The U.S. Naval Academy badly wants to put behind it the worst cheating scandal in its history and polish a tarnished image. Contrary to what it had hoped, however, the panel of officers that ruled on misconduct charges against more than 100 midshipmen has not restored confidence that honor and fairness govern what goes on in Annapolis.
The 1992 cheating scandal became a scandal in the first place because of suspicions that the academy didn't try to get to the bottom of the problem and didn't mete out punishments equitably. While the officers' panel seems to have done the former, questions remain about fairness, about whether penalties were doled out consistently and commensurate with wrongdoing. Of 134 members of the Class of 1994 implicated in the scandal, 106 cases were reviewed by the panel. Eighty-one admitted they cheated. Yet only 29 have been recommended for expulsion. Forty-two got lesser punishments, and 35 were exonerated.
Understandably, many in the academy community are wondering how the panel made its decisions. The mother of one student says he did not steal, sell or buy the test in question and confessed after he took the test that he had seen it before. Based on the panel's official statement -- the only explanation it provided -- one would expect a certain amount of leniency here. The statement said the panel considered cases individually, paying attention to "extenuating, mitigating and aggravating" factors such as the depth of the student's involvement in dishonesty and his willingness to confess. Yet this young man received the harshest penalty, while students report that others who committed worse offenses escaped lightly.
The Navy and the Pentagon should consider these inconsistencies when making final decisions on the expulsions. They need to provide more information about the criteria the panel used to decide the fate of these 106 students. Until they do, its rulings will be questioned as arbitrary and tainted by favoritism. Until they do, students will wallow in confusion about what conduct is acceptable at the Naval Academy.
Implicit in the impending return of four-star Adm. Charles R. Larson (a renowned straight arrow) as superintendent is the hope that he will help Annapolis regain the purity of its honor code -- that a midshipman does not lie, cheat or steal. But even he will find that difficult to do if some of the most grievous offenders in this cheating scandal walked away with the lightest punishments.