Capt. Bill Byrne, the new U.S. Naval Academy commandant, has a message for the 4,500 midshipmen under his command:
“Be excellent. Be excellent to yourselves, be excellent to each other, and be excellent to this place.”
Byrne is the academy’s 85th commandant, and his job includes overseeing the conduct and training of mids. He’s a 1987 grad and former quarterback for the football team whose SWO career has spanned six ships. His commands included the frigate Halyburton and the cruiser Cape St. George.
Early on, Byrne said he knew he wanted to return to the academy in some capacity, though it wasn’t until 2006 that he realized his dream was to become commandant.
“It was difficult to leave San Diego,” he said, “but if there was any place to leave San Diego for, I think it’s Annapolis, Md.”
Byrne sat down with reporters Aug. 21 to talk about his new role and his plan for mids. Here are the highlights, edited for space and clarity:
Q: Why come back to the Naval Academy now?
A: I love the environment here, I love the product that comes out of here, and over 26 years now in the Navy, I’ve been more and more impressed with the product that comes out of here.
Every single year, when those ensigns cross the brow of that ship that I’m on, they come in so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so full of enthusiasm and full of energy, I know that we’re doing something right here and I want to be a part of that.
Q: What is the school doing to address the wave of press coverage surrounding sexual assault at the academy?
A: Sexual assault is not a Naval Academy specific issue, not a Navy and Department of Defense specific issue. It’s a societal issue. The fact that the number is greater than zero, in itself, is a problem.
I would argue that the Naval Academy has as strong, if not stronger [program] than any civilian program at any civilian university in the United States of America. Now, I can’t tell you that statistically, I can’t show you data and a do a side-by-side comparison, but anecdotally, I can give you a little insight.
I’ve only been here three months, but in that three months, I have reached out to my civilian counterparts — to the deans of students of like-minded institutions, those that really draw from the same pool of candidates — and the breadth and depth of our program, I would argue, is as strong, if not stronger, with the education, the focus on prevention, as well as the focus on response.
It’s headed up by a fleet Navy commander, we have civilian advocates and sexual assault response coordinators. We have more midshipmen who are volunteers to be peer mentors. We have officers and senior enlisted across the Naval Academy to be fleet mentors as well.
And the most important thing we have going for us is buy-in from leadership from the top. It has been a constant drumbeat from [Academy superintendent Vice Adm. Michael Miller] that sexual assault will not be tolerated, that sexual assault is a crime and that we are here to set the appropriate command climate of respect, trust and teamwork so that everybody buys in from day one.
Q: Is there anything new that goes along with that?
A: One of the improvements that we’re making right now is between the academic faculty and the dean in our leadership division, we are integrating the sexual harassment and assault prevention education into our course curriculum, to start in the [Navy Leadership 100 course].
We’re going to start in the classroom with the plebes, and it will continue in the classroom through the four years. That’s a change because, up until now, it’s been outside of classroom hours. It’s been at night, briefings, role-playing type venues, but now we’re integrating it into the core curriculum as well.
Q: What’s different about the academy now versus when you were a midshipman?
A: Let me give you my perspective on how things have changed in general from the ’80s to 2013. So, I told you, my wife is a classmate of mine from the class of 1987, which was the eighth class of women here. The class of 1980 was the first with women.
I will tell you that, in the mid-80s, here at the Naval Academy and in the fleet at large, women were not fully accepted as equal partners like they are today. And again, my perspective comes from the fleet for 26 years now. I feel like we have made unbelievable progress.
But I got to experience it, not firsthand, but a pretty close secondhand through my wife, because we served together for seven years. She left the Navy after seven years, after our second child was born. And she didn’t feel like an equal partner. And it was just a fact that she wasn’t treated as an equal partner, because she and I were both surface warfare officers, and she was forced to go to a combat logistics ship while I went to a fast, sleek frigate. A combatant.
And it wasn’t until 1994 when we lifted the combat exclusion rule that women were allowed to serve on combatants, or allowed to fly in pointy-nosed aircraft, or to serve in expeditionary forces. And then even more recently, in 2010, we started integrating them into the submarine force as well.
