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Comments on the LTC Heffington and West Point superintendent letters

Posted by John T. Reed on

I have just seen a letter from the West Point superintendent about the open letter sent by retired LTC Heffington. Here is Heffington’s letter then the supe’s then my comments on both:

Open Letter to Grads from LTC(ret) Heffington:

(This was written by LTC (USA, ret.) Robert M. Heffington, as an open letter to graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point. It has only been edited for format, and may differ in that respect from the original. My apologies to Lt. Colonel Heffington if this has been misrepresented in any way)

Dear Sir/Ma’am,

Before you read any further, please understand that the following paragraphs come from a place of intense devotion and loyalty to West Point. My experience as a cadet had a profound impact upon who I am and upon the course of my life, and I remain forever grateful that I have the opportunity to be a part of the Long Gray Line. I firmly believe West Point is a national treasure and that it can and should remain a vitally important source of well trained, disciplined, highly educated Army officers and civilian leaders. However, during my time on the West Point faculty (2006–2009 and again from 2013–2017), I personally witnessed a series of fundamental changes at West Point that have eroded it to the point where I question whether the institution should even remain open.

The recent coverage of 2LT Spenser Rapone — an avowed Communist and sworn enemy of the United States — dramatically highlighted this disturbing trend. Given my recent tenure on the West Point faculty and my direct interactions with Rapone, his “mentors,” and with the Academy’s leadership, I believe I can shed light on how someone like Rapone could possibly graduate.
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. The end result is a sort of malaise that pervades the entire institution. Nothing matters anymore. Cadets know this, and it has given rise to a level of cadet arrogance and entitlement the likes of which West Point has never seen in its history.

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. I have personally taught cadets who are borderline illiterate and cannot read simple passages from the assigned textbooks. It is disheartening when the institution’s most senior leader openly lies to his own faculty — and they all know it. 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.

This in turn has caused the staff and faculty to give up even reporting honor incidents. Why would a staff or faculty member expend the massive amount of time and energy it takes to report an honor violation — including writing multiple sworn statements, giving interviews, and testifying at the honor hearing — when they know without a doubt the cadet will not be found (or, if found, the Superintendent will not separate the cadet)? To make matters worse, the senior leadership at West Point actively discourages staff and faculty from reporting honor violations. I was unfortunate enough to experience this first hand during my first tour on the faculty, when the Commandant of Cadets called my office phone and proceeded to berate me in the most vulgar and obscene language for over ten minutes because I had reported a cadet who lied to me and then asked if “we could just drop it.” Of course, I was duty bound to report the cadet’s violation, and I did. During the course of the berating I received from the Commandant, I never actually found out why he was so angry. It seemed that he was simply irritated that the institution was having to deal with the case, and that it was my fault it even existed. At the honor hearing the next day, I ended up being the one on trial as my character and reputation were dragged through the mud by the cadet and her civilian attorney while I sat on the witness stand without any assistance. In the end, of course, the cadet was not found (despite having at first admitted that she lied), and she eventually graduated.

Just recently a cadet openly and obviously plagiarized his History research paper, and his civilian professor reported it. The evidence was overwhelming — there was not the slightest question of his guilt, yet the cadet was not found. The professor, and indeed all the faculty who knew of the case, were completely demoralized. This is the new norm for the cadet honor system. In fact, there is now an addition to the honor system (the Willful Admission Process) which essentially guarantees that if a cadet admits a violation, then separation is not even a possibility. In reality, separation is not a possibility anyway because the Superintendent refuses to impose that sanction.
Academic standards are also nonexistent. I believe this trend started approximately ten years ago, and it has continued to get worse. West Point has stated standards for academic expectations and performance, but they are ignored. Cadets routinely fail multiple classes and they are not separated at the end-of-semester Academic Boards. Their professors recommend “Definitely Separate,” but those recommendations are totally disregarded.

I recently taught a cadet who failed four classes in one semester (including mine), in addition to several she had failed in previous semesters, and she was retained at the Academy. As a result, professors have lost hope and faith in the entire Academic Board process. 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.

What a betrayal this is to the faculty! Also, since they get full grade replacement if they must retake a course, cadets are actually incentivized to fail. They know they can re-take the course over the summer when they have no other competing requirements, and their new grade completely replaces the failing one. 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.

