Honor code again roils Academy Violations boost anger, scrutiny

February 14, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Holly Selby | JoAnna Daemmrich and Holly Selby,Staff Writers

From the day they arrive at the Naval Academy, midshipmen are taught to polish brass, to follow orders, to put the group before the individual. Above all, they are taught that personal honor is absolute.

Last week's announcement that at least 28 midshipmen were involved in passing around copies of a stolen final exam for one of the school's toughest courses strikes at the very heart of that philosophy.

"We're talking from Day One, from the very first day we get here we know that honor is the most important thing," said Reuben Brigety, a 19-year-old sophomore from Jacksonville, Fla. "If the men we lead and our supervisors can't trust us, then the system doesn't work."

Only three years after charges of sexual harassment surfaced when a sophomore woman was chained to a urinal, and amid other recent embarrassments, the cheating scandal has increased public scrutiny.

The same day that academy officials confirmed the cheating scandal last week, they announced that four male midshipmen who pummeled two female classmates with pillows in what is known as a "Mack truck" attack in early December had received demerits and lost leave time.

Both women were bruised, and one received a scratched eye in the popular prank that the superintendent has since banned.

Last month, a senior was charged with indecent assault after allegedly crawling into bed with a sleeping female classmate. At the same time, students mourned the suicide of Midshipman Gil W. Greene, a sophomore football player who was being dismissed for poor academic performance.

Now, the large number of students involved in cheating has raised concerns among midshipmen and their professors about the strict honor code, which insists that midshipmen "do not lie, cheat or steal," and the way it is administered.

But proponents of the code argue that the report of the cheating by a midshipman the day after some 700 students took the exam last December and resulting investigation is proof of the concept's success.

"I would make the case that the exam shows the system is doing what it should do," Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the academy's superintendent, said in an interview Friday. "The midshipmen themselves reported it, and they themselves will determine if there has been an honor violation. You would have never known about it. I would have never known about it unless a midshipman had brought it forward."

Some midshipmen and professors, many of whom asked not to be named, complained last week that the strict honor code is not enforced effectively and fairly. While students have been expelled for fibbing about something as minor as a kiss, they say, others get away with offenses such as plagiarizing papers.

"The problem is the system can be so easily manipulated," said a humanities professor, who has caught students sneaking notes into the bathroom and peeking at textbooks during exams.

"People can go through the system and be found guilty of a very trivial offense, but someone else could be retained after cheating," he added.

A senior at the academy said that midshipmen on the honor committee take cases very seriously, but some of the decisions are "a joke." For instance, he said, in 1991 a couple was expelled after exchanging a kiss on the cheek, then denying it.

Dr. Carol Burke, associate dean at the Johns Hopkins University, recalls a "cynicism on the part of some of my colleagues" toward the honor system during her seven years as an English professor at the academy.

Faculty members felt a tacit constraint because "you, as an instructor, are going to be interrogated more than the student," Dr. Burke said, whose article in the New Republic last August that described indignities suffered by women still has Navy officials fuming.

Other professors say they're reluctant to bring honor charges because so many are dismissed.

"Honor cases are handled very gingerly," a science professor said. "I myself would be very hesitant to go ahead with one."

In 1990, a study by the Navy's inspector general found that 59 percent of the brigade believed the stringent honor code had not been administered consistently and effectively. And a Navy faculty member who polled 200 sophomores and freshmen found that 97 percent admitted witnessing classmates demonstrate a lack of integrity.

Current members of the honor board criticized the surveys as too vague. If asked whether they try to follow the code, the overwhelming majority of students would answer yes, said Midshipman Corey Culver, a senior from King City, Mo., who chairs the honor committee of seven midshipmen.

"No one here is perfect," said Adam Plumpton, a 21-year-old from Lafayette, N.Y. "No one pretends to be perfect. The difference between us [and other students] is that we try hard."

Admiral Lynch defends the honor system as "fair, honest, open and candid." It's not surprising, he said, that among a faculty of 500, not everyone is satisfied with the outcome of every honor case.

Honor is not a hollow word at the academy, according to the

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