A Chalk Circle

Originally published July 5, 2016.

Brigham Young University (Provo, UT) made national and international news in April when a group of students claimed that the University inappropriately handled their reports of sexual assault. This “honor code scandal” rings like an oxymoron in my BYU alumna ears––how could a program designed to protect students’ morality, spirituality, and physical well-being as well as preserve academic integrity, become scandalous?

Strictly speaking, the Honor Code itself is not on trial in this situation (read the BYU Honor Code here). BYU has a legal obligation to separate the workings of its Title IX office from its Honor Code enforcement. According to Damon Linker in The Week, Title IX “requires schools to fairly investigate all allegations of sexual assault.” If students fear being punished for Honor Code violations by reporting sexual assault, the “disincentive for victims to come forward in the first place … seems like both a miscarriage of justice (punishing the victim of a worse transgression for committing a lesser one) and a violation of the spirit of Title IX…” (Linker, “In defense,” The Week). I find it equally concerning that local law enforcement officials secretly handed over police files to the Honor Code Office (see Whittney Evans’ NPR report from All Things Considered). Linker concludes that simply enforcing a separation between the Title IX Office and the Honor Code Office could solve the problem raised this April. But the Honor Code itself came under fire in the press and deserves a closer look (see Dahlia Lithwick, “Repeated Violations,” Slate which mostly attacks the Honor Code; see also the more favorable conclusion of Linker’s “In defense of BYU’s Honor Code”).

Years ago as a freshman BYU student, I felt great security in the Honor Code. Having left high school early where cheating was rampant, drugs were sold in the hallways, and students showed up to class drunk or high, I found great peace in knowing that my new peers at BYU would provide a safe and intellectually engaging environment for me. They not only wanted to be at school but they, too, had signed the Honor Code and were committed to my same moral standards. I also felt something special on campus, that it was a sacred space. At BYU, we often talk about the campus in terms of sacred spaces, referring to the classrooms and buildings as “temples of learning.” I believe the special spirit at BYU comes at least in part from the united effort of students, faculty, and staff to live the same high, moral standards.

I definitely saw the Honor Code in black and white, until one day my second year as I walked from one end of campus to another and started back again after class, my feet began to bleed. The sandals I had worn were rubbing the tops and sides of my feet raw. I mentioned to the friend I was walking with, who happened to be president of the Student Honor Association, that I needed to pause so I could remove my sandals. He didn’t mind waiting for me, he said, but if I removed my sandals and walked across campus barefoot, I would be breaking the Honor Code.

Eight years later, I returned to BYU as a graduate student with lots of travel, work, and mission experience under my belt. Not only did I see a lot more gray in the world but I also discovered some startling truths about life as a BYU student in a new decade. Strict Honor Code policies prevented me from making informed, adult decisions about some of my social activities. A spirit of fear seemed to hold the campus in its grip. The Shrink and His Thoughts recently put these reflections of mine into perspective with his post “Look down Javert! You’re standing in your grave––BYU’s honor code dilemma.” The author compares students to Hugo’s Valjean and the Honor Code to Javert. The recent “scandal” certainly seems to have played out in keeping with Javert’s ideals of justice. The Shrink, however, suggests that a punitive institution like the Honor Code will never actually achieve its overarching goals of creating a moral educational environment or shaping people with a strong internal moral code. The Shrink comments that the Honor Code is a fence built around values that students have already committed to live by virtue of their LDS Church membership. While The Shrink sides completely with the mercy and love approach, I think there is a balance yet to be found, a balance embodied by Valjean himself whose prison sentence satisfied the demands of justice and whose later life of good deeds reflected the mercy and compassion shown him by the priest.

The Honor Code at BYU serves an important purpose. Although students who are members of the LDS Church have already committed to living most of the standards outlined in the Honor Code through their baptismal covenant and temple covenants, non-member students have not (in some cases) made similar internal moral commitments (see this table identifying rates of enrollment by religion at BYU). Requiring every student to sign an honor code insures that EVERY member of the campus community knows and has committed to live the same standards. The minutiae of dorm/apartment curfews as well as dress and grooming standards may seem Pharisaic to some, “onerous” or fence-like to others. Certainly they are more or less a reiteration of standards taught by the LDS Church in its For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. But, once again, it is helpful to make expectations of ALL students, faculty, and staff clear. Not so minute is the increasing need for academic integrity policies. As a former TA and adjunct instructor at BYU, it is immensely satisfying to see students complete their own assignments and expand their minds through their own diligent labors. In the few cases of plagiarism I encountered, the Honor Code Office was a helpful recourse to authoritative disciplinary action. I would suggest, however, that Honor Code enforcement methods at BYU is where the problem which surfaced in April ultimately lies.

What happened to the young women at BYU who reported being sexually assaulted is very sad. I grieve for the pain and fear they suffered in the moment and I feel sorrow that any woman might consider NOT reporting an attack for fear of being punished. I hope BYU will enforce Title IX better. And regardless of Title IX, I hope BYU will live up to its founding vision and core beliefs, emulating Jesus Christ who showed mercy and compassion, and who also invites all people to repent and “sin no more” (John 5:14, 8:11, NT; D&C 6:35, 29:3).

The fact remains that Brigham Young University is and always will be a private university, funded by the LDS Church. The University sets its standards for admission and enrollment. Every person who sets foot on the campus as an enrolled student, faculty or staff member knows this ahead of time––they all signed their names, gave their word of honor, that they would live by the policies outlined in the Honor Code. Karl G. Maeser, a founding president of BYU, famously stated, “I have been asked what I mean by word of honor. I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls — walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground — there is a possibility that in some way or another I may be able to escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of that circle? No, never! I’d die first” (qtd. in “In our opinion: Commitment and honor,” Deseret News [March 2011]). Fenced in or encircled by a chalk line, my word of honor is my word of honor. That day on campus many years ago, I left my sandals on.

Does BYU’s Honor Code need an update? Maybe. I think mercy could be applied at the outset, namely by removing some current aspects of the Honor Code where a duplication of standards exists. But more simply, recognizing the immense value an honor code can have, maybe all that needs to change is the way the BYU Honor Code is enforced. Restated, the Honor Code Office and enforcement procedures probably need an overhaul.

Finally, does BYU need an honor code at all? I emphatically state, YES. The Honor Code sets BYU apart from many other colleges and universities. There has been and can be again a very special spirit on the BYU campus, a spirit that welcomes and invites all who enter to learn, to seek truth, to serve God and mankind, to love one’s neighbor, to do good to all. I am proud to be a BYU alumna. If Honor Code and/or enforcement method changes are in order, I hope they will reflect the spirit of the University and its founding vision: that of sending intelligent, well-educated, highly moral persons of great integrity out into the world to serve others and make the world a better place.


For more information on the founding vision of Brigham Young University please visit Aims of a BYU Education.