By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009
Of the 1,230 plebes who took the oath of office at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis this week, 435 were members of minority groups. It's the most racially diverse class in the academy's 164-year history.
Academy leaders say it is a top priority to build a student body that reflects the racial makeup of the Navy and the nation. The service academy has almost twice as many black, Hispanic and Asian midshipmen as it did a decade ago. Much of the increase has occurred in the past two years, with a blitz of 1,000 outreach and recruitment events across the country.
But during the past two weeks, a faculty member has stirred debate by suggesting that the school's quest for diversity comes at a price. Bruce Fleming, a tenured English professor, said in a June 14 opinion piece in the Capital newspaper of Annapolis that the academy operates a two-tiered admission system that makes it substantially easier for minority applicants to get in. Academy leaders strenuously deny Fleming's assertion. Fleming served on the academy's admissions board several years ago.
The debate, fanned on talk radio and blogs, comes as the Naval Academy and many other colleges and universities are striving to build diversity without resorting to quotas or formulas that might be found unconstitutional. A 2003 Supreme Court decision upheld diversity as a goal but encouraged universities to consider applicants as individuals, a philosophy embraced by the Naval Academy and much of the higher education community.
Fleming says the increase in minority enrollment at the academy has brought in students with lower grades and SAT scores who need more remedial classes and are less capable of the scholarship for which the academy is known.
"First of all, we're dumbing down the Naval Academy," Fleming said in an interview. "Second of all, we're dumbing down the officer corps."
Academy leaders say the school has diversified with no loss of scholarship. Incoming freshmen of every race ranked near the top of their senior class in grade-point average and test scores, according to academy records. The academy admitted fewer than 10 percent of the African Americans and Hispanics who applied for admission to the Class of 2013 and a similar share of whites.
"This class we inducted yesterday may be the most talented overall that we have ever brought into the Naval Academy," said William Miller, academic dean and provost of the academy. "We have increased the standards, rather than dumbing them down."
Fleming's broadside has lit up military blogs and message boards and prompted inquiries from the academy's governing board about the integrity of the admissions process. The professor has spoken on Laura Ingraham's conservative radio talk show and fielded a steady stream of e-mails from students, most of whom are spending the summer on ships and bases in far-flung locales.
"I think that diversity is a good thing," Erick Meckle, a third-year midshipman, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post from Europe. "However, if the selection process for applicants is based solely on skin color rather than raw talents, then of course it's not fair."
Fleming said he was moved to raise the issue when he saw the dramatic rise in minority first-year students, or plebes, this summer. Fleming served on the academy's admissions board seven years ago and said he participated in a process that blatantly favored minority applicants.
To win the admissions board's approval at that time, he said, a white applicant had to present SAT section scores higher than 600 (out of 800); a transcript of A's and B's; and a strong background of leadership in sports and student life, reflected in a four-digit score called the whole-person multiplier. Black and Hispanic students were routinely admitted with SAT scores in the 500s; with B's and C's; and lower whole-person multipliers, he said.
Miller said Fleming's account is "not the way the admissions board works," although he would not speak about "how it worked seven years ago." Admissions Dean Bruce Latta said admissions is "a single process," with every applicant considered as an individual. A star student from a low-income community might get credit for overcoming adversity. "It's a whole-person assessment on every person," Latta said.
Anthony Principi, a former secretary of veterans affairs who is chairman of the academy oversight group known as the Board of Visitors, said he inquired about the constitutionality of the admissions process after reading Fleming's comments.
"I think it would survive a constitutional challenge," he said.
Fleming said some academy admission data support his claim. The share of plebes who scored less than 600 on the SAT math test was 22 percent this year, up from 12 percent in the Class of 2008. The number of freshmen coming from the academy's one-year preparatory program, designed for remedial studies, was 244 this year, the highest figure in at least 10 years. The data are not classified by race.
On the other hand, 76 percent of the Class of 2013 came from the top fifth of their high school classes, about the same proportion as a decade ago.