Sailing Through Troubled Seas

ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING 311 is legendary for its difficulty among the midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy. A required course for nonengineers, it is a traditional source of high anxiety and low grades. "EE" now has a new notoriety. After a final exam last December, a few juniors reported that questions from the test had circulated throughout Bancroft Hall, the Academy dormitory, for the previous three days. Student-run honor boards found strong cases for expulsion against 11 midshipmen, and last April, Academy superintendent Rear Adm. Thomas Lynch cleared five and referred the remaining six to the secretary of the navy for dismissal.

But the "EE affair" was far from over. The incident left a festering bitterness among students and faculty. Many complained that the only ones punished were those who stepped forward to confess guilt. According to last week's Navy Times, a new investigation by the naval inspector general indicated that 125 "middies"--including 25 of the 28 senior football players--may be implicated in what could be the largest cheating scandal in Annapolis history. "I wish I had better news," Lynch told visiting parents of the class of 1994 last week, He predicted that the probe would ultimately show that "we take all this very, very seriously."

The evidence suggests that the navy knew the cheating went far beyond the 11 students recommended for expulsion. William Ferris, a civilian attorney for four of the six midshipmen who were not cleared, says his files contain a March 31 letter from an Academy chaplain, the Rev. J. William Hines written in behalf of one of Ferris's clients to the commandant of midshipmen. Hines said his counseling sessions with many midshipmen revealed the dimensions of student stonewalling. "There has been extensive lying by several members of the brigade," Hines wrote of the investigation. He said one middy, who heard two roommates admit that they cheated, received threatening phone calls from the roommates' parents, warning him not to name names.

Civilian faculty members say privately that damage control became the order of the day for Academy commanders when the reports of cheating surfaced late last year. The navy reeling from Tailhook and other episodes of sexual harassment (a sophomore woman was handcuffed to a urinal by male midshipmen in 1989), was determined to contain another scandal. Numerous questions remain unanswered. It's still not clear how the test fell into student hands. "What I find missing from this whole thing is any assertion of a desire to get to the bottom," says one disgusted instructor. Midshipmen complained of the heavy-handed initial investigation conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that caused some students to clam up. "I was investigated and I failed the test," says one "firsty" (senior). Ferris says some students were held against their will by the NCIS and forced to make statements without adequate legal representation. Complaints prompted a Senate Armed Services subcommittee to ask for a new inquiry, which is expected to be completed later this fall by the navy inspector general.

The scandal is also forcing a re-evaluation of the Academy's 42-year-old honor code, which says midshipmen "do not lie, cheat or steal." The code is somewhat less rigorous than widely assumed. Unlike the army's West Point code, it does not hold students directly responsible if they tolerate others who cheat. In fact, Academy officials don't even call it an honor code, but an "honor concept." Midshipmen have the option of privately "counseling" errant colleagues rather than turning them in. The discretion allowed by the code may have provided students with a rationale for looking the other way. it's questionable whether any such code can effectively address large-scale conspiracies to break the rules. But the navy is going to try. Earlier this month Navy Secretary John Dalton appointed three civilian attorneys to review the code.

Other observers say that the Academy's curriculum is at the core of the problem. Midshipmen combine traditional college courses with military instruction and compulsory athletics, often taking in excess of 20 credit hours a semester. Carol Burke, a former professor, says the pressure fosters "the culture of the shortcut" through some courses. "There is a whole system of quick fix and quick study," says Burke, now an associate dean at Johns Hopkins, Middies are permitted to use "gouge," Academy slang for copies of old tests, kept on file in libraries and circulated before exams. Many midshipmen said last week that truly honorable classmates may have been unwitting parties to the EE scandal, mistaking pilfered exam questions for gouge. Middies and alumni were tom on the question of expulsion for those who stumbled into the ethical gray area. "Should we brand kids for life for a single mistake? Even in the criminal world we don't do that," says Cmdr. Kerwin Miller, class of 1975 and an attorney for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The cheating inquiry isn't the only problem in Annapolis. It is under orders from Congress to cut enrollment 10 percent by 1995. Budget cuts are also squeezing career paths. The class of 1997 is the first whose members will not be guaranteed regular commissions upon graduation. With dollars short, the cold war a memory and a reputation tarnished by repeated scandal, the Academy enters the 21st century facing a troubled sea.