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Ethics Shoved Aside in the West Point Cheating Scandal

Cheating Cadets Allowed to Play the Liberty Bowl

I have previously blogged about cheating scandals at the Navy and Air Force. We can add the cheating scandal at West Point where 73 Army Cadets are accused of cheating on a calculus final exam in May 2020. Of the 73 cadets, 55 are athletes, including 17 who remain on the football team, according to figures released to USA TODAY by West Point.

According to Army Lt. Col. Christopher Ophardt, a few have played in football games this season after having been accused of cheating. Some of those players are expected to dress up and play in the Liberty Bowl today. They are allowed to play because West Point’s superintendent in October suspended a policy that limited or prevented cadets found in violation of the academy’s honor code from representing the academy in public, including athletes at sports events.

The rationalization given for the wrongful decision to let the cheating cadets play boggles the imagination. Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams wrote in a memo on October 23 that the policy “has resulted in an inequitable application of consequences and developmental opportunities for a select group of cadets.” I have no idea what this means but I do know the whole situation and the Army’s response to it raises questions about ethics at the academy and why it has an honor code in the first place.

“We didn’t cancel the punishment,” Ophardt said. “We delayed it until final adjudication.” Basically, the Army is saying the consequences for cheating are not important enough to prevent the cadets from playing in the Liberty Bowl. The real reason is Army did not want to lose the money it gets from playing in the Bowl game and great exposure for its program. This is a selfish decision that raises questions about the culture at West Point.

To create cover for its decision, Williams wrote:

These cadets chose the easier wrong over the harder right. As the Superintendent, I own this cheating incident. Furthermore, I and every leader at West Point own their role in developing leaders of character. The standards established by the Cadet Honor Code have not changed and the Honor System receives my personal investment of time and attention. West Point takes every Honor Code violation seriously. Army scandal

This self-serving statement is nothing more than a piece of paper that gets filed away until and unless there is a scandal and the Army needs to make it sound like it is doing the tight thing but, in reality, it is trying to provide cover for an ill-thought-out decision to let the cadets play.

Looking back at the cheating scandals at the Air Force and Navy that occurred in 2014, there was cheating on exams that sailors took including on classified information about our nuclear capabilities. In that case, the Air Force acted responsibly suspending 92 officers at Malmstrom Air Base, nearly half of the base’s nuclear launch crew, and acknowledged a “systemic problem” among the culture of the entire force of men and women entrusted with the authority to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The ironic part of these cheating scandals is that if you look at the ethics standards and values of each branch of service, you would think both of them are 110% committed to ethical behavior. The ‘Navy Ethical Compass’ leans on integrity as the basic value that should guide the action of all Navy personnel. It addresses the Navy’s “Leadership Commitment to Ethical Conduct”:

“It is essential that all Department of the Navy personnel adhere to the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct. The American people put their trust in us and none of us can betray that trust.”

As for the Air Force, it addresses the ethical standards that underlie the behavior of its personnel through a set of core values, the first of which is Integrity. Here is what is expected of Air Force personnel.

Integrity is addressed as a character trait. It is the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking. It is the moral compass, the inner voice, the voice of self-control and the basis for the trust imperative in today's military. Integrity is the ability to hold together and properly regulate all of the elements of a personality. A person of integrity, for example, is capable of acting on conviction. A person of integrity can control impulses and appetites. But integrity also covers several other moral traits indispensable to national service. These include courage, honesty, responsibility, accountability, justice, openness, self-respect, and humility.

When I consider the ethical standards of the Navy and Air Force, especially the latter, I am impressed by the ethical tone of the statements. However, the lesson to be learned from scandals at all three branches of service is that a set of core values on a piece of paper is meaningless unless those at the top instill these character traits in everything that is done and everyone who participates.

What’s lacking in the West Point scandal is ethical leadership, which is strange given the need for strong leadership in the military. The Army has squandered its chance to make a statement about the seriousness of violations of its Honor Code by conveniently setting it aside so the Liberty Bowl game can be played.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I am giving away signed copies of my book to the first ten people who contact me at: steve@ethicssage.com and provide a mailing address. May your 2021 be better than 2020. Let's face it, it can't be worse!

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 31, 2020. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.

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