Defending the Honor Code ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

May 05, 1993

Some midshipmen do lie, cheat or steal. Some get caught. Some confess. Some get away with it.

Although the U.S. Naval Academy claims a higher moral ground, its honor system is no more perfect than those at other colleges and universities. Did the honor code bring to justice every midshipman who saw a copy of a stolen electrical engineering test before it was given last Dec. 14? Probably not.

This was the biggest cheating scandal at the academy in 20 years, with 28 juniors accused and others suspected of knowing about the stolen test. Yet silence, changed stories and conflicting testimony forced the student honor board to clear 17 of the 28. And after the remainder were reviewed by the commandant of midshipmen and Superintendent Rear Adm. Thomas Lynch, only six -- all of whom admit to cheating -- face dismissal.

Is there really any doubt that somewhere in Bancroft Hall are others who lied, cheated, stole and got away with it? Naturally, that galls the six who confessed. "If you lie and cheat, you get off," one of them said. The way they see it, the academy is punishing them for telling the truth.

But the academy is punishing them for cheating, not for telling the truth. Whether the six students are relatively more moral or honorable than others who kept their mouths shut is beside the point; as every plebe knows from the day he or she walks through the gate, the academy does not deal in moral relativism. Personal honor is supposed to be an absolute. A midshipmen does not lie, cheat or steal, period. Whether or not everyone else is doing it, whether or not anyone else gets caught, and whether or not you come clean on your own shouldn't matter.

No doubt the academy would have gone easier on the six mids had they been in their first year. But they were juniors, well acquainted with moral expectations and accustomed to the academic pressures. Other factors that weighed against them: They changed their stories and did not come forward immediately. This made their confessions seem more a matter of survival than integrity.

The academy could not slap them on the wrists without risking everything for which it stands. It needed a compelling reason to give them a break. And, the fact that they probably are not the only ones who cheated is not compelling enough.

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