When honor itself failed academy test

January 30, 1994|By Tom Bowman and JoAnna Daemmrich | Tom Bowman and JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writers

It was John Paul Jones who said that a naval officer must have the "nicest sense of personal honor." During the past year at the U.S. Naval Academy, where the naval hero is entombed, his words have seemed hollow.

An exhaustive, seven-month investigation by the Navy's inspector general concluded that the cherished principles had been contorted and subverted by midshipmen and high officers alike.

Midshipmen did more than cheat on an electrical engineering exam. They lied and schemed and stonewalled investigators and their own honor boards. And the officers charged with instilling the idea of absolute personal honor apparently were more eager to wrap up their investigation than to learn the truth.

A 30-page report released by the Navy last week found that 133 midshipmen had cheated on the exam. Yet the majority never would have been caught because the commanders delayed taking action and seemed intent on protecting members of the football team.

Key findings of the investigation into the largest cheating scandal in the 149-year history of the academy include:

* Capt. John B. Padgett III, commandant of midshipmen, discounted the initial reports of cheating.

* The superintendent, Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, repeatedly urged students who had cheated to come forward. Yet, when the chairman of the honor committee brought new allegations of a cover-up, he was "silenced."

* High-ranking officers delayed acting on the new information for more than two weeks, mistakenly believing that their subordinates were handling it. Meanwhile, investigators in the initial probe by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service thought the case was closed.

* In its initial investigation, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) focused solely on determining who stole the test and who sold it. Because cheating is not a felony, NCIS limited its probe to those two issues. Once the NCIS investigation was complete, the superintendent did not mount a separate investigation aimed at identifying all the cheaters.

* Academy officials withheld critical information from the midshipmen honor boards.

* When the NCIS agents told Admiral Lynch that they were interviewing football players, he angrily labeled the probe a "witch hunt."

* Later, after the inspector general took over in June, the superintendent urged its investigators to "take their time and do a thorough job because the Army-Navy football game was Dec. 5," implying that he did not want the report issued before that date.

* While many midshipmen dismissed the principles that midshipmen "do not lie, cheat or steal" as impractical in a modern world, a small core reported the wrongdoing and pushed for all the guilty to be punished. They were disturbed by the actions of their superior officers.

* Admiral Lynch is so deeply committed to the ideals of honor and self-imposed discipline that he found it difficult to believe that many midshipmen had cheated.

Academy leaders declined to be interviewed or answer written questions last week. The school issued a one-page response stating that "the objective of the Naval Academy leadership from the outset has been to fully and fairly resolve questions about the compromise of the EE 311 final examination."

When the report was released Monday, Admiral Lynch denied that it called into question his leadership.

"I feel badly that this happened on my watch," he said.

The exam in question was for Electrical Engineering 311, a mandatory, two-semester course legendary for its toughness and considered by many juniors to be the last real hurdle before graduation.

On the eve of the final exam in December 1992, copies of the test circulated in Bancroft Hall, the massive stone dormitory.

They were shared by roommates, friends and teammates. Some thought it was only a practice version. But others knew better. They stayed up all night trying to solve the problems.

At least some questions found their way to 29 of the 36 companies. Despite the honor code, no one stepped forward to tell officials that the test had been compromised.

The first warning

At 7:45 a.m. Dec. 14, the test was given to 663 juniors. A few hours later, a professor received a computer message from a midshipman warning of cheating.

Similar messages came later from other midshipmen, the inspector general learned.

According to midshipmen interviewed, a Baltimore-area midshipman, whose roommate offered him a copy of the test, gave the roommate a choice: Turn yourself in or I will.

The roommate told others who were involved that he was about to admit his guilt and suggested they do the same.

Two days later, Captain Padgett told the superintendent that the reports of cheating did not seem to be credible, investigators said. However, more students reported cheating the next day. The superintendent, aware that the master copy of the test had vanished, indicating it was stolen, called in NCIS.

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