BYU (almost) clarifies its policy on Mormon students who leave the faith, while claiming (sort of) it was already their own idea

The good news: BYU is softening its harsh policies toward Mormon students who lose their faith while in college. However, the university seems to be claiming that its decision to do so was not influenced by the FreeBYU campaign. What gives?

Hey, it’s progress! Maybe.

Readers of this blog may remember previous posts on the plight of LDS students at BYU in Provo who lose their faith while they are students at the church-sponsored university.

In a nutshell, they have had two choices: to remain silent about their doubts and just fake their orthodoxy, or be honest about their true feelings and risk losing their degree status, their on-campus housing, and their university jobs.


In response to this policy, the organization FreeBYU has for the last several years advocated for change: specifically, that students who lose their Mormon faith not be expelled or evicted because of it.

FreeBYU believes it is fair to make such students pay full, unsubsidized tuition like other non-Mormon students do at the university, but not to refuse them a degree or evict them from their homes.

At last, it appears that the university has listened and begun to quietly change its policy. Last November BYU apparently updated its Honor Code, so quietly and privately that it only became news this month.

Based on the changes it now seems that only students who formally resign their church membership will lose their status as BYU students, not those who harbor doubts or question their faith before a bishop. That’s an improvement.*

The door is also open to the university handling things on a case-by-case basis; the language of students needing “unusual” or “extenuating” circumstances in order to receive an exemption has been removed.

However, some statements from BYU suggest that the university is claiming there is no connection between the new changes and the fact that the FreeBYU organization lobbied for these same changes in two well-publicized complaints last year.

According to the Deseret News,

A FreeBYU press release this week intimated that its complaint may have spurred the adjustments, and that it is possible the ABA’s decision was influenced by BYU’s adjustments. Jenkins said the FreeBYU complaint had no bearing on the school’s decisions.

“Discussions leading up to these adjustments began long before we received the ABA’s letter asking for a response to the complaint,” she said. “Given the approval process at the university, it simply would not have been possible to make these adjustments in the time Free BYU is stating. Adjustments to university policies are constantly being discussed and considered.”

What Jenkins appears to be saying here is that even though 1) the changes the university has made appear to directly address the major complaints FreeBYU made last year to the ABA and 2) the changes were made in early November 2015, following the ABA’s receipt of the second complaint in October, there was no cause-and-effect relationship between the complaint and the change.

“No bearing” at all? Hmmm.

FreeBYU is not buying it, and in an op ed published this morning the organization called into question BYU’s “downplaying” of both the changes themselves and the idea that they were created in response to the ABA’s involvement.

FreeBYU suggests the university has taken this position “in order to avoid any suspicions that it might not be impervious to external pressures.”

I agree that it certainly looks that way. Speaking for myself, I might be persuaded that the university did, as it says, begin discussions about the changing policy before the ABA asked it to respond to FreeBYU in October. You can’t even change a light bulb in academia within a three-week window, let alone a controversial school policy. So it makes sense that a change that went live in November had likely been debated for months beforehand.

But to ask me to believe that it’s not related at all to the challenges FreeBYU had been raising for quite some time now—including its first complaint to BYU’s law school in May of last year—is just insulting.

Where is the humility? Is it too much for a church university to look at the pain it caused to some students and alumni and express gratitude that someone brought that pain to the institution’s attention? To say, “We examined the complaints and found they had merit, so we have made a change”?

Instead we get this “no bearing” language: “We came to this conclusion entirely independently. The similarities and the timing are merely coincidence. Oh, and by the way, we have always been at war with Eastasia.”

BYU can and should do better than this. It’s great that the university is beginning to soften the policy, but to do it so surreptitiously that even its own students weren’t aware of the change in the 2015-16 school year bespeaks an institution that is aching to save face. BYU doesn’t want to be seen as caving to criticism, no matter how justified that criticism.

*Update: FreeBYU emailed me this afternoon (8/22/16) with a clarification about my interpretation that the Honor Code changes make it sound like a student would have to formally resign from the Church in order to be expelled from BYU. It might not be that simple, says Ryan Bowcutt:

This statement is only kind of true now, and it was equally kind of true before, so I’m not aware of anything that has changed in this regard. A bishop can revoke a student’s ecclesiastical endorsement for any reason, even if they’re just having doubts and the bishop thinks that makes them unworthy to stay at the Y (of if they just look at him funny). A bishop technically shouldn’t revoke one for this reason though since there’s no prohibition on doubting (or even fully losing belief) in the Honor Code, nor has there ever been as far as I’m aware, but the bishop has full discretion in his decisions on whether and when to renew or revoke an endorsement. If a student loses their endorsement (and can’t successfully appeal the loss to their stake president), their only hope of staying in school would be to file an Application for Exception. This is the same recourse available for a student who resigns from the church.

I’ll watch carefully to see how the story unfolds, and how the new provision is interpreted.

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