Was Justice Served in Annapolis

May 04, 1994

The cheating scandal at the U.S. Naval Academy has dragged on for one-and-a-half agonizing, embarrassing years, long enough that any resolution, however imperfect or painful, carries some degree of relief.

Even those who have received the most severe punishment -- expulsion on the eve of graduation -- have commented that at least the ordeal is over. One senses a yearning among the midshipmen for a fresh start they feel is imminent now that the Navy has made its final decision. "It's time for [the mids who did wrong] to move on with their lives, and it's time for us to move on," one Navy official said recently -- and he is right.

Still, welcome as the end of this debacle may be, the Navy's final verdict falls short of reassuring that justice and fairness were properly served.

When a panel of officers reviews 106 midshipmen, 81 of whom admitted they cheated, but ends up expelling only 24, questions about the process are inevitable. What did the 24 do to merit the ultimate penalty? Navy Secretary John H. Dalton's answer -- that they "failed to live up to. . . the honor concept" -- is too vague. The academy's honor code says simply that midshipmen do not lie, cheat or steal, and clearly there were more than 24 who violated that maxim. Indeed, the talk around the Yard is that some who were deeply involved in the scandal escaped with lesser punishments.

It is hard to fault the Navy for using a gradation of punishments in this case, considering its complexity and the disparate levels of culpability. But the Navy's credibility depended on how well it imparted, to both midshipmen and the public, a sense that the penalties fit the crimes. Skepticism would not be so rampant had the Navy specified, for example, that expulsion was being reserved for those who knowingly conspired to steal and distribute the test, or who deliberately, repeatedly lied.

The lingering doubts about consistency and fairness will make it harder than it otherwise would have been for the academy to reclaim its long-cherished image as a place of absolute honor. It would have been hard enough, considering the erosion of respect for the honor code among midshipmen and the lack of character development by the academy that was revealed in the Navy's investigation. Incoming Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson has his work cut out for him. The cheating scandal will not be truly over until the tarnished attitudes that caused it are expelled from the academy as finally as those 24 ill-fated midshipmen.

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