NEW LONDON — Despite its somewhat cloistered reputation, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, with its military monuments, guarded gates and platoons of cadets marching on precision-trimmed lawns, isn't immune from wider cultural shifts.
Like its civilian college counterparts, the New London-based service academy is facing a drop in applicants, competition from private sector head-hunters and the rapid advancement in technology.
Despite those challenges, the academy's superintendent, Rear Adm. Mike Johnston, said his cadets and staff are working to ensure the academy will continue to produce officers prepared to carry out the service's mission of "Semper Paratus," or Always Ready.
During a wide-ranging Day editorial board interview that included his senior staff on Monday, Johnston, a 1990 academy graduate who carries a copy of the branch's oath of office with him, said it's disheartening that the "propensity of those willing to serve has declined."
"But the cadets fill me with so much hope," said Johnston, who took command of the academy in May. "When I first got here, I took stock and asked how we could be better."
Keeping what works, scrapping the rest
He said while cadet programming lays out goals, many weren't clearly articulated. To address this, he introduced the "L.I.F.T," concept that stresses leadership, improvement, future and teamwork.
He said the four pillars are designed to teach future officers to lead by example with compassion and transparency; recognize and embrace a culture of progress; and put a premium on teamwork.
While the number of "swabs," or incoming cadets hasn't decreased in past years — it hovers at approximately 300 — the number of applicants has dipped, just as they have at other four-year colleges.
To jump-start interest, Johnston said he's prepared to be ruthless, even if it means scrapping long-enshrined traditions at the academy.
"If a tradition isn't effective, we need to ask why," he said. "If we can't immediately figure it out, we'll stop doing it."
Johnston said the practice of subjecting a cadet to ridicule in front of classmates — an "ahoy" — has been prohibited and he's questioned the academy's demerit system for non-serious offenses.
He said outside consultants were asked to examine the academy's programming, including its academic, sports and military offerings with the goal of "putting meat on the bones".
Part of making the academy a more attractive option means opening the grounds to the public, especially for sporting tailgate events, better promotion of the academy as an affordable, diverse college option and highlighting the service's unique blend of service and practical skills.
Johnston said the service's relaxation of its "move up or move out" policy, in which an officer had to accept promotion — and a likely change in station — or leave the service, is designed to keep qualified officers in the ranks.
He said that flexibility is key to keeping cadet enrollment flush.
"Just because something's working today doesn't mean it always will," he said.
He said the changes, like a slower, gentler introduction to academy life, without as much yelling by upperclassmen, doesn't mean graduates leave unprepared. He said the adjustments have so far been popular.
"The majority of those serving, who are relatively young, are for it," Johnston said.
A strategic "vision"
Many of Johnston's changes dovetail recommendations detailed in the Coast Guard's 2023-27 strategic vision plan for the academy, which aims to "align the academy's succession programs with our broader service needs," Adm. Linda Fagan, commandant of the Coast Guard, wrote in the document's introduction.
"Competition for talent becomes more intense every year and (the academy) must find new and innovative ways to recruit and retain America's best and brightest," the plan states.
To accomplish that, authors recommended building a diverse and "culturally competent" organization with an emphasis on building a top-tier campus to better attract, recruit, develop and commission new cadres of officers.
"To ensure that the Coast Guard and (the academy) retain a competitive edge, we must invest in technology and critical infrastructure to keep pace with advances in (science, technology, engineering and math) education as well as Coast Guard mission execution," the plan states.
Addressing a scandal
The academy, and the Coast Guard as a whole, was rocked after an investigation unearthed dozens of reports of rapes and sexual assaults that occurred at the academy from the late 1980s until 2006. State and federal lawmakers later learned the accusations were not addressed and an investigative report later buried.
Johnston said new academy policies require anyone, not just a senior person, who witnesses such activity to report the incidents.
During Monday's interview, Capt. Eva Van Camp, the academy's assistant superintendent, said she was "disheartened by my alma mater" when the accusations surfaced. She said more options have since been introduced to help victims recover.
"It's the prevention side we need to work on," she said, referencing the trauma she incurred as a cadet.
Despite her lingering post-traumatic stress symptoms, Van Camp said she didn't hesitate in returning to the academy.
"It was the mission for me once I got past those tough years," she said. "It was hard, but I knew I could make a difference. The academy's cadets are 40% women and I knew I could be a role model."
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