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Public Affairs : 13th annual Diversity Leadership Conference

West Point Diversity Leadership Conference in its 13th year of promoting, advancing diversity efforts

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor

It happened several years ago at this very conference. An idea was raised, discussed and explored until it developed into a full-blown, life-changer for students.

During a panel discussion at the 13th annual West Point Diversity Leadership Conference, Dennis Rowe, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1973, spoke about the origin of an idea and its results. It had to do with students’ SAT and ACT scores and how they affect admissions.

“A seed was planted seven years ago at this conference,” Rowe said. “We had some breakout sessions and we started talking about the fact that minority admissions numbers—particularly in the African-American community—had fallen off here at West Point. The question was ‘What are we going to do about that?’”

Since that workshop Rowe said the seed had been watered and has grown some favorable results. Minority recruitment efforts showed that candidates were being lost to low SAT and ACT scores. They may have been otherwise stellar candidates academically, physically and in leadership potential.

“That’s where a number of us got busy and we started to help candidates—particularly African-American and Native American as well—and started to change those scores so they could have an opportunity to compete when it came to being considered for admission to a place like West Point,” Rowe said.

Students at risk of not meeting admissions standards now have a fighting chance, he said, when given proper attention toward improving their SAT and ACT test scores. Rowe showed the results from one candidate who took the test in the spring of his junior year of high school. The results were: Critical Reading, 560; Math, 550; Writing 510. That same individual demonstrated significant improvement the following year in his fall semester, scoring 610, 620, 650, respectively, in the three categories.

“This individual right now is a senior here at West Point,” Rowe said. “He had a chance to get admitted directly, and these scores made a big difference, and he will be graduating and commissioning in a few short months. We’ve seen this happen over and over and over again.”

Archie Elam, a West Point Class of 1976 graduate, introduced Rowe and other panelists speaking on the topic of urban outreach. He said it is his lifelong passion for diversity that attracted him to this conference and a topic which had great impact on his life. He said it was a simple fact of life that no academy recruiters would ever visit his hometown looking for potential cadets, so it was having a schoolteacher mom and a tough Army first sergeant for a father who kept him on the straight and narrow path that led him to West Point. Elam said it was his height, not intellect, which determined his placement into a special education class for a semester. Teachers ignored his pleas for advancement.

“I was a 10-year-old, five-foot-ten inch tall, lanky, awkward kid who got pretty good grades,” Elam said. “But the teachers made this assumption that at my height in the seventh grade I was probably 15 or 16 and put me down with the special education kids.”

His mother threatened the mayor of Philadelphia during a speaking event, with a lawsuit if he didn’t fix this egregious error. It worked, but it left him wondering how many others have been put in similar situations but didn’t have the chance to free themselves from it. E. Christopher Johnson, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1973, shared a similar experience.

“I was attending a public high school in New York in the 1960s, and when I went in for my first meeting with the guidance counselor, she asked me what I wanted to do,” Johnson said. “I said I wanted to go to West Point and she laughed.”

As a 9th grader Johnson had the third highest reading score in the school, but was told he wasn’t good enough for West Point because he was black. The counselor suggested he could become a plumber or electrician. His parents transferred him to a private school where he graduated as valedictorian and secured admittance into the academy.

“I talk to students a lot and this still happens,” Johnson said. “This is not just a 1965 story. It’s a story that is still happening today and is something we all have to be aware of. The same typecasting done then is still done now, and we have to remain vigilant about it.”

Johnson spoke on the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) outreach toward younger students. STEM camps and other programs may influence their decisions to become scientists or engineers, but they may also become doctors and lawyers, Johnson said. Any of these career choices shouldn’t be considered a failure.

“The enrichment they receive from these activities is going to grow them in ways they hadn’t anticipated and will make them responsible citizens,” Johnson said.

Retired Maj. Gen. Ronald Johnson, Class of 1976 graduate, closed the panel with a story about Wilhelmenia (Chris) Hinton-Lee, the first female chief engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Upon her retirement, she said her experience was shaped by a conversation with a student advisor while attending a state university in Mississippi. Hinton-Lee was asked why she thought she could be an architect and if she knew of any African-American male architects. She responded simply by saying she didn’t know any white male architects either.

Later she earned her bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Arkansas and enrolled in the architect intern program with the Department of the Army.

“This was a college advisor in her own school,” Johnson said in disbelief. “That’s what we have to be about. We have to be about just helping people do what it is they want to do in life.”

Approximately 200 individuals had registered to attend this year’s conference, including nearly 60 cadets. Cadets were allowed to register for specific sessions as long as it didn’t conflict with their classwork.

Class of 2015 Cadet Lawrence Scott was particularly interested in attending the two dialogues involving faith and diversity. He has a natural inclination toward spiritual diversity and wanted to gain insight from a chaplain who has practiced his faith in houses of worship and on the battlefield.

“My dad is a pastor, and one of the biggest issues I’ve seen is where people fear or can’t accept differences in religions because a lot of people are passionate about it,” Scott said. “I liked what (Dr. Klon Kitchen) said about getting past the problems and look for solutions.”

