Lost Honor in Annapolis

January 30, 1994

The U.S. Naval Academy -- the place where midshipmen do not lie, cheat or steal -- is supposed to be governed by absolute honor. But the Navy inspector general's report on a widespread cheating scandal reveals standards of character and integrity that would be considered abysmal even in our far less exacting civilian society.

How could an institution that prides itself on honor end up with students who don't understand the word? This question, which involves those who run the academy as well as those who attend it, belongs in Congress. The issue is that serious.

If there is one thing the report makes clear, it is that midshipmen aren't inherently more honorable than anyone else. As many as 133 members of the Class of 1994 used a stolen final exam to cheat on a test, then lied about it. The IG found mids who lied repeatedly and conspired to cover up for each other; who suspected the exam they saw the night before the test might be the real thing but said nothing; who insisted they were justified in cheating because they thought the course was unfair.

Honor does not come with the uniform. Academy leaders obviously forgot that. The IG found little emphasis on character development or honor and a climate that eroded both understanding of and respect for the honor code -- not just on the part of students, but of faculty and academy leaders, too.

The top brass emerges from this mess badly tarnished. The report shows its attempts to uncover the truth was, at best, half-hearted and, at worst, bordering on deception. As for Superintendent Thomas C. Lynch, he sometimes seemed more committed to the football team than to the truth.

The IG's report makes useful recommendations about honor board procedures. It is silent, however, about how to correct the flawed leadership that allowed blatant disregard for honor to flourish and that, left to its own devices, never would have gotten to the bottom of this scandal.

The responsibility for resolving this issue rests with Congress. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, D-Ala., has scheduled congressional hearings on the scandal this Thursday. He shouldn't knuckle under to apologists like Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who say the academy ought to clean its own house. The report leaves doubt it is capable of doing so.

It is inevitable that this cheating scandal has left many cynical about the academy. That is too bad. The midshipman who promptly reported that the test had been compromised; the student honor committee chairman who pressed the academy to consider new information and was rebuffed; even those who erred but were driven by their consciences to confess and learn from their mistakes -- these are signs of hope, living proof that ideals of honor and integrity are not too much for midshipmen and other ordinary mortals to uphold.

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