Tuberville blockade keeps first female superintendent from Naval Academy
The Washington Post November 24, 2023
Seven months ago, the Navy announced with fanfare that a trailblazing warship officer would become the first female superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
President Biden nominated Rear Adm. Yvette M. Davids on April 20 for promotion to vice admiral, and she was slated to take the helm over the summer at the academy in Annapolis. She would be the 64th superintendent since the academy was founded in 1845.
She and the academy are still waiting for that milestone.
The Davids nomination is one of hundreds of senior military promotions bottled up in the Senate as Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) prevents action on confirmation. Tuberville has said he is using his leverage to block votes as a protest of a Biden administration policy protecting abortion access for military personnel and their dependents.
The blockade, begun in February, has stalled more than 350 key military appointments, forcing temporary and improvised leadership arrangements across the armed forces.
For Annapolis, that means the brigade of about 4,400 midshipmen, as well as about 2,500 faculty and staff, are under the supervision of an acting superintendent. Rear Adm. Frederick W. Kacher, a 1990 graduate of the academy, was given that title in late August, filling in after Vice Adm. Sean Buck retired from the superintendency.
Kacher, too, is in limbo. He was nominated in January to become vice admiral in command of the Seventh Fleet, based in Japan. Like Davids, he awaits Senate confirmation.
Meanwhile, Davids was named to another temporary post. She assumed two sets of duties on Aug. 18 - as acting commander for Naval Surface Forces and as acting commander of the Naval Surface Force for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Many academy alumni are irate.
Retired Adm. James Stavridis, of the academy’s class of 1976, called the Tuberville blockade “ridiculous” and said Davids is “richly qualified” to lead at Annapolis. Stavridis is a former supreme allied commander of NATO and former dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
“It is particularly harmful to see the Academy’s first female Superintendent locked out of her office - terrible signal,” Stavridis wrote in an email. Kacher, he wrote, “is doing a reasonable job holding down the fort.” But, alluding to Tuberville’s former career as a college football coach, Stavridis wrote: “For Coach Tuberville I’d say you’ve got a lineman in a quarterback’s spot, and vice versa. It makes no sense.”
A Tuberville spokesman, asked about the impact of the confirmation blockade on the Naval Academy and on the careers of Davids and Kacher, replied in a one-sentence email: “Coach has confidence in Admiral Kacher to get the job done.”
For the academy, the rituals of the school year continue. About 1,200 plebes - the term for first-year students in Annapolis - have started classes. About 1,000 midshipmen scheduled to graduate next spring and become commissioned officers were given their initial service assignments on Nov. 16. Preparations are underway for the Army-Navy football game on Dec. 9, to be played for the first time in New England, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
“The Naval Academy remains committed to its mission of training and educating future Navy and Marine Corps officers, ensuring a seamless transition of leadership and continuity of its esteemed programs,” the academy’s public affairs office said in a statement.
Among the challenges facing Annapolis and other military academies is the pursuit of racial diversity after the Supreme Court ruling in June that rejected affirmative action in college admissions. That landmark ruling included a footnote that left open questions about race in admissions at military academies. The footnote stated that no academies were a party to the lawsuits in the case and that courts had not addressed “the propriety of race-based admissions systems in that context.”
But the plaintiff in the case, Students for Fair Admissions, filed a another lawsuit in October against the Naval Academy, seeking to end the use of race-conscious admissions there.
To serve as superintendent is a career capstone in the Navy. Buck held the position for four years and his predecessor for five.
Davids, a native of San Antonio, graduated from the academy in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in oceanography. She also earned master’s degrees from the Naval War College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Her career in surface warfare included a stint as commander of the frigate USS Curts, making her the first Hispanic woman to hold such a position on a Navy warship, according to her military biography. She was twice awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, among other honors.
The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., have both been led by women. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Naval Academy have not.
Service academies, founded as all-male institutions, began admitting women in the 1970s. Federal data show about 28 percent of midshipmen in Annapolis are now women.
A handful of military promotions cleared the Senate on Nov. 2, including the appointment of Adm. Lisa Franchetti as the first woman to lead the Navy and join the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Another vote was held Sept. 20 to confirm Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Senate Democrats are pushing a measure that could allow for a rapid vote on other backlogged nominations as early as next month. But it would require some Republican support.
Biden and top administration officials have denounced the Tuberville blockade and urged the Senate to act on the nominations. Many Republican senators have also criticized the holdup.
“Timely confirmation of flag officers is crucial for maintaining operational readiness, effective leadership, and stability within the Navy,” the Navy said in a statement. “These delays disrupt the planning and execution of critical Navy missions, with potentially far-reaching consequences.”
Retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Amy McGrath said she worries about the effect of Tuberville’s blockade on the morale of midshipmen and other future officers. McGrath, a former Democratic candidate for Senate from Kentucky, graduated from Annapolis in 1997 and later taught there. She now serves on the academy’s Board of Visitors.
“What message does it send to future officers at the very start of their careers as to how they will be valued and treated if they sacrifice, stay in for decades and rise through the ranks to high leadership positions, knowing they (and their families) can be used as political pawns?” McGrath wrote in an email.