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Military Academy Chiefs Grilled Over Race-Based Admissions, DEI Programs

Three United States military service academy superintendents held their ground under withering questioning by Freedom Caucus conservatives about race-based admission goals and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) curriculum during a July 19 hearing before a House Armed Forces Committee sub-panel.

U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Steven Gilland, Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck, and Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, all defended the diversity programs and said while they oppose racial quotas, they support admission and recruiting goals marketed for specific demographics.

Since seizing a 10-seat House majority in 2022’s midterms, Republicans have pressed the Biden administration on their infusing of progressive “woke” policies at the Department of Defense (DOD), insisting this is impairing readiness and contributing to the most significant recruiting shortfalls in the 50 year history of the U.S.’s volunteer military.

Last week, the Freedom Caucus-led House repealed the DOD’s abortion travel policy, prohibited DOD health care programs from providing gender-transition procedures, adopted a “Parents Bill of Rights” in DOD-led schools, and inserted a host of other add-ons targeting DEI programs into the proposed must-pass $886.3 defense budget now being deliberated in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Within that raft of House “culture war” amendments unlikely to survive Senate scrutiny is Rep. Jim Bank’s (R-Ill.) add-on that would formally outlaw the use of any race-based criteria in service academy criteria.

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Cadets walk into Michie Stadium during West Point’s graduation ceremony in West Point, N.Y., on May 27, 2023. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Affirmative Action Still in Place

Mr. Banks, a Navy veteran, chairs the House Armed Forces Committee’s Military Personnel Subcommittee and orchestrated the two-hour hearing before the panel featuring the three service academy superintendents.

“I’m deeply concerned with the path our military service academies are on, particularly if they continue to violate the Constitution and use race as a factor in admissions,” he said. “I’m also concerned about the future success of our cadets and midshipmen considering the focus on divisive diversity programs that elevate the importance of identity over that of duty, honor, and service.”

The Supreme Court on June 29 ruled that universities’ affirmative action policies violate the Constitution’s guarantees of equal treatment for all but did not address “racial preference” in military service academies’ admissions decisions.

Mr. Banks said any references to race should be removed from admission and recruiting standards, quoting Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts who wrote in the ruling: “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it and the Equal Protection Clause applies without regard to any differences of race of color, or of nationality.’”

“I believe race-based admissions in any form violate the Constitution and the military service academies must ensure immutable characteristics like race, like color, have no bearing on a candidate’s ability to tackle the rigors of the military service academy,” Mr. Banks said.

He said he was “particularly proud” of the House’s amendment-larded proposed defense budget and his add-on, which “strongly affirms that admission to our service academies must be on the basis of merit, not on skin color or ethnicity. We need the best and the brightest, regardless of race, nothing else.”

Rep  Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) called the distinction between universities and service academics a “double standard that mitigates the flaws in the court’s majority decision” but added, “I suspect that the decision to include that exemption was rooted in the fact that affirmative action, which does still exist, is necessary for national security.”

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Cadets celebrate during their graduation ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy, just north of Colorado Springs in El Paso County, Colo., on June 1, 2023. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Academy Applications Down

All military branches are experiencing recruiting shortfalls. The service academies are no different. Applications to attend the Air Force Academy dropped by 28 percent for the class of 2026, the Naval Academy by 20 percent, and West Point by 10 percent, according to the DOD.

“We are stuck in this quagmire over how to boost recruitment into our services,” Rep. Mark Alford (R-Mo.) said. “I truly believe that our strength as a nation comes from our commonality. I know there’s others who disagree with that but we’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to get back to inspiring young people to be in the military.”

Republicans say they are hearing from constituents, including many with family histories of military service, that they do not want to enlist or apply for a service academy because the Pentagon has “gone woke” with its DEI and critical race theory programs.

“Brand new Air Force cadets are taught inclusive language. They are told to call parents ‘caregivers,’ ‘guardians,’ instead of ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ They’re also told to use ‘partner’ instead of ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend,’” Mr. Banks said.

At the Naval Academy, he said, instructors must create “safe spaces for students to fend off triggering materials, protect them from micro-aggressions, and shelter them from ‘violent words.’ Never mind that these students may one day lead sailors and Marines into battle where there are no safe spaces.”

Academy chiefs, during questioning by Mr. Banks and several other GOP panelists along these lines, said that much of the concerns passed on by the Republican representatives it was baloney.

“We didn’t actually tell cadets to refrain from using ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark said. “We told cadets to understand the context of the people that they’re talking to before they refer to them. And so that was the crux of that training.

“Of course,” the general added, “I would never tell anyone to not use the words ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ I do. They’re sitting right behind me now.”

Lt. Gen. Clark appeared to be the primary target of GOP panelists. He was grilled extensively by three Florida Republicans—Reps. Matt Gaetz, Michael Waltz, and Cory Mills.

