to l for USNA. When I was on the Admissions Board, we saw perhaps 2x the number of applicants per seat. I asked, where are the other 8? An unusually frank LCDR told me that this l0 was not COMPLETED APPLICATIONS OF VIABLE CANDIDATES, but initiated applications/queries for information-by anyone, including, say, 7th graders who of course cannot enter. This was informally corroborated by a highly placed official at USNA. These two things together are 40% of the rankings-this is of course just the USNews rankings (though these are the most consistently cited), but the others are similar.

In other words, if we tell the world we’re super, this hype comes back at us in the form of the world saying we ARE super. There’s no objectivity in this argument either. So the rankings are basically PR fluff, lying with numbers. Bottom line: the question here is not what the world thinks of us, but what we really are, which may be a different story.

Let me take the opposite side just for the record: we also get points in the rankings for small classes, the largest % of 1/5 of the ranking. It’s quite true that we have small classes: it’s one of our strengths. Another is that full professors DO teach plebes (conversely, MAs teach seniors, which in my view is a travesty). Another is that we give unlimited EI (which doesn’t show up in rankings). So some of our reputation is justified.

Fourth, Ricks doesn’t have to prove that ROTC officers are better, though that’s one way to understand his anecdote. He’d be better understood as saying that the PRESUPPOSITION OF ACADEMY SUPERIORITY THAT IS SUCH AN ARTICLE OF FAITH HEREABOUTS IS NOT SUPPORTED BY EVIDENCE IN THE FLEET. NOT that ROTC officers are better, only that there’s no evidence they’re worse. (He should have pointed out that we’d better darn sight hope this is true, as Academy graduates are less than 20% of the officer numbers in every service, Navy 19.5%, Army 16.5%.) The point is, we have to justify our expense and our odd “intrusive leadership” methodology as being better than doing less, such as at ROTC, and there’s no evidence currently that does that. Ricks is right that the academies are exponentially more expensive, exponentially more intrusive, exponentially more loaded with stuff that impacts academics negatively, exponentially more homogeneous than any civilian campus-and without any provable benefits. (The PAO says the academies have these benefits, but doesn’t say what they are.) To go back to quoting my article, which itself is based on this Navy Supply Corps study:

The Tench Francis study notes that “no significant difference in officers’ progression through the lower ranks, based on commissioning sources, has been observed. We can’t say that it’s the academies that cause people to stay in longer; perhaps it’s merely a correlated quality, not an effect.” The fact that academy graduates tend to stay in the military somewhat longer than NROTC officers could be due to the fact that many of our students come from Navy families, or have the mind-set of career people to begin with: if they went elsewhere, they’d presumably still have this mind-set.

The justification for the academies, we sometimes hear, is found in the fact that, as this study puts it, “service academy graduates have historically experienced the greatest success in attaining senior officer ranks.” Yet “the advantage in achieving the general/flag officer ranks has diminished over the last two decades” across all services: in 1972, the percentage of service academy-trained general/flag rank officers was forty-two percent, against only five percent for ROTC and OCS. By 1990 these proportions were thirty-three percent academy, forty-one percent ROTC, and fifteen percent OCS.

Thus it’s not necessarily true that if you go to the Naval Academy, you’ll have a better chance of making flag officer, though this is how the fact is spun to midshipmen.   NROTC now provides a much higher proportion of officers than it did in the late 1960s and 1970s, and USNA a much smaller one. This will of necessity change the pool of flag-officer-wannabes, and weaken the “old-boy network.” Furthermore, we promote the people we promote. Saying that flag officers have been largely Academy graduates is like saying they’ve been overwhelmingly white men: we needn’t assume this pattern will continue.  

Again: nobody should be trying to prove we produce WORSE officers. Only that given our vastly more pro-active and expensive means of making officers, they should by rights be head and shoulders better than the competition-or at least somewhat better-and THERE”S NO EVIDENCE THEY ARE. We fail if we’re not 4x better, or even 20%. No evidence of either.

