Air Force Academy relents, releases cadet survey

AP News
Posted: Oct 29, 2010 4:53 PM
Air Force Academy relents, releases cadet survey

The Air Force Academy reversed course on Friday and released the results of a survey that showed mixed results on the school's efforts to improve religious and racial tolerance and limit sexual harassment.

The survey, conducted in December and January, showed improvements in making minority groups feel more accepted and in reducing the number who say they feel pressured by others to participate in religious activities.

But it found that many cadets believe that some religious and racial minorities face discrimination and harassment, and an increasing percentage of the faculty and staff believe that sexual harassment occurs at the school.

The academy superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, said the survey overall shows that many of the school's tolerance initiatives are effective but that improvement is needed.

Gould initially declined to make the results public, saying the were a "commander's tool" best used internally.

Several groups filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the data, including The Associated Press. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., also pushed Gould to go public.

Gould said he consulted with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz, and "at their suggestion and my agreement," the survey results were released.

"I learned a lesson here _ we all did, I think _ that this is of public interest," Gould said.

The academy has conducted a half-dozen cadet surveys since 2000. The most recent previous survey was in 2007.

The survey is written and tabulated by school officials. Answers are anonymous and participation is voluntary. About 47 percent of the school's, 4,595 cadets took part in the most recent survey, taken in December and January.

Academy officials said Friday the questions and the execution of this year's survey had several flaws. Year-to-year comparisons were difficult because the topics and scope of the questions changed. Some questions were vague.

Gould said the timing was bad because many cadets were preoccupied with finals and holidays at the time they were asked to take the survey.

He also said first-year students are over-represented in the survey, probably because they are more likely to do anything asked of them. He said first-year students may perceive the strict enforcement of rules by senior cadets as harassment and the rigorous training as physically dangerous.

Gould said the next version of the survey will be written so trends can be tracked more easily, and the questions will be more specific. He didn't say when the next survey will be done but said results will be released as soon as they are ready.

Coffman said Friday he's still not convinced Gould understands his responsibility to be open with the public.

"I think at the Air Force Academy, they need a remedial course in American government," he said.

Coffman said the military as a whole abuses its power to keep secrets and sometimes withholds information from the public because it's embarrassing, not because of security concerns.

One of the groups that submitted a FOIA request for the survey, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, asked to have a representative at a briefing Gould conducted Friday but was turned down. Academy officials said the briefing was for media and that the foundation would be mailed the documents it requested.

Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the foundation, accused the Air Force of reneging on an invitation it had extended to his foundation and said Gould was trying to muffle opposition.

Weinstein said the religious climate at the academy is worse than Gould portrays it. He said he has heard from 172 cadets, faculty and staff at the academy who say they face religious pressure, mostly from evangelical Christians at the school, and are afraid to complain for fear of reprisals.