Monthly Archives: August 2017

What is Wrong – and Right – With the Navy?

Since January, four warships in the US Navy’s 7th Fleet have been involved in serious accidents. The most recent occurred this week when the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker near Singapore; the USS Fitzgerald experienced a fatal collision in June. In both cases, sleeping sailors (no doubt exhausted from the daily grind of life at sea) awoke suddenly to the sound of tearing metal and the rush of seawater. These incidents have many wondering: what on earth is wrong with the navy?

As a former Surface Warfare Officer who spent hundreds of hours standing watch on the bridge of a warship, I know that many things have to go wrong for collisions to occur at sea.  Nearly all of them involve human error by the officers in charge.  Whatever else is going on, it appears the navy has a serious leadership problem.

New reports suggest that the John S. McCain suffered a “steering malfunction” prior to its accident. But navy ships are designed with system redundancy, and well-trained watch teams practice and prepare for such emergencies. When I was a young junior officer, we constantly trained for potential loss of steering, man overboard, and engine room fires. We’d cover the bridge windows with old nautical charts to practice navigating in low-visibility. Our senior officers purposely created training opportunities designed to prepare us for anything. 

That the commanding officer of the Fitzgerald was in his stateroom at the time of the accident is a huge red flag. All watch standers should be familiar with the captain’s “Standing Orders,” which require him to be notified when other vessels get within close range. Were they afraid to tell the boss they’d let another ship get so near? Did they completely lose basic situational awareness? Both are bad; the investigation will eventually determine the truth.

Meanwhile, the responses by the enlisted crew members in both accidents demonstrate what the navy is doing right.  In each instance, berthing compartments flooded in mere minutes – another emergency for which sailors prepare. I will never forget that training simulator, in a dark compartment with cold, high-pressure water spraying in our faces.  As the water quickly rose over our boots, above our waists, and to our armpits, we struggled to stay calm while working to contain the flooding and get everyone out safely.

It’s no wonder the sailors who did just that, after waking suddenly upon impact, are being called heroes for saving so many lives. In the case of the Fitzgerald, they have been commended for keeping the entire ship afloat.

Early investigation results specifically highlight the bravery of Gary Leo Rehm, Jr., who was posthumously advanced to Chief Petty Officer based on his actions. Survivors report that he personally evacuated many shipmates from the flooding compartment. Men like Chief Rehm represent what’s “right” with the navy.

Something else the navy gets right is accountability. To date, the three senior leaders on the Fitzgerald have been removed, and several junior officers were relieved of their duties by the U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin. Ironically, Vice Adm. Aucoin himself was relieved after the John S. McCain accident.  More firings are sure to come.

Holding leadership accountable, however important, feels “too little, too late.” In these recent tragedies, the officers paid with their careers but the enlisted sailors paid with their lives.

The upcoming operational pause – also known as a “safety stand-down” – is an important first step, but I am concerned about restoring trust. The navy today needs the kind of leaders I remember, who demand exceptional performance and ensure they get it by relentlessly training their teams.

Our sailors deserve nothing less. They deserve to hit the rack after a long day at sea with confidence that their ship is in well-trained, capable hands. The only thing jarring them awake should be the too-early call of “Reveille.”

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Is the College Admissions Process Unfair?

This is the question everyone is buzzing about, especially after recent reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears poised to challenge affirmative action policies in university admissions.  The move is a nod to President Trump’s base, which, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, believes that white Americans are “losing out” because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.  The news follows years of legal battles on the subject, including cases involving University of Texas and University of Michigan that have been decided by the US Supreme Court.

 The debate is not going away anytime soon, for two reasons. First of all, universities and their applicants have completely different expectations from the admissions process; and second, it’s so hard to agree what “fair” really means.

 Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the University of Texas case, used a common argument against affirmative action – she claimed that her achievements were better than those of others who were accepted. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference…was the color of our skin” she says in a YouTube video discussing her case.

 Obviously high school achievements matter to colleges. But a close look at their missions reveals that other things matter, too.

 University of Texas says its core purpose is “to transform lives for the benefit of society.” The mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Yale “is committed to improving the world today and for future generations…” through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

 None of these statements brags about the exceptional resumes of the 17-year-olds these colleges admit. Rather, they believe in “educating citizen leaders for our society” and “improving the world…for future generations” and “transforming lives.”

 In short, the obsession with comparing test scores and extracurricular activities misses the point: that the mission of many colleges is to select and prepare students for a promising future, not to reward students for an impressive past.

 So how can colleges “fairly” select the young people they want to educate and send out into the world to make a difference? And what would that mean?

 However hard we try, it’s impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons of people. Even standardized tests, arguably the most objective of the metrics, have limitations. Let’s say one kid takes an SAT prep class, works with an SAT tutor, takes the test 3 times, and eventually scores a personal best of 1350. Another kid can barely afford to take the test once; prep classes and tutors are out of the question. That kid gets a 1340. Who is smarter?

 Other metrics are even more subjective. GPA, sports, and clubs? High schools offer very different levels of academic rigor and options for extracurricular activities. Hobbies? Applicants’ choices about how to spend personal time are impacted by geography, disposable income, and family particulars.  Harvard just admitted 2,038 people into its next freshman class, but are they the “best” or “most qualified” of the 39,506 applicants? How can anyone know?

 Obviously Harvard believes they chose the right 2,038 people to become “citizen leaders for our society.” And by “our society,” Harvard certainly means our diverse society. The class of 2021 comes from all the regions of the US and from around the world; some are “legacies” and others are the first in their families to attend college. For the first time, fewer than 50% are white.

 Certainly their test scores and grades are impressive. But Harvard probably could have admitted only applicants from private schools in the Northeast and formed a class with even higher test scores and grades. Would that be fairer? Would anyone want to go to such a school?

 The college application process will never be “fair” because people are not numbers, and numbers are not everything. My advice (unsolicited) to Jeff Sessions is to stop worrying about how unfair life is for white Americans.  When they become scarce at elite universities – or in the President’s cabinet – he can consider affirmative action policies to address those disparities.