Naval Academy in a tempest Midshipmen continue to batter the image of their historic institution.

April 16, 1996

IN THE PAST several weeks, the recently tarnished image of the U.S. Naval Academy has been smudged further. Midshipmen have been accused of harassing female classmates, of sexually abusing and assaulting a young child and involved in allegations of sexual harassment. Two dozen midshipmen are in the process of being disciplined and court-martialed for buying and using LSD and marijuana.

All that was followed by news late last week that five current and former midshipmen have been indicted on federal auto theft charges.

To say that the academy is going through "a little bit of some rough water," as a spokesman put it, is to understate the problem. Storm waves are pounding this ship.

Since arriving two years ago after a cheating scandal rocked the Annapolis institution, Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson has tried to create a more disciplined atmosphere. He instituted character-building and leadership programs and classes, reduced student privileges and demanded a higher standard of behavior.

Yet despite his efforts, the message does not seem to be sinking in. Midshipmen are required to live up to the school's honor concept -- never to lie, cheat or steal. Such qualities are expected of men and women who may lead others into combat. But the behavior of the young men who have been accused of the recent crimes fails even to measure up to the lesser standard expected of members living in a civilian society.

The academy may exist in a larger world where values of honor and integrity are sometimes ignored. Nevertheless, its graduates must adhere to a higher ethic.

John F. Barry, a civilian professor of ethics and leadership at the academy, wrote in the Washington Post last month that midshipmen are immersed in an "ethically corrupting system." While the instructor has yet to make a wholly convincing case, these allegations against several students have done nothing to weaken his argument.

Admiral Larson must continue to confront individual cases head-on. As for the midshipmen, they must come to understand that honor is not merely a pact between themselves and their fellow students but also between themselves and the historic institution they have signed on to represent.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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