Utah's Own Inquisition | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Utah's Own Inquisition 

Regardless of BYU's many stellar—even world renowned—colleges, it fails to be what a university should be.

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Although it's 45 miles south of SLC, what happens in Provo doesn't exactly stay in Provo. Tales of the recent furor over Gestapo-like enforcement of BYU's honor code has drifted north. We now have solid confirmation of what we knew all along: BYU is merely a penal colony for academically inclined young Mormons, whose parents prefer that their kids be borderline incarcerated, rather than allowing them to stumble a little on their own. Regardless of the school's many stellar—even world renowned—colleges, it fails to be what a university should be. It's a place that stifles individuality, openly demonizes self-discovery, refuses to recognize anything but white-wooly-flockers, and blocks all illusions of personal choice.

The Honor Code is only part of it; BYU certainly has a history of intolerance to students and staff, including mass-firings of professors who dared to speak words deemed unorthodox. Notwithstanding, hundreds of BYU students recently broke the barrier of fear, taking to social media, flooding the quad and railing against the inhumanity of the school's draconian punishments for the most seemingly innocuous offenses. The demonstrations certainly got the attention of school officials, who stood there, shaking their heads while probably repeating, "How can this be? Things like this simply don't happen at God's Only True School." Disturbed as they might have been, there are signs that even the university's elders are acknowledging that Honor Code enforcement might have been a bit too severe.

What the demonstrators had to say was shocking, indeed, faintly echoing the Inquisition and other horrors of history. These were just a few: A student was placed on probation, and her graduation postponed, because a Facebook vacation post showed her wearing skimpy beach wear. A young man was given a choice—shave his beard or be expelled. A student who drank coffee during late-night cramming was suspended. An Honor Code investigator called a student while she was home for a visit, grilling her on explicit details of some forbidden sexual "touching." The girl's mother was so offended, she told her daughter to hang up, but the student told her mother that her graduation was at stake.

Of course any type of LGBTQ expression is strictly forbidden, and powering up a vape is certainly grounds for harsh punishment. The list goes on. And, yes, there are secret police, and students are encouraged to "rat-out" their friends, resulting in what many describe as a hostile living environment. All violations are thoroughly investigated to ensure BYU's purity. The system has been in place for years. I was personally touched by it back in 1993, when one of my own children, a student at BYU-Hawaii, was cited because she was dressed in shorts as she walked from the campus to the beach. Honor Code investigators share information with the alleged violator's own ward bishop, so the matter of privacy is very much an issue.

While students generally support the code each is required to sign, there's anger that the required standards are even higher than on the church's temple recommends. Others have expressed resentment that the non-ecclesiastical Honor Code is functioning essentially as a church court. It's significant that as of press time, more than 22,000 people have signed a change.org petition demanding that the Honor Code be softened.

Now you must keep in mind that BYU and its bylaws are simply outgrowths of the religion itself—one that focuses on the most easy-to-spot visual infractions, sometimes forgetting the more essential meaning of what's in a person's heart. Mormonism's Word of Wisdom has become a yardstick for assessing each member's devotion. It creates a highly public separation from the rest of the world by abstaining from coffee, tea, cigarettes, alcohol, and any appearance of "evil," while de-emphasizing the sins of the unseen. Unfortunately, other religions often do the same.

Past Honor Code grievances have resulted in some moderation, but much more is needed. BYU's students might all be surprised that former generations of young people have made their own mistakes. Among the hundreds of general and regional authorities, there might be a few with their own dirty little secrets—say sex before temple marriage, dishonesty in business situations or dallying with forbidden romance. Likewise, just on the basis of statistics, at least a few of them also are gay. When they're too old, too impotent, too flush with material comforts, it's hard for many of them to remember just how human they once were.

And so you see, it's easy for such men to make the rules for the young—realizing how they sometimes were able to fleece the system themselves while evading detection and consequences. Heaven forbid today's students might do the same!


The author is a former Vietnam-era Army assistant public-information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and one mongrel dog. Send feedback to comments@cityweekly.
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