Character Development at the U.S. Naval Academy

by - William B. Garrett Vice Academic Dean U.S. Naval Academy

My subject today is "Character Development at the U.S. Naval Academy." It is a subject that has been an essential part of the curriculum at the Annapolis since its founding in 1845 and has received increased attention and emphasis within the past decade. The development of the highest moral standards, character, and integrity in all of our graduates, are basic to the overall program at Annapolis.

The purposes of my presentation will be to:


The United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, near Washington, DC, has a student body of 4,000 U.S. midshipmen and 32 foreign midshipmen from 19 different countries. It is a four year course of study. The graduates are commissioned as ensigns in the U.S. Navy or as second lieutenants in the U.S. Marine Corps. The basic requirement is to serve five years as an officer after graduation. The faculty is made up of approximately 300 military officers and 300 civilian faculty members. The civilian faculty members are required to have the doctorate, or Ph.D., in their particular academic specialty. I am most pleased to recognize two other Naval Academy graduates who are here today: Captain Glenn Whaley, U.S. Navy, Retired, Class of 1965, and Lieutenant Steven Hoffman, U.S. Navy, Class of 1991, who currently serves as a Company Officer at the Naval Academy.

The emphasis on the development of the highest qualities of character, integrity, and ethics has been present at Annapolis since its founding days. The mission of the Naval Academy is:

To develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to provide graduates who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.

Note that the mission includes "development character..." Character Development is basic to what we do every day at the Naval Academy.

In 1845 the requirements to enter the Naval Academy were "be able to read and write well, and be familiar with geography and arithmetic." Despite these modest beginnings, the curriculum quickly developed, in ways unique in America at the time. By 1850 the requirement for a formal, four-year curriculum was established emphasizing a technical education. The curriculum rapidly developed and was recognized as "The Best System of Education in the United States" by the Paris Exposition in 1879 and was award the Exposition's Gold Medal for excellence. All midshipmen were required to attend Chapel services every Sunday morning and there was a strong emphasis on Christian behavior throughout these early years.

Since the early days there has been an emphasis on honesty on the part of all midshipmen. The early programs were codified in the development of the Honor Concept in 1951. The Honor Concept was "Midshipmen will not lie, cheat or steal." The application of the Honor Concept was and remains a responsibility of the midshipmen.


Despite the traditions and emphasis on honor, ethics, and character development for a century and a half, in 1992 an incident occurred that refocused our attention on character development and how we were achieving that esteemed goal in each of our graduates. Late in the fall of 1992, about 650 of the Second Class midshipmen, or those in their third year, took a final examination in electrical engineering. Within a few hours of the end of the examination midshipmen started to report to their chain of command that the examination had been compromised and that some midshipmen had a copy of the examination prior to exam time. I recall thinking "This is not possible!" But I was mistaken. The investigation revealed that some midshipmen did indeed have a copy of the examination, had shared it with others, and had studied it, all strictly contrary to the principles, concepts, and traditions of the Naval Academy, contrary to Midshipman Regulations, and in contravention of the Midshipman's Honor Concept that stated "A midshipman does not lie, cheat, or steal." The episode made headlines around the world.

As a direct result of this unfortunate episode, some 29 midshipmen were expelled from the Naval Academy, 76 did not graduate on time but were held at the Naval Academy for two months for an "Honor Remediation" course. There were a number of changes made in the curriculum and the organization at the Naval Academy.

One of the first changes was the ordering in of Admiral Charles R. Larson, a distinguished officer of four star rank, wide experience, and widely recognized for his outstanding leadership abilities, and who held the confidence of the national leadership in America. It is the first time an officer of four star rank has ever commanded one of the military academies in the United States.

A second change was the establishment of a position of "Director of Character Development" and the creation of the an office and a staff of seven persons.

The purpose of the United States Naval Academy is to provide the Naval Service with leaders of character who will serve the nation in peace and war. The Academy has a deep and abiding commitment to the moral development of its midshipmen and to instilling the Naval Service Core Values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. The goal of the Character Development Division is to integrate the moral, ethical and character development of midshipmen across every aspect of the Naval Academy experience. The integrated Character Development Program is the single most important feature that distinguishes the Naval Academy from other educational institutions and officer commissioning sources.

Captain Michael Kehoe, a senior and distinguished Naval officer, serves currently as the Director of Character Development. His primary function is to serve "as the principal advisor to the Superintendent on all matters relating to the character development of midshipmen. The development of character is a central element of the four year program.

Still another development is a further refinement of the Honor Concept. The Honor Concept now states:


The current Character Development Program at consists of a number of different facets, each contributing to the overall goal of improving the moral and ethical development of the midshipmen.

