A teachable moment — What can the Academy learn from the Office of Student Activities’ mistake?

Introduction:

Last Friday, the Office of Student Activities (“OSA”) published a Facebook post (now removed, but a screen capture is here) about possible weekend activities for midshipmen. The post included an introduction from the OSA referencing an “undies run” and then linked to a website that promoted a variety of activities, including several that were of a sexual nature. We highlighted the irony of the OSA post and that commentary generated a number of comments on the blog. I replied to several of the comments. Now several people have contacted me to suggest that I convert my replies to a separate post because many people do not read all of the comments that are posted.  So I’m doing that with this post. I’ve edited and combined my replies and in the process fleshed out my thinking a little more.

A teachable moment — What can the Academy learn from the Office of Student Activities’ mistake?

The Facebook post by the Office of Student Activities was a stupid mistake. It should be treated as such and not as anything else.  This blog’s objection to the OSA post is two-fold: It is based upon the context, rather than the content, of the post; and it is concerned about the double standard that can apply when punishing violations of the Academy’s zero tolerance policy for SA/SH. Innocent or low-level mistakes can, and likely will, be treated by the Academy administration as punishable misconduct. And that is wrong.

As far as the content goes, I agree with the people who assert that the midshipmen are adults who are capable of making adult decisions without being protected from the seamier side of NYC.  As a midshipman, I was hanging in the Village in the early 80s — I know seamy. But content is not context. The Academy administration has unilaterally decided that it must change the culture at the Academy relating to all things sexual. In the context of trying to address sexual assault and sexual harassment, it is regulating far more, including consensual relationships and the dignity with which midshipmen treat others. In that context, for the Academy administration to then publish a Facebook link that promotes such “seamy” activities sends the wrong message.

Take a look at the $363,000, discredited, LMI culture study that former Secretary Foxx bought with our tax dollars. We supposedly needed this study to assess the “culture” for SA/SH at the Academy. The culture study made a sweeping, unquantified conclusion (curiously identical to MARAD’s equally unquantified claims), that (among other conclusions) identified “lack of respect for personal dignity” as one of the “root causes shaping the current climate.” Id. at page v. Suggesting undie runs, and linking to a list of activities that included a party featuring a BDSM dungeon and strippers (“of all genders” so at least it was politically correct and respected “personal differences” to use the words of the LMI report) and “encourag[ing] free love” sends a contradictory message to midshipmen who are being lectured about the need to “respect personal dignity.” Here’s what your $363,000 in tax dollars bought you on the personal dignity front:

The lack of respect for personal dignity and differences can be seen in widespread acceptance of sexist behavior and sexual harassment. In our interviews with midshipmen and staff and faculty members, we consistently heard that some displayed a dismissive attitude about inappropriate sexual comments, which they view as jokes, and about those who take offense as being “politically correct” or overreacting. Midshipmen feel pressured by their peers to look the other way when they are offended or threatened by inappropriate language. We also heard from several staff and faculty members that some of the faculty members exhibit these same behaviors, reinforcing the use of sexist language on campus. This has led to a culture in which inappropriate language goes unchecked, and midshipmen, mostly female, are subjected to this behavior inside and outside the classroom.

LMI  Culture Study at p.3-2 (emphasis added).

Even though the LMI culture study has been discredited, the Academy leadership has adopted it. I submit that you cannot read the above description of lack of respect for personal dignity and conclude that what was posted by OSA was appropriate for an institution that has wholeheartedly adopted and endorsed the culture study.

So, I think it is clear that the OSA Facebook post was a stupid mistake. The question then becomes, “What should the Academy administration do about it?”  I submit the answer is not to fire, or even discipline, the person who posted it. The person who posted it is a real person with a real job and probably has a family to support. On the other hand, I’m not suggesting we treat it “dismissively.” The person deserves some compassion coupled with a stern, “Think before you post. Don’t do something stupid like that again.” In turn, that person should acknowledge, to the midshipmen, the mistake. Ideally, he would turn it into a teachable moment:  Even the administration make mistakes. Leaders own up to them. They learn from them. They move on as better people.

The concern that many people have is that because this blog and people on Facebook called attention to the mistake, the person who created the post will be fired. That concern is legitimate because of the Academy administration’s emphasis on a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to SA/SH.

Part of the problem with a “zero tolerance policy” is that it really is just a buzz phrase rather than a “policy.” It means what the administration decides it means at any particular moment in time. You don’t really know what the “policy” means until a midshipman (or faculty/staff member, for that matter) is hauled before the inquisition for purposes of setting an example.

