Don’t Reform the Honor Code

The current round of dissatisfaction with the BYU honor code will hopefully result in some tinkering around the edges and perhaps a few personnel changes, and then quickly be forgotten before it has a chance to undermine the university’s educational and religious missions, which might roughly be summarized as producing graduates who are educated, productive, and committed to the church.

The honor code goes a good way towards addressing challenges the university faces in fulfilling its missions.

The free rider problem. BYU’s tuition is quite affordable compared to similar schools, which creates the potential for students to come solely for the education although they have no interest in the school’s religious mission and no intention of remaining active members. If you know about that ahead of time, the solution is straightforward: price tuition higher, as BYU does for nonmember students. For church members, adhering to the honor code serves as a reasonably good measure of commitment: If a student can’t make it to Sunday meetings when everyone else in the apartment is going and the church building is a quarter-mile away, it’s reasonable to infer that the student has a low likelihood of attending church after graduation.

The slowest cadet problem. In a group, the achievement of the top performer on any given measure is much less predictive of the group’s average attainment than the achievement of the lowest performer. If you’re training a squad of Air Force cadets to run a mile, the slowest runners drag the group average down not just mathematically, but by lowering the standard of what it takes to be a bit faster than the slowest runner. For academic performance, academic probation is one method to improve the whole group. For commitment to the church, the honor code serves the same purpose. Rule breaking is contagious. Expel the meth dealers, and the students who tell themselves, “Well, at least I’m not dealing meth” have to up their game.

The problem of prayer. If you have a group of students who believe in the usefulness of prayer before undertaking something of importance, starting off class with prayer (not uncommon in Provo, and universal at BYU-Idaho) will be sixty seconds well spent. The students will be more likely to start class in the right mindset to learn. This is just one of countless ways that the university’s religious mission strengthens its educational mission. In contrast, students who resent the minute of prayer as a waste of time and a heavy-handed dose of mandatory religion will be that much less ready to learn. A school with an integrated educational/religious mission like BYU will be most effective as an educational institution for the students who buy in most readily to its religious mission, and least effective for the students who are hostile to the religious aspect. So it’s important to get students on campus who will profit from the university’s distinctive dual mission, and the honor code helps dissuade students who aren’t a good fit from applying.

Imperfect sorting. The higher education system of the U.S. is large and diverse. It’s hard to say which school is best for you. It’s common to realize after a year or two that another option would be better. Putting the honor code front and center in applications and with regular renewals after matriculation helps students to better assess what their values and goals are and where they would be happiest. A student who comes to BYU and flunks out after three years represents an inefficient use of institutional resources. The same is true of a BYU student who stops attending church upon graduation.

So don’t take any reform proposal seriously that doesn’t recognize the important work the honor code does for the university. And ignore any sentence that begins, “If the honor code doesn’t change, then employers/students/accreditors will….” BYU has no problem placing its graduates in jobs. Overall, BYU students are very happy where they are, and applicants are very eager to be accepted. Accreditors want universities to accomplish the missions the universities have determined for themselves. They’re not in the business of telling universities what their missions should be. The honor code is strictly a matter of how to further the university’s missions and create the best experience for most students. Other universities have honor codes that reflect their values and missions. BYU takes the teachings and standards of its sponsoring institution very seriously, and so should its honor code.

What if it was my child? It is my child. My son is quite happy at BYU right now, and the honor code contributes directly to his happiness. (The only change he endorses is forbidding mustaches, because mustaches are gross.) BYU is a unique and remarkable place, and if he was harming the educational or spiritual development of other students and flouting church standards and the promises he made on enrollment, then it would be better for the university and other students and my own child to finish his education elsewhere. As an alumnus and the parent of a student and other future applicants, I have some stake in the discussion, and scrapping or defanging the honor code would decrease my support for BYU and my interest in sending my children there.

