Has Academy Tradition Yielded to Technical Training?

February 13, 1994|By TOM BOWMAN

Cheating. Lying. Stonewalling.

They're not the words that traditionally come to mind when talk turns to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

It is supposed to be a school of cap-tossing pride and achievement, not a place of dishonor, where a stolen electrical engineering exam could move swiftly through the decks of Bancroft Hall.

The largest cheating scandal in the school's 149-year history -- with 133 senior midshipmen implicated -- has caused many to wonder how the academy got off track.

Look no further than two disparate emblems of recent history: Timothy Leary and Hyman Rickover.

Mr. Leary, a Harvard professor turned LSD guru, personified the late 1960s, urging his young followers to "tune in, turn on and drop out." It was the beginning of a time when authority was questioned and the individual was supreme, the earliest rumblings of the "Me generation."

Meanwhile, Admiral Rickover, the brilliant and irascible "father of the nuclear Navy," held sway over the Navy bureaucracy of the 1970s, placing academic achievement -- particularly a technical education -- above all else.

Once a prime training ground for military leadership, the Naval Academy became, in the words of one graduate, a "nuclear power prep school."

You won't find the names Leary and Rickover in the reports, testimony or interviews that have swirled around the scandal. But the forces they came to represent collided at the academy and are at the heart of what has become known as the "Double E problem."

On the morning of Dec. 14, 1992, the semester final exam was given for Electrical Engineering 311, nicknamed "wires" and considered the toughest required course at the academy. The ** night before the test, copies made their way through 29 of the 36 companies in Bancroft, the dorm for all the midshipmen.

In the ensuing two Navy investigations, many midshipmen lied or tried to rationalize their involvement. Midshipmen showed a "shallow commitment" to the honor concept, which states simply that "midshipmen are persons of integrity: they will not lie, cheat or steal." Many said the concept could not be applied to daily life, according to the Navy inspector general's report.

Lt. Gen. Charles C. Krulak remembers a different time. A top Marine commander and 1964 graduate, he recalled his own arrival at Annapolis as a plebe, or freshman. There was harsh treatment from upperclassmen, he said, but they also worked one-on-one with the younger midshipmen, emphasizing integrity and moral courage.

Returning to Annapolis as a young officer in the early 1970s, General Krulak and others continued to instill those values, only to see a slow shift away from those core principles to an emphasis on a technical education.

"It was almost insidious in the way it happened," he recalls. "It kind of got out of balance. That was magnified by society and the value system of society."

Jeffrey E. McFadden, a 1979 academy graduate and English major, found himself right in the middle of that shift. And he was troubled by what he saw, even though he later went through the nuclear power program and served aboard the USS Mississippi.

During his senior year, he was named a Trident scholar, one of a number of top midshipmen who devote most of their entire senior year to a rigorous independent research project. He decided to fight the technical emphasis with his research paper. The topic? "Chivalry and the Military Officer."

"I was trying to send whatever message I could as a first class midshipman: We're going down the wrong path. We have to focus on these timeless principles," says Mr. McFadden, a Washington lawyer who served as counsel to the committee that reviewed the honor code.

Mr. McFadden remembers the concept was merely a "sword of Damocles," rather than a moral guide. "It just wasn't part of life at the Naval Academy, and it hasn't been," he says.

Two central questions now face the Naval Academy leadership. How does the academy return to its principal goal: to mold young officers of integrity, honor and moral cour- age? How can it accomplish this task in an era of compromise, where many view these lofty goals as simply musty words from the days of sail?

"I think in our society today, that we are eroding in terms of values. An awful lot of our problems stem from that," said Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, during a recent hearing on the cheating scandal.

"The military reflects society, but it's got to be better than society. That's the challenge."

Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the academy's superintendent, who admitted his "failure" at pursuing the cheating scandal, vowed to place the development of honor and integrity once again at the forefront of midshipmen training.

"It is evident to me that we have failed to recognize the changes in our society and that we have failed, with some midshipmen, in nTC our effort to inculcate our concept of honor," he told the Senate panel.

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