Wynne Martin Beers

Cadet Captain, USMA

Post Office Box 185

United States Corps of Cadets

West Point, New York 10997

Phone (845) 515-4802

Email: x22823@exmail.usma.army.mil

 The Impact of Discretion within the USMA Honor System

on the Character Development of its Cadets



Part I.        Overview of USMA Honor Code and System History

Part II.      USMA Honor Code and System

Part III.     Discretion and the Corps of Cadets

Part IV.     How to make Discretion Succeed

Part V.       Relevance to the Army and serving on Active Duty



Part I. Overview of USMA Honor Code and System


            “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”


Many people have heard about the variety of honor codes and systems existing at various undergraduate institutions and there has been much discussion about the efficacy of such systems for producing graduates of strong moral character. 

West Point’s Honor Code helps the academy’s mission “to educate, train and inspire” its cadets to each become a “leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, [and] Country”[1].  Like other Honor Codes, West Point’s is a statement of how its students are expected to live – an expectation not imposed so much by the establishment as initiated and enforced by the Corps of Cadets.  The Honor Code has existed in some form since the nineteenth century and was formalized in 1922 when Superintendent Douglas MacArthur officially established the Cadet Honor Committee as the guardians of the Code.[2]


West Point has endured two major honor scandals – one in 1951 and another in 1976.  Over 150 second-class cadets were found guilty of cheating on a take-home electrical engineering examination in the spring of 1976.  The Secretary of the Army commissioned a study on USMA’s Honor Code and System, to be known as the Borman Commission.  This group found that a number of structural issues hampered the cadets’ potential for internalizing the Code, particularly for internalizing the “non-toleration” clause.[3] 

As a result, the Borman Commission made two considerable procedural recommendations. The first involved replacing the “two-tier” system with a single cadet honor hearing.  Previously, a suspected cadet would attend a cadet honor board and then, if found and requested, an officer honor board.  Until 1973, a cadet who had been found by the cadet board but not found by the officer board, and thus retained, was “silenced.”  He would eat alone, live alone, study alone, and had no interaction with his fellow cadets outside of official duties for the typically short remainder of time at the Academy. 

The Borman Commission also recommended that the Superintendent should, on occasion, give the found cadet an alternative to separation.  Instead of a “single-sanction” system, USMA would now have a “discretionary” system.  Although this had been in use in the 1920s and 30s, it disappeared in the 1940s.  During the 1960s and 70s it was not uncommon for cadets to be found and separated for minor offenses even after demonstrating genuine remorse and resolve to live honorably.  Although the Code exists for the development of cadets, the system was moving away from that and into the realm of black-and-white punishment, believing that no honor violators would be salvageable as officers.  One example of a possible error was a cadet who, separated for lying about a regulations violation in the 1950s, sought his commission through ROTC and went on to win the Medal of Honor for gallantry and intrepidity in Vietnam.


Part II – Honor Code and System


            How does our system work and what do we expect of cadets?  The root of our Honor Code is not the simple lying, cheating, and stealing tenets, but the concept of “non-tolerating”.  We expect that cadets coming to West Point will learn that their duty to the Corps, to the country, and to themselves obliges them to confront fellow cadets who are committing unscrupulous actions.  As such, we have a formal system that takes a case from the violation itself through to the punishment. 

If a cadet, staff, or faculty member perceives that an honor violation may have occurred, that person will confront the suspected cadet in a process we call the “Approach for Clarification.” In a professional manner that does not assume guilt, the accuser will ask the cadet to explain the incident.  If the explanation meets the accuser’s satisfaction that nothing dishonorable occurred, the process ends there.  If the explanation does not sufficiently convince the accuser or if the cadet admits fault, then the accuser gives the cadet 24 hours to turn himself in to a company honor representative, after which time the accuser turns the cadet in.  As an aside, there are 32 companies within the 4000-cadet Corps, approximately 120 cadets per company.  Honor Reps are second and first-class cadets, which makes 76 committee members. 

