The Air Force Academy’s honor system might be losing its hold on the nation’s future officers
by Pam Zubeck
Can honor be taught? Can you test for it? Can you detect when it’s been forsaken?
For Fred Malmstrom, Air Force Academy Class of ’64, the answers to those questions are: yes, yes, and if you want to.
Malmstrom is a psychologist, researcher and historian of his alma mater’s falls from grace. He has found the academy — where, until last week, he’s served as an unpaid visiting scholar for honor since 1999 — doesn’t seem interested in his documentation of a decline in cadets’ respect for the honor code and an increase in infractions.
Academy officials have twice told the Independent that they weren’t familiar with Malmstrom’s work. Yet Malmstrom says that in early March, officials wanted to “clear” his findings prior to his presenting them at an upcoming conference.
Based on thousands of anonymous surveys filled out by graduates of the AFA, the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and the Naval Academy between 1959 and 2010, Malmstrom has found that each academy is seeing an increase in alums who say they violated the code and didn’t get caught. But it’s particularly steep at the Air Force Academy, where nearly two-thirds of surveyed cadets who graduated between 2007 and 2010 say they violated the code.
Now, another barometer has delivered more bad news. The Defining Issues Test, a scientific yardstick for measuring moral thinking, has found no significant difference in the highest level of moral reasoning between academy seniors and seniors at other colleges and universities. It’s also found that one in four members of the Class of 2010 regressed to lower levels of ethical decision-making while at the academy, despite 60 hours of honor and character development training.
All at an institution where taxpayers pay more than $400,000 per graduate to create “leaders of character.”
Only one academy program was shown to improve cadets’ DIT scores — the Scholars Program, which includes about 200 cadets or about 5 percent of the Cadet Wing, who are chosen as the peak academic performers and given intense instruction from the most qualified professors. They also attend off-campus seminars and travel internationally, unlike other cadets.
Academy officials say it’s too early to fully understand why cadets didn’t do better on the DIT. And, they say, it’s not a reflection on the honor system. In a prepared statement in response to questions, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould says the academy is “constantly reviewing” the honor program.
“At the moment, it appears that we have shown a steady decline in both honor cases and convictions since 2005,” he says. “As always, we will continue to review the data to identify ways we can improve our processes.”
Gould’s comment actually conflicts with honor data provided by the academy, which shows cases and convictions went up in 2006-07 before falling in the next two years, going up again in 2009-10 and then declining.
Asked about the discrepancy, academy spokesman Meade Warthen says in an e-mail, “The trend averages for both cases and violations over the span of 7½ years is on a downward slope.”
All three military academies stress honor as the keystone in developing national leaders of character. The Air Force Academy’s code states: “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.”
Those words are bolted over the entrance to the academy’s terrazzo, a route I take on a snowy February day to hear academy leaders talk about character and the honor code. After being escorted to a conference room, I am seated at the head of the table — a spot traditionally reserved for the highest-ranking officer in the room. In this case, it’s Col. Joseph Sanders, director and permanent professor at the academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development.
He and his staff mount a PowerPoint presentation, prepared just for me, giving an overview of the system. It also features bar charts of the past 10 years of honor code violations that illustrate the ups and downs of trying to keep cadets honest.
In 2002-03 and 2003-04, when the academy’s sexual assault scandal was in full swing, violations weren’t exceptionally high, 76 and 66, respectively. (The honor code doesn’t deal with crimes; those are handled through the Uniform Code of Military Justice.)
Then came 2004-05, when violations hit 94, due largely to a freshman cheating investigation. Seven cadets resigned voluntarily, and another 19 were found to have violated the code. The academy never disclosed how many were disenrolled.
In 2006-07, violations peaked with 115. Again, freshmen were caught cheating: 27 admitted to it, including 25 athletes; 17 had been found in violation of the honor code as of March 15, 2007. No update is available even five years later.
As those incidents suggest, cheating is the biggest identified problem: Of the 423 violations substantiated between fall 2006 and January 2012, 51 percent were for cheating. Another 44 percent were for lying, 3 percent for stealing, and 2 percent for tolerating others who violated the code.