As a student in the ’90s, I was peripherally involved in an honor code proceeding, and I can understand why some people are frustrated. I can even understand the sentiment to burn the whole thing down, even if that would be a mistake that harms the university. I saw some Honor Code Office employees who were wise and prudent and kind, the type of people I am ready to entrust my children to. I also saw some employees who I wouldn’t trust to pump my gas at a self-serve gas station. If the office is currently the source of complaints, the solution is to “promote” particular people to other responsibilities and hire better people to replace them (while recognizing that dealing with edge cases every day means someone is going to be unhappy no matter what you do).

The honor code is especially beneficial to students who want nothing to do with it. Your 20s are too short to waste them in a place where you’re frustrated and unhappy. It’s a big, interesting world out there. Go explore.

25 comments for “Don’t Reform the Honor Code

  1. I got down to the second to last paragraph and wondered if you had even read what many of the students are suggesting as far as “reform”. It seems your title should be, “Don’t throw out the honor code”. The code has been changing all along and what I see is that many students want to change the honor code office and some of mindset in there.

    I have had several kids attend the Y and they love the school, but they dislike the way the honor code office works. My son’s that attended were all assistants to the president while on their mission – not rebellious kids in any way. Some of their good friends are the same, both in being really good kids AND disliking the honor code. I know of a really sharp kid that is about to graduate high school. He didn’t even apply to the Y as his older siblings talked him out of it – one of whom signed the “reform the honor code” petition. Instead he was accepted into a very prestigious university. I count it as a real loss to BYU that he didn’t go there.

    So I would agree that getting rid of the honor code would be a serious mistake, but leaving the honor code office just the way it is also a mistake and could increase some of the negatives of the BYU culture, not to mention even more negative press.

  2. And many shall say: An Honor Code! An Honor Code! We have got an Honor Code, and there cannot be any more Honor Code.

  3. According to a news report:

    “[The HC reformer group] advocates for a self-reported “On My Honor” code that would still ban breaking the law, premarital sex, the use of alcohol or drugs and cheating, and does away with the ban on beards and long hair for men, curfews for unmarried students, clothing requirements and other rules.”

  4. I’ll share my thoughts (which are largely directly plagiarized from/inspired by Jared Cook’s comment on a post at BCC):

    Separate the academic honor code from the personal honor code, enforce them from different offices, and provide a different set of consequences for each. Specifically, make academic dishonesty subject to immediate expulsion and denial of a degree and transferring credits, but make the personal/religious morality portions enforceable only by a denial of continued attendance for the next semester. The Honor Code is important. I spent 7 years as a single BYU student. Part of the reason I loved it so much was the Honor Code. But students should have an opportunity to decide that maybe BYU isn’t the best place for them and to let that spot go to somebody who wants to be there, and letting those students finish up the semester and transfer out would smooth that process.

    I would also subject the dress and grooming standards to regular review by a student committee. I don’t think a well-trimmed beard presents any conflict with BYU’s mission, and above-the-knee skirts with thick leggings aren’t really immodest.

  5. I think that there’s pros and cons to the Honor Code issue. On the one hand, I think that the HCO needs some reforming. Some of the questions they ask delve into too many details. If someone had extramarital sex at the Y, why does it matter what position it was in? Is it more depraved if there are more clothes off? It’s stuff like that that I think needs to be shut down.
    I also am no fan of the Honor Code being wielded as a weapon without due process. If someone violated the HC, they signed the contract and should be held to it. However, if someone is going to use the HC to coerce someone to do something (one of the stories I saw was “I’ll tell them you’re a practicing homosexual unless you have sex with me”), that’s not right and the HCO has to do better to protect those who are living the Code from this.
    However, I am not a fan of the desire to weaken the HC and allow more things than they did in the past. It’s a perfectly acceptable code of conduct, and I think that they shouldn’t water it down.

  6. Ceej@y, “self-reporting” sounds nice at first glance, but it would make life a lot harder for the roommates of, say, a heavy drinker. It sounds like it would also end any kind of continuing ecclesiastical endorsement requirement, which would be a mistake. If you never attend church in 4 years on campus, that’s an issue worth noting.

