Last spring, the United States Military Academy suffered its worst cheating scandal in 40 years, when 73 cadets, many of them athletes, were accused of collaborating on a take-home calculus exam. Fourteen cadets left the academy, six were exonerated or saw the charges dropped, and the rest were held back for a semester or a full year. In response, senior West Point officials took an extraordinary step: they admitted that an adjustment they had made to the academy’s fabled honor code had failed. While the impetus for that adjustment was understandable, it failed because it sought to take a shortcut around two important but competing values.

At the heart of West Point’s values is the honor code, which says, “Cadets will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do.” Cadets enjoyed due-process protections, but convicted violators faced swift and harsh punishment—typically expulsion, followed by a multiyear period of enlisted service in the Army to pay back the investment that the country had made in the errant cadet.

In 2015, the academy introduced a policy that made the code more lenient: “willful admission,” which allowed cadets to avoid expulsion by acknowledging their participation in an honor-code violation. Cadets were encouraged to confront other cadets whom they suspected of cheating in the hope that offenders would self-report to avoid punishment.

Willful admission was an attempt to accommodate the tensions between honor and loyalty. As the core of cadets tried to survive the academy’s tough academic standards, some small portion would succumb to the temptation to cheat. But their classmates would be reticent to obey the no-toleration mandate and turn in their friends, aware that an honor-code violation typically meant expulsion. In theory, the reform would allow cadets to confront cheating classmates and persuade the cheaters to acknowledge their violation of the honor code, thereby avoiding expulsion. Observant cadets would send a clear message to offenders: cheating was not acceptable, but you’d get a second chance if you turned yourself in.

Academy alumni, the “Long Gray Line,” objected to the change. They criticized it as a “second chance” policy, arguing that it eroded a fundamental strength of the academy and Army. Adherence to the code was a core, nonnegotiable value of the profession. Violating it was the equivalent of a mortal sin.

Of course, such codes exist in the world of fallible human beings, a world in which honor competes with other important values. I saw this some 50 years ago, when I entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis. As midshipmen, we learned the Naval Academy’s honor concept the first night of plebe summer. The Annapolis concept and the West Point code differ in a key respect: the Naval Academy omits the phrase “or tolerate those who do.” Midshipmen, in other words, were not obligated to report friends whom we suspected of violating the honor concept. We had the option of confronting people we suspected of violations and counseling them to stop.

The next day, we were taught an equally important value: all of us would depend upon our classmates for the success of the mission, and often for sheer survival. Classmate would soon transition into shipmate, so you helped one another. You never “bilged” a classmate—never turned on him, never made him look bad. Loyalty to one’s classmates was as powerful as the honor concept itself; your survival in combat might one day depend on it.

How to reconcile the two values? During my two and a half years at the Naval Academy, I never worried about stealing. Bancroft Hall, the largest dorm in the world, didn’t even have locks on the doors. I never saw anyone cheat on an exam. But I’m sure I asked classmates for “the gouge”—to tell me what was on an exam that they took in the morning and that I was scheduled to take in the afternoon—and I’m sure I shared the intel with others. These were my classmates, and loyalty and survival stood on an equal footing with the ban on helping friends prepare for the test.

Lying was another matter. More than a few mids got in trouble with the honor board for doing it. Academy life was onerous, its regulations sometimes petty. Breaking the rules—whether having a (prohibited) car out in town, drinking alcohol within a seven-mile radius of the academy chapel dome, or giving one’s roommate a haircut just before inspection—became an artform. Breaking the rule was not the honor violation: it was lying about it when confronted by an officer or upperclassman. If you got caught, admitting the transgression resulted in demerits and detention. Lying meant expulsion.

I don’t know what pushed those West Point cadets over the ethical red line, but I have a reasonable guess. That ever-present tension between living up to the honor code and helping one’s friends, or oneself, snapped the wrong way. Word is that the varsity athletes involved in the scandal believed that their favored status extended to all areas of academy life, including the honor code.

Cadets learn that balancing the competing obligations of honor and loyalty is hard but necessary. Some will fail to do it, as did those who collaborated improperly on a calculus exam. But some people, including cadets and military officers, will do stupid, improper things. The academy bears its share of responsibility for undermining its honor code with a second-chance policy that attempted an end-run around the tensions among human frailty, the academy’s enormous demands, and the need to show loyalty to classmates.

When I attended the Naval Academy, the Vietnam War was raging and the military was held in low regard. Returning soldiers were spat upon and ridiculed. Today, the military is among the most respected institutions in the nation. For it to remain so, members must adhere to a higher standard. They must accept and resolve the burdens of honor and loyalty, even when such values are in conflict. West Point’s leaders tinkered with that balance, but they had the integrity to recognize that they had gotten it wrong, admit it, and fix their mistake. That was no small feat, and one from which the rest of us can learn.

The honor code will never eliminate cheating. Cadets are only human. But properly enforced, the honor code is a lodestar that reminds us of the extraordinary trust we place in our military officers—and of the responsibilities they must bear.

Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images


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