Even the curriculum itself has suffered. The plebe American History course has been revamped to focus completely on race and on the narrative that America is founded solely on a history of racial oppression. Cadets derisively call it the “I Hate America Course.” Simultaneously, the plebe International History course now focuses on gender to the exclusion of many other important themes.

On the other hand, an entire semester of military history was recently deleted from the curriculum (at West Point!).

In all courses, the bar has been lowered to the point where it is irrelevant. If a cadet fails a course, the instructor is blamed, so instructors are incentivized to pass everyone. Additionally, instead of responding to cadet failure with an insistence that cadets rise to the challenge and meet the standard, the bar for passing the course itself is simply lowered. This pattern is widespread and pervades every academic department.

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.

They are allowed to wear civilian clothes in almost any arena outside the classroom, and they flaunt that privilege. Some arrive to class unshaven, in need of haircuts, and with uniforms that look so ridiculously bad that, at times, I could not believe I was even looking at a West Point cadet.
However, if a staff or faculty member attempts to correct the cadet in question, that staff/faculty member is sure to be reprimanded for “harassing cadets.”

For example, as I made my rounds through the barracks inspecting study conditions one evening as the Academic Officer in Charge, I encountered a cadet in a company study room. He was wearing a pair of blue jeans and nothing else, and was covered in tattoos. He had long hair, was unshaven, and I was honestly unsure if he was even a cadet. He looked more like a prison convict to me. When I questioned what he was doing there, he remained seated in his chair and sneered at me that he “was authorized” because he was a First Class cadet. I proceeded to correct him and then reported him to the chain of command the next morning. Later that day I received an email from the Brigade Tactical Officer telling me to “stay in my lane.”

I know many other officers receive the same treatment when attempting to make corrections. It is extremely discouraging when the response is invariably one that comes to the defense of the cadet.

That brings me to another point: cadets’ versions of stories are always valued more highly by senior leaders than those of commissioned officers on the staff and faculty. It is as if West Point’s senior leaders believe their job is to “protect” cadets from the staff and faculty at all costs. This might explain why the faculty’s recommendations are ignored at the Academic Boards, why honor violations are ignored (and commissioned officers are verbally abused for bringing them to light), and why cadets always “win” when it comes to conduct and disciplinary issues.

It seems that the Academy’s senior leaders are intimidated by cadets.
During my first tour on the faculty (I was a CPT at the time), I noticed that 4th class cadets were going on leave in civilian clothes when the regulation clearly stated they were supposed to be wearing a uniform. During a discussion about cadet standards between the BTO and the Dept. of History faculty, I asked why plebes were going on leave in civilian clothes. His answer astonished me: “That rule is too hard to enforce.”

Yet West Point had no problem enforcing that rule on me in the mid-1990s. I found it impossible to believe that the several hundred field grade officers stationed at West Point could not make teenagers wear the uniform. This anecdote highlights the fact that West Point’s senior leaders lack not the ability but the motivation to enforce their will upon the Corps of Cadets. This brings me to the case of now-2LT Spenser Rapone. It is not at all surprising that the Academy turned a blind eye to his behavior and to his very public hatred of West Point, the Army, and this nation. I knew at the time I wrote that sworn statement in 2015 that he would go on to graduate.

It is not so much that West Point’s leadership defends his views (Prof. Hosein did, however); it is that West Point’s senior leaders are infected with apathy: they simply do not want to deal with any problem, regardless of how grievous a violation of standards and/or discipline it may be. They 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. In other words, West Point’s leaders choose the easier wrong over the harder right.

I could go on, but I fear that this letter would simply devolve into a screed, which is not my intention.

I will sum up by saying this: 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.
Conduct and behavior that would never be tolerated at a civilian university is common among cadets, and it is supported and defended by the Academy’s senior leaders in an apparent and misguided effort to attract more applicants and cater to what they see as the unique needs of this generation of cadets. Our beloved Military Academy has lost its way. It is a shadow of what it once was. It used to be a place where standards and discipline mattered, and where concepts like duty, honor, and country were real and they meant something. Those ideas have been replaced by extreme permissiveness, rampant dishonesty, and an inexplicable pursuit of mediocrity.

