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Air Force Academy’s probation program doesn’t restore sense of honor, research shows

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The cadet honor code is inscribed on the Air Force Academy’s terrazzo. - COURTESY USAFA
  • Courtesy USAFA
  • The cadet honor code is inscribed on the Air Force Academy’s terrazzo.
Air Force Academy cadets swear not to lie, steal or cheat, or tolerate those who do.

To enforce that code, Academy leaders have employed various means over the school’s 63-year history to instill or restore a sense of honor to violators. But regardless of those methods, cadets continued to defy the pledge, giving rise to cheating scandals and other misdeeds.

Now, new research concludes that subjecting violators to rehabilitation — a strategy in use since 1992 and the longest-standing remedial tool — doesn’t work. Termed honor probation, rehabilitation involves reporting to a mentor, journaling, preparing a research paper on honor and other tasks overseen by Academy staff. But the analysis found the program has no impact on cadets’ respect for the honor code, says Frederick Malmstrom, one of the study’s authors who graduated from the Academy in 1964 and taught behavioral science there in the early 1970s.

“In conclusion,” the study’s synopsis says, “our results indicate that honor probation at USAFA has had little or no effect on the historical incidences of honor violations... Honor violations have continued to increase regardless of the remediation measures applied.”

But the Academy defended the program, saying in a statement, “The Air Force Academy’s Cadet Honor Code is the bedrock of cadet development. We have great faith in the merit of this system and its ability to build and rehabilitate cadets in their journey to become leaders of character.”

Malmstrom, who’s studied the honor code and its effectiveness for decades, teamed with James Oraker, emeritus faculty member of University of the Rockies, and Baylor University associate professor of accounting and business law Jason MacGregor to analyze data gathered from surveys completed by Academy graduates dating back decades. Their findings were presented in mid-April at the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association conference.

While moral rehabilitation has been used for the last 26 years to reform honor code violators, it’s only the most recent in a string of enforcement programs. Those include, in chronological order:
  • Dismissal (1955-61). Cadets were simply disenrolled.
  • Discretion (1962-71), which allowed cadets to weigh in on punishment of their peers.
  • Mental Health (1971-72). Violators were referred for mental health counseling.
  • Legal model (1973-76). Cadets were assigned attorneys to assure their rights to due process were protected.
  • Suspension (1976-84). Cadets were sent away for up to a year to ruminate on their offenses before returning to finish their degrees.
  • Military justice (1984-86). The honor board procedure was suspended, and cadets faced review under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) overseen by officers.
  • Disciplinary phase (1986-91). Violators were “sentenced” to march tours on the Academy’s terrazzo to work off punishment.
Based on surveys completed by more than 1,000 graduates spanning the Classes of 1991 to 2002, the study concluded that those who were placed on probation after admitting to or being found guilty of an honor code violation showed no difference in frequency of admitted violations compared to those who committed honor violations but were never caught and didn’t participate in remediation programs.

Simply put, Malmstrom says, “Probation made no difference in respect for the honor code between those who met an honor board and those who admitted to honor violations [in his surveys] but never went through probation.”

MacGregor tells the Indy that he’s confident of the findings due to the large number who participated in the survey over such a long period of time. While cultural possibilities outside the scope of the study couldn’t be ruled out as influencing the results, he notes, “The evidence that they [rehabilitation programs] work is minimal or nonexistent.”

The Academy disputes the program isn’t effective, noting in a statement that “over 90 percent of cadets who successfully complete the remedial program are not found guilty of additional honor violations during their remaining cadet careers.” Those who fail probation or recommit honor violations are “almost always” disenrolled, it said. “We consider the remediation program to be an essential and very positive element of developing leaders of character.”
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Malmstrom says toleration — or cadets who fail to report another cadet who violates the honor code — also has escalated over the years, exceeding the number of actual violations, although data provided by the Academy shows a total of only six toleration cases in which cadets faced honor boards in the last three years.

Researchers also found that graduates’ view of the importance of honor has dropped significantly. While 78 percent of those who graduated prior to 1962 ranked honor as the highest priority above leadership and loyalty, only 39 percent of graduates in 2014 did so.

Meanwhile, loyalty has grown as the top value. In the Academy’s earliest years, only 11 percent ranked loyalty as the highest priority, compared to 38 percent in 2014.

“At the present rate,” the study says, “Loyalty will overtake Honesty within four years.”

That’s disturbing, Malmstrom says. “You can make a parallel with organized crime,” he says. “I find that frightening. It reminds me of communist thought control.”

Malmstrom, who served as the Academy’s visiting scholar for honor from 1999 to 2013, wouldn’t speculate why loyalty is gaining steam, but suggested that would be a question for study by the Academy’s $30 million Center for Character and Leadership Development.

That seems unlikely, considering that the Academy asserted in its statement to the Indy that loyalty is not a detriment. “We consider that loyalty, like honor, is an essential virtue in the Profession of Arms,” the Academy said.

Lastly, Malmstrom notes the honor code contains a second sentence: “Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably.” That line, he says, actually should be the first part of the code, because lying and cheating are subsets of living honorably. “What it should say is, ‘I resolve to do my duty and live honorably, and furthermore, will not lie, steal or cheat.’”

The bottom line, Malmstrom says, is that nearly every wrongful or dishonest act is covered under Article 133 of the UCMJ (conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman), leading him to wonder why the Academy doesn’t simply abolish the honor code and honor system.

The Academy notes the presumptive punishment for honor code violations is disenrollment but that the commandant of cadets can choose to place a cadet on probation. That six-month process is rigorous and includes mentoring by a senior officer, a professional ethics advisor and members of the cadet’s officer and cadet chains of command. Also, the cadet is restricted to base and not allowed to represent the school in any external forum, including intercollegiate athletics.

“This process is in keeping with USAFA’s other probations and developmental programs for cadets who fail to meet standards in areas of discipline, academics, and athletics,” the Academy said. “During this period of remediation, cadets are carefully evaluated for evidence of internalizing the honor code and, if successful, are allowed to remain at the Academy.”

That said, the Academy has no shortage of honor cases each year. In academic year 2014-15, 40 honor violations were adjudicated, with no one disenrolled as a result. In the 2015-16 year, there were 68 violations that led to two disenrollments, and last year, the Academy handled 42 honor violations, disenrolling four cadets as a result of honor missteps.

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