Is BYU’s Honor Code Fully Disclosed to Applicants?

TL;DR: This article is admittedly on the longer side, so for those of you who are short on time, I’ll give you the gist up front: There are two different Honor Codes that apply to BYU students – the CES Honor Code and the BYU Honor Code. The former is contained within the latter and is a small fraction of the length since it contains only the most high-level, common-knowledge policies. This shorter document, combined with the famous Dress and Grooming Standards, comprise a mere 30% of the BYU Honor Code, yet these are the only portions of it that are shown to applicants of the university. Moreover, these are the only portions that applicants are asked to agree to, and it is not disclosed to them that there is more to the BYU Honor Code. Therefore, it’s likely that most students enter BYU after having only read and agreed to a minority of the stringent, unfamiliar policies by which they are bound. I call upon CES and BYU to make a few simple changes to remediate the situation.

The rules that BYU students are held to aren’t exactly trivial. And while many of these rules simply mirror the standards by which all LDS Church members are expected to live, others reach substantially further. In some respects, a BYU freshman’s new superiors are likely to be even stricter than Mom and Dad were back in the nest. And it isn’t just in the nature of the rules themselves where this is true but also in the consequences for slipping up on them. A senior in high school, for example, would never be denied the right to buy food or to take a midterm for forgetting to shave that day nor would he be expelled from school, fired from his job, or evicted from his housing for changing his religious affiliation. But once he arrives at the Y, all of that changes.

New rules bring new responsibilities as well as new risks for those bound by them. And with those come a solemn obligation for the party administering the rules to fully disclose them in advance. Few would dispute that BYU is under such an obligation, and few would doubt that it meets it in spades. After all, the school does require each of its prospective students to agree to its Honor Code before they can even fill out an application… or does it?

Wanting to know if and how prospective students are presented with the Honor Code, I recently decided to start the application process. I went to byu.edu and clicked on “Admissions & Aid” and then “Undergraduates”. This redirected me to besmart.com where I then clicked on “Application & Admissions” and then “Apply BeSmart Apply OnlineOnline”. This brought up a page with a note at the top:

Before you can apply or create a Net ID, you must first read and agree to live by the Honor Code as outlined below.

Underneath this was the heading “Honor Code”, which, as you might imagine, was followed by what appeared to be BYU’s Honor Code (on the left – click to enlarge). There was something strange to me about this document though – it seemed awfully short. So, with the help of Google, I pulled up the version on the website for BYU’s catalog and found that the “Honor Code” I had been taken to was less than a third of the length of the full thing. So what was missing from it? Well, just about everything except for the most high-level part at the beginning (most of it anyway) and the Dress and Grooming Standards, which virtually every student and prospective student is already well aware of. The Homosexual Behavior section was absent along with the Continuing Student Ecclesiastical Endorsement section and the Withdrawn Ecclesiastical Endorsement section. Even the Residential Living Standards were missing. And nowhere to be found was any mention of the dreadful fate that befalls those who undergo a faith transition or who get disfellowshipped by their bishop.

At the bottom was the statement for me to click in agreement to:

I have read the Church Educational System Honor Code and the Dress and Grooming Standards, and I agree to abide by the above requirements.

Notice those words, “by the above requirements”, which reinforced the message that the text in front of me was everything I needed to be aware of. Now also notice that this document is not being referred to as the BYU Honor Code but rather as two other documents: “the Church Educational System Honor Code and the Dress and Grooming Standards”. Is this first one a separate Honor Code from BYU’s? Does this mean there are multiple Honor Codes?

We can get some clarity on this by looking in a couple other places. Let’s start with a page on BYU-Idaho’s website called “Understanding the CES Honor Code at BYU-Idaho”, which provides the CES Honor Code in the graphic below. The nine bullet points in this image are identical to the ones we saw on the “Apply Online” page, which helps confirm that these points comprise the entirety of the CES Honor Code. The BYU-I webpage then explains how this Honor Code relates to the policies of the various LDS schools:

Each CES Institution is charged with forming its own policies founded on the standards outlined in the CES Honor Code. These standards are unique to each institution and are defined and approved by the Board of Trustees. Each institution has the discretion to implement standards regarding dress and grooming, housing, academic honesty, etc. that are unique to that institution.

