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.