At this point an investigative team of two cadets on the Honor Committee is dispatched to investigate the case and send the findings up through the Regimental Honor Rep and then to the Brigade Vice-Chair for Investigations.  Based on the VCI’s recommendation, the case will either go to a board or will be dropped – the VCI is the first person who can drop a case once it has been initiated. 

If the case goes to a board and the cadet is still contesting the allegation, there will be a 9-member board of four honor reps and five cadets-at-large, as well as one JAG officer.  The cadets sit on the board to seek the truth, not to act as prosecution or defense.  6 out of 9 votes are required to “find” a cadet.  If the cadet admits, then a modified board run entirely by cadets is used.  This board simply makes a recommendation to the Superintendent about what should happen to the found cadet. 

In the case of a found cadet, the board makes a recommendation based on the following factors:

a)                Did the cadet intend to violate the Cadet Honor Code?

b)                How was the case reported? (Contested, Admitted, Self-Reported)

c)                What is the cadet’s resolve to live honorably?

d)                How severe was the violation (how egregious)

e)               Was the cadet undergoing any duress at the time of the violation? (abnormal personal   issues)

f)                 Are there any other factors the Superintendent should consider?

g)               What sanction should the Superintendent take? (e.g. retain in class, December graduate, full-year turn back, separate)


Part III: Discretion and the Corps of Cadets


            Up until discretion was re-instituted in 1976, there were a few fundamental flaws with the philosophy of the Honor System.  The first, one that I touched on briefly, involves reconciling the ends and means.  The Honor Code and System exist to regulate the behavior of the Corps of Cadets, but, more importantly, to help cadets develop the requisite moral character that service as an officer in the Army demands of them.  Thus the ends of the Honor Code were to effect that change in cadets.  The means did not always fit their ends because some cadets were separated who otherwise could have reformed themselves and probably should have been given the opportunity to reform themselves. 

The second issues dovetails with the first in consideration of the Code’s purpose and intent.  The Borman commission cited a cadet as expressing words to the effect that West Point expects its cadets to develop and grow in all areas but apparently honor, an area in which it expects its cadets to know everything they need to know before arrival.  Obviously we can not expect this standard, and if we do expect that, either explicitly or implicitly through the design of our system, we are making the point that cadets do not grow or develop during their time at West Point.  As such, it is reasonable that younger cadets may make some ethical mistakes that the Academy could reasonably expect upper-class cadets to refrain from.  The practice of separating cadets for any and all honor violations sends the clear message that cadets should not believe that the Code exists to foster development and growth but simply enforcement of regulations and that as future officers, we should not give any leniency to soldiers with character flaws.  This kind of thinking clearly does not prepare cadets well for the future because that mindset is neither realistic nor practical.

The third issue concerns the de facto use of discretion at the lower levels when it was not used at the higher levels.  Until after the Borman Commission, cadets sitting on honor hearings required a unanimous vote in order to find a cadet guilty of an honor violation.  Often enough, a cadet might decide that he did not think that the violation was serious enough to warrant separation and would thus vote “not found.”[4]  Such a process surely undermines the Academy’s and the Honor Committee’s claims to legal due process.  The other area where cadets tended to exert their own discretion was at the time of the violation itself.  If a cadet believes that his fellow cadet will be separated for an honor violation, there are many justifications, valid or not, that he might use to support a decision to tolerate a violation.  Among these might be that the person is his friend, that he would not want to “rat”, that he gauged the offense to be a small or insignificant one, that he admires the other cadet, or that the other cadet is a first-classman who has never broken the code before and this cadet would not want to cause his separation.  Now that a cadet may reasonably assume that a “found” cadet may not be separated, he should not feel pressure to exercise discretion at his level – he may turn in the suspected cadet and believe that the cadet will be separated if that is what he truly deserves, not that he will be separated regardless of any other factors. 