Two panel discussions focused on the issues of bullying and hazing. U.S. Corps of Cadets Commandant Brig. Gen. Theodore Martin, shared his own thoughts on hazing before turning the discussion over to the first panel of Lt. Col. Tim Wall from the Department of the Army Equal Opportunity Program and Navy Lt. Commander Leedija Svec, Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute’s director of research.

The Army defines hazing in AR 600-20 as “activity which is cruel, abusive, oppressive or harmful” and Martin said the academy has learned from its own history that such behavior is unacceptable.

“We here at the (U.S. Military Academy) decided that we want to be the flagship for the entire Department of Defense,” Martin said. “One hundred years ago we were the ones who probably were responsible for perfecting hazing and bullying and incorporating it into our leader development model.”

Today, the academy has revamped that model and the training required to develop leaders of character for the Army. To bring this in focus Martin showed a comparison between the Cadet Basic Training in 1979 when 114 new cadets resigned during the eight-week training period and the Class of 2016 where 22 new cadets decided to leave the academy.

“We’ve changed the way we do business,” Martin said. “We fundamentally looked at the way we develop young men and women of character, what type of leadership is required to succeed on today’s battlefield and we are using Schofield’s model of discipline.”

Svec said hazing is harassment with an endpoint where as bullying is a misuse of power without an defined endpoint. Hazing historically has a purpose of celebration with a sense of tradition and belonging.

“Hazing in history began marking an achievement. It was intended to celebrate and recognize an individual, and it was not originally degrading,” Svec said. The problem, Svec said, is when hazing or bullying becomes so commonplace that it becomes acceptable and traditional behavior. When it became outlawed, it went underground.

“We see that the more you try to regulate something, the more someone will try to do it,” Svec said.

Therefore, behavior change is required on the individual, group and organizational levels. Svec said the challenge is in changing the mindset to revert these traditions to the positive celebrations they once were.

The conference allowed participants to openly discuss and challenge status quo and stereotypes on topics like hazing, hostile workplaces and contemporary gender issues, said Lt. Col. Linda Emerson, conference chairperson and West Point diversity officer.

“This was a pivotal conference; we have turned the corner from looking at how the academy can benefit from this event to how can we learn from and partner with others to improve inclusion in many environments: in the military, in the corporate world and in schools across the nation,” Emerson said.

The proceedings have the potential to impact the academy, as well as the Army, through the incorporation of some of the best or “next” practices, or topics considered for further research, according to Emerson.

These actionable results are precisely why the academy hosts this conference every year. Is it more than just a fortunate occurrence by bringing in industry leaders from a diverse range of backgrounds—business, military, education—it is the expectation.

Nor is this the final say on diversity; as Elam put it, the conference is not the “one and done” variety, but merely the launching point for further exploration.

Emerson said the conference planning team developed a phenomenal program this year and was critical in producing an event with a single, overlying theme.

“There is one thing that stands out across all of the focus area discussions—leaders have the awesome responsibility of creating and maintaining organizational (command) climates,” she said. “Leaders set the conditions for either positive and developmental or destructive and dangerous organizations. Everyone needs to treat each other with dignity and respect, every day, everywhere, and expect the same from others.”

Dr. Martina Carrol-Garrison from the Federal Bureau of Investigation delivered an evening lecture on civility in the workplace to an audience comprised mostly of the Class of 2014 cadets.

She left the conference overwhelmed by the courage demonstrated by academy leadership to advance the discussion of these difficult issues.

“On the continuum of deviant workplace and organizational behaviors I recognize that incivility is merely the first step taken by an individual, organization or leader toward failing to be a good citizen, and the potential consequences are dire—and you explored those consequences,” she wrote Emerson, via email. “You brought forth and explored the underbelly of failure of leadership, dysfunctional organizations and failure of personal accountability and responsibility, and I for one am immensely proud that our U.S. Army has the courage to initiate these very difficult and introspective discussions.”
 U.S. Corps of Cadets Commandant Brig. Gen. Theodore Martin opened the panel discussion about bullying and hazing Oct. 3 at Eisenhower Hall for the 13th annual West Point Diversity Leadership Conference.

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Archie Elam, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1976, said his attendance at the 2012 West Point Diversity Leadership Conference, was because of his lifelong passion on the topic which has greatly impacted his life. The theme of the 13th annual conference, Oct. 3-4, was “Diversity: The Road to Readiness.”

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Dr. Klon Kitchen spoke on religious diversity within Army culture during the first day of the conference and the next day on diversity and religious liberties. The two-day conference featured lectures, panel discussions and presentations on a variety of diversity leadership topics—with focus on urban outreach, faith and belief, gender, bullying and hazing.

Gen. Dennis L. Via, the commanding general of U.S. Army Materiel Command, spoke at the 13th annual West Point Diversity Leadership Conference to a luncheon audience of more than 100 attendees inside Eisenhower Hall Oct. 3.

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