Can New Leadership Save the Boy Scouts?

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA)—a group which has faced membership decline and scandal in recent years—named Dr. Robert M. Gates, a former secretary of defense and former CIA director, to a two-year term as the organization's national president in May 2014. In a new interview with Esquire's Mike Sager, Gates said, "One of the reasons I took the job is that I think the country needs scouting now more than ever."

Gates was an Eagle Scout and credits the bulk of his leadership training to his boyhood scouting experiences. According to the story, he begins his tenure at "a fraught time, when the organization is struggling to find its place in a postmodern, politically correct, multicultural society." The BSA, founded in 1910 by congressional charter, has seen membership decline to a total of about 2.5 million kids in 2013, compared with nearly 5 million kids in the 1970s. The number of Scouts has declined by 2 to 4 percent each year in the past 10 years alone.

Some of the decline is attributed to the establishment of Trail Life USA, a Christian alternative to the Scouts, which already has 370 troops in 45 states. BSA membership also dipped 6 percent in 2013, after its governing body of 1,500 volunteers voted in favor of a resolution allowing openly gay males to become scouts. Openly gay scout leaders remain banned.

Gates—who, as defense secretary, helped overturn the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell ban of openly gay servicemembers—remarked on the youth membership policy change in a Scouting magazine interview: "I think it's an important step forward, and I strongly support it. No question that it was the right thing. Now we need to turn our attention to further improving the quality of the program, getting more kids into Scouting and re-establishing our unity as a movement. Scouting makes boys into leaders, gives them a sense of responsibility, makes them self-reliant, and clearly builds character. I don't know of any other institution that gives boys that foundation for future leadership."

Photos by the Boy Scouts of America via Facebook.