February 16, 1993

The investigation of 28 midshipmen suspected of cheating is the biggest scandal to hit the U.S. Naval Academy since student Gwen Dreyer was chained to a urinal in 1989 -- perhaps even bigger. The Dreyer case involved a small group whose horseplay resounded with repugnant connotations. The cheating is not a question of stupidity, but one of honor that goes to the heart of the academy.

In recent weeks, the service academy in Annapolis has been plagued with headlines about a variety of bad news: overzealous pillow fights; a suicide; a man climbing, unwanted, into a female classmate's bed, and now cheating. These incidents cannot be treated equally. The pillow fight and bedtime antics would never have been stories but for where they happened, and even then weren't very big ones. The suicide was more a reflection of a young man's own troubles than the institution's.

But the cheating is different. Those who used that stolen test are not simply guilty of bad judgment, as is the case with many who cast a shadow over the academy. Nor are youth and academic pressures an excuse. No, the cheaters violated the most sacrosanct, renowned rule the academy has: that a midshipman does not lie, cheat or steal.

The cheaters are responsible for corrupting the reality as well as the image of an institution where dishonesty is supposedly the deadliest of sins, not just for moral reasons but for practical ones as well. This country is in big trouble if its service academies start turning out men and women who, in the heat of battle, feel comfortable with fibbing about whether they checked their equipment properly.

The cheating incident raises questions about what is happening in Annapolis. Out of roughly 25 honor board investigations a year, only one or two midshipmen are expelled. Some, including faculty members, wonder if cheating is being taken seriously enough.

We do not have the answer. What we do know is that in this case, the honor system worked exactly as it should. The day after the exam was taken, a midshipman reported the test had been circulated beforehand. To his credit, Superintendent Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch called for an investigation immediately, then made its findings public. In what is otherwise a dark hour for the Naval Academy, these are significant bright spots.

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