The BYU Honor Code; Do it Right

I read this article on the NPR website today about a protest of the honor code that took place today on BYU campus. The honor code is an integrity contract all students admitted to church schools sign agreeing to abide by a code of conduct. It is rigorous and every year students are expelled for failing to abide by it. My relationship with the honor code is complicated and this post explores some of my experiences and feelings about the issue.

First, the protest itself. Protests are not bad, and I think this one provides us an opportunity to have a conversation about the obvious concerns of the rising generation. This protest is completely in line with the trends we are seeing and have been seeing for almost fifty years. America has always been a land of rebels, but in the last fifty years, rebellion against norms has really taken off. Everything must be new and cutting edge, including our values. We cast off old values like we do the last decade’s fashions. In fairness, my move from a small town in rural Idaho, to a suburb of a major metropolis might skew my perspective some about how much has changed in society verses how much has changed around me. Even with that in mind, I think our norms are changing and changing fast, and for the rising generation, the traditional head down way of handling social issues just isn’t going to work.

Change is always hard, but change right now is inevitable. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is changing. I used to think that the true church of God would never change; that it would be a steady anchor in changing times, holding fast to steadfast principles. I still believe that to be true, but it is a little more complicated than I thought. The church is made up of imperfect and changing people living in a time of upheaval and flux. The principles remain the same, but the ways they are enforced; the policies and attitudes behind the principles must be flexible. Compassion and mercy must be balanced with principles when it comes to enforcement– But I passionately believe that if a standard is put in place, there must be enforcement. We can decide what that looks like in order to provide the best outcome for the students, but just putting the rules in place and expecting them to be followed, or putting students in charge of reporting on one another can be a disaster, as my story demonstrates.

I was a student at BYU in Provo for a short time twenty years ago. I lived at an apartment complex called Branbury Park. I had found it online on my dialup modem at home in Idaho. It looked fairly new and very nice. They had a great website. Their pictures marketed their BYU approved housing status and featured pictures that evoked thoughts of LDS culture. They were a little more expensive than most places, but I was planning to get a job and I thought it would be worth it to have my own room in a nice complex. I had just finished my Associates Degree at BYU-Idaho, and I thought BYU would be a great place to transfer that would have similar standards. BYU-Idaho, or Ricks college as it was back then, had strict enforcement of the honor code including curfews and boys not allowed in bedrooms. The complex appointed RAs, or Resident Assistants that were in charge of honor code enforcement. They had power and everyone knew it. We signed the honor code and we were expected to follow it. The day I moved into my new place at Branbury Park, I found an eerie note on my bed. It was a legal disclaimer stating that the BYU housing approval was not a guarantee that the BYU honor code would be enforced or even that the apartment was in compliance with legal safety standards. Clearly I wasn’t at Rick’s College anymore. It got worse from there.

I soon learned that Branbury Park had a notorious reputation on BYU campus as the party place. I had no friends and struggled badly with what I know now to be depression. I was stereotyped as a Molly Mormon and was treated as an outcast. My roommates would go clubbing at night in Salt Lake City. I invested in earplugs so that I could sleep though their endless parties. I learned very early on that the honor code was nothing but a formality to these BYU students. They thought nothing of going into their bishop interviews, promising to live by certain standards, and then breaking their word the same day. I remember me and my roommate had honor code appointments back to back. As soon as we got home, she was playing card games with some dude in her back bedroom. My other roommate was making out with her boyfriend on her bed. Thankfully, I had my own room.

They knew that I took the honor code seriously, but they also knew if I reported anything, they would know who the snitch was. They would make things miserable for me. They resented and feared me because of how I could mess up their lives, and I was terrified of them. I was stuck in a contract and I didn’t want any trouble.

One of our roommates moved out, but couldn’t get out of her contract, so she left her room empty. Another girl moved into her room without paying. She wasn’t a student at BYU or anywhere, and unlike the other kids at Branbury Park who liked to live a double life, she had no desire to look or act LDS. She had a terrible spirit about her. I remember the first time I saw her and her hatred of me seemed to radiate from her person. She terrified me. I still remember the dread I felt as I heard her move her things in. I thought the worst thing I had to endure that year would be when my FHE brother asked me to do a table dance and everyone laughed at me, or maybe when that nasty guy they called as the Gospel Doctrine teacher used the class as a recruitment tool for his network marketing business. This was the worst.

