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West Point Professor On Cheating Scandal At The U.S. Military Academy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do. That is the honor code of the U.S. Military Academy known as West Point. This week, that code has been put to the test. Seventy-three cadets are accused of cheating on a remote calculus exam last spring. It's the biggest cheating scandal at West Point since the 1970s. Our next guest is a professor of law at the academy.

Professor Tim Bakken, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TIM BAKKEN: Thank you, Ari. Good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: So far, 55 of these 73 cadets are being entered into a kind of academic probation that allows them to remain on campus. Do you think this is an appropriate response from the West Point administration?

BAKKEN: It's an appropriate response to the extent that these cadets are treated like cadets previously. If these cadets are treated differently because West Point has ulterior motives other than rectifying the behavior of the cadets, then we have to ask, why are these cadets being treated differently than cadets in the past?

SHAPIRO: What are you implying there?

BAKKEN: Well, I'm implying that West Point has to be more forthcoming - the Army has to be more forthcoming also - in telling us what happened in this instance. Why was there a concerted effort by cadets to cheat on this exam? These were cadets who, according to West Point, were engaging in this behavior across the country. West Point has to tell us why this misbehavior is justification for allowing the cadets to remain at West Point when the cadets from the 1970s - yes, times are very different now - were forced to leave the academy for a time and then were required to ask to be readmitted after they had supposedly rectified their behavior.

SHAPIRO: We should note that West Point didn't come out with this publicly. It was a USA Today expose. And it sounds like you see this as symptomatic of a larger issue with the military's transparency with the American public.

BAKKEN: In the last four wars, especially Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, one of the big reasons why America failed to win those wars and why we were in those wars for so long is that the American military was not honest with Americans. This is a situation at West Point where we need the military to step up, tell us what was wrong and how they want to correct it but, importantly, tell us why the cadets are being treated in a different way than cadets in the past. Might be a very good reason for that, but the country deserves to know.

SHAPIRO: To put the experience of these specific cadets into context, 2020 has been an excruciating year. And we're talking about students whose family members may have lost their jobs, gotten sick, maybe died. Under the best of circumstances, people are under enormous strain. Is there an argument that people should cut these cadets some slack?

BAKKEN: There's an argument that they should be cut slack because they're young and everybody makes mistakes. But the bigger picture is what the cadets will learn through the treatment that they've received. It appears that they're receiving treatment that cadets from the 1970s did not receive, treatment that is more lenient. And I'm certainly not arguing against leniency, but I am saying that if we downplay the seriousness of the cheating, then we're going to have additional problems in the future. Those problems are what I've mentioned. The military, by many accounts, has been very dishonest with the American public over the last 75 years. And that has only resulted in failed wars or, if we don't like that expression, we certainly have not won any of the last four wars we've fought since 1945.

SHAPIRO: We reached out to West Point, and they sent us a statement saying the cadets were being held accountable and that while this incident is disappointing, quote, "the honor system is working." Do you agree?

BAKKEN: The honor system is working because the cadets were caught. If the honor system were working as it's intended to work, the cadets would've adopted the belief that they should not have cheated in the first place. Redemption is important for everybody, but we should not avoid telling the American people what happened at West Point this time or with regard to the wars that I mentioned.

SHAPIRO: Tim Bakken is a professor of law at the U.S. Military Academy and author of the book "The Cost Of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris And Failure In The U.S. Military."

Thank you very much.

BAKKEN: You're welcome. My pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.