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O’Connell: Changes Needed To BYU Honor Code Office

(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Let me start this column with a disclaimer. I have never been a student at Brigham Young University. I am not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints myself.

I grew up in and around the culture though, cub scouts and boy scouts with troop 1531 of the Buttercup 8th Ward in Sandy, more missionary friends than you can count. I even married a Bishop’s daughter.

My LDS-adjacent upbringing (and adult life) means that, for better or worse, I am as immersed in LDS culture as a non-Mormon likely can be. I don’t claim that this makes me an expert of some kind. I tell you this so you have a better idea of where I am coming from. I have the luxury of appreciating the many, many great things about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints while living a life free of the obligation to support some of the harder-to-swallow policies or cultural norms. Such is the life of a “non-member” in Utah.

This allows me to look at the rising controversy surrounding BYU’s infamous Honor Code Office with a slightly different perspective.

The Honor Code Office has become an increasingly visible problem for a school that already faces perception problems in a lot of ways. No reason to panic, though. After all, the Mormon church has a long and demonstrated history of making changes to address a complex world and its modern problems. In fact, I am writing this column on a Conference weekend, which means leadership will be addressing church members worldwide to offer guidance and counsel. Rumor has it that some significant policy changes will be announced (can’t be as big of a change as two-hour church though, amiright?)  It’s time to make a change or two with the Honor Code Office at BYU.

Things Need To Change

Let’s be clear with one thing first, BYU shouldn’t get rid of the Honor Code. They probably shouldn’t loosen restrictions or “lower the bar” either. The time has most definitely come though, to eliminate the Office. Or at least strip it of its dictatorial authority. If that’s too much, then do the bare minimum and take away the “Honor” title.

Call it what it actually is. Something like “Office of Behavior Enforcement” or “Office of Imposed Morality” or at least “Standards Office”, like it used to be called. These titles are more accurate in their description, and might remove a good deal of confusion for prospective students or enrollees who read through the current Code and sign off on it, but don’t quite know what they are getting themselves into.

“The Honor System” – as I understand it – is based on personal responsibility and self-regulation. The parents, teachers, scout leaders and other authority figures who introduce this concept to us as children leave us with the assumption that your conscience will handle the punishment and free the authority figures from the burden of being regulators. The Honor System was (and still is) an exercise of trust that authority figures use to help us develop accountability and maturity.

The existence of the Honor Code Office at BYU is an indicator that the leadership there chooses to err on the side of skepticism and distrust. There is an assumption that students at the university will not be responsible enough to adhere on the whole to an upright code of conduct. This assumption is probably a fair one, so I’ll be reasonable and give a pass on this institutional skepticism.

Young people are going to screw up and experience lapses in their academic, social, and moral responsibilities. I’m still inclined to believe that the majority of students at BYU could be counted on to regulate the balance of their own behaviors, learn from their mistakes, and grow as individuals like we all try to do, but a competitive school with limited enrollment space doesn’t have to view things this way.

The shocking thing for me though, is the lack of trust the Honor Code Office shows in ecclesiastical leadership. There are far too many examples of the BYU Honor Code Office stepping in to impose sanction or punishment on individuals who have already addressed their problems in the framework of their faith. I’ve spoken to many people who have told me of instances in which their Bishop or Priest says they are in good standing, but the Honor Code Office differs. As someone who has struggled through the cycle of sin and repentance many times in life, I cannot imagine feeling unburdened in church on a Sunday but still having to answer for my indiscretions at school on a Monday.

If you haven’t heard these stories yourself – or if you disbelieve them – I encourage you to download Instagram and check out the new “honorcodestories” account. If you take even half of the anecdotal accounts at face value, you’ll see a need for serious reform. If you don’t want to rely on the stories of individuals, fine. At least take a deep dive into the various fully-vetted journalistic reports and articles published with details on the corrupt relationship between the Honor Code Office and the BYU Police Department.

BYUPD faces de-regulation partly because of that relationship. Most importantly the Honor Code Office has come under fire for repeated mismanagement of a sexual assault allegations, often punishing the victims as much, or in some rare cases more than the perpetrators. On the flip side of that same coin are the multiple stories of individuals accused and presumed guilty despite a lack of evidence or legal intervention.

