Will the BYU honor code protests make any difference?

Yes, the protests of Mormon students will make a difference--not just in BYU's policy, but in a more honest acknowledgment of how institutional change happens in the Church.

Hundreds of students gather on the campus of Brigham Young University for a rally to oppose how the school's Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students, on April 12, 2019, in Provo, Utah. A strict set of rules at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University banning things commonplace at many campuses, such as drinking, premarital sex, beards and piercings, is under new scrutiny — this time from students who want their university to be more compassionate with the punishments for violators. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

(RNS) — It’s been nearly three weeks since hundreds of Brigham Young University (BYU) students gathered on campus to protest aspects of the university’s honor code.

BYU students complained that under current rules, they can be punished severely for small infractions, there is little consistency in how the office handles cases, and there is a culture of quasi-McCarthyism in students reporting one another’s behavior.

Students can rat each other out for tiny things. For example, on the movement’s Instagram account, which as of today had more than 37,000 followers, one woman said that a week before her wedding, her fiancé helped her carry a heavy box to his car as she was moving out of her BYU student housing. He momentarily entered her bedroom in order to assist her, violating the university’s strict policy forbidding students from being in the bedrooms of anyone of the opposite sex, only to be filmed by her roommate, who submitted the footage to the Honor Code Office.

(Reading this, I had to wonder: why did the female roommate not put down the freaking phone and actually HELP?)

The movement’s Instagram account and the April 12 protest attracted national media attention from the New York Times, NPR, the Associated Press, and Newsweek, as well as Utah newspapers and television stations.

But the BYU school year has now ended, and with it comes a question: will the protests make any difference when everyone comes back to school in the fall?

If recent Mormon history is any indication, the answer is yes. And that could be a model for the rest of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the spring of 2016, the university came under fire for a provision of its honor code that did not exempt victims of rape from expulsion or other discipline if, for example, they were raped after drinking alcohol or being in the bedroom of a student of the opposite sex.

As a result, critics charged, many rapes went unreported on campus as victims were afraid that their own behavior would be scrutinized in what amounted to an honor code inquisition.

A few months and more than 92,000 petition signatures later, the university released a new set of guidelines about how sexual assault complaints would be handled in the future, adopting the recommendations suggested by a council convened for the purpose.

What happened in 2016 and 2017 was a normal, basically healthy process of institutional growth. Some people complained — loudly. Others listened to them, both inside and outside the institution itself. The institution began acknowledging the need for change, and taking steps to address the problem.

It would be surprising if something similar does not happen at BYU in regard to the honor code, if not in the coming academic year, at least in the near future. It’s unlikely that the student protestors are going to get all of the reforms they’re asking for, but it’s also unlikely the university will try to pretend there aren’t serious problems with the honor code’s broad scope and haphazard implementation.

It’s striking how different this is from the way change happens in the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a whole, which could stand to take a page from the BYU playbook (if such plagiarism were not a violation of the Honor Code, which it is, so don’t do it or I will have to report you).

In the church, there are many recent examples of grassroots agitation for change being either condemned or studiously ignored — before the Church eventually and quietly makes the exact change that was being requested, apparently hoping that everyone will think it was an idea that originated at headquarters.

Consider the early 2013 “Let Women Pray” initiative that was recently discussed in an excellent Radio West episode about activism in the LDS Church.

Amber Choruby Whiteley, who helped to initiate the gentle push to have a woman pray in LDS General Conference for the first time in Mormon history, says in the episode that she was pleased by the success of the initiative — a woman prayed for the first time at the April 2013 General Conference, just a few months after the campaign began — and somewhat puzzled that the church did not acknowledge the role of women in making it happen.

At no point did Latter-day Saint leaders ever thank the thousands of letter-writers for bringing the matter to their attention or give them credit for urging them to pray about the idea. As Whiteley notes, it requires a pretty big leap of faith for us to believe that after more than 180 years of Mormon history in which no woman had ever prayed in Conference, it was a pure coincidence that the first time it happened was immediately after a massive letter-writing campaign to address this very issue.

But that’s apparently what the Church would like us to swallow. It stated at the time of the April 2013 General Conference that its lineup of participants had been established “many weeks” beforehand. It’s possible, certainly, but it doesn’t feel likely given the timing.

I sat in an audience three years later when an official from the church’s public affairs department made a specific point in his speech of claiming that none of the church’s recent changes to make life a little better for women had, in fact, been instigated by women. Some people “inside and outside the church,” he said, had spent “a lot of time and a lot of blogging space” to give women credit for changes like women praying in General Conference or the inclusion of photos of female church leaders in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. His implication was that women’s advocacy was entirely irrelevant to creating change.

It was hard to hear this well-meaning man be so distinctly tone-deaf. He could not see that it was obvious to everyone in the room that women had a part in galvanizing at least some those changes — and that he made our leaders look like utter jerks by casting them as the kind of men who covertly steal women’s ideas and then take full credit for them. Not a good look.

But here is BYU, a church-owned university that is publicly modeling a better way. It’s far from perfect, but it is listening to students, having dialogues with them and acknowledging that students have been partners in catalyzing past change. BYU has not always handled student dissent so productively, so this is a step forward.

And the sky has not yet fallen.

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