Admissions. The first part of the Character Development Program is embodied in the our admissions process. Candidates for admission are required to write an essay on a significant character-developing experience that they have had, and the high school teachers completing the recommendations for the candidates are specifically asked to comment on the character and integrity of the candidates compared to their peers.

Plebe Summer Training. During the first summer, called Plebe Summer, 14 hours of training provide the foundation for each midshipman in the development of character, eight lessons are provided on topics such as moral courage, integrity, loyalty, the meaning of honor, and the basic mechanics of the Midshipman's Honor System. Plebe Summer culminates with an Honor Affirmation ceremony, during which plebes formally affirm their allegiance to the Honor Concept and the Honor Treatise of the Brigade of Midshipmen.

Four-Year Honor Education Program. Honor education courses are taught throughout each year, taught by midshipmen, building on the groundwork of Plebe Summer training.

Honor Remediation Program. Midshipmen who are found guilty of honor offenses but are retained by the Commandant of Midshipmen are assigned to a comprehensive honor remediation program. Each midshipman in this situation is assigned to be under the mentorship of a senior officer for a designated period, normally three to four months. This introspective period requires regular readings and personal reflections on honor, extensive discussions with the mentor, participation in community service, completion of a written thesis on some aspect of honor, and a final interview by the mentor and other senior officers.

Character Development Seminars. Once each month, midshipmen are divided into small groups for a 60 minute ethics-related discussion designed to strengthen the foundations of moral values and to nurture ethical and moral reasoning skills. These seminars, led by trained staff and faculty facilitators and First Class midshipmen, typically center around readings from ethics texts and articles. Over 270 staff and faculty members participate in this prominent program. A case study from our discussions appeared in the November 22nd edition of NEWSWEEK, written by Professor Steve Wrage, a member of our Political Science Department faculty and an important contributing member to our Character Development Seminars Program. This case study focuses on the actions of a U.S. Army officer who took certain actions in Haiti, contrary to orders, but following what he considered to be the right thing. He was court martialed and dismissed from the Army. He is appealing this decision. This is the type of issue that maintains the interest of the midshipmen, ultimately contributes to their understanding of the issues involved, and will assist them when they have to face such real events in the future.

Human Education Resource Officer (HERO) Program. This peer- education and peer-resource human relations network places specially trained midshipmen as trainers and advisers for each class of midshipmen in each Company. The program is designed to provide support to the Chain of Command in all human relations areas, resolve peer issues within the Companies, and to provide education and information to midshipmen that will help them make responsible decisions in their own lives, and to contribute to an environment of dignity and respect for others within the Brigade.

Human Relations-related General Military Training. The Character Development Division is responsible for providing training on such topics as discrimination and cultural diversity, responsible relationships, sexual assault prevention, prevention of sexual harassment, suicide awareness, and conflict resolution.

Core Ethics Course. We have an academic course required of all midshipmen, focused on ethics. The course, designated NE=203, is titled "Ethics and Moral Reasoning for the Naval Leader," is designed to strengthen the midshipman's background in the foundations of ethical thought and moral reasoning and is the Naval Academy's flagship academic course. The course is taught in the Third Class year by civilian faculty members and senior military officers. It consists of one hour each week of a lecture on ethical theory, with two hours each week of small group discussions and case studies on applied ethics.

Distinguished Chair of Ethics. We are fortunate to have a nationally renowned ethicist who holds the position of Distinguished Chair of Ethics, a position made possible by the significant endowment of funds from interested alumni. The current incumbent of the Distinguished Chair of Ethics is Dr. Douglas MacLean, on leave from his position as Chairman of the Department of Ethics at the University of Maryland- Baltimore County.

Distinguished Chair of Leadership. We are also fortunate to have the Distinguished Chair of Leadership funded through an endowment. Admiral Hank Chiles, USN, Retired, and former Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, is the current chair. He brings remarkable insight, experience, and professionalism into our program of leadership courses.

Character Development Speakers Program. Throughout the academic year prominent speakers and experts in character development address the midshipmen or provide specialized training to faculty, staff, and midshipmen. During Plebe Summer the Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and normally a former prisoner of war from the Vietnam conflict. Speakers have included Dr. William Bennett, Dr. Rushworth Kidder, President of the Institute for Global Ethics, and Mr. Michael Josephson of the Josephson Insititute for Ethics.

Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics. Through an endowment, we have established the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics. This Center, currently chaired by Dr. Al Pierce. His taskings include development of seminars on contemporary ethics issues, fostering research on emerging teaching methods and materials in ethics education, and sharing of these new developments throughout the Navy.

Additional information on our Character Development Program is available on the World Wide Web at the Naval Academy's homepage.


