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Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902

At Brigadier General (Ret.) Lance Betros’s ceremony marking his retirement from the U.S. Army after thirty-five years of service, Lieutenant General David H. Huntoon, Jr., called attention to Betros’s latest book, Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902, and singled out the two defining qualities of a cadet—character and intellect—that are the key elements of the book’s thesis. These observations by the fifty-eighth Superintendent of the United States Military Academy (USMA) must have given Betros great satisfaction. Huntoon and his successors clearly are the targets of the author’s recommendations for improving the academy so it can reach its potential “to produce even better officers in the future.”  

Carved from Granite is truly an insider’s look at the institutional history of the USMA. Betros graduated from West Point in 1977, a year after his class was buffeted by a cheating incident that rocked the academy’s very foundations. He went on to serve as an instructor of American History there from 1986to 1989and then (after completing his doctorate at the University of North Carolina) as a professor and head of its Department of History from 2005 to 2012.  

Betros devoted his scholarship to the study of West Point. In his first book, a collection of essays entitled West Point: Two Centuries and Beyond (2004)he argued that the first century of the “old West Point,” after Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer (1817-1833) set up the system, was marked more by continuity than change. Betros’s thesis was: “Steeped in military tradition and proud of its long legacy of service, West Point stands like granite against the tide of social currents.... Continuity—not change—is what most characterizes West Point and the Corps of Cadets.” However, after six additional years of research that informed his writing of Carved from Granite, Betros came to a markedly different conclusion, at least regarding the period since the academy’s 1902 centennial. During those years, he argues that the granite had shifted, and “change, not continuity best describes the history of West Point.” The corpus of his book elaborates on those changes.

The organization of Carved from Granite provides an in-depth history of the USMA and a detailed analysis of its core programs. The opening chapter covers the first century of West Point’s life—the “Old West Point”—as background for the academy that has continued to evolve since 1902. The rest of the book explores governance, admissions, academics, physical education, military training, leader development, and character development. In each of these areas, Betros can report change, mostly for the better, as the Corps of Cadets has grown from 500 to 4,417. Philosophically, he found that West Point had moved away from paternalism, the concept that academy officials knew “what was best for young cadets” and permitted no variation to the established program. Additionally, West Point gradually replaced its unforgiving culture of attrition with a more nurturing environment that forgave minor failures and promoted progressive development. In the area of governance, he found that after the cheating scandal of 1976, the locus of administrative power had moved from the Academic Board (representing the major departments) to the Superintendent, the senior military officer who serves as the academy’s president. In short, West Point had undergone a transformation from collegial to centralized governance. In specific programmatic areas, Betros gives high marks to reforms in academics, military training, and leader development based on a diversified core curriculum, an academic majors program, a four-class leadership system, and realistic training for the challenges cadets will face in their military careers.  

While Carved from Granite is directed at the larger West Point community, its appeal should extend to all educational institutions, as it calls for setting priorities so that the focus of academic leaders is on students’ intellectual and moral development. Betros concluded that “Throughout its history, West Point has been most successful when its leaders focused on character and intellect as the preeminent developmental goals for cadets; conversely, the institution experienced the greatest difficulties when its leaders gave unwarranted priority to other less important goals.”  

While Betros stresses the dimensions of the West Point experience that have earned its reputation for excellence, he wants to make it even better—for the benefit of the nation, the Army, and cadets. He cites three problems and proposes solutions for each. In the first, governance, he wants the academy “to reinvigorate the Academic Board to provide counsel on all matters related to cadets, faculty, and the integrated curriculum.” From Betros’s perspective as a former member of the Academic Board (composed of the Superintendent, Commandant of Cadets, and heads of academic departments), a greater role for that body would balance the long-term perspective of the tenured faculty with the more immediate focus of West Point’s chief administrator, who generally serves a five-year term. Such a change would indeed rely on collegiality with the Superintendent and his staff, as many historians have highlighted the inertia against change that epitomized the Academic Board’s pre-1977 performance as West Point’s “dominant policy-making body.” In his introduction to West Point: Two Centuries and Beyond, Betros noted that throughout the academy’s history, critics viewed the Academic Board “as the main culprit” to “salutary change.” Since he thinks that the initiatives of the Academic Board have enhanced the quality of education, his earlier caution remains operative: “Only time will tell if the new balance of power will keep the Academy at the forefront of innovation or overwhelm it with constant change.”

The Superintendent who implemented the change in governance, Lieutenant General  Andrew J. Goodpaster, would applaud what has transpired since he said, in an oral history that I conducted, that he had strengthened the role of the Academic Board by “making it very clear that they [its members] would be responsible for giving the academic direction needed at the Military Academy.”

The second problem cited by Betros relates to the admission of new cadets. While he found that the academy had improved its system for accessing talented cadets with competitive Congressional appointments, the whole candidate evaluation system, and affirmative-action initiatives, he remains concerned that it has “allowed a large number of lower-quality applicants to enter West Point and thus displace more-qualified applicants.”

The third area of concern, closely related to the second, is “the effect of intercollegiate athletics on the overall quality of the Corps of Cadets.” Even as the scandal with the Penn State football program has unfolded in the summer of 2012, Betros singles out West Point’s “heightened emphasis on intercollegiate athletics” as one of the “most dangerous” problems the academy faces. Since the football program is the flagship for varsity sports at West Point (as it is at many other top-tier colleges and universities), it is the target of many of Betros’s criticisms. From his perspective, it detracts from West Point’s core mission of educating, training, and inspiring the Corps of Cadets. There is irony involved here: West Point recruited Betros to play varsity football and, as he related at his retirement ceremony, he first heard of West Point from the Army football coach who visited his Poughkeepsie home to recruit him for the program. Maybe because of his time as a football player in the 1970s and his work in securing the NCAA’s certification of West Point’s athletic programs in 2009, Betros hopes the academy will “take a stand against the commercialized and professionalized world of intercollegiate sports.” In particular, he would like to see West Point re-embrace its former, longstanding commitment to the principle that competitive athletics “were a complement to the overall physical program and that winning was not the principal goal.” This idea was institutionalized by “Master of the Sword” Herman Koehler, West

Point’s director of physical education from 1885to 1923, but it has waned markedly over the past several decades.  

General Betros has leveraged the insights gained by many years’ experience at West Point to propose changes to make a great institution even better. He is proud that “By the early twenty-first century, the Academy had achieved a reputation as an elite undergraduate institution and one of the premier leader development institutions in the world.” In the perennial struggle about following the hallmarks of either ancient Athens or Sparta, he wants the leaders of the U.S. Army and the United States Military Academy to focus on the bedrock that has made this degree of excellence possible—the development of an environment in which leaders of character and intellect can thrive. That’s the academy that must continue to be carved by its leaders from the granite of West Point.

 

-- Colonel (Ret.) James M. Johnson, Hudson River Valley Institute

 

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