The United States Air Force Academy is about to kick off its National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS). Being a long-time professor at the academy, I was saddened to see that NCLS invites a controversy that I thought was behind us.
NCLS is a big deal. A team of people work year round to plan this high-profile event. Classes are suspended to ensure that cadets have time to go. Faculty and staff are strongly encouraged to attend sessions as well.
NCLS also has a history of featuring amazing speakers. This year is no different, but one speaker is a real head scratcher — Rodney Bullard, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at Chick-fil-A.
Bullard’s inclusion is troublesome because of Chick-fil-A’s association with anti-homosexual stances. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy has made public comments against homosexual marriages. Chick-fil-A also has a history of supporting organizations with discriminatory policies towards gays and lesbians.
I recognize that Bullard might not personally share in his boss’s values. His inclusion is awkward nonetheless. It isn’t like Bullard is a high-level executive in product development. He is the Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility.
This invites questions as to whether he supports Chick-fil-A’s previous stances against gays and lesbians. Alternatively, maybe he will tell cadets that he can support a prejudiced leader, so long as he is just following orders.
Bullard’s invitation also invites questions about whether somebody was sending a not-so-subtle message to cadets that homosexuals still do not fully belong at the Academy.
After all, there are hundreds of well-known corporations from which the USAFA could have invited speakers. Why Chick-fil-A? Why an executive responsible for Chick-fil-A’s positions on social responsibility?
This is particularly concerning given the academy’s efforts to create a tolerant, inclusive atmosphere. Thankfully, Lt. General Silveria sent a clear message when he told cadets: “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
That message is not so clear now. It seems that if you treat people with disrespect, then you need to get out… and join a private company that shares your disrespectful values. Heck, we might invite you back to speak to cadets about character.
Of course, this really shows that the USAFA still does not take a stand against intolerance towards homosexuals the way it would take a stand against other forms of intolerance. If Chick-fil-A supported whites only marrying whites, even a covert racist at the USAFA would have avoided that hot mess.
And please don’t muddy the waters by claiming this is about freedom of speech. Dan Cathy is welcome to be born into a wealthy company, become even richer, and use his platform get saucy about political changes. That does not mean that the USAFA has to create social turbulence by inviting one of his executives to speak at an official seminar about character and leadership.
It’s sad to see our institution look like its waffling on this issue. Research shows that a key component of effective organizational change is to have leadership send a clear, unified message. Research also shows that having just one ally can help people resist the development of new social norms, like being genuinely inclusive towards homosexuals.
In this regard, the packaging of the USAFA, NCLS, and Chick-fil-A is an unhappy meal that sets this military institution back on social issues, not forward. One might even say that Bullard’s inclusion is a fox in the hen house.
For my part, I have taught exceptional cadets who happen to be gay or lesbian. These cadets are preparing to serve and possibly die for their country, just like the heterosexual cadets do.
I want them to know that there are a lot of us at the academy who view them as true equals. I am sorry that the inclusion of Chick-fil-A at NCLS might make those cadets eat more intolerance.
Craig Foster is a Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at The U.S. Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.