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. Unfortunately, they have largely succeeded.

The few remaining members of the staff and faculty who are still trying to hold the line are routinely berated, ignored, and ultimately silenced for their unwillingness to “go along with the program.”

The Academy’s senior leaders simply do not want to hear their voices or their concerns. Dissent is crushed — I was repeatedly told to keep quiet at faculty meetings, even as a LTC, because my dissent was neither needed nor appreciated.

It breaks my heart to write this. It breaks my heart to know first-hand what West Point was versus what it has become. This is not a “Corps has” story; it is meant to highlight a deliberate and radical series of changes being undertaken at the highest levels of USMA’s leadership that are detrimental to the institution.

Criticizing these changes is not popular. I have already been labeled a “traitor” by some at the Academy due to my sworn statement’s appearance in the media circus surrounding Spenser Rapone. However, whenever I hear this, I am reminded of the Cadet Prayer:

“…suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretense ever to diminish. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.
…that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice, and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.”

West Point was once special, and it can be again. Spenser Rapone never should have been admitted, much less graduate, but he was — and that mistake is directly attributable to the culture of permissiveness and apathy that now exists there.






Supe’s letter

October 12, 2017
To the Men and Women of the Long Gray Line,
Some of you may have seen a letter written by retired Lieutenant Colonel Robert Heffington in our graduate forums taking issue with our policies and procedures at West Point. Let me be clear. I am incredibly proud of our cadets, our staff and faculty, and our program. 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. While we do not compromise standards, we are a developmental institution with the timeless mission to provide Leaders of Character to our Army and Nation and an enduring commitment to 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. It is what America expects of our Army and of its leaders. The crucible of ground combat is unforgiving, and we owe it to our cadets to give them every opportunity to learn how to succeed. We are committed to developing our future leaders to be successful on today’s complex battlefield, and always, how to do so in accordance with our values.
In the last four years, we modified our military and physical programs to increase intensity and rigor. All of our cadets, including our women, now take boxing as a mandatory physical education class, and they must successfully pass the course. We created the Cadet Leader Development Program that brings our first class back to Camp Buckner in an 18 day Camp Darby Ranger-type program where cadets experience leadership development in squad leader, platoon sergeant, and platoon leader graded positions. They must successfully complete this as a graduation requirement. Thirteen cadets from the Class of 2017 did not graduate in May because they did not complete the training to standard. Instead, these cadets missed graduating with their class, completed the training, and graduated instead in June.
These changes have increased the realism, toughness, and challenge of our developmental programs, resulting in the most capable and confident young leaders of character that we have ever produced. As I mentioned in my previous letter to you, I would invite you to accompany me for one day in the streets of Mosul or Kandahar, and judge for yourself the quality of honorable leadership our graduates have provided over the last 16 years of war.
The bottom line is this, in the last 50 years, only 26 classes have signed up to come to West Point while the Nation was at war. Sixteen of those 26 have been in the last 16 years. The accomplishments and sacrifices of our graduates in selfless service to our nation over the last 16 years of war, speak to the quality of standards, discipline and values they experienced here at West Point.
- Our graduates, 15,900 since 2001, have served honorably in some of the most challenging and demanding positions and environments in the defense of our nation.
- Many of those graduates are now preparing for battalion command across all of our thirteen branches.
- Our graduates have been awarded for valor and service with 2 Distinguished Service Crosses, 38 Silver Stars, 21 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 252 Bronze Stars for Valor, 403 Army Commendations for Valor and 516 Purple Hearts.
- Our graduates have distinguished themselves in some of the most harrowing situations imaginable, as our recent Nininger Award Recipient, Captain Nicholas Dockery, who over the course of four hours, fought, maintained contact and defeated a well-armed enemy force using all available direct and indirect fire and the courage to expose himself, under fire, while leading Soldiers in the crucible.
- As recently as last year, we placed cadets, as newly commissioned officers, in all of our divisions across the Army with many now leading in the 1st AD, 3d ID and 82d in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 173d, 2d ACR and 4th ID in Eastern Europe and the 2d and 25th in the Republic of Korea and across Southeast Asia.
