WASHINGTON – More than 70 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were accused of cheating on a math exam, the worst academic scandal since the 1970s at the Army's premier training ground for officers.
Fifty-eight cadets admitted cheating on the exam, which was administered remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them have been enrolled in a rehabilitation program and will be on probation for the remainder of their time at the academy. Others resigned, and some face hearings that could result in their expulsion.
The scandal strikes at the heart of the academy's reputation for rectitude, espoused by its own moral code, which is literally etched in stone:
“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
Tim Bakken, a law professor at West Point, called the scandal a national security issue. West Point cadets become senior leaders the nation depends on.
"There’s no excuse for cheating when the fundamental code for cadets is that they should not lie, cheat or steal," Bakken said. "Therefore when the military tries to downplay effects of cheating at the academy, we're really downplaying the effects on the military as a whole. We rely on the military to tell us honestly when we should fight wars, and when we can win them."
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said West Point's disciplinary system is effective.
“The Honor process is working as expected and cadets will be held accountable for breaking the code," McCarthy said in a statement.
“The honor system at West Point is strong and working as designed," Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, the academy's superintendent, said in a statement. "We made a deliberate decision to uphold our academic standards during the pandemic. We are holding cadets to those standards.”
Army Col. Mark Weathers, West Point's chief of staff, said in an interview Monday that he was "disappointed" in the cadets for cheating, but he did not consider the incident a serious breach of the code. It would not have occurred if the cadets had taken the exam on campus, he said.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who leads the personnel panel of the House Armed Services Committee, said she found the scandal deeply troubling and West Point must provide more transparency to determine the scope of cheating.
"Our West Point cadets are the cream of the crop and are expected to demonstrate unimpeachable character and integrity," Speier said. "They must be held to the same high standard during remote learning as in-person."
Instructors initially determined that 72 plebes, or first-year cadets, and one yearling, or second-year cadet, had cheated on a calculus final exam in May. Those cadets all made the same error on a portion of the exam.
Recently concluded investigations and preliminary hearings for the cadets resulted in two cases being dismissed for lack of evidence and four dropped because the cadets resigned. Of the remaining 67 cases, 55 cadets were found in violation of the honor code and enrolled in a program for rehabilitation Dec. 9. Three more cadets admitted cheating but were not eligible to enroll in what is called the Willful Admission Program.
Cadets in the program are matched with a mentor and write journals and essays on their experience. The process can take up to six months. Cadets in the program are essentially on academic probation.
The remaining cadets accused of cheating face administrative hearings in which a board of cadets will hear the case and decide whether a violation of the code occurred. Another board will recommend penalties, which could include expulsion. West Point's superintendent has the final say on punishment.
How it's different from the 1976 scandal
One of the biggest cheating scandals among the nation's taxpayer-funded military colleges occurred in 1976 when 153 cadets at West Point resigned or were expelled for cheating on an electrical engineering exam.
The current cheating incident is considerably less serious, said Jeffery Peterson, senior advisor, Character Integration Advisory Group which reports to the superintendent and a retired colonel.
"They're early in their developmental process," Peterson said. "And so on occasion, these incidents happen, but we have a system in place to deal with them when they do."
Less than half as many cadets were involved in the current cheating case, and all but one was a first-year student, Peterson said. The first-year students are relatively new to the expectations and programs designed to develop ethics and leadership at the academy. In 1976, the scandal involved third-year cadets. Of those caught cheating, 98 returned to West Point and graduated with the class of 1978, Peterson said.
Other military academies have been tainted by academic scandals: In 1992, 125 midshipmen at the Naval Academy were caught in a cheating scandal, and 19 cadets at the Air Force Academy were suspended for cheating on a test.
In 2020, the pandemic has overturned college life as distance learning and exams supplanted in-person learning. West Point isn't alone in discovering misconduct among students. The University of Missouri caught 150 students cheating in the spring and fall semesters, the Kansas City Star reported.
West Point switched to remote learning after spring break last year as the pandemic spread.
The honor code remains strong at West Point despite the pandemic, Weathers said.
"Cadets are being held accountable for breaking the code," he said. "While disappointing, the Honor System is working, and these 67 remaining cases will be held accountable for their actions."