West Point Honor Code Under Scrutiny As The Military Academy Grapples With Another Cheating Scandal

Mar 8, 2021

Leaders at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, will allow most of the students involved in a major cheating scandal to remain at the prestigious school.

Late last year, 73 cadets were accused of collaborating on a virtual calculus exam. More than 50 of the accused cadets admitted they cheated — but almost all of them will get a second chance. West Point enrolled them in a special program designed to rehabilitate students who violate the honor code.

The scandal is the largest in 40 years. And it’s raising questions about honor among the men and women who will become the Army's future leaders.

Shortly after the scandal became public last year, four cadets resigned from the academy. Another eight could face tougher discipline.

West Point superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams addressed the scandal at a congressional hearing on March 2. He defended the academy’s decision to allow most of the cadets to stay.

“There's no excuse for violating the United States Military Academy honor code, and I have all the tools I need to hold them accountable for that, and we will,” Williams said.

Those tools, like the rehabilitation program, came about the last time a large cheating scandal rocked the academy: 1976. Back then, the accused cheaters were kicked out, and the Army established a special commission to investigate.

Craig Bruce Smith is assistant professor of military history at the Army School of Advanced Military Studies and author of “American Honor.” His views do not represent the Department of Defense or the Army.

Smith said the aftermath of 1976 is when West Point began to reassess what honor, and the honor code, really mean.

“Honor was understood pretty widely throughout society in the 18th and 19th century, but it's very much faded from public discourse and discussion by the 20th, 21st century,” Smith said. “So how the honor code has been administered has changed greatly.”

The academy began to allow more discretion in punishing honor code violations after the 1976 scandal.

“So rather than a black and white: ‘If you have broken this, you are removed,’ that there should be an ability to assess the situation and circumstances, and to have a response that is not all or nothing,” Smith said.

That's been the trend throughout higher education. At non-military colleges, rehabilitation approaches — like the kind at West Point — are much more common than outright dismissal when it comes to academic dishonesty.

David Rettinger is the former head of the International Center for Academic Integrity. He studies honor codes and teaches psychological science at the University of Mary Washington.

“Expulsion flies in the face of everything we understand about the psychology of ethical and moral behavior,” Rettinger said.

That’s partly because the section of the brain that makes you feel “icky” when you do something wrong isn’t fully developed until around age 23 to 26 — after college is over.

Rettinger said rehabilitation seems in line with West Point’s mission — to instill the values of duty, honor and country.

“That doesn't necessarily mean weeding people out who are imperfect, because we're all imperfect,” Rettinger said. “That means taking the best cadets we can and turning them into the best officers they can be, which means teaching them. And if there's no opportunity for redemption, what are we really teaching?”

But Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California, who chairs the Military Personnel subcommittee, said cadets accepted into elite military academies should be held to a higher standard.

“I want to see accountability that, frankly, I am very disappointed does not exist in the academies right now,” Speier said. “When you have etched in the marble at West Point, ‘A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do,’ that should be crystal clear.”

West Point leaders called the cheating "extremely disappointing." But speaking to the congressional committee, Superintendent Williams also noted the cadets faced an unusual situation during the pandemic.

“Our young men and women were in a remote learning environment, and some were challenged in terms of home life,” Williams said. “They were away from their coaches, their teachers and the structures that provide the way ahead.”

Williams promised that the cadets will learn from this experience.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.