    Dsc, separating the two sides of the honor code is a terrible idea. If you want to have an integrated educational/religious mission, you don’t want to completely divorce the two when it comes to honor code compliance. Also, academic dishonesty in the real world ends up describing a largish spectrum of misbehavior, from the freshman who never learned to footnote properly to the guy who’s paying someone to write his thesis and take his exams. Some universities to have single sanction requirements, but I’ve never liked the idea because it’s easy to end up in situations where the punishment is out of proportion to the infraction. Refusal to issue a transcript for transferring credit would probably be subject to legal challenge as well. And it would put me in an ugly spot as a teacher – if Isee a student is cheating on a test, I can fail her for the exam, but if that also means she’s automatically expelled and can’t use any of the last three years of her education elsewhere, she has every incentive to resist the sanction internally and through lawsuit, and it’s only my word against hers. And, finally, cheating on a test is a matter of both academic and religious morality.

  7. I echo other commenters here that the recent push to reform generally refers to the Honor Code Office more than the Honor Code itself. As a BYU alum, I really enjoyed my time there and liked the honor code, and would not want to get rid of it (though, admittedly, I think the beard ban is silly). The tactics used by employees of the Honor Code Office, however, leave something to be desired. To put it mildly.

    The instagram account @honorcodestories has hundreds of examples of the Honor Code Office behaving in ways that are harmful to students and unbecoming to BYU and the church as a whole. It’s worth reading even just a few of them in order to understand why reforming the office’s procedures is necessary.

  8. Jonathan,

    I may not have been clear. The punishments I listed are the maximum punishment. I think that concepts of proportionality and due process are implied, but if they are not, let me explicitly state that I think they should be. Immediate expulsion and denial of transfer credits should be imposed only for egregious cases of academic dishonesty, such that the validity of the degree and the student’s grades can be called into question. Other forms of academic dishonesty may require nothing more than rewriting a paper or retaking a class. My point is that it takes a different perspective and different knowledge base to determine what is religiously immoral and what is academically unethical. Failure to cite your sources in a paper can be a fairly serious academic offense. I think few would find it a particularly egregious religious shortfall. Different people should handle these different perspectives.

  9. John W I’d strongly advocate BYU-I and BYU having the same honor code and same style of enforcement. If you look at other honor codes, such as at West Point, there’s a student jury that decides the case. That of course isn’t ideal as you’d want people to work with those breaking the code if it is a one time thing. But for those who aren’t willing to work with the HCO then that seems a fair way to go.

    Michelle, the problem is that many reformers want enforcement of the honor code removed entirely. Some want enforcement but no reporting. Some want just to change dress codes. Things are all over the place.

  10. Anonymous and pseduonymous horror stories on social media (many of which are clearly false, and the ones that aren’t clearly false seem, at best, to be exaggerations filtered through resentment and anger; I very much doubt the honor code office investigates people for having non-member parents, for example) is not a sound basis for making decisions.

    I cannot take seriously anyone who uses anonymous and pseduonymous horror stories from social media as proof of anything – especially since many of those same people are often very skeptical of anything the institutional church does. It’s a very odd and incoherent position, to often question what the Brethren pronounce from the pulpit, but uncritically accept what an instagram account posts.

  11. John W., I’m not interested in you turning this thread into your own showcase as usual, so goodbye.

    Ivan, that is, sadly, an important point. I believe what I see, and I believe people I know in person, and I believe people who have built up a stock of credibility over the years. Everything else comes with an asterisk.

  12. I think BYU does draw students who are only looking for a prestigious university at the best value. Some who don’t value the honor code but come anyway for the good deal.

