Updated: January 19, 2014 at 6:34 am
When Fred Malmstrom saw The Gazette report in December revealing a secret system of cadet informants at the Air Force Academy, he thought to himself, "given the data, that makes a lot of sense."
Malmstrom, a psychologist, is a 1964 graduate of the academy and was a visiting scholar there for 13 years. As part of his professional work, he has surveyed almost 50 years of graduates, asking them, among other things, how often they had broken the academy honor code vow not to "lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does." The results of his surveys show a steady increase in proportion of cadets admitting to violating the code, from 28 percent in 1962 to 65 percent in 2010.
"Given that the Air Force leadership can increasingly not rely on cadets to police themselves," Malmstrom, who lives in Colorado Springs, said during a recent interview, "I suppose it is not surprising they would look for other means, like informants."
The cadet honor code is at the heart of the controversy over covert cadet informants at the academy. Some have argued the informants are needed because they bust lawbreakers who would otherwise become officers. Others say the program is a corrosive contradiction to the honor code because informants, almost by definition, must lie about who they are and spread a sense of mistrust through the ranks.
Academy leader Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson has called for a study of the informant practice.
Air Force Academy spokesman Brus Vidal questioned the validity of Malmstrom's data.
He said a 2008 academy survey of graduates who attended 1973-2008, which asked about cheating but not lying and stealing, showed the vast majority of cadets said they did not cheat.
Malmstrom and his co-author on several papers about the honor code, David Mullin, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs professor, say informants are a consequence of the long-term deterioration of the honor code.
Every four years, for decades, Malmstrom has sent a 20-question scientific survey to recent graduates of the academy, as well as the Army's Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy at Annapolis, which have nearly identical honor codes. He asked how often students broke the code and how often they did not report others who broke the code - an act known as "tolerance."
The 2,465 responses show the same trend at all three academies: Students admit lying and tolerance more often. The Air Force Academy showed the highest number of violations, with 86 percent of cadets reporting violating the code or tolerating violations in 2010. For the Army, which had the lowest number of violations, it was 57 percent.
Malmstrom said he has offered to brief academy leaders over the years on his findings, and they've shown little interest.
What's causing the deterioration? Is it a larger societal trend toward dishonesty or something dysfunctional at the academies? Malmstrom shrugged.
"I'm not sure. It's a great topic for a doctoral thesis," he said. "But I have some theories."
First, he said, tolerance seems to be the bad apple that spoils the bunch. "Seeing other people break the rules sours people on the system. It makes them cynical, which makes them more likely to violate the rules. Then everything starts to fall apart," he said.
But, he said, some responsibility also lies with the leadership.
"The administration is part of it. They are also tolerating violations, which makes things worse," Mullin said.
In 1965, a cheating scandal erupted at the Air Force Academy when cadets were caught selling answers to a math exam. Of the 115 cadets involved, 111 were expelled a few weeks later.
Compare that, Malmstrom said, to a cheating scandal in 2012 where more than 100 cadets loaded math exam answers into their laptops. Seventy cadets were reprimanded, but fewer than 10 cadets were expelled, Malmstrom said.
"You can see the difference," Malmstrom said. "The honor code is simply not taken as seriously by anyone. It is something that must be addressed, I think, for any of this business with informants to ever be dealt with."
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