I agonized over what to do. Should I notify the apartment managers that a girl was living in our apartment that shouldn’t be there? Everyone would know who the snitch was. My life was bad enough in that apartment, but I felt like the line of decency had to be drawn somewhere. There were boys spending the night and beer parties in the parking lot. I came to BYU thinking that I would be with other kids who would be striving to live the honor code. As it was, I stood out dramatically for refusing to compromise myself. A couple of slices of bread were all that was needed for the entire ward for sacrament meeting. It made me wonder why these kids came to church at all. Why did they want to attend BYU? No one seemed to care about the gospel. I thought for sure I would find someone to be friends with, but I never did. If you were a decent person when you moved into Branbury Park, you weren’t by the time you left. Everyone on the outside judged me for living there. Everyone on the inside judged me for not being like them.

That was a dark time in my life. My sister was married to an abusive man. I was living far away from home for the first time. My tonsils were bad and I was almost constantly battling strep throat infections. I decided to quit going to school and got a job with the plan to move out as soon as possible. Even though I tried to sell my contract, I wasn’t able to. I stayed the whole year. I didn’t ever tell anyone about our squatter roommate. I had a feeling that she was better off in our apartment than wherever she was living before. At least she had a place to sleep.

Even though my roommates didn’t like me much, I stayed close to the Lord and I still loved them. Eventually I gave up trying to make friends in my ward and complex. I joined the UVSC institute and took as many classes as I could to avoid going home after work. I stashed bagels in my car so I wouldn’t have to eat at the apartment. I drove the five hours home almost every other weekend. When I did see my roommates I was cordial, but tried not to involve myself in their lives. The less I knew, the easier it was to live with the situation.

At one point my roommate Katy was not doing well. Her dad was a Dentist and she was rich and messy with lots of expensive clothes that she never took care of. Her room had so many clothes on the floor it was knee deep in some places. She was pretty and blonde and fairly nice. In another situation, we probably would have been good friends. If there had been more good influences around, she might have gone a different way. Unfortunately, she started hanging out with a nasty guy. She stopped sleeping at our apartment at night, and I was worried about her. I talked to my other roommates, and they were concerned about her too. Even by Branbury standards, she was slipping. She wasn’t going to class, and she had gotten into some substance abuse. I prayed about what to do. I told a member of the Bishopric that I was worried about Katy; that I didn’t want to get her in trouble, but that I thought someone should know what was going on. A few weeks later he told me that he had called her in to talk with him. She had started the repentance process and was doing much better. He wanted me to know. I had done the right thing. After he mentioned it, I could tell she was doing better. I don’t know what ever happened to Katy after I left, but I hope she was able to stay out of trouble. Maybe she moved out of that awful place. I hope so.

After that year, I was much more careful about choosing my apartments. I made certain that I never got into such a terrible mess again. I moved to a better place on BYU campus for the summer, and then started at Utah State the next fall. Part of the appeal of Utah State, was that there wasn’t an honor code. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live the honor code. I have always been a straight arrow. I didn’t want to go to a church school where there was an honor code that wasn’t enforced. It put me in a difficult situation at Branbury Park and I never wanted to be in that place again. Better to have no standard, than a standard that isn’t enforced except for vague expectations about peer monitoring. It isn’t that I don’t like the idea of an honor code, it just needs to be done right and in practice, it isn’t always done right.

Here’s the thing. I know not everyone wants to live by the standard of the BYU honor code. That’s okay. There are lots of other schools people can go to. Anybody who gets accepted to BYU has plenty of options about where they want to go to school, so whining about the honor code rings hollow to me. There are lots of good kids willing to live the code that are turned away every year because they don’t qualify academically. They are taking you at your word that you have the moral qualifications to handle the honor code, but if you fail to live up to it, why should they be obligated to keep you? If you sign a contract saying that you are going to live by a code and then you don’t, you are only lying to yourself, the school, and God. You take a spot at a church school that someone else is more worthy than you to have. If you commit sin, God may forgive you, but that doesn’t mean that BYU has to keep you. If you violate the honor code, you are breaking your word to the school. Choices have consequences and that’s just life. If I choose not to go to work, I can’t go to church and repent and then expect that because God forgives me that I will still have a job. That’s not how it works.