            Thus in the third issue we moved on to the issue of non-toleration.  Developing an internalization of the importance and application of non-toleration is the paramount aim of the Honor Code and of honor education.  This implies not only non-toleration of another’s actions, but of one’s own actions.  In a system that has a “single sanction” (meaning separation for all honor offenses), a cadet who self-reports an honor violation (turns himself in without provocation or expect of provocation) will receive the same fate as a cadet who premeditated cheating on a term paper and never admitted to it even after being “found” by the Honor Hearing Board.  Thus in the single sanction system, accused cadets will typically hold onto their innocence as long as possible. There is no other recourse available and only the cadets who had truly internalized the importance of honorable living to some degree would do otherwise.  To illustrate this, Dr. Richard C. U’Ren, USMA Chief of Psychiatry from 1970 to 1972, noted in reference to single-sanction that “[i]t’s a rather ironic fact that the code weeds out some cadets who are honest enough to report themselves for honor violations.”  However, in a discretionary system, a cadet is more likely to accept responsibility for his actions by, at the least, admitting fault when confronted, or, better still, turning himself in immediately after committing an honor violation. 

            Statistics from academic year 1998-99 indicate the successfulness here because that year was the first for which there were more admitted violations than contested violations, an event attributed to increased cadet willingness to take responsibility for their actions when they believe that they will not be automatically separated.  These statistics also indicate that over the time period 1997-99 discretion increased, possibly because of the larger number of self-admits and the larger number of cases of a seemingly less egregious nature that were “found” those years.  The reasons again were attributed to the belief that Honor Code-violating cadets may not be immediately separated.[5] 


Part IV: How to make Discretion Succeed


            Having explained the efficacy of discretion for helping cadets make the hard decision to vote against other cadets, to approach cadets for clarification, to internalize non-toleration, and to admit their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions, we’ll move on to how the Academy ensures that discretion will be successful in reforming Honor Code violators and a discussion on the role of the Superintendent in making discretion work.

            All cadets who receive discretion are enrolled into one of the two mentorship programs: the Honor Mentorship Program and the Army Mentorship Program.  The Honor Mentorship program, spanning six months, exists for rehabilitating cadets who have been allowed to stay at West Point while the Army Mentorship program, spanning a year, is for cadets who are separated and sent to the Army with prospect for readmission.  Both programs use a mentor-mentoree relationship between a found cadet and an officer to help the cadet resolve his ethical shortcomings and grow from an understanding of them.  Both programs have similar requirements.  For example, a cadet in the Honor Mentorship program will make twice-weekly reflective journal entries, perform honor-building projects (teaching classes and other education), and write his own case using X and Y for names.  If the cadet’s work passes established standards and receives the approval of the cadet Vice-Chair for Mentorship and the Commandant, he will return to full privilege status within the Corps without any further unfavorable personal actions taken against him.  Although many of the cadets enrolled in the program complete it successfully, about a quarter have to spend an additional three months in the program in order to improve their mentorship work and some are failed altogether.  Although it is difficult to generalize, only about half of the found cadets, on average, are even given the chance to join the program (i.e. granted discretion).[6] 

            Both programs have proven successful in rehabilitating cadets.  The Army Mentorship program has shown character improvements as a result of the physical separation from West Point and requisite inability to forget about one’s offense and punishment.  A recent graduate of the program who was commissioned this past year wrote a paper about his experiences, explaining that he learned so much during his time away that he can not believe how much he did not understand as a cadet about personal integrity and ethics.[7]  This is not an indictment of the developmental opportunities he received at West Point but rather support for the success of the Army Mentorship Program. 

            Having an effectively run and superbly administered Mentorship Program that does not rubber-stamp cadets’ packets has made strides towards improving the way cadets perceive the discretion that their peers receive.  Before the Mentorship Program achieved its comprehensiveness in cadet progress examination, a certain amount of cadet cynicism existed concerning the punishment retained cadets were receiving – it seemed to some as if discretion meant that a cadet just got a second chance.  An effective Mentorship Program forces the retained cadet to prove that he deserves to be restored to full cadet status. 

            The last element essential to a healthy system employing discretion concerns the way that the Superintendent wields his discretionary powers.  Each Superintendent has a different perception of how discretion should be used, but it seems clear now that the most effective perspective is one that recognizes separation as the default punishment for honor violations and only awards discretion in limited cases.  This maintains the possibility that a cadet who has resolved to live honorably and appears to be a good candidate for rehabilitation can be retained while clearly emphasizing to cadets and graduates that separation is the standard punishment for an honor violation. 