    When My daughter to BYU as a visiting student for summer, she couldn’t believe some who had been accepted as full time students and yet didn’t take church seriously and didn’t live the standards. Emily had been looking forward to being in a place of high standards with uplifting students all her life. She had been living the church standards all through high school and yet she wasn’t accepted as a full time student. She was exactly the committed church girl they are looking for.

    I think they need to improve their admissions criteria and procedure to accept more students who place value in repentance and living the church standards. This should be as important as grades in my opinion.

    That being said, I agree with the author of this article about getting rid of those employees in the honor code office that are unfair, unloving and abuse their position by being too strict. Repentance is one of our greatest gifts. The university should want students who are real, make mistakes, use and believe in repentance and being forgiven and utilize this great gift we have been given. Sincere, genuine, striving but imperfect students. After all, none of us are perfect.

  13. BYU is a very good deal due to the subsidies of the Church. But at the same time those subsidies are for those willing to live the standards of the Church. As Jonathan points out, it’s rather unfair for some to come for the subsidies ignoring the aims of those subsidies while others who want to come can’t. The reality is that the vast majority of universities admit everyone who applies. BYU is one of the minority that admits only about half of those who apply. That’s a lot of people who want to be here, willing to follow the rules. There’s more than a little privilege by those here complaining about having to live the rules. Especially when transferring to an other school simply isn’t the tragedy some portray.

  14. My wife and two sisters graduated from BYU. Three of my daughters have attended BYU, one having graduated, another married after her sophemore year, and another presently enrolled. Another son graduated from BYU-I. Of the seven, none of them have or had any dealings with the Honor Code Office. On the other hand, I know a young lady who attended BYU, got her degree, was essentially “inactive” the whole time she was there, and married a non-member (her high school boyfriend) as soon as she graduated and is still inactive. She’s a nice enough young lady, but I wish she had given up her seat for someone who would have appreciated the religious aspect of BYU.

  15. The reform is to remove the bullying culture of the HCO, not the standards. There are hundreds of stories of bullying tactics, used by some of the HCO employees. Is it reasonable to tell a student who has gone through personal repentance (bishop, etc) that confessing in minute detail to the HCO is part of their repentance process? It seems to conflate who the judge in Israel is. There are worse tactics then that – This post sounds like you have not read much from those who are speaking out. Won’t go on here, but you should check out the stories.

  16. 3 things that bug me about the current HC protests:

    1) I feel that the honor of good persons who’ve worked in the HCO is being besmirched. I’m on a first name basis with two of them, one who is a recently-called stake president, and one who was my ecclesiastical leader in the past; both are exemplary men. There’s another HC official who I don’t know personally but who worked closely with me in resolving a case of academic dishonesty. He was wise and fair and more than gave the involved student the benefit of the doubt. (A student who a few years later was arrested for defrauding his employer the same way he had defrauded BYU.)

    2) Some protestors seem to think that the word “honor” in “honor code” means the same thing as in the “honor system” for office snacks or unattended baskets of Trident on Halloween. On the contrary, many of the most prominent honor codes are based on the template: “I will not lie, cheat, or steal, *or* *tolerate* *those* *who* *do*”.

    3) Some of the case studies cited by protestors indicate that sometimes the beef is with the ecclesiastical endorsement system, rather than the honor code. The HCO didn’t invent ecclesiastical endorsements, and those endorsements are administered by ecclesiastical leaders. If you’re really upset with common judges in Israel, stop acting like it’s BYU bureaucrats you can’t stand.

  17. Went to both BYUs and had a good experience. I fully support the honor code and happily lived it.

    I was uncomfortable however when I occasionally heard it said that we need to report honor code violations. I don’t like a tattle tale culture. I also am uncomfortable with students potentially using the honor code as a weapon for revenge or manipulation. I hope steps are being taken to minimize this.

