The Naval Academy's Mistake

January 18, 1994

An emphasis on character has always distinguished the service academies from other institutions of higher learning. Officers are expected to be gentlemen, not just good students. Dishonor is a deadly sin. The moral ground is so high that only the most sterling young men and women are allowed the opportunity to climb.

Yet here is the U.S. Naval Academy -- the place where midshipmen do not lie, cheat or steal -- preparing to take action against 125 students who lied, cheated and/or stole a notoriously difficult electrical engineering exam in December 1992. Here is the academy, stung by criticism from the Naval inspector general that its effort to uncover the truth about the scandal was half-hearted and incomplete. Here is a senior Defense Department official and chairman of a panel that is reviewing the academy's honor system, ruefully acknowledging that honor has been "on the back burner in the Navy's mind and at the academy for a long time."

Since the scandal broke, nothing and no one has taken as much of a beating as the honor code: "It doesn't work." "It's unfair." These criticisms have been voiced by faculty, students and the press. Like them, we believe the honor system can be improved. The reforms recommended last week -- stiffer requirements for a guilty verdict, a gradation of punishments -- make sense.

But the honor code cannot be blamed for the academy's problems. The success of any honor code depends on the character of those subject to it. There is where the problem lies. What the academy should be asking is how an institution that prides itself on honor ended up with so many students who were willing to do dishonorable things.

Perhaps the academy became so blinded by its own golden myth that it forgot midshipmen are not perfect pillars of strength and goodness but young people struggling to come of age in a pressure-filled environment that would destroy most people. Perhaps it forgot that character is only partly innate, that it needs to be developed and shored up against adversity and temptation. Academy Superintendent Thomas C. Lynch acknowledged as much. "We have failed in the education and training," he said.

The academy left midshipmen to navigate their own way through difficult waters. Some of them lost their way.

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