Not So Honorable

These are incredibly complex issues that require the attention of professionals with expertise, not the reactionary heavy-handedness of an Office seemingly hell-bent on punishing, suspending, or even expelling members of the student body who experience any sort of complex crisis. This allows two types of students to succeed at BYU. Folks who are actually squeaky clean, or those who are clever enough to hide their mistakes. The Honor Code Office encourages a snitching culture, the proverbial casting of stones from glass houses, and peer-to-peer judgment that is heavily discouraged in Sunday lessons that students must attend to maintain their ecclesiastical endorsement.  If you encourage behavior that is less than honorable, you cannot claim a title with the word “Honor” in it.

The Honor Code itself is not a problem. Asking students at a Christian university to adhere to high standards is not all that unique. It’s unfair to focus on the downside of the enforcing Office and its bizarre hypocrisies without acknowledging the benefits of the Code. I would argue that setting elevated expectations and asking students to be the best versions of themselves is what makes BYU a special place. Simply put, you can’t get in without being special. Excellence is the norm. Sure, some of the grooming standards feel a little outdated, and the relationship with LGBTQ students needs to be worked on, but at the end of the day, the Honor Code is about trying to be better. Two of my dearest friends have told me that the Honor Code was valuable to them. One is a former track athlete at BYU who scoffed when I asked her about the challenges of living the Code and told me that it was “easy.” For every HCO horror story, there are probably dozens or hundreds of experiences that went smoothly.

The majority of students seem to make it through their time at BYU without much interference from the Honor Code Office at all. The occasional reminder to shave before reporting to the testing center or put on a longer skirt probably isn’t a big deal. Key tenets of the code like honesty and respect for others are things we should all aspire to. Principles like these are probably especially important to remember when heading off to college, away from home and parents and rules and structure for the first time. The Honor Code asks students to live a “chaste and virtuous life”.  Those students would do well to ask that the Honor Code Office remembers that compassion, patience, grace, humility, empathy, and loyalty are indeed virtues.

Effect On Athletes

You may have noticed that I have yet to mention the effect the Honor Code Office has on BYU athletics. (I think this issue is much bigger than sports, so I left it to the end) BYU coaches operate in a unique recruiting landscape. They probably get into some living rooms because they are the premiere LDS University. They are probably left out of some living rooms for the same reason.

Coaches at BYU are tasked with the pressures of winning, like everyone else. They are partially responsible for academic progress, like everyone else. They need to keep their student athletes out of legal trouble, like everybody else. On top of that, they are tasked with making sure their 18-24 year-old charges are not drinking, smoking, having sleepovers, engaging in hanky-panky, or wearing inappropriate clothing.

It’s a tough job, but they all sign up for it and they are all paid well to do it. If the Honor Code itself is a deterrent to prospective athletes, I’m not sure how we could accurately measure it. If you are considering accepting a BYU scholarship offer, you are probably fairly conservative anyway. I can’t imagine being offered a free education at a prestigious institution with excellent media exposure and having to pause over the section that states that I can’t grow a scruffy beard.

It might be more difficult to embrace the idea that cuddling with my girlfriend after midnight might be reported by a fellow student and get me kicked out of school though… The Honor Code itself isn’t helping BYU attract the best recruits in the country, but that’s not the reason for the Code, so it’s not a reason to change the code either. The Honor Code Office has enough of a reputation these days to effectively deter some types of recruits from coming to BYU.

We also know that the Honor Code Office has motivated several transfers out of BYU athletics. At the end of the day, that probably doesn’t mean much. I find it somewhat alarming that a quick Google-search of “BYU” now yields top results about the Honor Code Office instead of the University itself or the vaunted athletics department. Another indication that change is necessary.

I’ll accept the notion that the Code itself is actually Honorable, and helps the mission of BYU and the lives of the students who chose to attend. At the same time, we’ve all seen, heard, and read too much to believe that the Honor Code Office deserves the name at this point. Change the name. Get rid of the office. Reform the practices or replace the staff with professionals who have expertise in the nuanced issues of college life. It’s time for an announcement from the top. BYU cannot afford to leave the Honor Code Office as it is.