West Point Cadets Are Caught Cheating on Exams

The discovery that a number of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy had collaborated in completing a take-home examination revealed widespread problems with the academy’s honor code. The revelation was followed by outside reviews of the institution’s academic programs and its punishments for honor code violations. In the end, the academy began to place greater emphasis on ethics education.

Summary of Event

On March 3 and 4, 1976, the Electrical Engineering Department at the U.S. Military Academy, also known as West Point, issued a homework assignment to more than eight hundred cadets in a required junior-level class with the stipulation that they could not seek help in completing the work. The course was unpopular among cadets, who found it difficult and of little practical value; most simply wanted to complete it with as little work as possible. Nevertheless, instructors assumed cadets would complete the assignment as directed, given they were bound by a simple, but strict, honor code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” The penalty for an honor violation was severe: immediate expulsion from the academy. [kw]West Point Cadets Are Caught Cheating on Exams (Apr. 4, 1976)
[kw]Cheating on Exams, West Point Cadets Are Caught (Apr. 4, 1976)
Berry, Sidney B.
Borman Commission
West Point;cheating scandal
Berry, Sidney B.
Borman Commission
West Point;cheating scandal
[g]United States;Apr. 4, 1976: West Point Cadets Are Caught Cheating on Exams[01600]
[c]Corruption;Apr. 4, 1976: West Point Cadets Are Caught Cheating on Exams[01600]
[c]Education;Apr. 4, 1976: West Point Cadets Are Caught Cheating on Exams[01600]
[c]Military;Apr. 4, 1976: West Point Cadets Are Caught Cheating on Exams[01600]
[c]Ethics;Apr. 4, 1976: West Point Cadets Are Caught Cheating on Exams[01600]
Ulmer, Walter F.
Hoffman, Martin R.
Borman, Frank
Goodpaster, Andrew J.

One instructor reviewing completed assignments discovered a note from a cadet who admitted receiving help on his work. After his interest was piqued, the instructor began examining other submissions, noting remarkable similarities (including identical numerical transpositions and misspellings). The department launched a review of all submissions, which led to the identification, on April 4, of 117 cadets as possible cheaters.

Because West Point had a long-standing tradition of allowing cadets to investigate honor violations themselves, the names of suspected cheaters were turned over to the cadet honor boards for review. By the end of April, honor boards recommended fifty cadets for dismissal. Two cadets resigned before appearing before the honor boards. The fifty who were recommended for dismissal by their peers appealed the decision to Lieutenant General Sidney B. Berry, the academy superintendent, who was authorized to dismiss or retain cadets chosen for dismissal by the honor boards. At the same time, news of the cheating scandal made it to New York Times
The New York Times, which immediately began covering the story.

Public exposure of cheating at the academy could not have come at a worse time for West Point. The academy’s handling of honor code violations had been the subject of the 1975 television film The Silence, which portrayed a cadet forced to suffer recriminations from others who disagreed with punishment meted out for an honor violation. Concurrent reports of harassment directed at a new cadet who had been retained by the superintendent after being found guilty of an honor violation had painted the Corps of Cadets as a group of vindictive martinets. Many outsiders felt a cadet accused of an honor violation was considered guilty until proven innocent, and that officers were content to let cadets purge their ranks of those they judged unworthy of remaining at West Point. Furthermore, the institution had been in the news because it was preparing for its first class of women in the institution’s history—over the vocal objections not only of the current all-male student body but also many active duty and retired officers, some assigned to the West Point faculty and staff.

General Berry realized the magnitude of the situation concerning the cheating cadets. As accused cadets began making their appeals, the scope of the scandal began to widen. More than three hundred cadets were named either as cheaters or as persons who knew of the cheating but failed to report it to superiors. If all were found guilty, the class of 1977 would be decimated. Worse, from Berry’s point of view, was that attorneys assigned to West Point’s Department of Law, who had been appointed to represent cadets filing appeals, were exposing widespread disdain throughout the Corps of Cadets. The cadets believed the honor system had become corrupted into a method for dealing with petty offenses such as violating curfew or failing to complete the most trivial tasks.

