The Military Times recently published commentary that because of increased prevalence in sexual assault and harassment at military service academies, the academies should be canceled. By that logic, the military departments should also cease to exist. Allow us to offer a different perspective: military service academies have been and will be important change agents for solving the broader social problem of sexual violence and harassment, particularly at college campuses.

Why service academies at all?

Eliminating service academies was offered as the best option for the current dilemma. However, dismantling service academies in the face of data that unfortunately tracks broader societal trends would amount to excessive zeal that discards the value academies offer to society.

Learning to lead requires interaction among cadets and midshipmen, navigating hierarchical and social structures, and learning within a real-world environment rather than in a bubble. In this environment, cadets and midshipmen are also inevitably learning parameters of healthy and unhealthy interpersonal behaviors.

Academies provide promising young leaders from every corner of our nation the opportunity to be developed into leaders of character ready to serve and lead our military in the conflicts of tomorrow. As such, the academies represent a rare level playing field in higher education where socioeconomic status plays little role in the leaders they can become.

Top-notch education that is mostly taxpayer-funded is a strength that allows the academies to attract a wide crosscut of talented people with diverse backgrounds who are all motivated for service. Challenges in recruiting persist, but the academies remain a beacon of opportunity where students can achieve their educational goals while pursuing a career of service.

Shutting down service academies would not only represent a huge loss of talent for our military branches, but would also signal that these benefits to non-perpetrators and survivors of assault and harassment don’t matter. Shutting them down would also deny the opportunity of repairing the institutional betrayal that makes military sexual trauma so detrimental.

Academies will help the broader community right a wrong

From the perspectives of a current faculty member and cadet of the Air Force Academy, both immersed in sexual assault prevention and culture change efforts, we offer you to consider how service academies fit within the broader societal problem and how they might yet again contribute to broad cultural change.

Twenty years ago, the Air Force Academy’s sexual assault scandal jump-started a conversation in higher education about sexual violence. It ignited the study of sexual violence as a byproduct and symptom of harmful cultural norms, more readily pinpointed within the stereotypical “macho” subcultures of service academies. Today, these subcultures are being reclaimed by cadets to define strength, loyalty and warrior ethos in a less toxic and gendered way.

Removing academies would eradicate the opportunity for these institutions to yet again be agents for necessary consciousness and change. It is precisely their focus on character development, unmatched resources and separation from broader communities that allow them to be a testing ground for culture change efforts that can have real impact outside their gates.

Yes, external accountability is an important piece of resolving this complex problem, but it’s not the only solution. External accountability can only result in top-down protocol, whereas the true root of the issue, a cadet culture that has normalized more constructive values, needs to be solved at the cadet level, through cadet motivation. Resolving complex problems requires studying root causes in a responsible, longitudinal way that takes time, not searching for soundbites and clickbait.

Addressing necessary culture change through students

Illuminating and addressing harmful culture is now the clear focus, not merely addressing the symptom of sexual violence. Culture change requires a holistic approach because culture is complex.

Principal in this effort is empowering students to determine their own healthier culture from within. Culture is made up of campus norms, legacy, social structures, and symbols. No culture ever changed from external voices telling it to, which might be why previous efforts to reduce sexual assault and harassment have been so ineffective in isolation.

Leaders and administrators are identifying ways to encourage helpful patterns through cadets, rather than attempt to dictate culture and results. A recent example at the Air Force Academy is the April 10, 2023 “Encouraged to Report” policy, written and championed by a team of legal studies majors, that restores discretion to commanders to exercise judgment in disciplining witnesses of sexual assault and witnesses or victims of harassment for collateral misconduct upon a good faith report of the underlying sexual assault or harassment.

Drawing upon and extending recent Safe to Report policies, the policy is a necessary step to reduce social pressure to remain silent because reporting sexual assault or harassment illuminates minor misconduct by peers. With this discretion comes an upchanneling requirement to encourage consistency across units and develop a culture among cadets of encouraging accountability.

This barrier to reporting, compounded by the service academies’ cultural value of loyalty, was largely undetected by data and the broader educational community. It was only identified because students engaged and led the way.

Policies like “Encouraged to Report” enable members of the culture to take ownership from within. Seeing peers empowered has an amplifying effect on other students’ perceived efficacy. Empowerment of students begets innovation and buy-in among other students.

Other examples of decentralizing change agents are plentiful. This includes enabling cadet networks within the academies to have a direct line to leadership, such as barrier analysis working groups like the Women’s Initiative Team, cadet-led affinity groups, and peer advocates and resource connectors such as Teal Ropes.

Teal Ropes are a group of cadets specially trained in sexual assault prevention and response and who are often the first resource a victim seeks. These cadets also represent an important culture shift because by wearing a teal rope on their uniforms, they supply a daily powerful symbol by a peer against sexual assault and harmful cultural elements.

The community is growing both in number and influence as these cadets help to initiate a culture shift from within. Teal Ropes have teamed up to tackle this problem with other helping rope agencies across the institution. These include cadet “PEERs,” volunteer Personal Ethics and Educations Representatives specially trained to provide support and referral services to cadets facing stressors, as well as cadets tackling diversity and inclusion efforts and “White Ropes” providing spiritual support services. The culture change will require the harmonious intersection of all helping ropes in order to address the problem head on.

Culture change will also require partnering with external agencies and networks that care to link arms with academy leadership to make the effort comprehensive. An example is Zoomies Against Sexual Assault, or ZASA, a private organization of Air Force Academy graduates who have partnered with academy leadership and cadets to offer support for cadets and solutions. Members of ZASA work to build a bridge between the Academy and those who have lost faith in the institution and its leadership.

These relationships help to empower formerly stifled voices including survivors and advocates. They are necessary to help shape more effective training and focus on healthy relationships going forward, not merely the low-hanging fruit of demonizing assault.

Culture work is also informing how training is conducted. Healthy relationships training, a bright light in typically disfavored training on the topic, is being scaled beyond intercollegiate athletes to the rest of the student body. This involves uncomfortable, but honest and open conversations amongst athletic teams to confront and inspire healthy relationships. Implementing this training has been a step in the right direction, but we are far from our goal.

Robust data, comprehensive response, student ownership, and laser focus at the service academies are necessary to spark the next phase in moving the needle on assault and harassment at college campuses. The keystone is empowering students toward self-determination and a healthier culture. The examples above are not all-inclusive or even complete, but they give the authors hope.

Ultimately, the end goal is not to minimize and reduce sexual assault but rather eliminate it entirely. If there’s any campus where that might be attainable, it could be at the service academies based on who we recruit and the academies’ comprehensive devotion to the problem despite ingrained norms inherited from military culture throughout history. Service academies are required because they are undergoing massive efforts towards confronting and eliminating the problem by shifting the culture from the bottom up.

Our counter narrative is simple: Culture change is explicitly the goal across the service academies and culture change requires rolling up sleeves, not throwing in the towel.

Lt. Col. Taren Wellman is an assistant professor of law and senior military faculty at the Air Force Academy. She is also a 2006 Air Force Academy graduate. Cadet Madisen Campbell is a junior at the Air Force Academy and cadet leader in the Teal Rope Program.

The views represented in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Air Force Academy, Department of the Air Force, or the Department of the Defense.

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