    There is also an idea that I feel can perpetuate problems at the church schools. I heard all the time, “Many people want to come here, but can’t get in if you have a problem then go somewhere else!” While it is true that many people really wish to get into BYU, in many cases those who say this are trying to shut down a discussion when there are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. I think it is fair to say the the HCO has dealt with students in a problematic way, at least in the past. It isn’t just the HCO though. I had an unwarranted ugly interaction with an administrator that didn’t see the need to treat me as a student with basic respect because there were “thousands who take my place.” I think if the administration had done a better job of listening to students concerns early on, they wouldn’t have attracted this much unwanted attention.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that we shouldn’t automatically brush students’ concerns aside with the HCO office, particularly if they present their concerns sincerely and respectfully. That said, anonymous postings should be suspect. I get the feeling that some involved in this are not sincere. They are taking advantage of this situation to pressure BYU to ditch the HC.

  18. Would people be happier if there was no honor code office that handled violations/investigations, but your eligibility was entirely up to your bishop?

    In some ways, it makes sense for a gospel school. I realize that many would feel uncomfortable about that. But rare is the unmerciful bishop. Certainly more rare than an office administrator with no priesthood keys (not to disparage the unknown admins… I’m hopeful they take their job seriously with compassion).

    I think in reality the honor code office probably provides a valuable service to students who have transgressed, in that the bishop can provide spiritual care, separate from real world consequences. When you put the bishop in the role of feeling like they have to assign reprimands, I imagine overtime their compassion would inevitably wane just by nature of the process.

    But the bishop is a much better judge than the honor code office. I would assume they already work closely together and lean heavily on the bishop’s suggestion anyway though.

    I agree with the general thrust of this article. I’m far more leery of modifying the honor code, even though I suppose an overzealous administrator could have conjured up reasons to throw the book at me during my time at the byu. I had no issues and I’m happy the code is in place.

    At the time if I was disciplined over aggressively, I assume I would not have possessed the emotional wisdom to handle it properly and simply reapply at a new school. But like most people, I would have felt combative over the issue, which only creates more escalation and bad decisions.

    That’s really the issue — I don’t think I had the life’s experience and emotional maturity until after a couple decades outside of university to be able to say, “ya, I broke the rule, that’s a harsh penalty, but it was my choice, and someone else didn’t get into this school because I took their place and if they would have complied with the rules, they deserve the spot more”.

    That many of us are still in that stage of maturity, doesn’t itself justify strict discipline. It should cause us to consider how imperfect who haven’t reached that stage of awareness, and are already prone to making mistakes in judgement, will further compound that issue if you keep giving them reason to push back.

    Surely, we’ve all seen this in our own interactions with our families?

  19. One problem with the honor code is that it tends to spawn judgmental pharisees, like IDIAT, above. Once these rules are in place it seems we just can’t help but judge others’ adherence to them. This is particularly aggravating when the rules govern trivialities, like whether a man has a beard, whether his mustache descends below the corners of his mouth, or whether a woman’s hemline falls below her knee. Suddenly simple grooming decisions become litmus tests for our faith in Christ (similar to the non-white shirt test at church).

  20. Ted, why do you think the honor code intrinsically does that? And how is IDIAT an example? He basically wishes someone who was willing to take advantage of BYU and follow the rules had the spot. That’s not phariseeism as typically used. Again it’s fine if people think BYU should be an “anything goes” college. I know many people do and dislike the mixing of religion and academics. However “pharisee” isn’t much of an argument for that.

  21. The real problem is the abusive practices of those employed in the HCO office in attempts to enforce it. A friend of a friend’s family member committed suicide after being punished by the honor code office.

    Let’s take a pause on some of the black and white thinking.

    As someone from a highly abusive background, their behavior is extremely disconcerting. Any lame rule breaking I did while I was there came from much deeper psychological needs. I broke rules like spending the night at a boy’s house which really came from a need for emotional intimacy and support I was had been starved of growing up.

    My cell phone went off in the testing center once and I had to visit and it was like I might as well have committed some misdemeanor.

    I understand and advocate for doing our best to live the gospel. The honor code office employees and their power as it stands wields unchecked power.

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