Following the circulation of a retired lieutenant colonel’s open letter charging West Point’s leadership with facilitating an academy-wide “embrace of mediocrity,” the Academy’s superintendent, Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, issued a detailed response in an open letter this week to members of the Long Gray Line, stating that he has “great concern being called a liar after more than 42 years of honorable service to our Nation and many years serving here at West Point.”
“This great institution continues to evolve to meet the needs of today’s Army, and, in doing so, we steadfastly uphold the highest academic, military, physical and disciplinary standards,” Superintendent Caslen states. “We have shifted our approach from an ‘attritional’ model to a ‘developmental’ model without compromising our standards.” (RELATED: Colonel Who Reported Communist Cadet Slams West Point Leadership)
But several current and former West Point faculty members contacted by The Daily Caller vehemently disagree with this claim. One former senior faculty member, who wishes to remain anonymous, told TheDC that LTC Robert Heffington’s scathing open letter was “spot on.”
“If anything,” the source added, “he understates how bad things have become. […] Standards, if they exist at all, have become a hobby for some, but certainly not a requirement.”
The source says that academic issues, honor issues, and a top-down neglect of adherence to standards of conduct “have all combined to have a disastrous impact on the commitment and self-discipline of West Point cadets.”
Regarding the superintendent’s response, the source stated, “I think the reply validated the very criticisms it was meant to deflect.”
This source contends that the purported neglect of standards referenced by LTC Heffington is a predictable consequence of the Academy’s policies during the past two decades.
According to the source, a top-down neglect of adherence to standards “goes back to a decision in the mid 1990s by the then commandant, (then-BG John P. Abizaid), to end the Fourth Class System and replace it with a so-called Four Year System.”
“This had a number of profound and unintended consequences,” the source states, “but its main effect was to end the traditions (and very strict freshman ‘plebe’ year) that had ensured discipline was very strict at West Point and each graduate would be imbued with strong self-discipline for the rest of his life.”
Regarding honor, this source states that decades ago, cadets joked about everything. “However, one thing was off limits: the Honor Code,” the source states. “Yes, there were honor violations,” but “they were dealt with and cadets were separated for violating the all important code. Our word was our bond… and this was one area in particular [with] indeed zero defects.”
The source contends that the ubiquitous presence of lawyers in Honor Code hearings has diminished the Academy’s power to separate cadets. “Coupled with an increasing attitude of cadets being ‘cool on honor’ (why turn in a classmate, let alone vote guilty and see the cadet removed for violating a code that held little meaning [to you], it was only natural that the Honor Code would fall victim to the same impulse as standards and discipline.”
“Once enforcement of standards was taken from cadets, there was no incentive for cadets to enforce standards” via demerits and other disciplinary measures cadets could impose on one another, the source says. “With the discipline and stress – especially of plebe year – largely removed, [another] major contributor to attrition has also been removed.”
According to the source, “an Army Football quarterback not too long ago was given a pass despite a serious case of plagiarism.”
The source states that during the 1990s, “the academy changed from an ‘attrition-based’ leadership system to a leader development system,” the source says. “Although this briefed very well, it meant that the traditional rates of attrition declined very quickly,” from an era when approximately 50 percent of a given class would not graduate.
According to the source, this attrition rate remained relatively unchanged from the 19th century up until the final decade of the 20th century, when it plummeted.
The source claims the rigor of academic standards and rates of attrition at the Academy are highly correlated. Although an anonymous cadet’s post on Medium is heavily critical of LTC Heffington’s claims, citing the Academy’s separation of cadets failing a given course multiple times as evidence of academic rigor, this source contends that even this policy is highly flexible. Even when it is applied, it evinces a significant deterioration of academic standards:
As far as academic standards, this is the final factor in why attrition is so low and cynicism is so high. “Back in the day,” it used to be if a cadet failed a single course that cadet would be liable for separation. There were exceptions — a limited summer term academic program or STAP — but the standard and expectation was very clear: fail a course and you will possibly be separated; fail a second course and you will definitely be separated.
I attended a number of academic board meetings where the files of cadets who are struggling are reviewed by the department heads to separate or retain cadets. It seemed I was always the one dissenting – it is almost impossible to separate a cadet even after multiple failures (I remember one case where a cadet had failed the same course three times – the academic board voted to give the cadet a semester off and readmit).
The source believes that a significant increase in the number of civilian faculty may be partially to blame for this perceived leniency, saying, “With no understanding or first-hand experience of cadet life, these individuals are not tied to tradition; nor are they imbued with a commitment to the institution. Instead, at best it is a good assignment – and at worst, it is a ‘good gig.’”
In explaining the decline in the academy’s attrition rate, the source takes aim at the Association of Graduates, calling the organization “complicit in masking the dramatic lowering in non-graduation rates”:
The Register of Graduates published by the Association of Graduates no longer provides the numbers of those cadets admitted but not graduated by class – this change was made several years ago because of the stark contrast of recent class attrition to past attrition rates.
I also believe the general public would be amazed if it knew how few [graduates] actually serve a full career in the military. Traditionally, a strong majority of graduates (well in excess of 70%) would serve in the Regular Army until retirement. However, beginning in the 1970s the inverse became true and today only 20-25% of a graduating class serves until eligible for retirement. Something is clearly out of wack.
This source also argues that many Academy decisions are driven primarily by the financial bottom line, stating that “in the past twenty-five years West Point and especially the Association of Graduates (AOG) has become focused on generating as much revenue as possible.”
As an example, the source alleges that the Academy’s football stadium, in addition to much of the land surrounding its parade field, has been sold to the highest bidder. “Typically,” the source explains, “the individuals financing the grandiose projects […] served two or three years after graduation and then made millions once they got out of the military as soon as they could.”
“Recently,” the source states, “I received an e-mail from the USMA Association of Graduates and I could not get past the ironic juxtaposition of the death of the oldest grad (LTG Ely, USMA 1933 — a real hero) and the dedication of the new soccer facility, by a graduate from the class of 1959 named Fred Malek.
“I looked up the military record of Malek, the individual who sponsored the (unneeded) soccer facility. He graduated USMA in 1959 and resigned in 1962 as a 1LT… I wonder if his conscience was ever troubled by his classmates who served and died in Vietnam. No matter — he went on to lead Marriott and now in the feeble years of his life he attempts to assuage his conscience by throwing mountains of cash to a useless cause at West Point ‘to give back.’”
The Daily Caller reached out to West Point’s Public Affairs Office for comment. The office directed The Daily Caller to the superintendent’s open letter, but declined to offer responses to individual questions.