Naval Academy boss has sights set on diversity

Local,Jason Flanagan
When Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler attended a recent event to honor former Naval Academy mess hall workers, little did he expect to get a huge serving of inspiration.

But that’s exactly what happened, when the academy’s superintendent was introduced to retired Master Chief Melvin Williams Sr., who after joining the Navy in 1951 worked the only place minority sailors could at that time — the mess hall.

With Melvin Sr. was his son, Melvin Jr., a 1978 academy graduate, who rose all the way to deputy fleet commander as a rear admiral.
In father and son, Fowler saw the Navy’s stifling past and the academy’s wide-open future for minorities.

“I want to find more Mel Williamses for this academy,” Fowler said. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t know what we have available to them.”

In the past 17 months as head of the Naval Academy, no issue has been more pressing for Fowler than finding ways to infuse diversity at the military institution, where white males have long ruled.

There has been no shortage of serious issues for Fowler since taking over as superintendent in June 2007 — ongoing sexual misconduct from midshipmen and staff, the untimely death in May 2008 of Kristen Dickmann, 19, of Kennett Square, Pa., who died from sudden cardiac arrhythmia. In addition, there were potential lawsuits over religious ceremonies Fowler refuses to discontinue, and well-publicized concerns about whether the academy has enough quality food for its 4,000 midshipmen.

But if anything defines Fowler’s efforts in Annapolis, it is his attempts to rid the disparity between enlisted minority sailors and minority Navy officers the academy is charged to produce.

“My No. 1 focus is increasing diversity enrollment to be more reflective of America,” Fowler said.

A call to action

Minorities represent about 47 percent of enlisted Navy personnel, but only 18 percent of Navy officers are minorities.

Not all officers come from the academy, but most of the top-ranking admirals do, including Fowler, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen — all of whom are white.

If the Navy’s intent was to install a superintendent who would help end this disparity, Fowler certainly has the credentials.

Born and raised in Bismarck, N.D., Fowler, 52 graduated from the academy in 1978 and spent most of his career as a nuclear submarine commander and as a squadron commander. He served as an executive assistant to both the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.

But what many officials point to as Fowler’s most important asset is his time as head of the Navy’s recruiting command. It was in this assignment that Fowler said he saw a need to reach out to minorities.

“We bringing a national reputation to the academy,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I expect to get the same diversity at the academy that I got from an all-volunteer force? We have to recruit in the sense of what we have to offer.”

Since Fowler came on board, the academy has a new diversity office and emphasizes diversity in its outreach.

Most recently, Fowler’s office produced a recruiting advertisement featuring five midshipmen, three of whom are minorities, that will air during Navy football games. The academy also has increased its outreach, using its gospel choir and more midshipmen in volunteer opportunities in predominately black urban areas like Baltimore.

“We have to try new things,” Fowler said. “You can’t expect to use recruitment efforts from the past and get the desired numbers.”
As a result, minority enrollment of the second class of midshipman under Fowler increased.

The current freshman — or plebe — class is the most diverse ever at the academy. Of the 1,200 midshipmen who enrolled last summer, 351 — about 25 percent — were minorities. It is part of a trend that started before Fowler’s tenure but has continued to rise, delighting minority leaders.

“When I went to Annapolis, I got to see young brothers and sisters and the respect all midshipmen gave each other,” said Carl Mack, president of the National Society of Black Engineers. “Racism? I had a perception that it was nowhere in sight.”

Though only a few members of the Board of Visitors — the federal oversight of the academy — wanted to comment on Fowler’s progress, the verdict was unanimous: Fowler is on the right track to bring racial parity to the academy.

“He has gone out of his way to go into the community unlike anybody I have ever known, to let the community know that minorities are welcome to the academy,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who sits on the board and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “He has set a model for all of our academies, and I don’t say that lightly.”

A tough challenge

But changing the face of the academy isn’t an easy task, and one that may will not be completed under Fowler, especially given the Navy’s new mandate for more officers majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (known as STEM).

Starting with next year’s incoming class, 65 percent of all academy grads must have majored in a STEM field.

Boosting minority enrollment while pumping out more tech majors will be an uphill battle, as many large minority population centers, particularly inner-city blacks, have poor-performing school districts.

