No college is more averse to bad publicity than a religious school because of its heavy dependence of like-minded donors and the pressure to keep up the appearance of defending the faith. Which is why the recent contretemps about Brigham Young University’s honor code policy and campus rape victims is making the rounds in the mainstream news media.
An honor code -- or lifestyle/doctrinal covenant -- is a set of behaviors a student agrees to before enrolling. At BYU, they include everything from extramarital sex to wearing sleeveless blouses.
Let’s start with how the latest article on the controversy –- from the Los Angeles Times -- handled it:
Madeline MacDonald was a freshman at Brigham Young University when a casual date turned into what she said was a sexual assault.
The Seattle 19-year-old had met a man through the online dating site Tinder. He said he was Mormon, which put MacDonald at ease, and she agreed to meet him for hot chocolate.
They never made it to a cafe, though. Instead, the man drove her up into the mountains, and there, she says, he molested her.
Campus officials opened a sexual assault investigation. But they also opened an inquiry to determine whether MacDonald had violated the private Mormon university’s honor code, which requires that students adhere to the school’s strict rules for proper behavior -- no swearing, coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol or premarital sex.
Suddenly, MacDonald said she felt like a suspect.
“At BYU, everybody feels like it’s so safe. It’s ‘the Lord’s school,’” she said. “To acknowledge that I’m telling the truth requires admitting it’s not that safe.”
MacDonald, now a junior, is among several women calling for greater protections for sexual assault victims at BYU -- including amnesty from potential honor code violations. A growing number of women say such policies are discouraging reports of sexual assault.
We’ve talked about lifestyle-doctrinal covenants a lot in recent months. These can be actual documents that students and faculty attending these schools must sign before they enroll or are employed. Agree or disagree with their existence, they’re out there and covenants are what regulates who teaches, who attends and their behavior while affiliated with the campus. They define the borders of a faith-based voluntary association.
Think of it as branding. To maintain a certain image or lifestyle or quality of course offerings, the school wants to make sure a certain type of student attends there and a certain type of faculty teach there.
BYU makes its covenants very clear at the outset. A few years ago while applying for journalism teaching jobs around the country, I saw just the job I wanted at BYU. On the first page, the application stated that I had to agree not to drink coffee if I was to teach there. When I contacted the department head to ask why they had such a ridiculous standard (especially when it comes to the field of journalism where everyone lives off of coffee while on deadline), I was told they couldn’t budge from this important church doctrine.
I never applied. But it occurred to me at the time there were lots of folks out there who would have applied and just hoped no one saw them sipping on java. I also wonder if there are certain students who apply to BYU (and other religious colleges and universities) but never intend to follow its strict rules.
The Los Angeles Times story goes on to mention another victim who went on the record about a rape but who also got fingered for honor code violations. Protests on campus about BYU policy got intense enough that the BYU president had to post a YouTube video saying the school was overhauling how it responds to sexual assault victims. However, he very much stood for keeping the school’s honor code.
Honor codes don’t usually get good press and this one is no exception. Not only does the honor code get trashed; the reporter goes on to typify one of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the country as a 19th-century throwback:
Provo is a place where the honor code is written into off-campus housing contracts, apartments restrict where and when men can visit, and young women's first visit to a gynecologist is often for a “premarital exam.” Abstinence education often comes in the form of parables like the “chewed gum” or “licked cupcake.”
“They lick the cupcake and say, ‘Who wants it now?'” said Kate Kelly, 35, a BYU graduate and a lawyer.
Is this the famous Kate Kelly, the feminist pioneer who was excommunicated from the church two years ago? It would have been more honest for the professionals at the Los Angeles Times to have pointed out this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill BYU grad.
Nearly a month earlier, the New York Times gave its read on the situation and one thing they did right is spell out exactly what happened to MacDonald on this ill-fated date. It also gave more of a national view as to what other colleges doing in terms of amnesty for students who witness or report sexual assault if they also broke college rules on drugs or alcohol.
One of the women they cite, named Brooke, is a puzzler:
But after Brooke, 20, told the university that a fellow student had raped her at his apartment in February 2014, she said the Honor Code became a tool to punish her. She had taken LSD that night, and also told the university about an earlier sexual encounter with the same student that she said had been coerced. Four months after reporting the assault, she received a letter from the associate dean of students.
“You are being suspended from Brigham Young University because of your violation of the Honor Code including continued illegal drug use and consensual sex, effective immediately,” the letter read.
Think about it. She’s had a bad sexual experience with some guy. Instead of avoiding this guy like the plague, she later takes LSD in the company of this same student; LSD is not exactly what you want to be on when you’re on the watch for a potential rapist. It’s no huge surprise that this man violates her again. I’m not excusing BYU’s response to all this, but there must have been a lot of head swiveling when they got her complaint.
Naturally I also turned to the Salt Lake Tribune, which had many stories on the issue in April and much better sources. The Tribune revealed that there are more BYU students who allege that simply reporting a rape gets you automatically investigated for Honor Code violations. It also revealed some creepy details of how BYU was less than open about her case.
MacDonald obtained records of her investigation from the Honor Code Office through a request under federal laws that regulate students' education records. When she went to the Honor Code Office this week to review the file, she said she was not allowed to make copies or take photos of the documents.
"I had to sit in a room with people watching me. ... I couldn't bring anyone with me, and they made me leave my cellphone in the other room," she said. She was allowed to take notes, she said…
MacDonald said her biggest surprise was the level of detail in a case in which the only student involved was the alleged victim.
"Every single word I'd said to anyone in the university was cataloged," MacDonald said. "Even conversations I had with secretaries, and cracked stupid jokes — those stupid jokes were in the file."
After a public outcry and a Tribune editorial calling on BYU to change its ways, the university has promised to review how it handles its conduct codes. It just up a web site asking for public feedback on the topic. At the same time, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are furious at how the Tribune has handled the story. Their May 19 press release explains why.
The Los Angeles Times piece, coming as late as it did, made a strong case that BYU is inculcated with a ‘rape culture’ that is tied to Mormon views on premarital sex and sexual purity. Was there a strong voice on the other end refuting that position? No.
Abstinence is a tough sell in any culture. Reporters might not agree with BYU’s worldview, but before sinking to the level of gum and cupcakes, they could at least try to understand it.