Hot-button issues at AFA 

Down the hall from the office of Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, his new diversity officer will set up shop. The first academy post dedicated to promoting diversity will be occupied by Adis Vila, a native of Cuba who speaks four languages, has a law degree and arrives later this month.

What does this mean?

It's evidence the academy recognizes that it, like larger society, faces diversity problems. Fresh signs showed up in the 2009-10 cadet climate survey, and are also evident in the freshman class demography. Not only issues of racial and gender bias, but also attitudes toward gays and lesbians, which are deteriorating even as the military faces the likely demise of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

A mutual understanding

After being kept under wraps since August — whereas previous survey results were shared immediately — the 73-page report was released last week at a two-hour briefing where academy staff outnumbered reporters 11 to 3. Gould first refused to reveal the results, calling them a commander's tool. (The Independent obtained the survey in August and reported results.)

Gould says he underestimated the public's interest. His bosses, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Secretary Michael Donley, also suggested it be released. "We came to a mutual understanding," Gould says.

Among the survey's "areas of concern" were gender and racial discrimination. Indeed, the survey showed 42 percent of the 2,170 cadets who took the survey said they experienced or witnessed discrimination or harassment; 39 percent of female respondents said they were harassed or discriminated against because of their gender, and 20 percent of minorities said race was the reason.

That played out in being insulted/offended (16 percent), looked down upon (12 percent), ignored/snubbed/excluded (11 percent) and taunted/ridiculed (10 percent), among other slights. (Note: The Pentagon regularly conducts a separate survey about sexual assault.)

Previous polling suggests racial discrimination and gender bias have been ongoing problems. (The 2010 survey asked different questions than the 2004 and 2007 versions, making them difficult to compare.) But it's hard to tackle something that isn't reported through official channels. For example, not one of the 64 incidents of physical assault or injury cited in the 2010 survey was reported.

"It tells me I have more to learn about the types of discrimination and/or harassment they're experiencing," Gould says. "When it occurs. How it occurs. Who the offender might be. It helps us to dig further."

Gould isn't even sure the results truly reflect life at the academy. For one thing, only 47 percent of cadets responded, and freshmen accounted for 38.7 percent of respondents.

"It also begs the question, definitionally, were you really assaulted or were you injured?" he says. "Again, you go back to some of the fourth classmen [freshmen], and some of the training they go through, where they have to get up and run early in the morning and do some things, and, you know, their life is pretty tough."

Gould says the survey is partly to blame; it lumped together the different concepts of discrimination and harassment. The 2012 survey won't.

Another troubling result: 17.4 percent of cadets said they became less accepting of gays, lesbians and bisexuals after coming to the academy.

"People will leave an environment that is perceived to be hostile," the report says. "If gays, lesbians and bisexuals are allowed to serve openly in the military, this suggests that there might be acceptance problems at USAFA."

Who's in charge

One place discrimination might play out is in leadership positions. While academy officials say minorities have the same opportunities as others, minorities comprise 23 percent of the wing but hold 16 percent of wing staff positions and 18 percent of squadron posts.

The academy also has seen a declining number of Hispanics. Hispanics in the current freshman class fell 13 percent, to 111, compared to the previous year, due to fewer qualified applicants, records show. So while minorities account for 27.5 percent of the freshman class, Hispanics make up just 8.8 percent.

At the U.S. Naval Academy, more than one in three midshipmen in the classes of 2013 and 2014 are minorities, and Hispanics comprise 14 percent of each class. Hispanic numbers increased by 34 percent the past two years after the USNA added a diversity officer who works with admissions to improve candidate interest and bolster awareness of under-represented groups, spokeswoman Deborah Goode says in an e-mail.

The U.S. Military Academy has had a diversity officer for five years, but West Point has had an admissions staffer working on diversity for 35 years.

All of which brings us back to Vila, who didn't respond to an interview request. She'll be the civilian equivalent of a general officer, working directly for Gould with a staff of four. Vila's hiring comes a year after Congress and the Air Force formed separate panels to address diversity. More than half the Air Force's minority and female officers below the rank of brigadier general are deciding against the service as a long-term career, shrinking diversity in senior leadership even as minority populations grow.

Besides adding Vila, the academy is addressing diversity, discrimination and other issues through cadet and staff training, focus groups, character seminars, increased outreach efforts, women's forums and through a campaign to encourage reporting of racial discrimination.


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