Similarly, the document that enumerates BYU-I’s policies clearly segregates the “CES Honor Code” from the “University Standards and Policies” on its first page, provides the CES Honor Code as the same nine bullet points, and then distinguishes between the two sets of standards:

The CES Honor Code

The University Standards are designed to support and strengthen the Honor Code. Included are standards and policies on each of the following: (1) academic honesty, (2) student life, (3) dress and grooming, (4) continuing ecclesiastical endorsement, and (5) church attendance.

Here’s one more thing that makes this distinction clear: the process through which students renew their ecclesiastical endorsements each year. The page for Step 3 of the process (see below) displays the “Church Educational System Honor Code Statement” exactly as it appears in the other resources. It then asks the student to “Please review the policies and standards of each institution to which you are applying by clicking on these links…” and provides links to the policy documents of all four LDS institutions.

In other words, the reason why so many sections of the BYU Honor Code were missing from the “Honor Code” on the “Apply Online” page is because those policies are not actually part of the CES Honor Code but are rather included in the policies specific to BYU. The question now is whether these sets of policies are considered to be the Honor Codes of their respective schools. Is there really such a thing as the “BYU Honor Code”?

It’s not entirely clear, strangely enough, but from what I can tell, most indications are in the affirmative. For example, while BYU-I’s document doesn’t explicitly call itself an “Honor Code”, it is reached from a link called “Honor Code (PDF)” on the webpage we examined above. In similar fashion, BYU’s policy document is reached from a link called “Honor Code Statement” on a website titled “Honor Code” with a URL of honorcode.byu.edu. Finally, Step 2 of the process through which endorsements are renewed provides a link to the standards of each institution that read “BYU Honor Code”, “BYU-Hawaii Honor Code”, etc. (see below). So yes, these documents are apparently the Honor Codes of their respective schools. Note that while BYU’s Honor Code appears to be titled “Church Educational System Honor Code”, this is almost certainly a mistake in formatting. This should actually be a subtitle that applies only to the first few paragraphs of the page (which include the nine points) since this would bring it in line with everything else we’ve seen.

Ecclesiastical Endorsement Steps 2 and 3

Returning to the application process, as I noted parenthetically, the “Honor Code” on this “Apply Online” webpage contained most of the first section of the full BYU Honor Code, a section titled “Honor Code Statement” – which we now recognize to be essentially the CES Honor Code – but not the whole thing. The only sentence missing was the following:

Specific policies embodied in the Honor Code include (1) the Academic Honesty Policy, (2) the Dress and Grooming Standards, (3) the Residential Living Standards, and (4) the Continuing Student Ecclesiastical Endorsement. (Refer to institutional policies for more detailed information.)

So not only did this page fail to inform me that there’s more to the BYU Honor Code than what I was looking at, it went out of its way to omit statements that would have done so. Using archive.org to view historical snapshots of the page, which was once at this URL (and before that, at this one), we can see that this particular statement was once included but, for some reason, was removed in 2005 (after having been there since at least 2000).

Now later on, I realized that, included in the “Women” paragraph of the Dress and Grooming Standards section (which half of all applicants of course aren’t obligated to read) of this abridged Honor Code was the following: “For more details on specific policies embodied in the Honor Code and their application, please refer to the respective schools” (it appears that this sentence was added back when the other was stricken). Ignoring the strangeness of the fact that this statement was buried in this paragraph without any font attributes that would cause it to stand out, it wasn’t clear what exactly I should “refer to [at] the respective schools.”

More importantly, however, the statement didn’t reveal that the Honor Code contains policies beyond the ones shown here. Rather, it simply indicated that there are “more details” somewhere out there regarding its policies, which were presumably the policies I had just finished reading. Apparently, this was optional material for those who wanted to get into the nitty gritties, the legalese. There were neither admonitions to read it nor links to help me do so. There was only a light suggestion that I could go dig it up on my own and slog through it if I was pedantic enough to feel so inclined.

And if I’m a normal teenage BYU applicant, why would I feel so inclined? Here’s the “Honor Code” right in front of me. I was raised to trust the Church and, by extension, to trust the Church Educational System and BYU, so if this is all they’re showing me and asking me to agree to, then of course this is all I need to worry about.

To finish the application process, I proceeded to click through the remainder of the steps (see the checkmarks in the screenshot below) but was never presented with any of the LDS schools’ full Honor Codes or given links to them.