Berry’s response was to replace the cadet honor boards with panels consisting of officers and upperclassmen who he believed could provide more mature judgment of individual cases while protecting the institution’s ability to police its own ranks. He held all juniors at the academy for weeks during the summer of 1976 so cases could be processed expeditiously. Meanwhile, the commandant of cadets, Brigadier General Walter F. Ulmer, took an active role in the investigations, urging boards to reach their conclusions rapidly. Unfortunately, many involved in representing accused cadets, especially military lawyers assigned as counsels, began suggesting publicly that their careers were being jeopardized because they were being too zealous in mounting their defenses. General Ulmer was frequently singled out as one who was bent on punishing those who stood in the way of swift justice for the guilty.

To counter charges that the academy was not handling the investigations evenhandedly, Berry petitioned Secretary of the Army Martin R. Hoffman to appoint an external board to conduct an independent inquiry into the incident. Hoffman declined to do so, preferring to let the academy deal with the problem internally. The constant attention given to the scandal by the media, however, soon led others within the government to act. One U.S. Congress member conducted an investigation while the academy was still pursuing these matters. By the summer of 1977, Congress was calling for the secretary of the Army to step in and take action directly. At that point, more than one hundred fifty cadets had either resigned or been separated as a result of the cheating accusations.

Hoffman responded by offering two proposals that would meliorate the short-term ill effects on current cadets and provide some long-term assurances that situations such as this would be less likely to recur. First, he decided that all cadets dismissed as a result of this cheating scandal would be allowed to apply for readmission to the academy. While this policy did not sit well with some, it made sense to many who had come to believe there were so many flaws in the administration of the honor code that something had to be done to recognize the culpability of the academy and the Army in the problem. Eventually, ninety-two cadets were readmitted and graduated from West Point.

Hoffman’s second action was to appoint two commissions. One focused on problems in the legal system employed to handle honor violations. The second, chaired by academy graduate and astronaut Frank Borman, was tasked with examining both the honor code and the broader issue of life at West Point. The Borman Commission’s recommendations, issued on December 15, 1976, would serve as the foundation for a number of significant changes that would shape the Military Academy’s future both as an academic institution and a training ground for the Army’s leaders.


The revelation of widespread cheating at West Point, and reports of the Army’s heavy-handed methods of dealing with accused cadets, further reduced the prestige of the military in the eyes of many Americans disillusioned with the military and its role in the Vietnam Vietnam War War. The public already was conditioned to believe that officers and public officials were apt to lie, cheat, and protect individual reputations and institutional traditions at all costs. In this scandal, the public found further evidence that the military was out of touch with modern society and quickly becoming irrelevant as an institution serving the nation’s needs. Nevertheless, steps taken by the secretary of the Army proved to have long-term positive impact.

The academy adopted recommendations for changes to procedures for dealing with honor code violations that replaced the single penalty for infractions (expulsion) with an array of disciplinary measures that gave the superintendent and other senior officers more latitude in dealing with cadets who may have committed minor violations of the code. One immediate change proved important as well. When General Berry left the academy in 1977, he was replaced by General Andrew J. Goodpaster, who had been Supreme Allied Commander for the North North Atlantic Treaty Organization Atlantic Treaty Organization until his retirement in 1974. Recalled to active duty, the scholar-soldier gave credibility to efforts aimed at showing how West Point was as concerned with educating future officers ethically as it was with honing their military skills. Under his leadership, many of the Borman Commission’s recommendations for curriculum changes were implemented, as the academy gradually reduced some of the pressures on cadets and placed greater emphasis on ethics education. Berry, Sidney B.
Borman Commission
West Point;cheating scandal

Further Reading

  • Betros, Lance. West Point: Two Centuries and Beyond. Abilene, Tex.: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2004. Discusses the impact of the scandal on various academic departments at the Military Academy, especially the Department of Law.
  • Hansen, Richard P. “The Crisis of the West Point Honor Code.” Military Affairs 49, no. 2 (April, 1985): 57-62. Brief history of the scandal and its aftermath written by a person who was at the academy when news of the cheating incident was first made public.
  • Janda, Lance. Stronger than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. Discusses the influence of the cheating scandal on the first class of women to enter the academy in 1976.
  • Jorgenson, John H. “Duty, Honor, Country, and Too Many Lawyers.” ABA Journal 63 (April, 1977): 564-567. Assessment of the legal environment in which investigations and hearings were conducted at West Point to determine the fate of cadets accused of cheating.
  • “What Price Honor?” Time, June 7, 1976. Summarizes the events occurring in the spring of 1976 and comments on conditions at the Military Academy that led to the scandal.

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