Sanders’ staff explains that the honor system, premised on peer pressure, is run by 182 cadets who serve on panels that hear cases and determine if violations have occurred. If so, another cadet panel, drawn from the 182, recommends punishment to the commandant, who decides what sanction to impose. Only the superintendent decides whether a cadet is kicked out.
If a cadet admits to a violation, a cadet panel reviews the case and recommends action to the commandant. One possible avenue is six months’ remediation, which requires the cadet to keep a journal, to be counseled by mentors and peers, and to undergo a review for release from probation.
“We want to make sure the cadets going through those programs are fixing their character flaws that led to them having an honor violation in the first place,” says Wing Honor Chairperson Sean Knowles, a senior, “and making sure they don’t fall into the pitfalls or pressures they were exposed to during their violation. We want to make sure they’re ready to face those kind of ethical moral challenges and dilemmas that officership inevitably will bring.”
Knowles speaks well of remediation, because he went through it himself after he self-reported lying about the source of alcohol he obtained at the end of his freshman year. “There was a group of us who lied,” he says. “It got to the point it was too stressful and my conscience weighed on me, and we all decided to admit.”
He hasn’t broken the honor code since, he says, because his probation was so effective.
“I was given a senior mentor, a retired major general from the class of 1959,” Knowles says. “He provided the grandfatherly wisdom — ‘Been there, done that.’ You had your AOC [Air Officer Commanding] to get mentored with. You have peer counseling to discuss everything, too. You have the journaling process as well.
“A lot of it is personal soul-searching. It gets back to self-awareness. We like to say the people we accept back into the Cadet Wing aren’t the same ones who violated the honor code in the first place.”
Sanders says the honor system works because cadets “own” it. “There’s a sense of pride at being at an institution with an honor code,” he says. “That’s an indication that we’re doing something right.”
But the academy can’t provide data to show the honor code is a success other than violations numbers, which show a decline from 72 in 2009-10 to 34 through Feb. 2 this year. And the latest drug investigation (see “A history of headlines”) could reverse that trend.
Honor division director Lt. Col. Bryan Huntley speaks of an honor survey given to cadets every two years, but the academy has refused to release the most recent completed survey, from 2005-07. In 2009, the academy skipped it, academy spokesman Lt. Col. John Bryan says in an e-mail. Bryan says the academy is withholding the 2005-07 survey outcome until it’s integrated into a report with the 2011 results this summer.
“All indications are they show our programs and training/education are better,” he says, “and we plan on releasing those and believe it will give a better picture of our hard work and efforts — showing just 05/07 wouldn’t give a current, accurate picture of what’s happening today.”
Surveying for character
Malmstrom, a snowy-haired 72-year-old who carries his papers in a beat-up canvas satchel, came through the academy’s Preparatory School when it was a pipeline for promising enlisted personnel. It’s since also become a staging area for athletes and students who need additional study and training to succeed at the academy.
After graduating, Malmstrom flew bombing missions over North Vietnam and earned masters and doctoral degrees in experimental psychology. He’s written more than 100 professional papers and articles, counseled prison inmates, and taught in universities from Florida to California, including his alma mater.
But he stayed in the active-duty Air Force only 11 years before moving to the reserves. He says he was disillusioned by the 1975 embezzlement case of Maj. Louis Wailly, a research officer in the academy’s Life and Behavioral Sciences Department.
According to Malmstrom’s paper, “The Problems With Whistle-Blowing: U.S. v. Wailly,” based on Office of Special Investigation files, Wailly pleaded guilty to several charges in an investigation that revealed widespread dereliction of duty and possible conspiracy to defraud the government by him and others at the academy. Wailly was accused of stealing research funds and using academy resources to run his real estate business. He also bought two pigs for research projects, then had them slaughtered and sold the meat to his colleagues, pocketing the money. He also went on 453 trips in six years on Air Force funding. He did six years in federal prison.
But Capt. Alvin Young, a research officer who blew the whistle on Wailly, was ostracized and lectured by superiors for being disloyal, then was transferred to another base, Malmstrom writes. As he notes, “Loyalty is much easier to enforce than honesty.”
He tried to get his article included in the academy’s Journal of Character & Leadership Integration, but says he was told by officials that it was “too controversial.” Instead, he had it published last year in the Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture.
As in the Wailly case, Malmstrom’s research — which he undertook on his own, starting in 1984 — shows that acceptance of other people’s violations is a big problem.