Fifth, Ricks is far more correct than he even knows that our students are horribly disillusioned and cynical. The USMA PAO wisely doesn’t take this on.

Me, I don’t want to get rid of USNA. I want to rationalize us to eliminate the biggest sin of all, which is taking patriotic idealistic plebes and, after a few months, turning them into the passive-aggressive disillusioned corner-cutters who largely stalk our halls and sit in our classrooms grousing about some chickenshit thing that’s got on their nerves in the Hall. But Ricks doesn’t know enough about that to talk about it; and the USMA PAO went to the University of Massachusetts. If he were a whoop, of course “loyalty” (plus his fitrep) would seal his lips.

Of course, this is not l00% of students here. But remember, I’ve taught close to 3,000 students over 22 years: I have no dog in this fight, all I’m doing is summarizing large masses of numbers. Too many of the handful of mids who do triumph over the adversity of the system think that everyone has managed to. This isn’t so. Besides, can’t we imagine a system people didn’t have to triumph over, but instead one that could help you rather than weigh you down? I think it’s rather ironic that the most consistent justification (or “justification”) offered for USNA by mids is precisely that: that “if you can put up with the s… here you can put up with it anywhere.” Silly me: I thought we were more than a 343K sewer ride.  

Sixth, it’s not true that all mids or whoops are “crackerjack smart,” which is Ricks’s contention. This is one round for us and the USMA guy wisely leaves it alone. You and I know that Ricks is being far too nice to us. 30% of our students have Verbal SAT scores below 600, our floor for competitive students, and 18% are below this floor in math. (These are on the stats sheets USNA distributes to reporters, i.e. publically available.) We run a one-year taxpayer-supported remedial school and extensive remedial courses here at USNA-and so on. We let students in for many reasons other than smarts: you can agree or disagree with this way of proceeding, but assertions like Ricks’s (who’s trying to close us down!) that buy into the hype that everybody here is a jacked genius (hey, I am, and YOU are, but lots of others here aren’t) show just how much the world thinks it has to kiss our ass, even when it’s trying to kill us.

Ricks’s worst misstep, which the USMA guy rightly pounces on: Using Petraeus’s Ph.D from Princeton’s Woody Woo School to argue for killing USMA. Ricks idolizes Petraeus, and yes, Petraeus was a whoop!. Very bad example for Ricks’s point.  Petraeus’s PhD from Princeton’s Woody Woo school probably didn’t make him the man he is. But did USMA? The fact is that if the academies hadn’t existed, Petraeus might have gone to Princeton undergrad too: the fact that he’s good is not necessarily the result of his USMA education (or is it “education”?), but most probably of him. That’s my point, certainly: so many of you are so lovable because of the fact that your driven alpha people, i.e. my kind of guy or gal. I think you’d be just the same at Vanderbilt, where you’d cost the taxpayers 130K rather than 343K (AND get to wear non-synthetic clothes!!!).

Bottom line: according to Fleming, Ricks is still standing, USMA is blowing smoke. Doesn’t mean Ricks will win the fight, just that he hasn’t been seriously hurt except in the last point about Petraeus, which he could have used much more intelligently, in perhaps this way:

“It’s true that one of the brightest stars of the current military scene, Gen David Petraus, is a West Point graduate.” And then continue on as above…

Still, for me the greatest justification for USNA is that, blush, you’re here, and I love you, and I love my life here (absolutely no sarcasm), and I look forward to seeing you in class tomorrow.

😉 and R/

Prof Fleming

Re the magazine rankings, which Professor Fleming so ably disassembles, I keep on thinking of something that Marine Commandant Al Gray used to say: Don’t look good, be good.

To my cadet readers: I’d be interested in anything that anyone can offer to repudiate his points — but please keep in mind that this guy has taught thousands of academy students, so it’s time to stow the trash talk about “anecdotal evidence.” No more stentorian “I assure you sir” and flag-wrapped appeals sentiment. How about some cold, hard data?

Colonel Hilferty, feel free to pitch in here, too.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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