“A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do,” are words to live by within the Cadet Honor Code meant to cultivate the moral-ethical expectations of the future leaders of character at West Point. However, humans are not infallible to temptation and bad judgment can sometimes take over even the most well-intentioned of persons.
To help prevent any future transgressions, West Point will implement an intense and updated character development program for cadets.
As part of that effort and to reinforce the ongoing need for character development, Dr. Jeffrey Peterson was officially appointed the senior advisor to the Character Integration and Advisory Group at West Point on Jan. 21. The mission of the Character Integration and Advisory Group, or CIAG, is to elevate, promote, integrate and lead character development across the four development programs — military, academic, physical and character — at the academy.
“As the Character Integration Tiger Team (CITT) examined character development across the academy, we realized that all four development programs are conducting many excellent character development activities,” Peterson said. “And yet, we still have persistent problems with sexual harassment, sexual assault, racism and discrimination. Cadets can also struggle with resiliency and the toleration clause of the Cadet Honor Code.”
So, Peterson asked himself the million-dollar question, what is the root cause of these problems?
“It begs the question, if we’re doing so many good things then why are we still struggling with these problems?” he said. “In my estimation and others’ estimation, these problems are rooted in character.”
The genesis of CIAG from CITT
A cheating incident during a calculus exam last spring that led to 73 cadets from the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2023 to be implicated in December for their alleged involvement brought the question of honor and character to the forefront. However, CIAG has implemented or is in the process of implementing programs to help prevent and root out those misbehaviors in the future.
The origin of CIAG to help prevent these issues is rooted in other issues when in 2019, Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams formed a group called ‘Character Integration Tiger Team,’ or CITT. According to Peterson, the group formed following the Service Academy Gender Relations Survey that revealed West Point had 273 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in the previous 10-month period of 2018-19, which was a dramatic increase.
Peterson co-chaired the CITT group with Col. Darcy Schnack, the director of the Center for Enhanced Performance, to conduct a full assessment of the overall problem.
“What we began to realize is in spite of all the good things we do at West Point, we’re not necessarily working together in the same direction in an integrated way using a common approach or framework to think about how to prevent, not just sexual harassment, but racist comments, racist attitudes and other issues,” Peterson said. “We started with one issue, then we began to discover other issues.”
Peterson said it is too simplistic to look at racism, suicide ideation, sexual harassment and sexual assault as individual behaviors that require individual prevention programs.
“It is not possible or efficient to combat these corrosive behaviors with mandated EO Training, SHARP training, suicide prevention training or honor training,” Peterson said. “It takes more than required annual training or remedial help to address the underlying causes of these corrosive behaviors.
“When you are constantly reacting to these behaviors, it results in an inefficient use of resources,” Peterson added. “It’s an ad hoc approach and there is no coherence to eliminating these different behaviors.”
Peterson explained that the CITT group took a step back and asked, “What do all these behaviors have in common?” and wondered if there was something they could do to address all these behaviors at the same time or at least more than one behavior.
“When you start peeling back (all the layers) and think about the best ways to prevent these actions, what it reveals is it’s a process of exercising moral courage — seeing the right thing to do and then actually doing the right thing,” Peterson said. “You see sexist behavior, have the courage to confront it. You see racist behavior, have courage to confront it. You see a classmate violate the Honor code, have the courage to confront it. You need help because you are struggling, have the courage to ask for help.
“All of this is the same process. You see what needs to be done, then you have to have the right attitude to develop the necessary skills and seek the help you need to get something done,” Peterson added. “You do this with multiple iterations and then you begin to build moral strength to do the right thing. If you build that strength and all these other behaviors begin to diminish … you build the ability the confront others who are doing these dishonorable things, then you can intervene and stop it.”
The job of a senior advisor and the CIAG group
Peterson takes on the senior advisor job after serving five years in the position of the Chair for the Study of Officership in the Simon Center. Prior to that, the 1987 USMA graduate served 28 years in the Army in the Armor branch as a Cavalry officer who worked in the Department of Social Sciences from 1997-99 and then came back from 2008-15 as an academy professor in Social Sciences before retiring from the military and moving into the Officership job as a civilian.
As the senior advisor to CIAG, Peterson’s main job is to be an integrator of character development activities across the entire academy.
“By integration, I look for opportunities where we can improve and look where there are gaps,” Peterson said. “The CIAG has been resourced by the Army and the superintendent with nine additional faculty members. I can allocate those faculty members as a resource to the programs to help them integrate character into their programs.”
The CIAG combines with the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic and reports directly to the superintendent, and Peterson will work with those nine civilian faculty members who will work the character angle while also having a requirement to teach in various departments to maintain expertise in their academic discipline. Peterson described how each appointed faculty member comes with an academic discipline that is appropriate for an academic department at the academy.
“When they get appointed to the faculty, it’s a dual appointment from the CIAG itself and the department where they will be able to teach classes,” Peterson said. “In addition to that, there are some pilot programs in place where we will teach different types of courses on character growth or character development, so as those pilots expand, then these faculty members will be available to teach those particular courses.”
Peterson said the people who were hired are experts in their field.
“This is a very entrepreneurial venture within the West Point structure. There is going to be a lot to learn about the role of this organization,” Peterson said. “We’re trying something that has never been tried before at West Point. That is very exciting. It’s also a bit risky, but good things can come from risky endeavors.”
CIAG, CCEP, the pilot programs and its purpose
The current character education program at West Point is called, ‘Cadet Character Education Program,’ or CCEP. The classes are conducted during the commandant’s hours and address different topics related to the Cadet Honor Code, racism, sexism and various other topics dependent on class year. The academy also has Honorable Living Days when cadets deep dive in small groups that focus on a particular subject each semester.