Admission Instructions 2

I then found a page on this same BeSmart website specifically for the Honor Code. It was simply titled “Honor Code” – not “CES Honor Code” or “Excerpts from the Honor Code” – yet it contained only the same high-level segments: the CES Honor Code and the Dress and Grooming Standards. It likewise neglected to provide links to the institutions’ full Honor Codes or clarifying notes on what exactly I was (and was not) looking at.

In short, it appears that BYU students have generally not actually agreed to their school’s Honor Code when they enter the University. They have merely agreed to “the above requirements”, which consist of only two slender excerpts from it. And they are unlikely to have even read the whole document since they were led to believe that those excerpts were in fact the entirety of it.

So why is this happening? What’s the rationale behind displaying only the most common-knowledge portions of the Honor Code, not making it clear that there’s more to it, and then only asking applicants to agree to these portions? It’s hard to say. What we can say is that it likely has the effect of minimizing the number of applicants who have second thoughts after seeing how many new rules they’ll be subject to. This gives it the appearance of a bait-and-switch, although whether this is actually the intent is another question. Could it all somehow just be a big mistake?

We can speculate on the reasons for the lack of disclosure, but at the end of the day, what matters is that prospective BYU students are not being given a complete picture of the stringent rules – many of which have little to do with morality – that they’ll be bound by for the next several years of their lives and this seems unacceptable by any reasonable standard. Sure, some will stumble upon the full Honor Code on their own and actually take the time to read it, but how many 17-18-year-olds do we think would fall into that camp? Certainly a minority of them.

Going through the application process again brought back vivid memories of a time not too long ago when I first went through it as an actual applicant. I now remember looking at the truncated “Honor Code” and thinking to myself “Wow, that’s it?! I don’t see what all the fuss is about!” only to find out later that I hadn’t quite known what I was signing up for. I’d wager that tens of thousands of others have had similar experiences. Other than the one replacement I noted earlier, the text of the “Apply Online” page has remained virtually unaltered for 15 years.

If this isn’t what the leaders of the Church Educational System (and BYU) are aiming for, they have an opportunity to remediate the situation. They can show their commitment to openness, fairness, informed decision making, and the principles of the rule of law by making the following changes as soon as possible to the webpage through which applicants review and sign the Honor Code:

  1. Explain the difference between the CES Honor Code and the Honor Codes of the various Church-operated schools.
  2. Whenever using the term “Honor Code”, make it clear which of the two is being referenced.
  3. Provide links to each school’s Honor Code.
  4. Make it clear that students need to carefully read the Honor Code of each LDS institution they’re applying to in full and that when they click to certify their commitment to live by them, they’re agreeing to these more detailed “Honor Codes” in addition to the CES Honor Code. In order to do this, CES will probably have to include language such as “Place a check mark next to each school whose Honor Code you have fully read and agree to live by. These are the schools that your application will apply to.” This means it should no longer be the case that every application automatically applies to every CES institution.
  5. Remove the Dress and Grooming Standards from this page. Displaying them here gives the impression that these are the only detailed standards that applicants need to be aware of while the truth is that there are many others that one wouldn’t expect to find at any non-LDS institution and that wouldn’t be obvious to most LDS students (like that their bishop essentially has the power to expel them for any reason or that they can be expelled for undergoing a faith transition or even for just getting disfellowshipped). Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to include these standards here since they’re specific to each school (e.g., BYU students can wear shorts while BYU-I students cannot).

Note that some of these adjustments should probably also be applied to Steps 2 and 3 of the process through which students renew their ecclesiastical endorsements each year.

To start making full disclosure of its unique policies to applicants would be an easy change for CES/BYU to make and I’ll be taken aback if there’s anyone who doesn’t think it’s a change worth making. And while it wouldn’t fix the problem that FreeBYU ultimately exists to address – BYU’s ironic and harmful lack of religious and intellectual freedom – disclosing it more fully would at least be a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, if you know anyone who’s getting ready to attend or apply to BYU (or another LDS school), please consider sending them a link to its Honor Code and letting them know that it’s more than three times longer than the common-knowledge pieces of it they’ll be shown during the application process. When it comes to a person’s education, shouldn’t their decisions be… educated?

facebooktwittergoogle_plusreddit