Of pressure, temptation, opportunity, consequences, and lessons learned

Before my kids expressed an interest in our military academies, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about them. Now that I’m immersed in them, they are a huge part of my life.

When most people learn of my kids’ circumstances, they respond with congratulations and “you must be so proud” and other congratulatory phrases. It’s humbling. Some respond with some confusion between attending an academy and enlisting. Some in-between understand the difference, but can’t understand why I would let my kids attend such an institution (as if it were my life I were determining).

A small subset of that last group (which is admittedly small, to begin with) not only are not impressed by the academies but take some pleasure in seeing their lofty reputation tarnished, even a bit. Such is the case with the news that came out last week – Air Force Academy expels 22 cadets for 2020 cheating scandal.

As a longtime reporter and editor, I knew to read past the headline. The whole thing erupted in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown when USAFA sent all but the Firsties home to finish the semester remotely. We all know the intense pressure put upon cadets, the relentless demands of high-level academics, military obligations and procedures, physical demands, and, in general, life away from home for the first time (for most of them, at least). When people are put under pressure, they are subject to temptation.And the move to remote transformed temptation into opportunity. Some took advantage of the opportunity. From the story: “The sudden switch to distance learning invited one of the most widespread spates of academic misconduct in the academy’s history. Away from campus, students sought help on unauthorized websites, plagiarized papers and collaborated on tests.”

Now this is the point in the story where the people in the small group I mentioned earlier will nod knowingly, “see, they are no better than anyone else.” If you want to cherry-pick facts, you can build a case for that. USNA had its own cheating scandal and before that, there was the report of deteriorating facilities at the Naval Academy accompanied by the exposure of an elaborate drug ring. Of course, West Point endured its own cheating scandal and more recently, our Spring Break was chilled by the news of West Point cadets sent to the emergency room after using fentanyl-laced cocaine.

Not exactly shining examples of “the best of the best.” But those of us on the inside know a little better. And we’ll keep reading. Because here’s the thing that jumped out at me as I read through one of the stories about USAFA’s situation: “The vast majority of cadets who were suspected of cheating — 231 of the 245 students — admitted to their actions, according to a presentation given by USAFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark at an academy board meeting.”

By my math, that means about 6 percent of the Cadet Wing was flagged for cheating. But of those who were identified, 94% of them admitted they had violated the Honor Code. They stepped up and accepted the consequences. Just one more number – by my estimates, that means about 1/3 of 1 percent (0.34%) of the cadets were accused of cheating and are either innocent or refuse to accept blame.

I’ll take those numbers.

The path to USAFA, like all the academies, is narrow. It’s a selective, grueling path that weeds out any number of certainly qualified and deserving candidates, aiming to get the very best. But it is a process developed, implemented, and run by humans, evaluating other humans. Bottom line, even if it were a perfect process – and it isn’t – some people aren’t going to make it.

Some will realize that this is not the path for them. Because despite their childhood dreams, they can’t really understand what it will take to achieve their ultimate goal as an Air Force officer. Some will find the academics are just too much, and still others will find the military obligations too onerous. Some will be asked to leave. That’s why USAFA builds attrition into its process.

Now, here’s the absolute best part of this whole story – yes, there is a good part. It’s a lesson in leadership. The military is well-known for its slow-to-change personality. Good leadership recognizes a changing landscape and the need to change; great leadership commits to that change. Enter Gen. Clark, who committed to taking a fresh look at USAFA’s Honor Code. Not to weaken it, but instead to strengthen the way it is implemented so that the ever-more diverse Cadet Wing can learn to embrace it.

Again, from the story: “We needed to … step back and look at how we’re developing our cadets and how we’re helping to instill that ‘living honorably’ [piece],” Clark said. “We realize that everybody doesn’t come from the same background. They don’t have the same focus or view of living honorably, and we have to meet them where they are. Now, that doesn’t mean that we have to accept where they are. But we have to … help them to get where we need them to be.”

I know I said no more numbers, but let’s look at one more. The story indicates that honor code violations decreased from 311 last academic year to 44 this academic year — the highest and lowest points since at least 2009. And the freshmen class’s numbers were substantially lower.

The scandal and the reaction to it recall the words of the great Nelson Mandela, who said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” With Gen. Clark’s strong leadership, perhaps the Air Force Academy will do both.

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