In Maryland, the two poorest-performing school districts are Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, which also have the state’s largest minority jurisdictions.

“Baltimore is not unique — the entire country is dumbing down,” Mack said. “It’s all about exposure, and you have to reach them at a young age. Stuff like the Blue Angels [the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron] and STEM camps are needed. If [minority children] see more of that, they will aspire to do that.”

Getting into the academy is already highly competitive, and officials have said they will not lower their standards for the sake of diversity, which means the academy must work harder to create racial balance.

“It’s not enough just to get minorities in, but it’s important to do everything to keep them in and help them be successful,” Cummings said.

As Baltimore native Gavin Lippman, 22, prepared to graduate from the academy last summer, he noted that the climate had changed. “Now, we see ourselves as one institution,” he said, adding that more work needed to be done to get more minorities into the tough academic climate.

“I had to go to the Naval Academy’s preparatory school before coming here to prepare myself,” said Lippman, who attended a Baltimore County private school. “People just don’t know ... what it really takes to get in here. That’s something the academy needs to work on.”

Lippman attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island, which helps potential candidates meet the academy’s rigorous standards. Only recently has NAPS become a major tool in recruiting minorities, as minority enrollment at NAPS has jumped 57 percent since 2006 to reach an all-time high.

During a July Board of Visitors meeting, several of the congressional members in charge of overseeing the academy didn’t realize NAPS was a viable option for their minority candidates who needed extra academic work. (Every senator and representative gets to nominate a plebe candidate.)

“This is important to know,” said Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D.-Md. and a BOV member. “We can’t let these standouts down just because of their circumstances.”

During a ceremony to open the sparkling new field house named in his honor, Wesley Brown, the academy’s first black graduate (1949) — and a Baltimore native — reflected on paving the way for minorities.

“I get teary-eyed,” Brown, 80, said. “It makes me feel good to see the academy is getting more minority midshipmen. The numbers [of minority candidates] are there, and the Navy needs to continue to go after them.”

Fowler said he sees hope through the academy’s summer camp that exposes students to STEM courses. Last summer, nearly half of the students at the weeklong camp were black, and only 15 were “majority.”

“If we are not active in our recruiting efforts, we will fail,” Fowler said. “We have a responsibility to do better.”

Sex crimes, gender issues come with the territory

While Fowler has made diversity his top priority, gender relations and sexual misconduct are two issues that continue to demand his fullest attention.

The role of women at the 163-year-old academy had been the champion cause of the previous superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt, who dealt with several high-profile sexual misconduct cases.

Now Fowler must find his own way to curb a very public problem that often puts the institution under the highest scrutiny.

“We are teaching young adults how to behave and that they will be held accountable for their actions,” said Fowler, who already has put forward two court-martials for midshipmen accused of sex crimes.

Women were first allowed into the academy in 1976, and since then, according to one official, the academy has been slow to acknowledge assaults and even sexism.

Before leaving the academy, former commandant Rear Adm. Margaret Klein, a 27-year veteran, said she had seen a change in the old guard, which had resented female enrollment. And with Fowler — the first superintendent to have attended a coed academy — Klein says the view of women may begin to radically change.

Still, Fowler has to deal with the fallout from the following cases:

>> Former academy chaplain Lt. Cmdr. John Thomas Matthew Lee, who left the academy in 2006, was sentenced to two years in jail for having sex with male midshipmen without telling them he may have AIDS.

>> Midshipman Michael Pollard was sentenced to five years in prison for possessing child pornography.

>> Navy doctor Cmdr. Kevin Ronan was found guilty of taping midshipmen, who lived in his Annapolis home, while they were having sex.

Last year, the academy started a sexual harassment and assault prevention program, where every midshipman must attend classes dealing with sexual misconduct, gender relationships and the repercussions of harassment and assault.

While members of the federal board overseeing the academy have said the institution is advancing in curbing sexual misconduct, others are  skeptical about the progress.

“It’s a good step, but just 25 hours of training over four years? There has to be more,” said Anita Sanchez of the Miles Foundation, an advocacy group for military victims of sexual assault.

Rep Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is on the academy oversight board and is working to streamline sexual assault reporting said, “We still have a lot of work to do when it comes to sexual assault.”

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