Fixing West Point
Improving the Academy is a community effort
In 1861, at the height of the Civil War, liberal Republicans in the United States Congress took to the Senate floor to force a vote on an issue of imminent national security. The United States Military Academy at West Point, they argued, was a breeding ground for conservatives and turncoats. With 259 graduates, including Robert E. Lee, defecting to the Confederacy, and with the poor performance of conservative Democratic officers like McClellan, it appeared as though West Point was a prime contributor to the Southern war effort. Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan testified that West Point had “produced more traitors within the last 50 years than all the institutions of learning and education that have existed since Judas Iscariot’s time.” The Secretary of War, suspicious of what was being taught at the Academy, asked if the grooming of so many traitorous Officers was “a radical defect in the system of education itself” and questioned whether or not the institution should be closed.
In 2017, following the public revelation of communist beliefs held by Second Lieutenant Spenser Rapone, a recent graduate, many of the questions asked in 1861 have resurfaced. In an open letter, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Robert Heffington, Class of 1997, lamented, “a series of fundamental changes at West Point that have eroded it to the point where I question whether the institution should even remain open.” Col. Heffington and others describe a failure at the highest levels of Academy leadership to enforce basic academic, physical, behavioral, and Honor standards, a failure that has led to apathy and a sense of entitlement amongst the 4,000 Cadets at West Point in any given year. More so, it has demoralized Academy staff to the point where they now see their purpose not as gatekeepers or mentors, but as rubber-stampers in an institution that mechanically produces Army officers.
There is always room for debate on the West Point developmental model, and Col. Heffington raises some valid criticisms that need to be addressed. Many, including the current superintendent, Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, have responded thoughtfully to Col. Heffington’s critiques, but the air of resignation and lack of hope in his letter, from someone who very clearly cares about the Academy, demands more than a simple refutation of points. Unfortunately, the institutional changes that Col. Heffington would like to see, short of establishing a political litmus test for graduates, will not prevent another Lt. Rapone from graduating any more than the efforts of Republican Senators in the 1860s would prevent Southern sympathizers from graduating. The solution for those dissatisfied with stagnant Academy policy and the quality of recent graduates, then, is increased involvement in the admissions process.
Each year, roughly 13,000 candidates open an application to West Point. Of these, about 4,000 receive Congressional nominations (a separate application process itself). Of those nominated, only 2,300 candidates are deemed fully academically and physically qualified. Before accounting for those fully qualified applicants who choose to go to another university or service academy, the 1,200 New Cadets admitted at the start of the year represent about a 52% true acceptance rate. This acceptance rate, well above the 10% published rate, reveals a true lack of competition. Regardless of any directed vetting process to ensure applicant quality, anyone who meets the physical and academic baseline standard has a coin-toss chance of being accepted.
In theory, the Congressional nomination process is designed to ensure that service academy applicants, beyond surpassing academic and physical standards, possess the intangibles necessary for a successful military career after graduation. In reality, candidates end up filling out another online application which culminates in a 30 minute interview, often without the representative present. Additionally, Congressmen and women are generally keen to fill their nomination slots, as sending a high number of candidates to service academies is a point of pride for a district. This eagerness to nominate candidates results in 43% of Congressional nominees being unqualified for admittance, meaning that nearly half of all Congressional nominations are effectively nullified, further reducing competition.
Alumni, and especially retired alumni with a permanent residence, can have a direct and profound influence on the quality of future West Point graduates by making a concerted effort to identify and recruit potential candidates from their local area. Through involvement in sports teams, Scouting associations, school activities, and even business, Academy alumni should seek out those young men and women who display a natural tendency towards leadership, personal responsibility, and who show a desire for self-improvement. Beyond simply identifying and mentoring potential West Point candidates, graduates should also strive to serve as a bridge between elected officials and the service academy candidate pool. By volunteering to serve on an Academy interview board, liaising with an area admissions field force, or by ensuring that representatives know the baseline standards that candidates must meet, West Point alumni can directly contribute to the creation of a more competitive selection of applicants. Doing so ultimately results in a greater chance that deserving candidates fill the limited admissions slots.
The United States Military Academy also offers a direct admissions program for active duty and reserve soldiers below the age of 22. The Academy reserves around 170 slots in each class for enlisted applicants who have the option to be nominated by their commander, rather than by a Congressman. It is a great disservice to the young soldiers in the Army that each year only about 100 of these slots are filled. The young men and women who are most deserving of a West Point nomination are most often the ones who do not believe they deserve it, do not know they qualify for it, or for any number of reasons do not want it. They may be hesitant to put in the extra time writing application essays, taking the Candidate Fitness Assessment, and studying for SATs and ACTs because doing so takes time away from their duties. Many leaders, whether noncommissioned officers, ROTC graduates, or Academy alumni, may be hesitant to nominate young soldiers to go to West Point because those soldiers do not seem mature or experienced enough to lead a platoon. Very few people, however, show up to the Academy immediately ready for such responsibility. The peer group against which active duty and reserve soldiers are competing is that of 17 and 18-year-old high school students. All these applicants will have four years in which to mature and grow before pinning on their second lieutenant bars. By identifying soldiers based on their strength of character and their potential for growth, rather than on their immediate readiness to commission, and by ensuring that those soldiers have the time and the resources to complete the applications process, leaders across the Army can extend their influence into the Corps of Cadets.
It is possible to argue that supplying good men and women into a broken system can only lead to apathy and disenfranchisement. What good, a critic may ask, is West Point going to do for a motivated young Cadet when the institution can barely enforce its own Honor code for football players? All people, Cadets included, are affected by their experiences. But the idea that a botched honor case can entirely demoralize the Corps of Cadets fails to account for the numerous graduates who, in the face of these scenarios, went on to attain Rhodes Scholarships, climb Mt. Everest, or get accepted to Harvard Medical School, as members of the class of 2014, 2015, and 2016 did — during the same period of time that Col. Heffington claimed to see corrosive changes degrade the institution beyond recognition.
There will always be institutional failures, not only at West Point, but in the Army and in the United States at large — it is unrealistic to expect that the Academy is capable of taking in any input and producing a phenomenal Officer. The strength of West Point, however, has always been its ability to provide motivated young men and women with the opportunities to challenge themselves while learning the difficulties of peer leadership and coming to grips with what it means to be a professional and an officer. These challenges are only ever effective when they are undertaken voluntarily, as they are every single day by the vast majority of Cadets. While there will always be room to debate the manner in which certain Honor cases were prosecuted, or what standards need better enforcement, and while some individuals will always fall through the cracks, the self-reflection and drive for improvement that turn Cadets into successful officers arise from a much deeper place than can be significantly affected by any institutional policy. Those who care deeply about West Point and its product, rather than lament what it has become, should seek to provide it with motivated young men and women who will make the most of the challenges it provides and make good on the Nation’s investment.
The points in this article are unofficial expressions of opinion; views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US (or any other) government.
Special thanks to JY, GH, TM, SV, CW, NM, AB, RP, and MS for assistance in editing and revising.