Students come to West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs in quest of an officer’s commission and a bachelor’s degree. Many cadets and midshipmen gravitate toward majors in science or engineering.
But the nation’s service academies also want these future officers to learn something about the human condition.
“We want people to think critically,” said Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I find myself being a champion of the humanities.”
“Our vision is to be the preeminent leadership development institute in the world,” said Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. That means learning about character, he said. “If you fail in character, you fail in leadership.”
“I want midshipmen when they graduate to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, doers,” said Vice Adm. Walter E. “Ted” Carter Jr., superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Caslen and Johnson came to Annapolis this month to meet with their naval counterpart in what officials said was the 56th annual round of meetings for the service academy leadership. “We don’t keep any secrets from each other,” Carter said. “We are really in the same business.”
The three taxpayer-funded schools are fundamentally different from the rest of higher education. Their students pay no tuition and graduate into the ranks of officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Yet the three also are considered liberal arts colleges, competing in some ways with prestigious private schools that are not tied to the armed forces. In recent years they have fared well in U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings. The Naval Academy has risen to 9th on the list of national liberal arts colleges, tied with Davidson and Claremont McKenna. Meanwhile, West Point ranks 22nd, just behind Grinnell, Colby and Colgate, and the Air Force Academy is 29th, tied with Scripps and Barnard.
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Conn., and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, in Kings Point, N.Y., are also well-regarded federal institutions. The former ranks first on a U.S. News list of regional colleges in the Northeast, and the latter ranks third.
The academies grapple with many of the same questions about class size, curriculum and student life that other colleges do.
For instance, they are active in efforts to prevent sexual assault on campus but acknowledge it is a perennial challenge to ensure that cadets and midshipmen feel secure in reporting incidents of potential sexual misconduct. Carter touted the benefits of peer-led discussion about sexual consent and related issues.
“This college-age student body is owning the problem,” he said.
Johnson said it is vital for leadership to speak openly about sexual assault, using explicit language, so that cadets will feel comfortable stepping forward if they experience or witness misconduct. “We’re trying to have frank conversations,” she said.
The superintendents, all three-star officers, are also all alumni of their respective academies: Caslen in the class of 1975, Carter and Johnson in the class of 1981. Johnson also was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.
The three said education at the institutions has evolved significantly in the years since their own studies, with more choices in curriculum and more emphasis on learning through projects and research. Majors have proliferated in the past half century, a marked shift for institutions that once focused primarily on a common curriculum for officer candidates.
The first class of midshipmen to choose specific majors for the bachelor of science degree at Annapolis graduated in 1973, officials said. Now the academy offers 25 majors. The latest additions are cyber operations, nuclear engineering, operations research, Arabic, Chinese and computer engineering. Colorado Springs offers 27 majors, the most recent being computer and network security. West Point offers 37.
Federal data show the student-faculty ratio is 7 to 1 at West Point, 8 to 1 at Colorado Springs and 9 to 1 at Annapolis. The Naval Academy faculty is roughly split between military and civilians and is led by a civilian provost. At the other two academies, most instructors are military. Annapolis had the highest enrollment of the three in fall 2014 — 4,511 midshipmen — followed by West Point with 4,414 cadets and Colorado Springs with 3,952.
Just as important as what the future officers learn at the academies is how they prepare themselves to learn after graduation, Caslen said. He told of meeting a West Point graduate some years ago in Iraq. Caslen overheard the young lieutenant holding a conversation in fluent Arabic, with an Iraqi dialect, on his cellphone to help arrange a meeting of tribal leaders.
Impressed, Caslen asked the lieutenant if he had studied Arabic at West Point. No, the young officer answered. He had picked up the language on his own. Caslen said exposure to humanities and liberal arts fosters that kind of communications skill.
Among Caslen’s top goals for cadets: acquiring “intellectual agility” and “cultural understanding.” A traditional liberal arts college president might say much the same.
This story has been updated.