His data is based on 2,465 surveys filled out anonymously by those who graduated from all three academies over the last 51 years, which he classifies as a scientific sample. Malmstrom reached graduates by using published registers provided by graduate associations. Roughly a third of responders graduated from each academy.
Malmstrom’s survey results were recently statistically analyzed by David Mullin, a former economics professor at (and current court foe of) the academy. Among the findings:
• The percentage of AFA graduates who said they committed honor violations while cadets more than doubled from the class of 1959 to the class of 2010, from 29 percent to 66 percent. At West Point, the increase went from 26 percent to 43 percent. The Naval Academy saw an increase from 36 percent to 54 percent.
• The percentage of AFA grads who said they tolerated others’ infractions without reporting them grew from 5 percent in the class of 1959 to 68 percent in the class of 2010. West Point’s increase went from 5 percent to just under 50 percent. The Naval Academy’s results aren’t comparable, because its honor concept doesn’t contain a toleration clause.
• Respect for the code by Air Force Academy graduates hovered between 90 percent and 100 percent for nearly 50 years before plunging to 70 percent for the classes of 2007 to 2010. At West Point, the drop was from 100 percent to 92 percent; at the Naval Academy, from 98 percent to 77 percent.
• Motivation of Air Force Academy grads to make a career of the service has dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent. The other academies saw similar drops. For over four decades, motivation at the Air Force Academy was higher than at West Point and the Naval Academy, but since 2006, it’s been the lowest.
Deaf to bad news
While conducting his research at the academy, Malmstrom felt compelled to share his survey with officials. He says he’s briefed top-ranking figures, including the previous commandant and a past superintendent, and leaders in the academy’s character development program.
“They say, ‘Gee, that’s interesting. I’ll get back to you,’ and then nothing happens,” he says. “Some people say, ‘Well, I’m not surprised,’ and that’s the end of it.”
Malmstrom says he gave a formal presentation of his findings four years ago to the entire Center for Character and Leadership Development staff. Part of the problem, Malmstrom says, is that the military’s practice of rotating personnel to new assignments every two or three years gives the academy a short memory. But this year, he says, he spoke with several people at the academy about his work, including Huntley, Sanders and others.
In February, without mentioning Malmstrom by name, the Indy asked academy character development officials including Huntley, Sanders and Tom Berry, a retired colonel who serves as deputy director of the CCLD, whether they were familiar with research comparing honor violations and toleration among the three service academies. Huntley said the academy had produced no such comparative research.
Asked if they would be interested in such research, all said they would.
On March 6, Malmstrom says, he was called to the academy to meet with Huntley, Sanders, Berry and retired Lt. Gen. Ervin Rokke, Class of 1962, a senior scholar. He was scolded for talking to a reporter and was asked to sign a document imposing privacy restrictions that he thinks would prevent him from disclosing his research publicly. “The upshot was intimidation,” he says. He didn’t sign.
The academy refuses to confirm or deny the meeting occurred.
In March, when the Indy submitted questions asking for a reaction to Malmstrom’s work, giving specific findings from his surveys and identifying them as coming from a visiting scholar, spokesman Bryan responded in an e-mail, saying, “We’re not familiar w/this study–what’s the source?” The Indy then identified Malmstrom.
On March 30, Bryan said the academy believes some information to which Malmstrom has had access as a visiting scholar is covered by the Privacy Act of 1974, and academy officials “feel confident he will be responsible in its use.”
Malmstrom says he has conducted his survey research without the help of the academy, except for partial funding for postage. Regardless, he will go public Saturday, April 14, in an address at the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association conference in Reno, Nev. He gave a similar speech in 1991 to the same group in Denver, when an earlier set of data covering 1959 to 1988 showed nearly half of Air Force Academy cadets had admitted to violating the code, with one in 20 cheating on academics at least once. The academy called the findings “vague” and “questionable,” according to newspaper reports at the time.
What the DIT says
Malmstrom aside, the academy’s now faced with another measurement of cadets’ ability to think ethically.
The Defining Issues Test, developed in the 1970s by the late Dr. James Rest, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, has been given to academy seniors eight times and to freshmen seven times between 2002 and 2011.
