The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is confronting its biggest academic scandal in nearly five decades after more than 70 cadets were accused of cheating on a calculus exam last spring, officials said.
Fifty-nine cadets have admitted to cheating on the test, which all the accused took remotely rather than on the academy grounds because of the coronavirus pandemic, West Point officials said. The cheating scandal was first reported by USA Today.
Six cases were dropped — two for lack of evidence; four after the cadets resigned — and eight cadets face honor code hearings that could result in their expulsion, Lt. Col. Christopher Ophardt, the academy’s public affairs director, said. The academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, will have the final say on punishment, Ophardt said.
“The honors process is working as expected, and there have been no exceptions to policy for any of these cases,” Ophardt said in a statement. “Cadets are being held accountable for breaking the code.”
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, said in a statement that the revelations were “deeply troubling.”
Speier also called on academy officials to share more details about what had happened and about their plans “to ensure that these cadets are worthy of the prestige and honor bestowed upon those chosen to serve in the academy and destined to lead our military and country.”
All but one of the 73 cadets who were accused of cheating on the exam were plebes, or first-year cadets, Ophardt said. The other was a second-year cadet, or yearling, he said. The accused were not concentrated within one sports team or other group, he added.
The cheating came to light shortly after the exam was administered in May when instructors grading it identified irregularities in the work the cadets submitted, said Ophardt, who attributed the misbehavior entirely to the cadets not taking the test in person.
An investigation was opened and continued after the cadets returned to the academy in June. Those accused of cheating were confronted with investigators’ findings in the fall, he said.
Most of those who have acknowledged cheating, a violation of the academy’s honor code, have been enrolled in a rehabilitation program that officials introduced several years ago to give cadets who run afoul of West Point’s rules and regulations a second chance rather than simply dismissing them, as had been the practice in the past.
As described by Ophardt, the rehabilitation regimen, known as the Willful Admission Program, is a kind of honor-code boot camp that matches enrollees with mentors who, among other things, steep them in ethical ideas and require them to write about their experiences.
The academy’s website says the purpose of the honor code — “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do” — is “to foster a commitment to moral-ethical excellence and an insight into the more comprehensive military professional ethic.”
The last major cheating scandal at West Point was in 1976, when more than 150 seniors, or firsties, were expelled or resigned for cheating on a final exam in electrical engineering, Ophardt said. The lack of advanced technology at the time meant that such a widespread scheme required more planning and a more active role by ringleaders, he added.
Ninety-two of those involved in the scandal were later readmitted as cadets and allowed to graduate after accepting a Pentagon amnesty that required them to complete a year of “useful service” away from the academy.
The 1976 scandal led to a series of reforms intended to “find the remedies” to the “underlying causes,” according to Lt. Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, the superintendent at the time. The changes included a restructuring of West Point’s entire academic program, major changes in military training and a revamping of the cadet honor system.
“Something like the cheating scandal does not happen by accident,” Goodpaster said then.
Tim Bakken, a West Point law professor and author of “The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris and Failure in the U.S. Military,” called the scandal a “crisis” with the potential to do damage far greater than the infractions of several dozen cadets accused of acting unethically.
Because the academy is the training ground for the Army’s leaders, he said, a failure to handle a cheating scandal aggressively and transparently — and to encourage a culture of honesty — could infect the thinking of generals and their approach to informing the public.
“The United States has not been successful in its last four wars,” Bakken said. “The failure of the military to tell us the truth is a big part of the reason.”
The nation’s other service academies have also endured cheating scandals. In 2007, for instance, 18 cadets left the Air Force Academy after being accused of cheating on a test. In 1994, an investigation at the Naval Academy implicated about 125 midshipmen in a scheme that involved having advance knowledge of answers to an engineering exam.