ANNAPOLIS -- Midshipmen at the Naval Academy no longer have to march from class to class as they once did. They walk across campus, singly or in groups, like ordinary college students.

Lights don't go out these days precisely at midnight in Bancroft Hall, the massive dormitory that is home to all 4,600 midshipmen.

Physical hazing of plebes isn't permitted. Upperclassmen can skip breakfast for a bit of last-minute cramming for an exam.

In short, life at the 145-year-old institution on the banks of the Severn River isn't what it used to be.

There is also more leave time, more freedom in choosing classes than there was as recently as the mid-1960s. Attendance at chapel is voluntary, not mandatory.

Are all these changes indications that the academy, as Secretary of the Navy James Webb said recently, has lost its guts?

The answer is an emphatic, "No," in the view of William Busick, a retired Navy captain who has observed the academy off and on for 48 years, first as a midshipman, then as an officer stationed at the academy and now as director of the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association.

"I've seen this institution for a long time. It gets better and better," Busick said in a recent interview.

Webb created a little stir around Annapolis with his comments about changes at the academy in a speech Sept. 30 to the midshipmen.

He complained that the official mission of the academy was shortened in 1971 to eliminate phrases specifying that graduates should hold the "highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty" and should be "dedicated to a career in military service."

During the Vietnam War years, "when the military was being torn apart by vicious criticism, this institution apparently either lost its guts or its esteem . . . ," he said.

It's time to tighten up, Webb told the midshipmen, beginning with summer indoctrination for new plebes and continuing right on through to graduation.

"Jim's just like all the rest," Busick said, smiling as he waved a copy of Webb's speech. "Every class thinks it was the last one to have a hard time. Every class will tell you that the place went to hell after they left."

In a more serious tone, the head of the alumni association said he doesn't "understand his use of the words, 'Lost its guts.' "

"What does he mean by that?" he asked. "I'm trying to figure out what he meant."

The original mission was never abandoned, and to this day is inscribed on a bronze plaque near the administration building, Busick said. A shorter version, stressing that the goal of the academy is "to develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically to be professional officers in the naval service," was developed for everyday use because the statement of the academy's mission that Webb prefers was long and a bit unwieldy, he said.

There were a lot of changes at the Naval Academy before Busick arrived in 1938 as a plebe, and there have been a lot since then, he said.

He sees most of those changes as a natural evolution of an institution adjusting to new demands.

When he returned to Annapolis this year, Capt. Edward Kristensen, deputy commandant of midshipmen, discovered there had been a lot of changes since his days as a midshipman.

Some of them were simple, such as a later "lights out" time for sophomores and juniors and no mandatory "lights out" for seniors.

Other changes, especially revisions in the academic curriculum, are more basic.

The academic overhaul was undertaken largely in 1969 when Vice Adm. James Calvert was superintendent. Midshipmen were allowed to major in different areas of study, the number of courses was expanded and the core curriculum of required courses was reduced, allowing more electives.

The academic changes were made at a time when applications for entrance to the academy were dropping and the dropout rate was increasing. The changes apparently worked. Voluntary resignations declined, and applications increased over the next few years.

"We have to offer a majors program. We have to be able to compete with other colleges and universities," Kristensen said in explaining the need for the change.

Webb singled out the plebe indoctrination program as a concern.

Kristensen agrees that there have been changes in that area.

"Plebe indoctrination does not have the physically demanding aspect it had when I was a plebe. You don't have plebes doing pushups in the shower. You don't have plebes doing some of the things that used to be called hazing," he said.

But Kristensen said plebes are still subjected to great pressure and stress during their summer indoctrination so they "will develop an understanding of what it means to work under stress."