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Naval Academy Sails Before Winds of Change

December 27, 1987|TOM STUCKEY | Associated Press

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — 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 middies.

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

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

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

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

Alumnus Defends Changes

The answer is an emphatic "No," in the view of William Busick, a retired Navy captain who has observed the academy 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 Assn.

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

Webb, a 1968 academy graduate, created a stir with his comments about changes at the academy in a speech Sept. 30 to the Brigade of Midshipmen.

He complained that the official "mission" of the academy--inscribed on a bronze plaque near the administration building--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."

Vietnam War Legacy?

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 through to graduation.

Busick dismisses the complaints with a mixture of humor and perplexity.

"Jim's just like all the rest," he said, smiling as he waved a copy of Webb's speech. "Every class thinks it was the last one to have a hard time."

Still, he said he doesn't "understand (Webb's) use of the words, 'Lost its guts.' "

"What does he mean by that?" Busick asked.

As to the academy's statement of mission, Busick noted that the old version, which he called a bit unwieldy, remains on the plaque but was shortened for everyday use. The academy's goal, it says, is "to develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically to be professional officers."

Sees Natural Evolution

The Naval Academy was changing before Busick arrived in 1938 as a plebe and has changed since, he said, terming most changes the natural evolution of an institution adjusting to new conditions, new demands and new technology, including nuclear-powered vessels.

Capt. Edward Kristensen, a 1965 graduate who returned this year as deputy commandant of midshipmen, discovered there had been a lot of changes over the years.

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

An academic overhaul was largely undertaken in 1969, when Vice Adm. James Calvert was superintendent.

Midshipmen, who until then had followed generally the same course of study with few elective courses, are now allowed to major in various areas of study, including English, history and economics. The number of required core curriculum courses was reduced, allowing midshipmen to take more electives.

Increasing Dropout Rate

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," Kristensen said. "We have to be able to compete with other colleges and universities."

The new curriculum was one evolutionary change that led to another, the end of the practice of midshipmen marching to classes, Busick said.

"People say, 'Why don't you march to class?' If you don't have everybody going to the same place, you can't have them march off together."

In his speech, Webb singled out the plebe indoctrination program as an area of concern.

Less Physically Demanding

Kristensen acknowledged: "Plebe indoctrination does not have the physically demanding aspect it had when I was a plebe. You don't have plebes doing push-ups in the shower. You don't have plebes doing some of the things that used to be called hazing."

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

Compared to the indoctrination session in his plebe summer, Kristensen said today's is "more structured, and I think a much better system of indoctrinating a plebe into his profession."

"These changes are good. They have to take place," Busick said.

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