Asked by Mr. Gaetz if “a diverse and inclusive force is a war-fighting imperative,” as stated on an Air Force Academy presentation, Lt. Gen. Clark said, “I do agree with that statement, sir.”

Mr. Gaetz said the Mongols and Vikings weren’t diverse, nor are the Ukrainians fighting the Russians. “So you would acknowledge that throughout history, including present history, that statement hasn’t borne true in every example, right?”

“What I would say is that those countries had to rely on the full force of their population to build a war fighting [capacity]. To win our wars, that’s why it’s important for us to be diverse” because the nation has a diverse population, Lt. Gen. Clark said.

Mr. Waltz queried Lt. Gen. Clark on an Air Force Academy professor’s Washington Post op-ed, in which the professor said she “proudly teaches critical race theory” and writes that, “A positive white identity is an impossible goal.” He asked the general if he agreed with that statement.

“I don’t,” Lt. Gen. Clark said. “That’s not what she was espousing. She was … encouraging the discourse on the topic, the civil discourse. We encourage all civil discourse. I let our cadets learn how to think.”

Mr. Mills noted that the Air Force’s officers applicant pool goal specifies “diversity inclusion goals,” adding he was “happy to find … it only notes male and female. He asked the three academy chiefs if they agreed there were only two genders. All agreed.

Mr. Alford (R-Mo.) asked the academy superintendents if a student stands a better chance of being admitted “If they are of a certain demographic?”

“I would say not a better chance,” Lt. Gen. Clark said. “We look at the whole person concept. And demographic is just one of those attributes that we look at for a cadet to come into our academy once we know they are fully qualified to be there. It is a part of that whole person look that we take for each cadet or for each applicant.

Mr. Alford said DEI and affirmative action proponents argue that the programs are necessary because some “members of certain races feel like they’re not welcome in the military.” He asked if they could cite examples of this but none could.

“Does someone have empirical evidence to say ‘I don’t feel welcome in the military’ that is protecting our country against the pacing threat from communist China?” Mr. Mills asked rhetorically. “And yet we haven’t heard that. So is this, ‘We’re trying to find a solution to [something] that’s not really a problem’?”

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2nd Lt. Alix Schoelcher Idrache cries during the United States Military Academy West Point Graduation, May 23, 2016. (U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Vito T. Bryant)

Democrats Defend Diversity

Democrats defended using demographics in recruiting goals and DEI programs while chastising Republicans, especially the House Freedom Caucus, for politicizing the normally bipartisan-adopted defense budget process with nettlesome “culture war” amendments.

“I just feel like we’ve been in this hearing room several times already talking about these issues over and over again this year,” Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) said, noting that instead of focusing “on how we can improve their leadership training, their academics, we constantly keep coming back to this.”

Mr. Kim said Republicans are grossly exaggerating time and resources being spent on DEI at the academies—which is 16 hours, or four hours annually, across the four-year academy enrollment.

Republicans “make it seem like every single class and every single training session, every single element and hour of the day … is being spent talking about diversity, talking about DEI, talking about these different issues, and that just simply isn’t the case,” he said.

Mr. Kim is the ranking Democrat on the 17-member subcommittee led 9-8 by Republicans. Of the panel’s eight Democrats, seven are minorities and five are women. Seven of the panel’s nine Republicans are white men.

“Diversity is truly America’s strength,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) said. “It is something that we should take seriously and not politicize or weaponize. Our service academies teach students how to think, not what to think. Learning about diversity our nation’s history, or other races and cultures, help our students become critical thinkers. It does not train them to hate this country, or any race. To assume our students cannot handle this information is truly an insult to their intelligence. And ours.”

According to the DOD, more than 75 percent of all officers now serving on active duty are white. Ms. Sewell said only 4 percent of the Air Force Academy’s class of 2027 is black.

“You can’t tell me that our military or service academies spend too much time and too much money or attention on diversity,” she said. “I dare say, African Americans definitely make up more than 4 percent of our military. Our officer corps are far less racially diverse than our enlisted troops, and does not reflect society as a whole.

“Our military is the best in the world,” Ms. Sewell concluded. “And it will stay that way as long as we have the best players on the field, if you will.”

“I feel like I have to apologize in advance,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) told the three witnesses. “You’re going to have to live through what we have been living through … where we have colleagues who are intent on doing everything possible to paint any effort by the federal government to be inclusive, and to be diverse, and to be representative of our country, as ‘divisive.’ That’s the word that’s being used.”

Mr. Waltz dismissed Democrats’ lamentation that “‘Republicans are blowing these issues out of proportion,’ that we’re exaggerating.” If they were listening to their constituents, they’d understand why the hearing was necessary, he said.

“I just I cannot state strongly enough that if we did not have cadets, military members, their families, bringing these issues to us on a consistent basis, we wouldn’t be addressing them here,” he said.

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