Examining the Army's Officer Pipeline

COL Ronald Clark, Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellow at the Sanford School, is researching reasons for the dearth of African American senior officers in the U.S. Army Infantry and Armor branches. Calling the imbalance a “tyranny in numbers,” Clark hopes his research can lead to significant reforms.

During his 26 year career, Clark has always been aware of the paucity of African American officers.  About 13 percent of the Army’s officer corps are African American. The Army Infantry and Armor branches have only six percent of officers that are African American, even though these branches produce nearly a third of all officers attaining the rank of general.

“Infantry is the largest officer branch, and to be under represented there is troubling because the people who end up becoming the senior leaders in the Army should reflect the formation that they lead,” said Clark.

Clark’s research focuses on the causes and possible solutions to the problem. The first place to confront this issue must be the admissions process at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Clark said.

“West Point tries to get between 11 and 13 per cent African American representation in every class, but they haven’t met that number in over 30 years. They normally graduate around 6 per cent, meaning that in a given year a group of about 52 to 57 African American males graduate in a class of a thousand,” Clark said.

The smaller number of graduates mean a smaller number of officers available for senior leadership positions.

“One of the reform recommendations was to increase the number of African American Infantry and Armor officers in mentorship roles at West Point and ROTC. Studies have shown that the influence of mentors was greater than that of peers or parents, but where are you going to get those mentors, and how will you go about doing that?” Clark said.

 Clark also stressed how important it is for young officers to be able to relate to their mentors.

“It’s a barrier to advancement not to be mentored, and protégés most often want to be mentored by someone in the same racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic categories,” said Clark.

Awareness of the problem is increasing, as military officials attempt to make the dilemma known in Washington.  

“The superintendent at West Point and the Chief of Staff of the Army have addressed the issue to the President and to members of Congress as a national security issue—specifically targeting the Congressional black caucus who have been under-nominating cadets to the Academy,” Clark said.

Clark, a graduate of West Point, went on to become the chief of the Infantry branch at U.S. Army Human Resources Command., He appointed three African American captains to positions at West Point in leadership, mentorship, and admissions. The results were notable.

“Over the course of time that those mentors were there, there was a significant increase in the number of African American Infantry and Armor officers,” said Clark who advocates that such initiatives become part of a “systemic, programmatic effort for change.”

Clark speculated that despite current reform efforts, the trajectory of Army careers delays the visible results of improvements.

“If we create a positive change now, you won’t see the effects of it until years down the road because it takes about 25 years to grow a general officer,” said Clark.

Clark also proposes an improved focus on education to assure aspiring officers that the opportunities available to them are not dependent on race.

“We’re trying to build a strong officer, so your race shouldn’t matter as much as what you do. The army doesn’t see color. It is an organization where you can go as far as your talents can take you,” Clark said. 

Calling the one-year fellowship program at Sanford “ideal,” Clark is grateful for the intellectual opportunity and for the support he has received from Sanford faculty members.  In particular, Judith Kelley assisted Clark with “the academic rigor and the x’s and o’s of research.”

“It’s been personally rewarding for me—to understand the professional environment that I’ve been working in for almost 26 years and  to get at some of the needs of the Army—to know that what I’m working on will resonate at national levels of influence,” Clark said.

Clark has served as a brigade commander, battalion commander, company commander and platoon leader. “It’s been a great ride. Anything I’ve achieved in the Army has been the result of people who have invested in me as a leader,” he said.

His current project has inspired topics for future research, such as the effects of cross-racial mentorship specific to the Army or the need to address diversity of both race and gender within the protégé/ mentor relationship.

Clark has enjoyed an added family benefit during his fellowship. His daughter Megan is a sophomore and pole-vaulter for Duke’s track and field team. She was recently named National Athlete of the Week by the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) and is the current all-time record holder for both women’s indoor and outdoor pole-vaulting at Duke.

Having her family nearby has been a positive contribution, helping Megan maintain stable athletic training and a sense of continuity, said Clark.

“We love that we get to go to her track meets. She’s a very focused, dedicated kid, and she’s a pre-med student on top of all that.”