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Lawmaker pushing Coast Guard Academy to use congressional nominations

Hamilton Hall at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.

STARS AND STRIPES

By JULIA BERGMAN | The Day, New London, Conn. | Published: October 3, 2018

NEW LONDON, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — A proposal in Congress would require 50 percent of each incoming class at the Coast Guard Academy to come from a pool of congressionally nominated candidates.

The proposal is part of The Coast Guard Academy Improvement Act introduced by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat representing Mississippi's 2nd congressional district, on Sept. 26.

Thompson, ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, which has oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, including the Coast Guard, has for many years pushed for congressional appointments to the academy as a way to increase diversity. Unlike the other military service academies, the Coast Guard Academy has never had congressional nominations or appointments.

"When you chart out where cadets are from, it's primarily the East Coast and the West Coast. They're sparsely represented in the other parts of the country," Thompson said by phone Tuesday.

The academy's Superintendent Rear Adm. James E. Rendón responded with a written statement saying, "One of the main goals in our strategic plan is to further the important work we have been doing to cultivate a supportive and inclusive environment at the Academy. So we look forward to working with members of Congress to continue to diversify our Corps of Cadets who will soon be the future leaders of our service."

Women make up 40 percent of the incoming Class of 2022, and minorities make up a record 36 percent. The academy offered 392 appointments for the Class of 2022. That was out of 2,045 prospective students who completed an application. Of the appointments offered, 281 were accepted.

Thompson's bill would allow each member of Congress to nominate up to three candidates to attend the academy. The academy would chose half of its incoming classes from that pool of candidates, and the other half under its current admissions process.

The proposal also calls for a plan to improve retention and recruitment of cadets, faculty and staff of diverse backgrounds. It would formally authorize an existing program the academy uses to help recruit and retain minority cadets. Those efforts led to the largest number of black cadets — 18 — to graduate from the academy this past spring. Formalizing the program, known as the Academy Minority Outreach Team, would "ensure permanent leadership and that leadership has authority in law to get things done," Thompson said. Right now, the work is being done largely on a volunteer basis.

Several months ago, Thompson met with members of New London's NAACP in his office in Washington to discuss reports of discrimination at the academy, low levels of minority enrollment and retention rates.

The academy became the first service academy to go through a process that looked at various educational outcomes like graduation and class pass rates broken down by race and gender. It found, for example, that black cadets were more likely than white cadets to be disciplined more harshly for similar offenses, and that there were gaps in graduation rates and class pass rates for minorities and women.

Thompson's bill would require the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to establish a commission that would act on the recommendations that came out of the process the academy went through, known as the Equity Scorecard.

"Part of what we don't want is for the academy to go insular in trying to fix these issues, but to bring people from the outside to participate, too," Thompson said.

He added that he met with the Coast Guard's commandant, Adm. Karl Schultz, who told him the report was an "eye opener for a lot of people" and that it would not be put on a shelf, that he planned to act on it.

Thompson, along with U.S. Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, wrote to Schultz in June asking him how the Coast Guard plans to address the racial disparities at the academy. U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., penned a similar letter. All five men are planning to visit the academy later this fall to get an update on how the academy is addressing these issues.

Tim Brown, Courtney's spokesman, said that his office is "reviewing" Thompson's legislation. Blumenthal said through a spokeswoman that he "strongly supports" the goal of the bill. Murphy said in a statement the he "absolutely supports" efforts to increase diversity at the academy, and that he's "eager" to study whether congressional nominations "could help get us closer to that goal."

j.bergman@theday.com

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