The Essence of USAFA: Cadet-led committee governs Honor Code process

04/18/2014 -- U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Editor's note: This is part one of an eight-part series detailing the essence of the Academy.

"We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does." 

Those words comprise the Air Force Academy's Honor Code, a cornerstone of character and leadership development that forms the first pillar of the Academy's Essence. Cadets in the Class of 1959 adopted the code, and cadets today continue to live by it and manage it.

Supporting the cadet Honor Code and system is the task of everyone at the academy and specifically the mission of the Honor Review Committee. The HRC maintains the system that administers the Honor Code and acts as a liaison between the Cadet Honor Committee and the Academy's faculty and staff. 

The committee consists of nine cadets and eight permanent-party staff, with Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Greg Lengyel serving as the tie-breaking vote. The one-seat majority gives cadets the ability to implement the Honor Code as they see fit and the accountability for how they choose to do so.

"It shows a lot of faith in us as cadets," said Cadet 1st Class Will Burnette, the Cadet Wing honor chairman. "The Honor Code is in cadets' hands."

It's an obligation they take seriously, Burnette said.

The Honor Review Committee oversees any changes to the Air Force Cadet Wing Honor Code Reference Handbook, which includes the Honor Code itself, the Honor Oath and the process of investigating and sanctioning honor violations such as lying, cheating or stealing or knowingly allowing someone else to lie, cheat or steal.

The handbook clearly defines each of these violations. Lying includes making any untrue assertion with an intent to deceive or mislead. This can include lying through ambiguity or through omission. Stealing includes depriving someone else of a property or service as well as violating someone's copyright or trademark. Cheating, defined as acting to receive undeserved credit or unfair advantage, can include anything from continuing to work on a graded review after receiving a "cease work" order to plagiarizing another cadet's research.

The non-toleration clause is the most challenging aspect of the Honor Code, as it forces a cadet to choose between one good virtue, loyalty to one's friends, and another, loyalty to their duty, Burnette said.

"What we teach is to know which of these virtues outweighs the other," he said. "Integrity outweighs the friendship."

Honor Code violations include both an act and intent, Burnette said. The Honor Code Handbook defines intent as attempting to reach the logical conclusion of the act rather than the intent to violate the Honor Code itself and notes that intent is frequently more difficult to discern than the act or attempted act. 

A cadet who admits to violating the Honor Code meets with a Cadet Sanction Recommendation Panel. A cadet who is suspected of violating the Honor Code but does not admit to violating it meets a Wing Honor Board. A cadet faces a board of his classmates or upperclassmen, similar to a jury; the court calls witnesses, then deliberates on whether the cadet committed an honor violation. The standard of proof requires board members to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the honor violation occurred, and six out of nine board members must concur to carry a finding that the cadet violated the Honor Code. 

Should a cadet admit to an Honor Code violation or be found guilty by a Wing Honor Board, sanctions may include honor probation, honor remediation or disenrollment. Sanction recommendations take into account a cadet's seniority, the severity of the offense and the cadet's forthrightness, including whether the cadet admitted to the violation. 

Honor remediation and honor probation afford a cadet the chance to recover from his or her Honor Code violation. Remediation may last from three to six months, and probation lasts six months. At the end of this period, the Commandant may return the cadet to good standing or recommend disenrollment. A cadet may appeal any disenrollment recommendation to Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, who makes the final decision.

The history of the Academy's first year explains the Honor Code and system as follows: "For purpose of analysis it is convenient to differentiate the Honor System from the Code which is expressed in the statement that the cadet would not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate anyone who did. The Honor System should be understood as the method of administering and enforcing the ideal within the Air Force Cadet Wing." 

But the idea of a code of honor among officers goes back to the Continental Army, said Thomas Berry, the Center for Character and Leadership Development's Deputy Director. 
"Gen. George Washington spoke of 'the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man,'" Berry said. "Maj. Gen. Robert Stillman, the first commandant, told the Cadet Wing that their mission was to 'create and live by a standard of conduct which will stand firmly as a bastion of moral strength, now and in the years to come ... Your Honor Code must stand as an inspiration to all Air Force officers.'"

The Honor Code sets up the foundation of honorable living, which the handbook defines as being honest, respecting others, acting fairly and providing support and accountability to their fellow Airmen. 

"It drives our core values," said Lt. Col. Vivien Wu, a 1998 Academy graduate and the Assistant Director for Honor on the Commandant's Staff. "We know we have a great responsibility. It's imperative that we're producing leaders of integrity."