USAFA diversity: Challenges and progress

  • Published
  • By Col. Ronald Machoian
  • Academy Culture, Climate and Diversity director
The Air Force defines diversity very broadly, placing valuable emphasis not only on representation based on one's race, gender or ethnic background, but also on the unique and rich perspective that comes from the variety of experiences and beliefs that mark a holistic society. This isn't just the right thing to do, an idealistic reflection of our altruism or the intellectual standard of a great institution. It is much more than that. An inclusive environment, one in which every Airman is judged on his or her performance rather than pre-judged, is a foundation for the historically significant concept of social cohesion in our armed forces.

Our services gain intellectual capacity and cultural understanding through the variety of perspectives that diversity offers, strengthening our ability to act and operate in a myriad of circumstances and environments. As an institution of higher learning, the Air Force Academy, like our nation's other military service academies, has a leading role to play in the effort to realize the power of diversity. Today, USAFA and its sister academies have made great strides to become more inclusive, but this hasn't always been the case.

In June of 1870, two young men arrived at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, appointed as candidates to the Class of 1874. Their names were James Webster Smith and Michael Howard. In some ways, they were very much like the other young men who arrived there, full of anxiety and apprehension about what they might expect from the summer encampment that would acculturate them into the Corps of Cadets. But there was at least one marked difference between them and their young counterparts -- they were black ... the first two men of their race to arrive at West Point. In the wake of the American Civil War, they owed their appointments to President Ulysses S. Grant's policy of assertive federal activism on the part of Republican Reconstruction.

Near summer's end, as plebe training broke, Howard was sent home before the academic year began after failing the period's entrance examination. Smith entered West Point with the rest of his class, but never truly became a part of it. His time there ran a turbulent gamut between violent encounters and complete ostracism, and after a series of very public court proceedings and disciplinary actions on various charges, he left three years later, finally the victim of failed examinations in the natural sciences.

Smith's short-lived West Point experience was a discouraging first attempt to expand the opportunities represented by attendance at a federal academy. Only three black cadets graduated from West Point during the next 20 years -- each with a similar tale of ostracism and hardships that went well beyond the experiences endured by white classmates. It would be several more decades before black cadets and midshipmen truly took their place at our nation's service academies, and even longer before their opportunities mirrored those of their majority counterparts. None of this should be surprising -- even progressive Harvard had admitted its first black student only a few years before in 1865.

Today, the U.S. Air Force Academy's Cadet Wing, like the cadets and midshipmen at the nation's other service academies, to great degree reflects the nation at large -- not just in regional representation, but in its demography. Since its birth in 1954, just six years after President Harry S. Truman's historic Executive Order 9981 abolishing racial discrimination in the U.S. military, USAFA's Cadet Wing has reflected the challenges and opportunities of the times. The first African-American cadets graduated as part of the Class of 1963 but, like the officer corps in general, found the Cadet Wing anything but a reflection of themselves. If they were a minority in American society, they were a rarity here.

One of these men, Roger B. Sims, remembered later that "the upper classmen had been thoroughly briefed on how to 'handle' us. That was fine by me .... But oh yes, if there were tensions there you could tell ... there were a few that hated my guts, and I knew it." Time and the civil rights movement had begun to realize some success by that date -- but bigotry and discrimination were still very active social forces even if their pervasive strength had begun to wane. Given West Point's angst-filled attempts to racially integrate almost a century earlier, USAFA's experience was considerably less painful.

The Cadet Wing did not include women until 1976, when they entered as part of the Class of 1980, so it was not until the academy was over two decades old that USAFA could even claim to be a semblance of the broader society it served. Cultural change can be painstakingly slow -- and sometimes comes in fits and starts. But those first classes with women, like USAFA's first African-American cadets decades earlier, pioneered a path for so many young women who followed. When the Class of 2017 entered last June, it was made up of 23 percent women and about 30 percent of its 1,129 cadets self-identified as members of a minority racial or ethnic group. Sixteen percent of this class identified as first-generation college students and 12 percent came to the Academy from a single-parent home. Rather than a novelty, the presence of these cadets is an assumed part of USAFA's social fabric -- a singular marker that we are at least moving in the right direction in terms of diversity and inclusion ... however slowly.

This year's graduating Class of 2014, while still not a mirror-like reflection of American society, is certainly much closer to that representation than classes of even a few years ago. But more important than counting heads of various groups, today's cadets live in a Cadet Wing and attend classes where underrepresented groups have a voice and even those that diverge from the majority at least have an audience. Minority perspectives present in diversity are today more often viewed as an enriching part of the wing's experience, adding something of value that will help prepare cadets for service to the nation. With the recent end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as a federal policy, LGB cadets also, finally, have the voice guaranteed others -- an act that recognized their long-standing contributions to the Air Force, albeit contributions previously shuttered in imposed silent service. This action is a threshold step toward true social equality in our force, but it is a path that remains tenuous before success can be declared or claimed. USAFA is more diverse than in the past and has made great strides in this realm, but it certainly does not yet reflect American society.

The work to realize a truly inclusive Air Force, and here at USAFA an inclusive Cadet Wing, is by no means complete. Inclusivity is not simply a status or proportional presence, a desired end-state delineated by data-driven models or measures. Instead it is an organizational culture, a human perspective that values a diverse mix of disparate and sometimes competing ideas, backgrounds and experiences. This is not only true in the Cadet Wing, but also among our faculty and staff. Our challenge is to present a wide representative cross-section of society, making USAFA a true microcosm of the nation it serves. The significance of this characteristic is one of utility, that element of social cohesion identified in this article's opening sentences.

Historical experience tells us that a military force that starts out divided within itself is a force already on a path to defeat. Over the centuries, military leaders have sought to develop and sustain that feeling of esprit de corps within their organizations -- a feeling that is undermined and even shattered if various groups or even individuals therein are left at the margins. This is certainly just as true today -- perhaps even more so in an Air Force in which we often operate in small crews or groups in which each Airman is an integral piece of the whole. At USAFA, everything we do revolves around the development of officers of character for our Air Force. A value for diversity and inclusiveness is a foundational element of this character. It is so much more than simply the right thing to do -- it is the cohesive scaffolding for the intangible feeling of shared value that is a part of preparedness in peace and victory in battle.

James Webster Smith left West Point in 1874, a victim of the overtly institutionalized discrimination that gripped the day's American society. His travails started a sustained battle that has lasted well over a century and continues even now. But it is with undeniably greater clarity and sense of purpose that today USAFA and the Air Force do not just value diversity like so many other public institutions. We demand it.