Part V.             Relevance to the Army and serving on Active Duty


            Understanding discretion as it is applied now at USMA and as cadets apply it themselves is critical to creating the best possible learning environment for cadets.  In the Army and in life outside the Army, there is no formal Honor Code and no one will receive an Honor Hearing.  Thus graduates will be forced to make decisions as platoon leaders, company commanders, and business or government managers about how to deal with breaches of integrity.  Cadets brought up on a single-sanction system learn that if an offense seems minor, if the person will learn right away, or if there might be perceptions of “ratting” that it may be best not to approach the person about it.  However, cadets brought up on the discrectionary system should learn that a breach of honor is a breach of honor – regardless of the extenuating circumstances.  Following confrontation, one can then determine how to deal with the issue.  Sometimes there might be good cause as well as authority to dismiss the person from service.  Most of the time, however, one will have to continue working with that person, at which time it becomes necessary to determine how the unit should treat that individual.  In the case of a peer or superior, the best one might be able to do is confront the individual and then talk with that individual’s first-line leader.  In either case, the accuser will still probably have to continue working with that individual.  Being developed under a single-sanction system may make this very difficult, whereas someone who can understand that all persons who commit breaches of integrity are not lost causes may learn more from the experience.

            Finally, living under a system in which non-toleration of other’s unethical actions and where individuals routinely take responsibility for their actions breeds officer who are more likely to do the same during their careers.  If our Honor Code challenges and inspires cadets to make the tough decisions and to suffer the wrong choices now, in an environment that stresses both enforcement and learning, they will be better prepared to lead soldiers in our Army.

      The use of limited discretion based on well-established criteria, such as intent, egregiousness, manner reported, and resolve to live honorably, reinforces the positive values that the Honor System supports and reduces the conflict for cadets faced with the difficulty of non-tolerating unethical conduct (and who are still learning what non-toleration really means).  Cadets in these systems learn that although unethical conduct is not to be tolerated, some people can overcome their ethical shortcomings through remediation.  This system also reinforces the importance of self-reporting violations and admitting to accusations of violations committed.  The end product is a graduating body of cadets who value honorable living and loyalty to ethical practices before loyalty to friends and who recognize the possibility of character reform.





“Character and Moral Development: An Intersection of Education and Reflective Practice”.  Department of Behavioral Sciences: USMA, 2001.


Cox, Shannon, Commandant’s Special Assistant for Honor, 2000-2002.


Former Honor Chairman of the 1970s, in conversation with the author, 22 January, 2002.


Honor Committee Statistics Book, slide pages 2 and 4.


Karinshak, Bryan, “Honor White Paper. USMA Print Plant: West Point, NY, 2000.


New Cadet Handbook, CBT 2001.  USMA Print Plant: West Point, NY, 2001.


“Report to the Secretary of the Army by the Special Commission on the United States Military Academy”, colloquially, “The Borman Commission”.  Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1976.




[1] New Cadet Handbook, CBT 2001. (USMA Print Plant: West Point, NY, 2001), I-1.

[2] Karinshak, Bryan, “Honor White Paper. (USMA Print Plant: West Point, NY, 2000), 4.

[3] “Report to the Secretary of the Army by the Special Commission on the United States Military Academy”, colloquially, “The Borman Commission”.  (Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1976), 42.

[4] Former Honor Chairman of the 1970s, in conversation with the author, 22 January, 2002.  This former chairman and I discussed the possibility of “discretion voting”, which he said occurred then.  It still occurs now from time to time, particularly on boards involving first-class cadets close to graduation.

[5] Honor Committee Statistics Book, slide pages 2 and 4.

[6] Major Shannon Cox, conservation with author, December 18, 2001.  MAJ Cox, the Commandant’s Special Assistant for Honor, gave me this statistic but told me to note that one cannot generalize.

[7] “Character and Moral Development: An Intersection of Education and Reflective Practice”.  (Department of Behavioral Sciences: USMA, 2001), 17.