After five months of study, a review panel investigating life at the U.S. Naval Academy has concluded there is no central flaw to explain years of scandal at the elite officer-training school.
The findings, contained in a 30-page draft report described by sources who have seen it, vindicate an academy administration that has contended that a rash of unethical and criminal episodes involving midshipmen are isolated incidents and not the result of an underlying failure of school policy.
The board has instead saved most of its criticism, which will be presented after Navy Secretary John H. Dalton clears a final report, for a permissive society that shapes future midshipmen before they arrive inside the academy walls.
"There is no magic answer," said Herb Hetu, spokesman for the 20-member board made up of admirals, astronauts, senators, clergy and academics. "This is not an island. This is part of society."
The panel's report, hashed out over the past two days in meetings so secret even the staff was barred, will reportedly praise many policies put in place by Adm. Charles R. Larson since he became superintendent in 1994.
But Larson, a four-star admiral, also will receive criticism. The treatment of female midshipmen, the honor concept and minority recruitment are areas where the board and its change-minded leader, Adm. Stansfield Turner, may take issue with a superintendent who asked for "a sanity check" in January.
"He'll get one," Hetu said. "He's done a good job in some areas, and others need work. You can't do everything in three years."
Turner and Goucher College President Judy Jolley Mohraz, the panel's co-chairwoman, set out with instructions from the academy's Board of Visitors to find deep-rooted problems at the academy that could explain the cheating, drug, car-theft and sex scandals midshipmen have been implicated in over the past eight years.
To Larson's chagrin, Turner looked as far back as a 1989 incident involving a female midshipman handcuffed by male classmates to a urinal. That was the start of the much-publicized problems that prompted Larson upon arrival to tighten rules, start extracurricular ethics training, and take away certain midshipmen privileges.
But no "systemic" problem has emerged.
The panel will instead recommend a series of minor changes that, members believe, will build on Larson's progress. Those include a new mandatory psychology course, elevating the required superintendent's rank from a two-star to a three-star admiral, making the job a final tour for a Navy officer, and asking the Pentagon to send more experienced officers to teach at the academy.
Even starting a new psychology course could be difficult. Midshipmen need 140 hours of class credit to graduate -- Johns Hopkins, like most other universities, requires 120 hours -- and college accrediting agencies have criticized the academy for demanding too much. Larson, who favors starting a "human behavior" course as prelude to ethics training, believes another class must drop out to make room.
Board members are still debating what to do with the academy's vaunted honor concept, which Larson turned over to the midshipmen when he arrived. That decision was based on recommendations of the Armitage Commission, created to investigate the 1991 cheating scandal that involved more than 100 Mids. Richard Armitage, a former assistant secretary of defense, is also on this review panel.
A student-run committee decides whether fellow Mids are guilty of lying or of violating other honor rules. The administration is responsible for deciding punishment.
But some panel members, including Turner, briefly considered giving the honor concept back to the administration.
"The concern has always been from my point of view that midshipmen have a sense of ownership of the honor concept," said Capt. William T. R. Bogle, commandant of midshipmen, in a recent interview. "Anything that would disrupt that philosophy would not be received well by the midshipmen."
Driving the move was the case of Jennifer Della Barba, a midshipman found guilty of lying by the honor committee and TC expelled by Larson. Dalton later overturned Larson's decision and Della Barba was commissioned from the academy this year.
As written now, the report begins by blaming the academy problems on society at large, according to sources who have seen it. Turner, a 1944 academy graduate who ran the CIA in the mid-1970s, has said, "It's a societal problem now as much as anything."
To combat that, the admissions screening policy is under review, but no major changes are expected.
Adm. J. Paul Reason, a board member and commander in chief of the Atlantic fleet, is reportedly concerned about minority recruitment. Reason, who is black, is a member of the academy Class of 1965. But as Hetu said, "It's very difficult. You keep bumping into Harvard and Stanford."
The idea that society is the academy's greatest enemy has informed a number of other panel decisions.