In late 2017, LTC (USA, Ret) Robert Heffington, a former professor at the United States Military Academy, wrote an open letter to the Academy community. In it, and stating his loyalty to the ideals of West Point, he proceeded to air a number of grievances against what he perceived the Academy has become, (and partially in response to the Spenser Rapone debacle) including:
First and foremost, standards at West Point are nonexistent. They exist on paper, but nowhere else. The senior administration at West Point inexplicably refuses to enforce West Point’s publicly touted high standards on cadets, and, having picked up on this, cadets refuse to enforce standards on each other. The Superintendent refuses to enforce admissions standards or the cadet Honor Code, the Dean refuses to enforce academic standards, and the Commandant refuses to enforce standards of conduct and discipline.
Heffington goes on to say, on admissions standards and athletes:
Every fall, the Superintendent addresses the staff and faculty and lies. He repeatedly states that “We are going to have winning sports teams without compromising our standards,” and everyone in Robinson Auditorium knows he is lying because we routinely admit athletes with ACT scores in the mid-teens across the board.
And on the sacred Honor code:
The cadet honor code has become a laughingstock. Cadets know they will not be separated for violating it, and thus they do so on a daily basis. Moreover, since they refuse to enforce standards on each other and police their own ranks, cadets will rarely find a cadet at an honor hearing despite overwhelming evidence that a violation has occurred.
And on Academics:
It has been made clear that cadets can fail a multitude of classes and they will not be separated. Instead, when they fail (and they do to a staggering extent), the Dean simply throws them back into the mix and expects the faculty to somehow drag them through the academic program until they manage to earn a passing grade.
And on STAP (Summer Term Academic program, which used to mean that you were a real rock):
STAP (Summer Term Academic Program) is also now an accepted summer detail assignment, so retaking a course during the summer translates into even more summer leave for the deficient cadet.
On conduct standards:
Conduct and disciplinary standards are in perhaps the worst shape of all. Cadets are jaded, cynical, arrogant, and entitled. They routinely talk back to and snap at their instructors (military and civilian alike), challenge authority, and openly refuse to follow regulations.
On willingness to separate:
They [Professors / Leadership] are so reticent to separate problematic cadets (undoubtedly due to the “developmental model” that now exists at USMA) that someone like Rapone can easily slip through the cracks.
And on the general direction of the Academy:
…a culture of extreme permissiveness has invaded the Military Academy, and there seems to be no end to it. Moreover, this is not unintentional; it is a deliberate action that is being taken by the Academy’s senior leadership, though they refuse to acknowledge or explain it…
Instead of scrambling to restore West Point to what it once was, the Academy’s senior leaders give cadets more and more privileges in a seeming effort to turn the institution into a third-rate civilian liberal arts college.
What a letter, especially coming from a West Point Grad and someone who taught at the Academy! Clearly, and without an obvious motive, something is amiss.
General Caslen responded shortly afterward , including (and parsed by commentators who seemed generally suspicious of the response) multiple specific counter-claims of excellence:
This commitment to excellence must permeate everything we do. I will not compromise my decision to advocate winning in accordance with our values of duty, honor and country.
-The 2018 US News and World Report’s Best Colleges placed the U.S. Military Academy as the top public national liberal arts college… Forbes ranks us the #1 Public College and #9 Liberal Arts college in the Nation… the Class of 2017 had 27 cadets earn Post-Graduate scholarships including one Rhodes, one Marshall, and two Fulbright scholars… our institution and its programs passed with full accreditation. Getting fully accredited reflects a dedication to processes of continual improvement.
On the athletic field, our cadets continue to excel with multiple individual achievements…
Our current Corps of Cadets is comprised of the finest young men and women we have ever gathered here at the Academy as evidenced by their performance in the classroom, in their athletic endeavors, and in their field training.
They are the most diverse group in the history of West Point and we are stronger for it.
If cadets fail to achieve our high standards, they do not continue… Our pursuit today is the same as it has been for 215 years… excellence, because in the pursuit of excellence, success always follows.
On the question of standards, LTG Caslen notes that:
Last year we separated 26 cadets for academic reasons… 10 cadets for Honor and 18 cadets for other misconduct… 2 cadets for not meeting physical requirements… [and] our cumulative grade point average was 3.02.”
Then he invites the reader to come take a look:
I invite all of you to visit our Alma Mater and observe firsthand the outstanding young men and women who make up the Corps of Cadets. I believe you will be impressed…
While not directly addressing most of Heffington’s charges, he puts up quite a different story of an Academy effectively in its heyday. As the general in charge, one might expect this, but one would also hope that a commissioned leader of character realistically acknowledges the (potentially significant) warts on the frog and takes appropriate action.
Most of the claims above have been litigated in blogs and website comment sections between USMA enthusiasts (tending to be pro-Caslen) and the “Old Grad” types who are sure that “The Corps of Cadets has Gone to Hell” or are just open to the possibility of something wrong. And, because most of the observations and assertions noted are inherently subjective in nature, it is difficult to tell whether the Academy is actually seriously degraded for who-knows-what purpose, or whether it is producing the best leaders it ever has. But a lot of grads, and military types, are pretty pissed.
For Graduates, this is important because it is our Alma Mater, and we want to see it be the best it can; we want to see leaders who will effectively fight and win the nation’s wars and earn the trust that the United States places in its soldiery. We want the institution to have prestige and wear its history proudly for another 200 years. Any real degrading of its standards affect its purpose, and, if real, must be faced head-on with courage.
For the general public:
This is important – personally! – because your kids, or the kids of someone you know, might have to go to war with one of these West Pointers. So you want the best West Pointers you can get, and you want them trained as well as can be.
On a slightly more abstract level – Patriotism! the United States! – you want to know that your country has capable leadership that will beat our enemies as expertly, effectively, (and, preferably, morally) as possible; and financially, of course, that your tax dollars are not being wasted. You want to know what the leadership at the Academy is doing, and whether they’re doing it correctly and well.
Fortunately, many of these questions can be investigated empirically with the right information. And lo! Fortunately, we have obtained — through official request — a set of anonymized cadet profiles, from the Classes of 2000 through 2020, with all sorts of useful statistics. In subsequent posts we will go about addressing the various claims made with the goal of providing more truth or factual context to LTC Heffington’s charges and LTG Caslen’s riposte.
Stay tuned; this will get interesting.