On December 21, 2020 Ian Shapira published an article in the Washington Post entitled “A Black VMI cadet was threatened with a lynching, then with expulsion”.
The article dealt with the expulsion of the son of a Citadel graduate for having been “adjudged” to have violated the Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) Honor Code. I am a 1968 part-Hispanic graduate of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina and the article hit very close to home in a very conflicted manner because the young man involved is the son of a Citadel graduate and VMI is in many aspects the institution most similar to my own alma mater.
The first part of the article dealt with racism at VMI. Racism, that scourge that has afflicted us since Europeans first set foot in this hemisphere and which, like xenophobia and misogyny, has no place in our society or our culture but which cannot merely be erased from our history by destroying its indicia or by setting us at each other’s throats. The incident seems to have been appropriately dealt with, the guilty student was suspended for a year after admitting his misconduct and apologizing to the black student involved for it, and then elected not to return to VMI, an institution at which he did not belong. The second chapter is significantly more complicated, it dealt with the eventual expulsion of the black cadet involved in the racist incident for a violation of VMI’s Honor Code in a totally unrelated matter initiated by a faculty member, not another cadet. Read the article. Although it appears somewhat biased against VMI which the Washington Post seems to have targeted for extinction, the facts are there and they seem clear.
I wrote the following in response to letters circulated to my former Citadel classmates by Chris Hoffman, our class representative. One of those letters was written by our former classmate, Michael Barrett, a long-time Citadel history professor and also for a long time the faculty advisor to the Citadel’s own Honor Court. The letters circulated by Chris called the incident to our attention and asked that we reflect on what it means to us, to our beloved institution, and to the other institutions that make an honor system a treasured core value. The honor system at the United States Military Academy at West Point has also recently been shaken by a large scale violation of its Honor Code on which ours was originally modeled but to which we have managed to remain true, not being subjected to the same political pressures as are the service academies.
The reflections Chris called on us to make are certainly timely in these very troubled times. The Honor Code used at the Citadel, VMI and the service academies is short and simple, it should be easy to understand if not to live by. It provides as follows: “A cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do”. My message to my classmates in response to the letters circulated by Chris was essentially as follows:
Honor systems are trying. My second son elected not to attend the Citadel because he took it seriously and decided that while he could easily respond for his own actions, he did not feel he could turn in a friend. I was disappointed that he did not follow the path I and his elder brother had “sowed” for him but very proud of his integrity. Honor systems such as those adopted at the Citadel and VMI are for the very few and as difficult to administer as they are to live by. That is something too many of today’s journalists cannot understand but that does not mean that they are always wrong, even when they may lack empathy and objectivity in their reporting.
This particular situation is sad because it reflects on the institution most like ours, one experiencing troubled times, and at the same time, it deals with the son of one of our own. I am pleased to know that our honor system seems superior not only to that employed at VMI but to those used in the service academies. It is among the aspects of our alma mater we hold most dear and which permits us, as Pat Conroy once wrote, to entrust the keys to our homes to anyone who wears the ring, whether we know him or her or not (although admittedly we have our own bad apples and malcontents).
These are trying times when truth for far too many has become an abstraction and irrelevancy. When hypocrisy is the order of the day. But we are each among those most fortunate because of the traditions woven into our being during our four years together at a place we love, even if she sometimes seemed a harsh mistress.
Hopefully, at some point in this sad case, the truth will out and justice will be served, but as the Boo taught us through his own experiences, that is not always the case, and it is when injustice prevails that our mettle is truly tested.
When to our own selves we must most be true.
Honor should not be a difficult concept to grasp but it is, especially today. It is disappointing that politics has diluted its rigor at the service academies, something which I believe those sworn to abide by its terms in those historic institutions do not support, but honor and truth seem irrelevant in a society where almost all news is challenged as fake by one side of the political spectrum or the other. Real heroes, which we desperately need, seem in short supply, although they are probably abundant and merely unrecognized. All of our systems of justice seem to be failing us having become terminally politicized, but systems of justice, as in the case of honor systems, are as difficult to administer as they are to live by. Hopefully VMI, the service academies, my beloved Citadel, and the other institutions that take honor systems seriously will avoid their pitfalls, improve them, and continue to produce the very best among us.
No one today really knows whether the black former VMI cadet, the son of a fellow Citadel alumni whom, although I do not know, I would trust with everything I own, committed an honor violation or not. Except for him. But it appears that some modifications to the manner in which adjudications are arrived at in VMI’s honor system should be considered, albeit not its rigor, and that the service academies should either discard their honor systems if they deem them anachronistic or return to the rigor that once made them so useful in producing principled leaders.
Honor systems are pretty much black and white and, even if they involve long grey lines, do not work in shades of grey.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2020; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo (“Bill”) Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia (although he has primarily lived in the United States of America of which he is also a citizen). Until 2017 he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He is currently a strategic analyst employed by Qest Consulting Group, Inc. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at email@example.com and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.
 Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, known by most as “The Boo”, was the assistant commandant of cadets in charge of discipline at the Citadel during the 1960’s and ironically, probably the person most beloved by its corps of cadets because of his fairness, integrity, humor and sense of honor.