When we speak directly to battalion commanders, we continually receive positive feedback. Here are some examples of what we hear from the field:
“They (USMA Graduates) come strong. They believe in the Army values and components of them. They can easily articulate them to their Soldiers – the Army Values, and project that as well.”
“They come physically fit. They come resilient, mentally as well. They have strength.”
“Whatever you are doing there – I am an ROTC guy – I have never been to West Point but the product you are producing is making a difference in the force – that’s for sure.”
Our academic, military and physical pillars remain strong and are rooted in our character development program. In all areas, we seek to align values and behaviors with those that the Army and the nation deserve and demand from West Point graduates. Our Cadet Honor Committee, with the dedicated support of our Simon Center for Professional Military Ethic and the broader faculty, continue to improve honor education and adjudication of cases to preserve the values of Duty, Honor, and Country.
We are committed to remaining the world’s preeminent leader development institution through timely evolution, consistent evaluation and assessments of our programs. This view is confirmed time and time again by outside institutions and organizations:
- The 2018 edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges placed the U.S. Military Academy as the top public national liberal arts college. West Point also ranks No. 4 on the Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs list, and takes the top spot in the Best in the Specialties category for civil engineering.
- Forbes ranks us the #2 Public College and #9 Liberal Arts College in the Nation.
- The 2018 Princeton Review ranked us #1-5 in six different categories measuring classroom and faculty experience.
- The Class of 2017 had 27 cadets earn 29 post-graduate scholarships including one Rhodes, one Marshall and two Fulbright scholars.
- During our 2015 Middle States and ABET reaccreditations, 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, scholar-athlete recognitions and numerous team victories, and our coaches continue to receive accolades across many of our sports as well. Additionally, our competitive clubs won 12 national championships last year and for the first time in the history of collegiate sports, both our men’s and women’s boxing teams were national champions from the same university. In the military domain, we took the top spot in the 2017 Sandhurst Military Skills Competition out of 61 teams, which included 12 international teams.
With respect to some of the allegations brought up in LTC (Ret) Heffington’s letter, I feel it is important to factually respond in order to illustrate the consequences of cadets who fail to meet standards in this last year alone:
- Last year we separated 26 cadets for academic reasons, including 7 firsties and 3 cows.
- Last year we separated 10 cadets for Honor and 18 cadets for other misconduct reasons.
- Last year we separated 2 cadets for not meeting physical requirements.
- Last year we graduated 962 cadets, with 653 cadets branching combat arms, including 68 women, and 309 cadets branching our other critical branches to include 15 in cyber.
- Last year our cumulative grade point average was 3.02 and our athletic teams achieved a .590 winning percentage against their opponents, including 14 wins over Navy.
We have shifted our approach from an ‘attritional’ model to a ‘developmental’ model without compromising our standards. It is our responsibility to coach, teach and mentor our cadets. The character development program provides personal and professional growth for every cadet. But do not be confused. If cadets fail to achieve our high standards, they do not continue. I have noticed that this shift in developmental leadership does not sit well with many ‘old grads’ who yearn for the days of ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘black and white’ or the ‘Old Corps’. Our pursuit today is the same as it has been for 215 years …excellence, because in the pursuit of excellence, success always follows.
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. In addition, the Corps is surrounded by a cadre of the finest staff and faculty, including officers, non-commissioned officers and civilians.
I have 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. I have an incredible team here led by both our Commandant and Dean. To call them liars as well is a great injustice to their professionalism and their numerous years of dedicated and honorable service. Speaking truth to power is important, to be sure, but personal attacks do not promote improvement. Is our Academy perfect? No. Do bad cadets sneak through the system? I would hope not, but I can attest, having served with graduates for over 40 years, that sometimes I have stopped and wondered. Do we need to assess our programs and policies? Absolutely, and we do, both internally and externally. We take all criticism seriously, but we take constructive criticism offered directly through the numerous forums available to staff, faculty, and cadets most seriously because it reflects genuine ownership of our profession and our military academy.
