Don't blame the honor code

August 05, 1993

The U.S. Naval Academy has launched a review of its honor code, prompted by charges that the system failed during a recent cheating scandal. But that misses the point. The code did not fail; the failure lies with the midshipmen who chose to clam up or lie when they appeared before the honor board.

The honor code is simple: A midshipman does not lie, cheat or steal. And if a midshipman knows or suspects someone has lied, cheated or stolen, he or she has a moral obligation to report it and tell the truth about what is known before a student honor board.

As long as students fulfill this obligation, the honor system works -- regardless of whether the cheater lies about his misdeeds.

Many midshipmen and faculty members are upset that the honor code did not weed out all the guilty parties in the cheating scandal that involved an electrical engineering exam last fall. Of 28 students accused of cheating, only six -- all of whom confessed -- were expelled.

The six have complained that they were penalized for telling the truth, while others who lied and refused to admit their roles got away with it. They especially are galled that the student accused stealing the exam and distributing it in the first place escaped punishment.

But look at how he escaped: His chief accuser changed his story.

That accuser, who was expelled after confessing, has been most vocal in condemning the honor code. How can he complain, however, when his decision to recant allowed the alleged instigator off the hook?

An honor board cannot indict someone without proof. In this scandal, board members said they were often stymied by silence and changing stories from midshipmen.

The Navy's inspector general currently is investigating one midshipman's statement that he overheard several classmates conspiring to synchronize their testimony. If one or more midshipmen got away with cheating on the electrical engineering test, is it any wonder, considering the deception and dishonesty employed by these individuals?

If administration of the honor system can be improved, so be it. But we suspect that the Naval Academy needs to pay more attention to the mindset of its midshipmen than to the logistics of its honor code to find out why the investigation of this scandal ended unsatisfactorily.

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