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VMI Honor Code Builds Character

John P. Jumper lives in Spotsylvania County. He is a retired United States Air Force general who served as 17th chief of staff of the United States Air Force, and chief executive officer of Science Applications International Corporation and Leidos, Inc. He is a 1966 graduate of VMI and a former president of its Board of Visitors.

The media recently has reported about honor code scandals at two of our nation’s service academies. This comes in the midst of a national struggle between traditional values focusing on truth, honor and character and the darker, increasingly prevalent alternatives that avoid character-testing accountability, and smother truth and honor in cynicism.

Without deliberate institutional testing grounds to inspire development of personal responsibility and integrity, and without educational ecosystems devoted to growing responsible leaders, what is our nation’s future?

As a former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CEO of two Fortune 500 companies and a proud graduate of Virginia Military Institute (VMI), I am a firsthand witness to the imperative of personal integrity for success on the battlefield and in the boardroom.

At VMI and our service academies, personal integrity is fundamental to the character of every cadet and midshipman, and its expected presence in their daily lives binds them to the highest possible standards of honorable service to themselves and to the nation.

The VMI honor code, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do,” carries with it another modern anomaly: It is a single-sanction system—a zero-tolerance policy—when it comes to lying, cheating and stealing.

For more than 180 years, VMI has provided daily leadership training, grounded in the fundamentals of honesty and integrity—valued traits in the profiles of our nation’s future military and civilian leaders who must be prepared for the very real single sanctions of life.

Betrayal on the battlefield, falsified reports to a board of directors, plagiarized documents and perjured testimony all are one-strike, reputation-killing, career-ending, even life-endangering tests of character and integrity. There is no sliding scale of tolerance in a world that judges success based on performance.

Therefore, tolerating any level of lying, cheating or stealing while in college only invites bargaining for more leniency rather than more honesty. Moving the goal posts is not a viable alternative for something so critical to preparing the nation’s future leaders.

"Today’s VMI Corps of Cadets is well prepared to graduate role models of honorable behavior at a time when our nation needs it most. We stand with Wins as he leads VMI in becoming the best version of itself."

Gen. John Jumper ’66

One of the key factors in the remarkable success of VMI graduates is the clear and unambiguous nature of its Honor Code. It combines hours of accompanying education, reinforcement and scenario training, making this very high standard of ethical behavior achievable by every cadet who chooses to embrace this journey.

For those who question the merits of a single-sanction system—and there are many—my response is this: Year after year, it comes down to the personal will, desire and choice for each cadet. There is a point in each successful cadetship when the VMI Honor Code becomes internalized.

This transition from imposed required behavior to embracing a life-defining commitment is a signature experience for VMI cadets. Whatever path VMI cadets follow—military leaders, lawyers, physicians, captains of industry or humanitarians—they are sought after on all fronts. The same is true for all of the nation’s military academies when the code of honor becomes a way of life.

When properly executed, the Honor Code transcends human divisions. It knows no race, skin color, gender or creed. Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, VMI’s 15th and current superintendent, as well as the VMI Corps of Cadets, are fully committed to a diverse and inclusive cadet experience that values VMI’s modern mission to educate young men and women of integrity and character—leaders for this century and the next.

History has provided notable VMI leaders who serve as role models for our future, with graduates such as Gen. George C. Marshall, the only military officer ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and Jonathan Daniels, the valedictorian of the class of 1961 and a civil rights martyr, who died protecting a young Black woman from a shotgun blast in Haynesville, Alabama, in 1965.

When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. learned of Daniels’ death, he said it was “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have ever heard.” They are the kind of leaders VMI produces. The VMI Honor Code was their foundation.

Those of us who attribute success to the character-molding crucible of VMI understand the merits of a rigorous, limits-testing environment enabled by its self-governing Honor Code.

Today’s VMI Corps of Cadets is well prepared to graduate role models of honorable behavior at a time when our nation needs it most. We stand with Wins as he leads VMI in becoming the best version of itself.

Editor’s Note: This op-ed first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch May 12, 2021. Reprinted here with permission of Gen. John Jumper ’66.