More recently, again, through my daughter over the last four years at the Naval Academy, Amy and I have had a glimpse into the life of a midshipman nowadays. And we are completely blown away by how much better the environment is.
They’re better athletes, they’re better students, they’re more socially aware and socially adept, and it almost makes me jealous how cool they are and how good they are. We just weren’t that good and we weren’t that cool. Quite honestly, I don’t know that I would be a viable candidate for admission to the Naval Academy nowadays.
Q: Where the football team is concerned, is there anything to be said for putting less focus on athletics and more on being a midshipman? [Editor’s note: Navy Times discussed the debate to drop out of Division 1 football in the After Action blog post “Annapolis grad: Navy should drop out of top-level football.”]
A: Well, the Division 2 question — I don’t know if that’s a 2013 question or a 2001 question or a 1985 question or a 1965 question, to be quite honest with you. As far as the D2 question, I think we have silenced that discussion at least over the last 10 or 11 years. I think we’ve proven we belong.
When I was on the football team, I think those that had that argument probably had a stronger argument because we weren’t winning like we are now. We are winning and competing on an annual basis with teams around the country.
The reintegration, or the integration, of the varsity athlete with the brigade? I think that we have made great progress. I’ll go back to the 1980s: It is much better now than it was then, and I give the credit to the midshipmen, because they get it.
They know, and I truly think that they feel, that they believe, that they are first and foremost midshipmen. We just finished a great leadership retreat up in Gettysburg, Pa., for the second year. The first year we had the team captains up there, and we used the Battle of Gettysburg as the theme for leadership, followership and what good leaders have to look for in decision making.
This year we expanded it beyond the team captains, but also the company commanders. Each of our team captains wears three stripes on their shoulders. We also have 30 company commanders that wear three stripes on their shoulders, so there’s an equal partnership there, within Bancroft Hall.
The time demands of a varsity athlete outside of Bancroft Hall are such that it’s often perceived that they’re not part of the brigade. They’re not equal partners. It’s us vs. them. And I will tell you, in the ’80s, there was some truth to that. Coming back, I see very little of it.
They are so much, again, better and cooler and smarter than we were, perhaps. But I know that that’s an argument. I think it’s a misperception, but we do these leadership retreats in order to further beat down that misperception, and to get a feeling that the leaders themselves — the three-stripers in Bancroft Hall, the three-stripers amongst our varsity sports teams —that they embrace the one team, one fight mentality.
The team captains know who their players are and know which companies they’re in, so that they’re encouraging their teammates to participate in Bancroft Hall. And likewise, those company commanders in Bancroft Hall, they have a group of individuals that they can reach out to those team captains to say, “Hey, Johnny’s not participating, I need your help.”
Q: There have been some measures, i.e. random Breathalyzer tests and restrictions on liberty hours, put in place to tamp down on alcohol-related incidents. What’s your role going forward?
A: There’s been great progress, there’s been fabulous progress, with conduct cases, honor cases and specifically with alcohol-related incidents. So these programs that we’ve put in place — the Breathalyzers, more senior eyeballs in the hall over the weekends — it’s all been goodness.
My focus with the brigade and the brigade leadership, the first class in particular, is that they have to own that. They’re the ones responsible for enforcing those rules. Embracing those rules and enforcing those rules. And it goes back to my goal of developing leaders that do the right thing, but also inspiring others to do the right thing.
So by standing their watch, their duties properly when they’re here, not out enjoying their liberty. Making sure people get back on time, making sure people get back safely, making sure people know their limits and don’t exceed their limits.
Q: Do you have any concerns about Defense Department budget cuts hitting the academy?
A: Well, we have [it] pretty well here, although we’re not going to have flyovers for the football games. But, on the other side of the coin, we’re canceling deployments in the fleet also. So as disappointing as it is on a Saturday afternoon not to have a flyover, it’s understandable, especially with the way the fleet is feeling the crunch.