As we developed the present Character Development Program we immediately wished to establish means by which we could measure the success and achievements of the program. Our goal was to develop a feedback system by which we could periodically evaluate the program, assess the successes and near-misses, provide mid-course corrections, to make certain that we were achieving our goal. The subject of assessment has proven to be difficult for each of the colleges with programs in character development and ethics. Improvements in a person's character prove to be difficult to accurately measure. The measurement of a person's sufficient level of moral conviction is more difficult and less precise, than taking the person's temperature, for example.

Our Director of Institutional Research has developed several electronic surveys to be completed by the midshipmen so we have started to develop a data base on the views and opinions of the members of the Brigade of Midshipmen. The primary instrument that we have found is the "Defining Issues Test" developed by the Center for the Study of Ethics at the University of Minnesota. This "Defining Issues Test" is the primary evaluative instrument used by all of the colleges teaching character development and ethics, as reported by the Templeton Foundation. The "Defining Issues Test" is designed to measure a person's moral reasoning. It does not measure behavior or conduct, nor does it serve as a mechanism for predicting a person's conduct or behavior in a particular situation. Although the results of the test do not provide the clear and unambiguous grade reports or yard sticks by which to measure a midshipman's current level of character development, the test does give at least a data point which we will administer to each class in the future and further develop a base of information that will reflect trends over time.

The "Defining Issues Test" consists of a series of scenarios that present certain questions and dilemmas, and the student is asked a series of questions. At the Naval Academy we are conducting research into the use of different scenarios that describe situations more familiar to the midshipmen. Our theory is that we can improve the DIT and obtain a better and less ambiguous result from our own self-developed test, modeled after the DIT.

We have an abundance of anecdotal information from the midshipmen which indicates that the courses within the Character Development Program are the most worthwhile of all the courses they take during their four years.

Even though it is difficult to accurately measure the exact outcomes of our Character Development Program, we are convinced that our program provides the basis for a lifetime of proper moral and ethical behavior by our graduates. As Dr. Rushworth Kidder said during a visit to the Naval Academy, that we need to continually exercise our moral and ethical muscles just as we do our physical muscles. Continued exercise and practice on the sports field or in the gymnasium improves our athletic endeavors. Similarly, repeated thought, discussions, and practice leads to improved character development.


In the U.S., the Templeton Foundation is located in Pennsylvania. One aspect of the operations of the Templeton Foundation is to promote and recognize excellence in the teaching of ethics. There are more than 3,700 colleges and universities in the United States, but only about 350 have courses in ethics. Almost all of these courses are in theoretical ethics. The Naval Academy is one of only a handful of colleges that has a course in applied ethics. The Naval Academy is essentially unique in teaching a course designed to affect a person's thinking, conduct, and behavior in making decisions as an officer and leader both in the military service on in other service to the nation. Our goal is for our instruction in ethics to provide a guide and change to a midshipman's ethical and moral behavior, not merely exist as an academic and theoretical exercise. The Templeton Foundation annually announces its Honor Roll of colleges that have excelled in the development of programs and the teaching of ethics. For the past two years the Naval Academy has been named to the Templeton Foundation Honor Roll which is one indication that we are on the right track.

As I described, one of our goals for the future is to revise the "Defining Issues Test" or create an instrument that will permit us to better assess the outcomes of the Character Development Program and will more clearly show the way for any necessary modifications to the program as we progress through time.

Another future goal of the Character Development Program is to devise means by which the principles involved can be provided not just to midshipmen but to all personnel at the Naval Academy, military and civilian faculty, staff, and support personnel. The means by which we can proceed toward this goal are currently under development by Captain Kehoe and his staff.

In January 1999, the Naval Academy Superintendent, Vice Admiral John R. Ryan, initiated the development of a Strategic Plan for the Naval Academy, to develop a guide for our actions and programs from now until the year 2010. The plan was completed in June and consists of 28 strategic initiatives and 13 tactical initiatives. The plan provides guidance for plans, programs, funding goals, both from appropriate sources and from gift funds to be raised by donation, primarily through the Naval Academy Alumni Association. One of the strategic initiatives is to "optimize the synergy of leadership, character development, and ethics programs" at the Naval Academy. As a result, Admiral Ryan has appointed a Special Committee to review all aspects of these programs and recommend to him any changes necessary to improve our curriculum in these subjects. Admiral Hank Chiles, USN, Retired, currently serves as the Distinguished Chair of Leadership at the Naval Academy and he was appointed by the Superintendent to chair this special committee. Through this initiative, the Naval Academy will be able to create any necessary improvements in the character development program in future years.

In conclusion, I am most pleased to be here to relate to you an overview of the Character Development Program at the Naval Academy. Even though we had a wake-up call in the early 1990s, I believe all would agree that in the wake of the electrical engineering episode, many extremely positive results have been achieved. We have a Character Development Program of recognized quality, and are able to provide a program for the benefit of the midshipmen and our future officer corps that is one of the best in the nation

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