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Congressman looks into spike in academy waivers

A member of Congress with clout on military matters is concerned about the Air Force Academy’s practice of admitting cadets who fall below academic minimums and has asked if the same thing is happening at the other two military academies.

Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., vice chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, requested data last week from the Air Force, Navy and Army about their academies, a spokesman said. The subcommittee authorizes funding for the military.

Specifically, Nethercutt wants a report prepared by the Air Force Personnel Center that documents the spike in academy waivers and shows most go to recruited athletes.

The report, produced in summer 2000 and obtained by The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.), states that cadets who come in below academy minimums don’t do as well at the academy and in the Air Force as those who enter above minimums.

The increase in waivers continues. Last summer, 21 percent of incoming cadets – 277 – didn’t meet academic minimums, the most in at least 15 years, according to academy documents also obtained by The Gazette. Sixty percent of waivers went to recruited athletes.

Nethercutt is concerned waivers could be eroding the quality of officers being produced by the Academy, the spokesman said. It costs $305,000 to educate, train and equip a cadet for four years.

“To think about the magnitude of that investment and that it could be wasted, particularly at a time when the U.S. is at war … This has very real consequences in the long run,” the spokesman said.

As of Friday, the Air Force had refused to release the Personnel Center study to Nethercutt’s staff, the spokesman said. Air Force officials were not available for comment.

Questions about the waiver issue could be raised at scheduled Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearings on the Air Force budget, Nethercutt’s spokesman said.

Academy leaders defended the practice of allowing more cadets in under minimums. They said they have been able to maintain excellence even as waivers increase.

Leaders said they use a process called the “whole person” approach under which they consider admitting cadets below minimums if they excel in other ways, such as being a top athlete or speaking a second language. Athletics, in particular, indicate the potential to be a good military leader, they said.

Top Air Force leaders back the academy. Air Force Secretary James Roche and Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper issued a statement last week saying they were aware of the Personnel Center study’s findings and “continue to have confidence in the admissions policy and support the decisions of the (academy) superintendent and his staff.”

Like Nethercutt, Rep. Scott McInnis is concerned about waivers and wants to see the Personnel Center report.

“I don’t think any institution, but especially the academy, ought to pamper athletes,” said McInnis, R-Colo. “It is unfair to every other student at the academy and people who wanted to go to the academy.”

Other members of Congress are less concerned. Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., whose district includes the academy, said he saw nothing wrong with waiving certain requirements if it means getting a cadet who is more qualified in another way.

“My impression is the superintendent is doing a very good job,” said Hefley, a member of the academy Board of Visitors, which oversees academy operations.

Hefley, who spoke with the Air Force secretary about the issue, said he expected the waivers to come up at the next Board of Visitors meeting, which hasn’t been scheduled. But Hefley said he is content with letting the academy and Air Force look at the issue and brief him later.

Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee that oversees the academies, said he is reluctant for Congress to delve into issues like academy admissions because members don’t have the expertise.

McHugh, who sits on the West Point Board of Visitors, said he has no reason to believe the academies are failing to produce top officers. He said it’s up to the services to tell Congress if there’s a problem.

Still, McHugh thinks the Personnel Center study merits review. “I can only assume the service and academy will take this data and give it an honest look.”