A Code of Honor: 'Midshipmen Do Not Lie, Cheat or Steal'

May 22, 1994|By W. MINOR CARTER

With the graduation Wednesday of the Class of 1994, the U.S. Navy and the Naval Academy hope to end the saga involving honor code violations that has enveloped the academy and the Class of 1994 for the last 18 months.

Top Navy officials are undertaking steps to prevent future honor code violations, but the resolution does not start in Annapolis -- it starts with the top ranks of the Navy.

When the inspector general states that the senior officers in charge did not want to "get to the bottom" of the scandal that involved students cheating on an electrical engineering exam, that demonstrates a breakdown at the top, not the bottom.

When academy committees suggest that the problem with the honor code is the failure of midshipmen to understand and hold to it, they are analyzing the symptoms and not the disease.

When midshipmen, impressionable young men and women eager to learn the ways of the Navy, see senior officers passively investigate honor violations and sexual harassment charges, see honor violations treated as disciplinary problems, see indecisiveness in the face of issues of principle, they cannot help but be disillusioned.

These same senior officers and officials are the very people who have stressed honor and integrity to the Brigade of Midshipmen, yet when faced with obvious honor code violations the senior ranks did not meet the standards they espoused.

It is not the Class of 1994 that let the Navy and the Naval Academy down -- it is the Navy that has let the Class of 1994 down.

Altogether, 134 members of the class were investigated, and 81 eventually admitted to cheating after advance copies of an electrical engineering exam were taken and distributed on campus. However, only 24 were expelled. Another 64 Midshipmen received lesser punishment for cheating or other violations; the rest were exonerated.

This class joins the Navy and Marine Corps with more than 50 fellow graduates that have admitted they violated the honor code not only by cheating on an examination, but by lying about their involvement. How did they avoid expulsion? Because the ++ Navy reviewed their entire records at the academy and deemed that, on balance, their individual records outweighed their violation of the code.

This sliding scale of justice is appropriate for a disciplinary violation, but is clearly inappropriate for an honor code violation. Honor is not a situational ethics problem; it is a virtue: Midshipmen do not lie, cheat, or steal.

All the remedies proposed to date are directed at the Brigade of Midshipmen. Of all the groups involved, the brigade was and is the most dedicated, the most diligent and the most committed to rooting out and expelling those within its ranks that violated the honor code.

The evidence is incontrovertible: At every juncture of the various investigations, when superior officers attempted to declare the cheating issue concluded, the midshipmen refused to accept those findings. It was the demands of the midshipmen that virtually required further investigations, and it is the midshipmen who wanted all those guilty of cheating expelled.

One officer at the academy said that if it were left to the midshipmen, those that violated the honor code would be shot at dawn. It is clear that the Brigade of Midshipmen did not want gradations of punishment; they wanted and expected the code to be upheld.

That is not to say that those midshipmen who violated the honor code or the officers and officials who were responsible for the investigations and punishments are bad or venal. There is no doubt that every official believed he was acting in the best interest of the Navy and the Naval Academy.

Unfortunately, they have adopted collectively the doctrine of moral relativism in enforcing the honor code. This belief, widely practiced today by leaders in law, politics and business, requires the relaxation of moral sensibilities and the substitution of the perspective of the alleged wrongdoer: The incident must be viewed from the wrongdoer's perspective, taking into account the pressures they were under and how they saw the situation.

In replacing the strict moral code of the honor code with relativism, the leaders in the Navy failed their responsibility to the academy, the Navy and the code itself.

The honor code is based upon fair and, at times, even harsh enforcement. The introduction of the "total" midshipman concept determining the extent of the punishment for violating the code distorts the moral foundation of the entire concept. It seemingly allows a midshipman with a "better" record to commit an offense and be spared the expulsion that a midshipman with a lesser record would suffer.

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