The Naval Academy admissions office is deep into 15,147 applications, sorting through the fleet dreams of young men and women from almost every U.S. congressional district.

And the competition is fierce. There are only 1,170 spots in the class of 2028 — that might match up well with Vice Adm. Yvette Davids.

“It’s a good news story,” she told the academy’s Board of Visitors on Tuesday in Annapolis.

It’s the kind of statement you would expect from any college president talking to her advisory board for the first time. But this was historic, the first time a woman and a Hispanic American addressed the Board of Visitors as superintendent. The admiral was pretty darn chipper.

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As she laid out her priorities, she even found good news in the Washington political maelstrom — created by Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville — that delayed her arrival by six months.

Instead of sitting in a Pentagon office far from sea duty, Davids spent those months filling in as acting commander of the Navy’s surface forces in the Pacific — 56 ships and thousands of sailors.

“In many ways, that pause really benefited me, and I think the Naval Academy,” Davids said. “I was blessed to be able to go talk to sailors and work on hard problems with surface forces. It was so meaningful to be there and then come here to the Naval Academy and understand very clearly what our midshipmen face once they graduate.”

The Board of Visitors meets three times a year and can ask about anything from cheating and graduation rates to food and the status of renovations. Its ranks include nine members of Congress — Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger is the chair, and Sen. Ben Cardin is the senior member — and five civilians.

If the lawmakers have clout in Washington, other kinds of influence are represented in the civilian members, such as Michelle J. Howard, the Navy’s first female four-star admiral, and Amy McGrath, the first woman Marine to fly combat missions.

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The board’s public sessions tend to be collegial affairs. Members get most of their information from the academy, and any uncomfortable questioning is more likely to occur before congressional oversight committees in Washington.

“So, I’m Yvette Davids and it’s such an incredible honor to be here,” Davids began.

She talked about her first deployment aboard a supply ship working with amphibious troops during the first Gulf War, and the day her executive officer asked if she wanted to tour a warship, the guided-missile cruiser Bunker Hill.

“I thought I was on a warship,” she said.

Bunker Hill was one of the most advanced ships in the Navy at the time, and she was touring it four years before the ban on women in most combat roles was lifted. Davids would return two decades later to command it.

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“And what did that show me? Change,” Davids said. “It may take a long time, but it happened. And it’s happened in strides here at the Naval Academy.”

When Davids graduated in 1989, only 15% of her classmates were minorities and 10% were women. Now, 44% of those thousands of applications being reviewed are from minority students, and 32% from women, Davids said.

It’s not a surprise that Davids called changing the culture around sexual assaults and sexual harassment her top priority. It’s a top priority across the Navy, and the superintendent said her experience as Pacific surface fleet commander informed her focus on it.

In August, a federal study found that 23% of women at the Naval Academy suffered unwanted sexual contact or sexual harassment, the worst rating among all service academies. Only 4% of male mids had similar experiences, yet that was still worse than the Army and Air Force academies.

The study reported that the overall climate at the academies was getting in the way of making change, something academy officials said Tuesday is often locker room talk that carries over from high school. Although Davids didn’t tell the board she was launching anything new, she said she has been sitting in on existing efforts.

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“The trust that’s needed out in the fleet is the same trust that we can teach here and aspire to,” she said.

Priority No. 2, Davids said, is better preparing academy graduates, who make up less than 20% of newly commissioned officers in the Navy, for leadership.

Davids credited Marine Col. J.P. McDonough and academic dean Samara Firebaugh with restoring a class on war strategy that will be mandatory for all juniors starting next fall. Mids in the class join in a range of war games, from dice rolling to computer simulations involving hundreds of students.

“This class is taking all those things that the midshipmen learn from professional knowledge, understanding the things they see during summer training, and putting it in the context of how the Navy and Marine Corps fight as composite warfare,” said McDonough, who will retire this year after ending his tour as commandant of midshipmen.

Davids said that fits with another lesson from her assignment in the Pacific, where tensions with China are a rising concern for the United States.

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“They have got to be ready for what’s to come because this is a time of consequence for us,” Davids said.

Vice Adm. Yvette Davids attended her first Naval Academy Board of Visitors meeting as superintendent on Tuesday, March 19 in Annapolis. She was flanked by, left, Command Master Chief Karim Cole and Capt. James Bates, deputy superintendent.
Vice Adm. Yvette Davids attended her first Naval Academy Board of Visitors meeting as superintendent on Tuesday in Annapolis. She was flanked by, left, Command Master Chief Karim Cole and Capt. James Bates, deputy superintendent. (Rick Hutzell / The Baltimore Banner)

The superintendent’s third priority made itself clear on the day of her change of command ceremony in January. A storm sent floodwaters deep onto academy grounds and into downtown Annapolis, inundating roads and low-lying buildings.

“I did not understand until later, but that was the third-largest flooding in the history of the Naval Academy. That was day zero for me,” Davids said. “And so it’s very real to me what we need to do.”

The Navy plans to spend hundreds of millions making the academy grounds resilient to the most drastic effects of climate change. The $38 million reconstruction of the Severn River sea wall is projected to wrap by the end of this year. Consistent funding, academy officials said, will be important to keeping ahead of change that could submerge parts of campus by 2100.

Ruppersberger, who will join Cardin this year in retiring, said that could be hard if right-wing pressure in Congress to slash defense spending gains support.

“Might as well turn the country over to China right now,” Ruppersberger said.

During a break in Tuesday’s meeting, Davids worked the room. She talked to board members and people like me — the only journalist in the fourth-floor conference room at Hopper Hall, the only academy building named for a woman.

She made small talk about finding the right school for her twin sons when they move to Annapolis. She’s itching for her mountain bike to arrive from San Diego, where her husband commands Navy special forces, so she can explore local trails.

Davids reminisced about reading coverage of sailboat races in the local newspaper where I used to work while she was on the academy team, and how green Annapolis is compared to the drier climate in Southern California.

If the Board of Visitors meetings didn’t offer any surprises about her challenges — the lawsuit challenging the use of diversity in admission decisions at the academy and a losing football team didn’t come up — she at least made clear who she is.

“So my first impression of being here at the Naval Academy Yard is that I’m very proud. I think the progress we make is immeasurably important to our nation, and I just can’t wait to continue the good work.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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