That doesn’t mean I advocate that everyone who makes a mistake is kicked out. What I’m saying is, don’t conflate the forgiveness of God with the standards at BYU. They are two different things. If you want a good school with good academic standards, why is it different to want a school that also has high moral standards? What difference is there really between wanting people to understand and practice the rules of quadratic equations and wanting people to understand and practice the law of chastity? Yes, people will make mistakes, but should we just stop grading tests? Stop failing students? Tossing out the honor code would be the moral equivalent of throwing out the grade book academically.

A good school offers tutoring to those who struggle academically. I believe BYU should also provide support to those who struggle to live up to the standards of the honor code. If the code is wrong, that also needs to be addressed, but that isn’t what it seems to me that this protest was about. It is about mercy, forgiveness, and having a standard at all. In that, the core issue is the conflagration of divine forgiveness and the consequences of sin; the violation of divine covenants with the contracts of men. If I break the law, I have to pay a fine or do my time. That has nothing to do with whether God has forgiven me.

Of course, as a church and as a society at large, we are re-evaluating our sexual norms. The LGBT movement cannot be ignored. We must have faith that God understands what is beyond our knowledge and that as we extend mercy to those who struggle with these issues, and seek his wisdom, we will know the way forward. Sexual assault, or the situation in which I found myself with my roommates are not the fault of the students in impossible situations. We need to be careful in our judgement that we don’t condemn victims or give power to their abusers. No matter how careful we are, I still don’t see the future being warm and fuzzy when it comes to these issues. They are hairy and difficult for everyone. Still, we need to make sure that we aren’t neglecting our responsibilities when it comes to our own due diligence.

For example, if you are going to make money off kids paying rent at BYU and you market your complex as BYU approved housing, you should make sure that your rooms comply with legal safety standards and that the honor code is enforced. That disclaimer flyer may have protected Branbury Park legally, but God won’t forget the hell I went through that year. There are some people who profited from the mess that was allowed to happen at that complex. My mom and I were deceived and swindled and I’m guessing we weren’t the only ones.

My Branbury Park story is a cautionary tale. Don’t assume that when you send your kids off to a church school that all is well. There was a rumor that my family home evening brother was pimping out my roommates. I found it plausible. Seriously. Also, I’m all about compassion, forgiveness and second chances. I can see how the honor code might be a way to persecute and shun someone who is struggling to live a standard that is a little out of reach for them; but keep in mind that the opposite is also true, as my story shows. As our society re-examines shame and the enforcement of sexual values, we need to remember that if the standard is put up for our youth, it should be fairly and consistently enforced by the adults who preside over them. Not holding students accountable for keeping their promises rewards liars and punishes everyone else. If the standard isn’t enforced fairly and consistently, its better that it isn’t there at all.

Expecting young people to self monitor and report one another for honor code violations is unreasonable. I felt guilty at Branbury Park because I felt like I needed to tell someone about what was going on. I felt complicit because I was looking the other way and not reporting my roommates. Still, I knew that nothing I reported would have any effect. Obviously, the problems at that complex were much larger than I could do anything about. At one point I talked to one of the members of the bishopric hinting vaguely about how the honor code isn’t enforced like it was at Ricks. He seemed to know the burden I carried. He said, “This is a hard place for a girl like you to live.” He was right. I took his sympathetic response as permission to disregard the honor code violations of my roommates, but I never felt comfortable with it. I did the best I could, and looking back, I think I was a good example to my roommates, especially to Katy. I struck a good balance between compassion and obedience in a very difficult situation. Not everyone can do that, but I showed those kids that you could still live the honor code even at Branbury Park, even if it meant that you didn’t have a single friend for a whole year. Even if it meant eating bagels for dinner in your car every day.

I never wanted to be a hero or a Molly Mormon model of righteousness for a bunch of rebel kids. I just wanted to go to school and be accepted like everyone else; maybe go on a few dates. The Lord had other plans for me that year. Still, I wouldn’t wish it on another twenty-year old girl. We can and should be better at our church schools. My oldest son wants to go to BYU. I’ve never told him my horror story. I like that he has a BYU placard hanging in his room and wears BYU socks. In our world of shifting values, I hope BYU can make the honor code work. Clear and unchanging principles are rare and vanishing on our college campuses, and they are needed more than ever IMHO. Even though I never graduated from BYU, I can respect what they are trying to do-I just want them to do it right.

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