On the Honor Code

Let me state my priors on the honor code. I think it’s an important set of rules that really sets BYU apart from most other top universities. Yet simultaneously I worry the honor code office has been poorly run for decades. At least it sure seems that way from many reports I’ve heard over the years since I attended. While I think discussion of the honor code office and reforms is important, I think that far too many have muddled the difference between the rules of the honor code and the enforcement tactics of the honor code office.

The honor code itself has frequently been revised. When I was at BYU they made significant changes to the dress code. So the idea that the honor code itself is sacrosanct seems silly. That doesn’t mean we should get rid of all the rules. It does mean that students may have a point that there at least ought be a debate about elements such as the no beard rule.

For many people the strength of BYU is two fold. First off it’s a location where there’s an actual space to discuss our faith in a critical fashion where critics and skeptics don’t form the baseline. There’s not a presumption of secularism and a distrust of religion such as you find at many and perhaps most major universities. That freedom is invigorating especially for many who come to BYU from outside the “Mormon Corridor” in the west. That said I know that there have been many critics of this space even from within BYU faculty. I personally hope it always remains a place where academics and religion can merge. To me if there has been a failure it has been in not merging the two enough — not, as some maintain, too much merging.

BYU’s second strength is providing a place where one has at least a reasonably good chance of living in an apartment where one can have the spirit and avoid the stresses of finding apartments in other cities. I’ve had my share of apartments both at BYU and elsewhere. BYU’s rules don’t guarantee a good experience and you don’t always have bad experiences elsewhere. However BYU’s rules make it much more likely you’ll have a good apartment situation even if they aren’t perfect. Contrary to some, I think there’s a huge difference between a roommate who doesn’t do their cleaning versus one who watches pornography openly, has sex is the room and so forth. Yes roommate conflicts happen to everyone. No they aren’t all the same spiritually. And yes, luck of the draw roommates outside of BYU are a bit more risky.

What the BYU honor code in theory ought be providing is that space for a safe and spiritual environment both on campus but also in ones apartment. It should be helping remove sexual predators from the campus area. It should also be helping students live the gospel and repent if they falter.

The reality unfortunately is that parents sometimes send kids who don’t want to go to a religious school like BYU. While ideally Bishops in their home wards should help prevent this, it still happens. The idea is that they’d be active good members if the patents only got them out of their current environment and into an active Church environment. Many of those kids while at BYU have no intention of following the rules. Sometimes they act out in a way because they’re angry at BYU and the rules because of what their parents are pressuring them to do. Some simply decide they don’t want to live the rules once they’re away from their parents. While I can appreciate the conflict there, especially given the practical issues of transferring to an other school, I don’t think that justifies in the least abandoning the honor code. There’s simply a huge difference between people who might make a mistake and those who show no desire to live the rules.

I transferred to BYU from an university in Canada. I’m all too aware of credits that don’t transfer, differing requirements, all of which added at least a year to my college length compared to friends. The reality is though that transferring schools just isn’t the intrinsic evil some make it out. Saying that we should abandon the honor code because people fear having to transfer simply makes no sense. People have a choice. If they decide transferring isn’t worth the difficulty then live the rules. If the rules are too hard then accept the extra year of school transferring will entail. University students are adults. Further they’re among the most educated of adults. Figuring this out shouldn’t be hard even if changing ones plans can be scary.

While the honor code is a good thing it sometimes seems like the honor code office can be anything but. There are many stories of what seems like horrendous decisions by the office. Even if the majority of those tales are exaggerated or are leaving out crucial facts, the reality is that almost no one is saying the honor code office is focused on helping students repent and change. As critics have argued, the effect is not just damage to student careers but often unnecessary driving people from the church. Whatever changes happen at the honor code office, more love, more mentoring, and more appeals and oversight seem needed.

Many people have frustrations with the honor code office. Most of the press has been focused on false charges, sometimes due to retribution from disgruntled roommates or ex-girlfriends or boyfriends. There certainly ought be consequences to false charges. Second there have been charges that the office is unwilling to work with people who have fallen. While I’m sympathetic to the difference between continued breaking of the law of chastity over time versus a few cases of failure, it does seem like the honor code office should work with people over time much like a Bishop does. The goal should be to get people to live the gospel and turn to Christ. It should not be punishment as retribution. Punishment, when it is metted out, should be to provide a safe place for others to live the gospel. We also have to recognize the many people who want to attend BYU but can’t because of enrollment caps. It’s unfair to those people to keep people here who have no intention of following the rules.

I’d add in an additional problem I’ve seen with the honor code which I’ve not seen reported. People report problems, particularly worries about individuals who are a threat to others safety, yet it seems like no serious investigation takes place. The reality is that there are sexual assaults at BYU. In at least some cases I know people were reported for honor code violations yet nothing was done. This can be extremely frustrating because it seems like the honor code office gets focused on trivialities to the exclusion of real dangers. The focus should always be having a spiritual experience at BYU. I can imagine no great threat to that than the presence of predators.

It’s easy to criticize, but what are the solutions?

First off looking at schools with honor codes and enforcement, several such as West Point, have a trial with other students deciding the case. This can avoid issues of generation gap as well as providing several voices in deciding issues. Contra some, if there is a worry I think it would be too much punishment with such cases. I think some assume students would be overly lenient. I rather doubt that would be the case.

Second, for single infractions, the office should work with students to try and get them to repent and change. How much of that is going on now I’m just not in a position to say. Some of the anonymous reports in the media suggest it’s not, but it’s hard to know how many of those reports are exaggerated or at least more complicated. If even a few of them are accurate though it suggests a problem with enforcement. There’s simply a big difference between someone who screws up versus someone who is actually damaging other people’s education, spirituality or even safety.

Third, I think there should be an appeals process with an emphasis on evidence rather than the opinions of people at the honor code office. People should be able to dispute reports and know about reports. Anonymity is a tricky issue because of the safety of those reporting. It’s not hard to imagine a roommate reporting an other roommate and facing violent retribution for the report. However the ability to make anonymous reports with no fear of consequences also leads to some weaponizing the honors code office for revenge.

Finally, I think we should be careful to not return to the era of the 90’s when there seemed a double standard between athletes and regular students. The stories from the Lavell era of football are troubling even if some of those opposing the current system are well known former players. At the same time, I think we should also be aware of the problem of opiate addiction among athletes. While administration of painkillers is more closely monitored now, I’ve known enough athletes who became addicted to pain killers to recognize the problem both at BYU and at other universities. Again the focus should be on healing and repentance not retributive punishment. But neither can BYU allow double standards.

* Jonathan put up a post yesterday on the same topic. We have somewhat different takes and thought it would be interesting to put up both.

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