The Dark Side of BYU’s Honor Code

As NCAA Tournament time (and more Jimmertime!) rolls around, it seems like just about everyone has had their say about Brigham Young University’s handling of Cougar forward Brandon Davies’ violation of the school’s Honor Code. Just about everyone — from Time magazine to national sports commentators like Jim Rome (but not New York Knicks star Amare Stoudamire) — has applauded BYU both for suspending Davies from play and for publicly forgiving him by continuing to allow him to attend games and participate in team life.

For some Mormons, however, the Davies story brings up longstanding questions about the impact of an enforced “Honor Code” on campus life. On the Mormon Matters podcast, Ashley Sanders, a former BYU student activist, recalled that BYU’s Honor Code took its current form as part of a quest during the 1960s by ultra-conservative BYU President Ernest Wilkinson to preserve the campus against liberalism.

Wilkinson wanted to “make BYU a national resource for patriotic anti-communism” and to “root out problem students,” recall historians Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel. In 1967, he removed the Honor Code from student control and enforcement, implemented stringent dress and grooming standards, and enlisted local bishops to act as agents for the university administration, creating serious backlash among BYU students and faculty.

Since then, Honor Code enforcement has been conducted through referrals—even third party referrals—of suspect students to a campus Honor Code office, a system of enforcement that has created significant opportunities for abuse. (When I was a BYU student, it was possible to make an anonymous third-party referral.) Honor Code enforcement on campus has been used to bait and target gays and liberals and (as Sanders remembered from her own experience) to shut down student anti-war protests. Clerical leaders serving BYU student congregations have been expected to report content from private confession and counseling interactions to University authorities, impacting the ability for young people who want to resolve past transgressions (even ones committed before arrival at BYU) to do so without feeling that their educations are in jeopardy.

For all its glorious aspects, even the Honor Code has a dark side.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.