So, how would the zero tolerance policy handle the following:

  • A male midshipman asks a female midshipman to join him for the “undie run” (which, BTW, was a fundraiser in support of the Children’s Tumor Foundation) and the female midshipman’s roommate reports the male midshipman to the Academy under the zero tolerance policy;
  • A ship’s captain circulates the exact same announcement that was circulated by the OSA to the ship’s crew, which includes Kings Point midshipmen on sea year.

Under the current zero tolerance policy, the male midshipman in the first example is likely in a heap of trouble (even if his plan was for everyone to wear long winter underwear at the undie run) and the company that employs the captain in the second example is getting a call from the Academy with instructions to pull the midshipmen off the ship and a demand that appropriate action be taken against the captain.

I submit that the “zero tolerance policy” requires a major overhaul with clear cut standards. One of the problems with zero tolerance policies is that they tend to treat every transgression the same. When you do that, you make the more important transgressions seem less important. When you treat a crude sexist joke the same way that you treat date rape, what you do is lower the seriousness of date rape to the level of a crude sexist joke.

Overhauling the zero tolerance policy does not mean that lesser offenses, such as a crude sexist jokes, are tolerated.  But, such an overhaul requires mature leadership so that discipline is appropriate and applied consistently. Everyone makes mistakes. The consequences of a mistake should be determined by the gravity of the offense, how it harmed others (or potentially could have harmed others) and whether the person who made the mistake can be rehabilitated. Undefined, or poorly defined, zero tolerance policies run the risk of substituting mature leadership for ritual punishment for the sake of making an example for others; or worse — to satisfy the gods of political correctness.

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6 Comments

  1. There should be a clear method to hold the federal employees to the same standard with the similar risk to one’s career that face the students when they are administratively punished.

    Students should be able to make similar reports of the employees for similarly stupid things as found in the midshipman regulations like “pocket unbuttoned” to enhance the culture of trust and respect. If the power is one-way, then you can not build a culture of trust and respect.

    • There is a system. They can report to the HR office or the Civil Rights officer but that might end up screwing over the KP’ers at the academy. I won’t name names but there are faculty who don’t follow uniform regs but still try to hold midshipmen to the same standard. Some are even are disrespectful in town halls and many tell jokes that the administration would consider SASH in their classrooms. I thought we wanted to get non-KPs out.

      • I certainly don’t think we want to get “non-KPs out.” I think it would be detrimental to the Academy if it were too insular and only hired KP grads. I do think that KP grads have been purged from leadership positions and that needs to be corrected. Even in the leadership positions, I don’t think we need to have all KP grads. Most important (to me) is that they have a good familiarity with KP and the maritime industry and have demonstrated leadership abilities. Thus, I share the view that others have expressed that Sashi Kumar would be an excellent superintendent and/or should be welcomed back as dean (if he was willing to return after being treated shabbily by the administration).

        • Exactly Right! Well said. Dont confuse objections over MARAD’s alumni purge, with a belief that anyone advocates for a KP only policy.

          This argument that KPers wont rest until only KPes call the shots is one way MARAD tries to cheapen legitimate concerns.

          Sashi was fantastic, as were RADM Matteson and VADM Stewart. None of them KPers but all experts in KPs mission, with a deep love for the Academy and its traditions.

  2. Very true, corrective action should be on a level commensurate with the perceived misdeed. A grievance procedure, an outright breaking of a published rule and, lastly, a criminal offense, should be distinguished from one another and clearly defined. Each requires its own protocol, and if SASH is involved, an opportunity for appeal, but also utmost confidentiality (not that I am an expert in such things).

    A whole new front opens itself with the Midshipmen Regulations, Disciplinary System Regulations and Bearings. Admittedly, these offenses should not be addressed with demerits, but with counseling, reporting, and, if warranted, dis-enrollment and criminal proceedings.

    I will mention a story, where self-correction was in play:
    I was Third Classman and some seniors were in a room with two female plebes, trying to pick them up for a date. All these women wanted to accomplish was to study. I intervened and emphatically told these First Classmen that they should leave immediately. They actually complied and any potential retribution never materialized.

    Imposed discipline and regulations may accomplish some things, but self-discipline sees you through life.

  3. Mr. Simpson truly understands that the use of the term “zerro tolerance ” gives the academy political cover for restoring sea year, which they did not want to do. Without setting a written standard that anyone can follow, beyond the obvious and blatant SASH scenarios, they leave open a giant gray zone where charges, prosecutions, determinations and discipline will be deteimed based upon the whim of those making the decision at the time.

    May I recommend George Orwell’s 2 classic novels ,1984 ” and “Animal Farm” to you as stories that portray a very similar scenario.)obviously on a greater scale) What’s lawful one day is suddenly not lawful the next, except the change is implemented unilaterally and without notice. It’s a hard way for the underlings to live.

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