So in that spirit, 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 by the academic, military and physical rigor you remember from your time here and amazed by the positive changes made over the years. But more than curricula or schedules, facilities or sporting events – you will be most proud and inspired by our cadets.
Let me close as I began. There is no greater measure of the quality, standards, discipline and values here at West Point than the accomplishments and sacrifices of our graduates in selfless service to our Nation over the last 16 years of war.
Robert L. Caslen, Jr.
Lieutenant General, U.S. Army
My [John T. Reed] comments: This is full of intellectually-dishonest debate tactics. Here are some points about it:
1. Conspicuous by its absence are any explanation as to why Heffington would write an incorrect or dishonest open letter. To return to West Point as a Professor, you need to be in the top of the class academically as a cadet and as an officer after West Point.
2. Caslen’s motives to deny the open letter are obvious. It happened on his watch.
3. Caslen sort of pleads guilty when he says they have moved from the “attritional” model to the “developmental” model. He puts down many ‘old grads’ who yearn for the days of ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘black and white’ or the ‘Old Corps’. Are those the same grads they put on the cover of the West Point magazine? Lee, Grant, MacArthur, Eisenhower. With that attritional accusation he puts down the entire long gray line and every previous West Point Superintendent, Commandant, and Dean.
4. “Attritional” is a dysphemism (opposite of a euphemism) and “developmental” is a positive spin on extreme leniency.
5. Caslen does not address specific charges instead squirting octopus ink in the form of anecdotal evidence, selective statistics, rankings by outsiders who lack Heffington’s perspective on the last 30 years of Cadets and graduates.
6. Caslen’s “don’t call me a liar” shtick is intellectually-dishonest debate tactic #50.
There is nothing wrong with calling someone, for example, a liar when he is, in fact, a liar. Don’t tell me it’s ad hominem. That’s #50. You can’t just say it though. You must prove it.
Here is my #50 discussion:
50. Attempts to ban ad hominem attacks. Saying ad hominem attacks are not allowed is invalid as a blanket statement. Conflicts of interest are generally required to be disclosed when they might affect the objectivity of a person giving expert opinion or sitting in judgment.
Facts that impeach a witness are always admissible in court and the Federal Rules of Evidence are a great set of rules designed to prevent intellectually-dishonest debate tactics. To impeach a witness means to prove he or she has not always been truthful. Ad hominem attacks are perfectly legitimate, honest debate tactics when the Federal Rules of Evidence permit them and the nature of the attack is pertinent to the topic.
The aversion to ad hominem attacks is a manifestation of what George Bernard Shaw was talking about in his statement that “All professions are conspiracies against the laity,” That is, professions often ban criticizing fellow members of the profession, even in writing in their codes of ethics, and regardless of the merit or relevance of the criticism. Such ethical canons should be repealed. The libel and slander laws entirely take care of the problem to the extent that it should be taken care of. Moron professionals think the ban on ad hominem attacks has a moral basis. No, it doesn’t. Indeed, if it immoral—a conspiracy of silence for economic reasons.
Trying to ban “demeaning” is the same thing. It is nothing but a pejorative word for criticizing someone. There is nothing wrong with accurate, relevant criticism. Inaccurate criticism may be slander or libel. Failure to criticize when criticism is warranted is sinning by silence when you should protest.
Caslen tries to change the subject (#1) to things like implying Heffington does not know that combat is tough or that more recent classes have gone to war than ever before. Might that be because prior classes won their wars in several years rather than letting them drag on for 16 years?
There is a definite need for additional voices here. Current or recent cadets, other officers, those on the receiving end of West Point graduates in the Army and grad school.
The near total silence of the Long Gray Line is embarrassing and itself damning. Here is my Web explanation of why I maintain my web pages that criticize the Army and West Point. It is a strong argument against remaining silent.

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  • Caslen sounds like another politicized flag officer. He fails to seriously engage with the Rapone issue, especially that previous reports had been made of the man, and not acted on. And then he has silly debate tactics about how many kids were separated, without saying what percent were reported. He also fails to seriously engage with the comments that those who report things were discouraged.

    This is all in the past, but unless the Supe got fired, I expect no correction was made. That’s the only thing flag officers understand. Like the French say about the English treatment of admirals. Every so often you need to chop off a head to encourage the others. And who better than a politicized flag officer

    Navygrad on

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