“We wanted to provide some kind of empirical information to senior leaders about how well we’re meeting the vision of developing leaders of character,” says Terry McFarlane, a personnel research psychologist at the academy.
The test ranks moral reasoning with three labels. The lowest is “personal interest,” which means the subject is acting purely from self-interest. The second is “maintain norms,” showing a reliance on clear-cut rules in a defined structure or chain of command. The highest is “postconventional,” which Rest described as making moral decisions based on shared ideals and principles, such as the basic human rights of life, liberty and justice.
Over the years, academy cadets, whether freshmen or seniors, have scored lower than their civilian peers in “personal interest,” viewed as a good sign; they’ve scored higher in “maintain norms,” which might be expected given the military environment; and they’ve scored about the same for “postconventional.”
But last year, for the first time, the academy was able to see the growth of 328 cadets who took the DIT as freshmen and again as seniors. Less than half, 45 percent, moved up at least one stage; 30 percent remained at the same stage (though half of those were at the highest stage to start with); and 25 percent regressed to lower stages.
Lt. Col. Patricia Egleston, chief of the Analysis and Assessments Division, says the outcome isn’t that bad.
“There’s a lot of philosophical discussions you can have with this test,” she says. “Because we’re a military institution, you expect ‘maintain norms’ to be possibly higher, and there’s a logical reason why we might argue that. ‘Postconventional’ should be strong, too. The only one we definitely, I think, don’t like is the ‘personal interest.'”
But data provided by the academy shows that one in 10 seniors in the matched set of 328 tested “personal interest.”
“I would look at this and say, ‘That doesn’t seem very good at all,'” says Col. Michael Therianos, with the academy’s Strategic Plans and Programs, Requirements, Assessments and Analyses Directorate. “But we’re not at the stage of peeling back all the layers of the onion to see, ‘Is there a problem, and can we fix it?'”
The Air Force Academy’s scores led McFarlane to note on a briefing report: “Because the ability to reason morally is a basic building block in having character, we have to wonder why all of our efforts [except the Scholars Program] don’t have more of a direct impact on the results of this particular test.”
One study, by Ernest Pascarella of the University of Iowa and Patrick Terenzini of Penn State University, reported in 2005 that the largest freshman-to-senior gains are seen in private liberal arts college students. Lesser but substantial gains are seen by students attending large public universities. (The smallest gains are made at Bible colleges.)
Other factors can impact DIT scores. Teaching the Theory of Moral Development, upon which the DIT is based, can drive growth, McFarlane says. The academy resumed that practice this semester after dropping it from the curriculum several years ago, she adds.
Another is for students to discuss moral and ethical dilemmas, which Therianos says has become more prevalent at the academy.
A third way to influence outcomes is to thrust students into intense learning situations and times of reflection on what they’ve learned, says Stephen Thoma, professor at the University of Alabama’s Department of Educational Studies in Psychology, Research Methodology, and Counseling, who has written extensively about the DIT. Also, students who have a great deal of faculty interaction historically do better on the test than students who don’t.
Asked whether academics and off-site learning experiences typical of the Scholars Program might be extended to more cadets, Therianos says, “We can’t go there yet. We’re way too early in the game.”
In his statement, Gould says the academy is in “the beginning stages” of analyzing the effectiveness of multiple assessment tools, including the DIT. “Once this analysis is complete,” he says, “the recommendations will be vetted through our USAFA Corporate Process to ensure all of the USAFA senior leaders are aware of the effectiveness of our efforts.”
But Mullin, the former professor who unsuccessfully sued the academy last year over a religious issue, says the DIT results underscore his contention that many academy instructors aren’t qualified to teach the subjects to which they’re assigned. His claim led to an Air Force Inspector General’s investigation and subsequent finding of negligence in February against Dean of Faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born and Vice Dean Col. Richard Fullerton for asserting publicly and to an accreditation agency that all faculty have advanced degrees in subjects they’re assigned to teach.
Mullin, who’s suing over his contract not being renewed after 13 years at the academy, says the DIT results suggest only those cadets in the Scholars Program receive academic instruction at a level that impacts character development. “It begs the question,” he says, “Why is it that all the faculty don’t have the same standards, so that the remaining 95 percent of the cadets have that exposure? Is that the best they can do?”