Graduates' gift to school: lessons to help Mids become better people

January 16, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Naval Academy graduates traditionally have given gifts to their alma mater. The Yard is filled with class presents in the form of sculptures, fountains, plaques and monuments.

In 1991, the Class of 1964 decided the midshipmen needed more than another monument -- specifically, they needed lessons on how to be better people.

"We really had some needs at the school that went beyond what Congress appropriated in funding and went beyond bricks and mortar," said Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, a 1964 graduate who in 1991 was the academy's superintendent.

Five years ago, the first Ethics Dinner was held. The latest of the annual dinners was held last week.

As in years past, military leaders told students how ethics is a key to strong leadership. Navy Secretary John H. Dalton urged midshipmen "to always do the right thing, even in the most harrowing of circumstances." Adm. Joseph Prueher, commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told them to avoid the "slippery slope" on which small lies lead to big ones.

At night's end, the Class of 1964 -- which includes Dalton, Prueher and other Vietnam-era veterans among its top-ranking officers -- gave each senior a book, "Ethics for the Junior Officer."

It was a warm, pass-the-torch night. But the story of the Ethics Dinner sheds light on the Naval Academy's efforts to right itself after the troubles of recent years.

In 1991, Lynch and other 1964 graduates were beginning to sense that midshipmen were arriving in Annapolis with values different from those they remembered their classmates having 30 years earlier.

Their fear that some students might not have the finely tuned sense of right and wrong required of a naval officer were realized two years later, when the academy's worst scandal broke while Lynch was superintendent.

So the Class of 1964 put together its book. Karel Montor, an academy professor, helped make "Ethics for the Junior Officer" a compendium of the ethical and leadership quandaries naval officers face, each followed by the challenge "What would you do?" The answers are at the back of the book.

Examples: Should you report drunken officers, even if they're off duty? (Answer: Yes, because that bender could indicate a drinking problem that could endanger lives.) Is it OK for a base commander to offer a free tour of his base as a prize at a church auction? (No. Even if the intent was honorable, it's a misuse of government property.)

"Things that might have been acceptable behavior 20 years ago are not acceptable today," Montor said.

"It does help you realize there are people who have gone before you, and you can learn from their mistakes," said Midshipman Tim Boehme.

Two years after the 1991 effort to re-establish values, 133 junior midshipmen were accused of cheating on their final electrical engineering exam. Other scandals during the next few years sent the academy scrambling to reinforce concepts of honor and integrity.

Critics blamed the academy for failing to provide sufficient moral leadership. Lynch was accused of bending his own ethics by giving preferential treatment to Navy football players implicated in the cheating scandal, a charge he denied.

Still, the Class of 1964 thought a nudge might help midshipmen think more about ethics.

"It was a subtle but strong way to say, 'This stuff is important,' " said Jerold Anderson, a retired Navy captain and president of the 1964 class. "The patterns of decision-making they establish as a junior officer are going to stay with them through their careers. So, if we can help them make the right decisions now, it'll help them later on."

Since the first dinner -- and since Adm. Charles R. Larson replaced Lynch four years ago -- ethics classes have been required for students at every level, and a character-development department has been created.

In addition to being part of the Ethics Dinner ritual, the book is used in ethics courses. Course work in the topic is required through all four years of academy training.

"You start hearing it from Day 1," said Boehme. "You're right out of high school, and ethics is not something you've thought about much. But after hearing it every day, it really becomes part of you."

Lynch described the Ethics Dinner as a symbol of how important ethics has become to academy life.

"The mores of our society have changed so much over the past 30 to 35 years, we realized it's no longer good enough to stand before a group and lecture about ethics," he said.

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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