Undermining Duty, Honor, and Country at West Point
The U.S. Military Academy is cheating America’s trust in our future military leaders.
In May 2020, some 73 cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point cheated on a calculus final exam. Fifty-five of those cadets were athletes and 24 of them football players. This isn’t the first time West Point has dealt with large-scale cheating on exams and not even the first time it was mostly athletes. In 1951, 90 cadets, mostly football players, were expelled for cheating. In 1976, 153 cadets resigned or were expelled for cheating on an electrical engineering exam. This is the first time, however, that West Point has tolerated cheating by softening the punishment and even removing the standard consequences for committing an honor violation. Naturally, there has been significant outrage among Academy graduates, many of whom are now instructors at the Academy.
West Point Superintendent LTG Darryl Williams sent a December 30, 2020, letter to all graduates to presumably explain the situation, but only after the seven-month-old honor incident was national news. Unfortunately, his email serves only to acknowledge concerns rather than address them and offers excuses while simultaneously claiming there is no excuse for the cadets’ behavior. Math instructors uncovered the cheating immediately in May, but honor investigations couldn’t begin until the Corps of Cadets returned in September from the pandemic-induced dispersion and remote learning. While this explains the first three-month delay, it does not excuse why graduates and the nation heard nothing about the largest scandal in almost 45 years after four months of investigation until it was a big story in USA Today.
Part of his explanation includes a newly created Willful Admit Program implemented in the spring of 2016. Under this program, cadets that willfully admit to an honor violation can do so in the hopes of being granted discretion and enrollment in a 50-hour Special Leader Development Program for Honor as a form of rehabilitation. Previously, this type of discretion was reserved for minor infractions, especially those made under duress or in the heat of the moment. Cheating on a final exam is anything but minor and its scale shows organization and premeditation. LTG Williams claims that a part of this program is “losing rank and privileges,” but his own actions directly contradict this claim and are conveniently not mentioned in his letter to graduates. On October 23, 2020, LTG Williams lifted a ban on direct representation of West Point by cadets found (the official term for convicted) on an honor violation. Before this, any cadet found on honor was not allowed to officially represent the academy in any capacity — which includes playing on a sports team.
The purpose of West Point is to prepare cadets for war and the responsibility of making decisions with absolute and irreversible consequences. The honor code isn’t aspirational — it’s the foundational and unconditional requirement for trust. While rehabilitation and development are noble goals, willful admission can’t erase poor decisions or somehow reverse their consequences. The only honorable thing for any cadet or Army officer to do is accept the full consequences of their actions, not excuse them or willfully avoid responsibility, especially when those consequences are personally detrimental. Unfortunately, LTG Williams endorsed this type of evasion explicitly when he suspended direct representation restrictions and allowed willful admission to excuse major honor violations. He prioritized “Beat Navy” in the annual football game over instilling a sense of honor in future combat leaders. Cadets attend West Point to become Army officers, not to play a sport. Playing a sport is a privilege — one that is not reserved for cadets found lacking in honor.
Army officers make decisions with permanent consequences for their soldiers’ lives and America’s national security. Respect for the totality and seriousness of this responsibility begins with the Honor Code and an understanding of the trust Americans place in their military leaders to do what is right. This is what LTG Williams is missing by removing the consequences of honor violations for athletes, making excuses for willful admits, and lowering the most basic standard for faith and trust in our future combat leaders.
(Lee Miller is a West Point graduate and combat veteran.)
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