The next Honorable Living Day on March 30 will focus on suicide prevention, resiliency and wellness.
But the next step in making significant strides pertaining to character is a couple of pilot programs that Peterson hopes becomes a requirement in terms of pass/fail to maximize the cadets’ attention and benefit.
“These character courses need to be set up in such a way that they are required, but the requirement and the benefit is an intrinsic benefit of character growth and not really a grade — it would be more of a pass/fail requirement,” Peterson said. “You complete the work, demonstrate a commitment to improving your character and that you demonstrated some character growth over time as revealed in journals, conversations and reflection that you write.”
The first of the pilot programs is called the Relational Character Course, which is a course that helps cadets develop what is referred to as life skills, or skills necessary for healthy relationships.
“The skills of communication and active listening are a big part of moral strength, and we ran a pilot of that last summer with 36 cadets,” Peterson said. “It was a successful pilot, so we’re going to continue it again this summer with more cadets. These are cadets who we hope go into the (academic year) companies and serve on the Respect staff or the Trust staff and be available to facilitate discussions on various topics related to sexism, racism and the prevention of sexual assault.”
The second pilot program is called the Character Growth Seminar. This seminar will happen during the academic year with meetings taking place once a week throughout the year with the possible equivalent of two- or three-credit course hours given to each cadet.
“It will consist of weekly meetings where they learn about professional character, about the Honor Code, the Honor System, about relational character and the idea is that all the issues that we tend to address in these (yearly) prevention trainings, all these different behaviors, will be incorporated into this character growth seminar — so it’s like one coherent progressive sequence over time,” Peterson said. “Instead of episodic events … we’re going to meet once a week and build on what we’ve learned, on what the Army expects from us and what it means to live honorably and what it means to be a leader of character.
“Then, cadets will learn how those standards translate into actions in our relationships with other people and, ultimately, how to prepare us to be inclusive leaders as the Army expects us build and lead cohesive teams,” he added.
The importance of character development
West Point’s mission requires the development of leaders of character, which is why the Superintendent prioritizes character development and why he established the CIAG.
The young men and women who come to the academy, no different than in the Army, come from such diverse backgrounds in every way imaginable that, in many cases, the academy won’t receive a near complete product in terms of values and ethics.
“I believe the comparative advantage and unique contribution of West Point is the combination of intellectual, physical and military development combined with an integrated character development program that develops leaders of character who live honorable, lead honorably and demonstrate excellence,” Peterson said. “From a character development perspective, we’re trying to build an intellectual virtue called ‘phronesis,’ which is loosely translated as practical wisdom where you take the right action at the right time for the right reason with the right attitude.
“The only way you can get all that done is if you have strength in all the domains of virtue,” he added. “Deciding the right thing to do takes critical thinking, doing it with the right attitude for the right reason that’s moral and civic virtue. Doing it at the right time is another part of understanding the overall context of what you’re doing.”
When all that comes together, you can build a leader of character who can handle any environment.
“Character is woven into everything, so that we can develop the officers with the skills they need to lead teams in this complex environment that they’re going to be commissioned into,” Peterson said.
But no matter if you’re talking about a second-year cadet or a sergeant in the Army who has served six years, making mistakes and being human comes with the territory, but it’s within those failings where you find out about yourself and grow as a person.
“You can learn about your own weaknesses, about your own temptations, understand when you’re vulnerable for an ethical lapse,” Peterson said. “Then, you learn about your willingness to take personal responsibility for the choices that you make. Then, I think you learn about your ability to recover from those mistakes.
“You learn the value of trust and learn how easily it can be broken,” he added. “You also learn how difficult it is to build it back.”
Peterson said we all can find ourselves in situations as human beings where we’re tempted to do something that we know isn’t right. The pressure, the fatigue, the consequences, the stakes, the peer pressure, the personal loyalty to someone who has done wrong can then lead to “this desire to do the right thing can be chipped away,
so sometimes cadets fail — human beings fail, they make mistakes.”
“We have more work to do. If it’s an act that is inconsistent with the way they normally behave, that’s a different developmental challenge,” Peterson said. “However, we need to make people more aware of the context and situations where they are more tempted and more likely to perform a dishonorable act.”
Peterson added, “It is a part of the whole development process, we have a set of values, a set of virtues that we aspire to live by, but it is a constant challenge because we are human beings and circumstances often pressure us to violate our values. The idea of developing character is that you establish the strength of character to act appropriately for the situation you are in.”
Peterson has been around the block a couple of times in his 33 years serving within the military and as a DOD civilian, but this undertaking of character development is “the most professionally rewarding mission that I’ve been a part of.”
“My real passion for coming back to West Point was to be a part of the leader development process,” Peterson said. “When I joined the faculty, I came out of squadron command and I saw the importance of character in a combat environment. I came back to West Point and the importance of teaching our cadets to think critically and provide more effective, moral leadership (in the Army ranks) was in essence the motivation for me to come here.”
Having these cadets learning to become positive moral leaders helps an Army facing its issues with trust-breaking, corrosive behaviors such as racism and sexual assault that can cause real damage to people, Peterson said. It is about having people flourish in the ranks and not be marginalized or not have a willingness to take part within the team because of trust concerns when character issues ruin the cohesiveness of the group.
“A team needs to be genuinely cohesive so every member of the team can contribute to whatever solution needs to be found for a complex problem. If we don’t achieve that level of cohesion it’s going to be really hard to prevail in these complex ethical situations that our graduates will face,” Peterson said. “The desired outcome for West Point’s increased emphasis on character is that our graduates will provide the moral leadership necessary to build cohesive teams and ethically accomplish the mission. I am hopeful that the CIAG will be an effective resource for the West Point team as we work together to develop leaders of character.”