Testimony from Admiral Schultz: Anti-Harassment and Diversity Initiatives in the U.S. Coast Guard

Challenges with harassment and increasing diversity within the U.S. Coast Guard were apparent in Wednesday’s Homeland Security Committee hearing on “Building the Coast Guard America Needs: Achieving Diversity, Equity, and Accountability.” Admiral Karl Schultz, Commandant of the Coast Guard, was the sole witness. His testimony and responses to questions were candid, providing direct answers where he could and promising to follow up on statistics he did not know, while also sidestepping difficult questions in some cases.

Schultz was appointed to Commandant in 2018. At the time, the Coast Guard (CG) was receiving allegations of harassment and bullying in addition to a low female retention rate. Because of this, he said, one of his first priorities was to bolster the CG’s diversity as well as stop harassment, bullying, and retaliation within the ranks.

With the increasing global prominence of the U.S. Coast Guard (as seen in encounters with the Iranian Navy, with China in in the South China Sea, and with Russia in the Arctic) and in order for the service to function effectively in this increased capacity, there needs to be trust within the ranks and a culture of equity. The CG has the highest retention rate out of all the military branches, but the hearing made clear that more work needs to be done both at the Coast Guard Academy (CGA) and in the service as a whole. In 2018, 45 percent of women at the Coast Guard Academy said they had experienced sexual harassment, and the service has had difficulty retaining women. Linda Fagan, the CG’s first female four-star admiral, was just installed as the first female Vice Commandant on June 18. It is clear the CG is taking some steps to address the concerns of women and minority groups, but is it enough?

Culture of bullying and retaliation

In speaking about harassment and bullying in the CG, some Representatives referenced the case of Lieutenant Commander Kimberly Young-McLear, a black and lesbian professor at the Coast Guard Academy who was continually harassed and bullied by her superiors. Her complaints were labelled “unsubstantiated” by CG investigations, and the main perpetrator in her case, her supervisor, was not reprimanded. Young-McLear faced retaliation for speaking out.

Schultz could not answer if there were any consequences to her perpetrators. Her main perpetrator was reassigned within the Academy and retired on his own terms, an outcome Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) critiqued, stressing this was inadequate punishment and pushing for consequences or there will be no change. The Coast Guard has not issued a written apology, and while Shultz apologized in this hearing to all victims of harassment and bullying in general, he said it would be “tricky” to issue Young-McLear a written apology, a comment which questions the sincerity of Schultz wanting change and brings to mind the 2019 RAND report’s references to the CG as an “old boys club,” a notion other Representatives referenced.

Throughout the hearing, Schultz emphasized the reports that had been published and initiatives that had been started during his tenure. The CG published their Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan in 2019, commissioned a 2019 RAND study on women in the CG, and in July they will have the results of a RAND study on barriers to minority-member retention. This past April they started a peer mentoring program. Schultz noted that they have implemented every single recommendation from 2018, 2019, and 2020 reports and audits, and are actively look for places to improve, particularly to recruit and retain CG members who are women and from minority groups.

Recruitment of women and underrepresented minorities

Schultz repeatedly stated that recruiting and retaining women and those from minority groups was a top priority for the service. Subcommittee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) was concerned that only 5.6 percent of active duty CG members are Black (this statistic is from 2008, in 2019 it was reported as 5.9 percent), in comparison to 14 percent of the American population. In response, Shultz said that because of the number of minority and female recruiters for the Academy, the CGA class of 2025 will be the most diverse in history, being 40 percent female and 36 percent from underrepresented minority groups. Having this representation in the Academy, said Schultz, is essential in encouraging diverse applicants.

Schultz’ goal for the Coast Guard as a whole is to recruit 25 percent women and 35 percent underrepresented minorities. While the Academy has diversified, the entire CG has met its minority, but not its female, target proportions. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) questioned that changing the standards could negatively affect the CG, but Schultz reaffirmed that it is a standards-based organization; it’s not the standards that are not changing, but the method of recruiting to attract more diverse groups. Schultz told of the new recruiting tactics: they’ve invested in CG JROTC programs, brought CG members to schools to expand reach, and encouraged recruiters to visit homes and schools of interested candidates instead of waiting for them to come to recruiting offices. He recognized that the CG will never have the large advertising budget like the DOD allocates to the Army, and because of this, the CG needs to be more creative and targeted in their outreach. Schultz also encouraged the Representatives to inform their constituents about the CGA, as it is the only service academy without a Congressional appointment.

Some members, all Republicans, used the hearing to inquire about the Coast Guard’s national security efforts. Four Republicans briefly acknowledged diversity goals then shifted to asking about international affairs. Five other GOP members did not reference the hearing topic at all and only asked about the Russian and Chinese threats, new icebreakers, immigration problems, and CG national security issues. Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) went so far as to say that this hearing was unnecessary because “there are more pressing issues this committee must address.” Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-CA) later countered this, with Schultz agreeing with her that since harassment affects mission readiness and trust within the ranks, in contrast to what Higgins claimed, combatting harassment and bullying in the CG directly impacts the country’s national security.

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