ANNAPOLIS, AUG. 17 -- A committee of scholars has concluded that grades in the U.S. Naval Academy's electrical engineering courses "are arrived at fairly and by rational means," despite the high percentage of students who have failed.
The committee was appointed by the academy's superintendent, Rear Adm. Virgil L. Hill Jr., after a faculty uproar over the removal of the department's chairman in February. Prof. Ralph P. Santoro lost his chairmanship after he allegedly refused an administrator's order to raise grades across the board in one of two required electrical engineering courses, an order some faculty members regarded as an abridgement of their academic freedom.
In its final report to Hill, the panel, composed of instructors from the nation's four service academies and from two civilian universities, dismissed criticisms about the course that allegedly led to Santoro's ouster. The committee described that class -- a two-semester overview for juniors majoring in engineering -- as "fairly standard" and as having "no major deficiencies."
Instead, the report focused on a mandatory course for midshipmen who are not engineering majors. Just before Santoro's demotion, some professors teaching that course reluctantly agreed to raise their grading curves. They took that step after the academy's academic dean, Robert H. Shapiro, told Santoro that he was upset that 40 percent of midshipmen had received D's and F's during spring exams.
The committee found that the curriculum for non-majors, while demanding, is not arbitrarily tough, but rather is designed to meet professional competency standards set for Navy officers. Those standards "are only barely met" by the course, the report said.
At the same time, the committee said, the Navy's professional standards should be reviewed to determine whether they realistically meet training needs. It noted that Annapolis's basic course for non-engineers is tougher than comparable courses at the other service academies.
The committee also attributed the low student performance in the course for non-majors to its reputation for difficulty among midshipmen. However, several midshipmen who had taken the course told the panel "they do not consider it to be the most difficult class they have had."
The committee said that to counteract the dread most students have about the course, the department should devote more time training junior faculty to be effective teachers and should try to make the course seem more relevant.
Most faculty members have not seen the report, which has been kept under wraps while being reviewed by a separate panel investigating allegations of hazing, unfair treatment of midshipmen and academic inproprieties at the school. A few who were familiar with its contents, however, said the department feels vindicated.
One member of the committee, though, said the panel did not intend to assign blame for the lingering resentment over Santoro's removal.
"I don't think we felt that the department was all right and the administration was all wrong or that the converse was true," said Coast Guard Capt. Benjamin B. Peterson. "Both sides have to take responsibility for improving things."