Rear Adm. Yvette M. Davids has an impressive resume.
Graduate of the Naval Academy and the Naval War College. First Hispanic woman to command a Navy warship. Commander of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group. High-level jobs ashore, including chief of staff of the U.S. Southern Command.
And now, the first woman nominated to serve as the academy’s superintendent in its 178-year-history.
“Her reputation is impeccable,” said Jeff Webb, president and CEO of the academy alumni association.
But if you want a clue as to why she was picked over two other finalists for this prestigious, career-capping position and its accompanying third star, you might find it in her current role as director of the Learning to Action Drive Team.
It’s not a headline-grabbing spot. Instead, it’s part of the Navy’s efforts to fix a problem with its culture: training and performance failures.
Navy investigations found flawed institutional learning ― identifying and sharing practices that get the best results — contributed to two deadly collisions at sea and a fire that destroyed the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard.
Davids’ role in the Navy’s efforts to improve that peer-led, close-up education could give her a key tool to address the continuing scandal of sexual assaults at the Naval Academy.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who serves on the academy’s Board of Visitors, said Davids’ experience and the fact that she would be the first woman superintendent position make her well-suited to lead on reducing sexual assaults in a way previous superintendents couldn’t. He expects her to win Senate confirmation.
“All reasonable members of the Senate understand the need for diversity,” the Maryland Democrat said.
The service academies and the armed forces have worked for years to reduce sexual assaults. When Superintendent Rodney P. Rempt retired in 2007, the vice admiral was praised for efforts to change a culture that some viewed as sexist and for stepping up training and enforcement to combat the problem.
Cardin and others also praised efforts by the outgoing superintendent, Vice Adm. Sean Buck. The numbers, though, continue to go in the wrong direction.
After sexual assault reports dropped amid COVID-19 restrictions that had midshipmen studying from home, the Naval Academy led the 18% spike in student-reported assaults at military academies in the 2021-2022 academic year. It had 61 reports among its 4,400-member Brigade of Midshipmen.
During a 2015 roundtable discussion with midshipmen, then-Vice President Joe Biden addressed the problem just a year after appearing in a White House sexual assault prevention campaign called “It’s On Us” aimed at young people.
“You are literally the future leaders of this great country. The example you set has more resonance than any other group of college students in all of America,” Biden told midshipmen.
Linda Postenrieder, president of the alumni association women’s group, said Davids would likely build on steps taken by Buck over the last four years.
Buck set up different teams across the academy to address sexual assault and harassment, created anonymous reporting tools and brought in outside consultants to study academy culture. There was an initiative to develop an app for reporting. He even worked with the Air Force Academy on the first transfer of a sexual assault survivor.
“While we have dedicated significant effort at the senior leadership level to these issues, we realize that this is a midshipmen problem that requires midshipmen solutions,” Buck told the House Subcommittee on Defense.
That, Postenrieder said, will be the biggest obstacle. It is not just an academy problem. Sexual harassment and assault are common among young people and on campuses everywhere.
“Alcohol is often an issue and young people get themselves into situations that unfortunately result in sexual assault,” she said.
Cardin, who has yet to meet Davids, said the day-to-day activities of midshipmen are tightly restricted during their first year. The problems begin during the second year when mids have much more freedom — and access to downtown Annapolis bars, even though the drinking age in Maryland remains 21.
Despite the numbers, Postenrieder believes that the academy and the Navy are much better in how they treat women sailors and deal with sexual assault than when she graduated in 1982.
“Absolutely. There are so many tools available that weren’t there when we were there,” she said.
Postenrieder and Cardin both pointed out that Davids’ nomination coincides with the appointment of the first woman to serve as the provost or academic dean.
Samara L. Firebaugh, the current associate provost for academic affairs, will succeed Andrew T. Phillips during the same summer that Davids takes command.
It would be easy to assume that these changes mark some kind of drastic shift in the overall academy culture. But that is unlikely.
Both women are products of the academy and the Navy. Firebaugh has been an instructor in Annapolis for 22 years. After graduating in 1989, Davids has seen firsthand what has changed in how women are treated and what has not.
The first women graduated from the Naval Academy in 1980, and women now make up about 30% of midshipmen. There have been female superintendents at the Air Force and Coast Guard academies, as well as a female commandant of midshipmen — a sort of dean of students — in Annapolis.
“Women were restricted for so long from doing the jobs that lead to the level of responsibility that get them promoted, to be in a position to be superintendent,” said Webb, the alumni association president. “And so could it have happened earlier? Were there qualified women earlier?
“But at the same time, you know, it’s time. It’s here.”
Davids declined a request for an interview through a spokesperson, citing her pending nomination.
Many alumni are cheering Davids’ appointment even amid some grumbling about a “woke” Navy and the loss of “masculine leadership.” But Cardin dismissed that as misplaced nostalgia and a refusal to see diversity as a strength rather than a weakness.
There are other issues Davids will have to tackle, from preparing midshipmen for possible conflicts with China and Russia to the future of the sports program as longtime Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk approaches the end of his 20-plus year career.
U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, chair of the academy oversight board, listed sexual assault as an area of focus but also preparing the academy infrastructure for inevitable sea level rise driven by climate change.
“We have to make sure the academy’s campus is ready for the changing climate and rising water levels — now and decades into the future,” the Democrat said through a spokesperson.
In November, the Navy started work on raising the height of the Farragut Field Sea Wall. It is the first of several projects to protect the academy grounds from daily high tides and storm surges for another 75 years. Future plans include adding earthen berms.
There will also be the unexpected. Buck could never have predicted that he would oversee creation of a massive remote learning network during COVID; deal with the unrelated deaths of several midshipmen during his four years; or have to cope with the death of an incoming midshipman’s mother in a downtown Annapolis shooting.
For those who follow the academy closely, there is a lot to like about Davids. It’s been almost 20 years since a surface warfare officer has been superintendent, with the last four either aviators or submariners.
She will be not only the first woman to serve as superintendent but, as a Mexican American, the first person of color, too. She’ll also be the first superintendent married to an academy graduate, and the first married to another admiral on active duty.
Rear Adm. Keith Davids ― she’ll outrank him when confirmed — is currently commander of Naval Special Warfare Command.
“So he does have a big job right now. But I’m confident that when he is able to be in Annapolis, he will be serving as her spouse,” Webb said. “He’ll be a spouse in uniform, but I’ve no doubt he’ll be there, supporting her like any other superintendent’s spouse would.”