The Hypocrisy of University Moral Codes


Richard Shu, Opinion Editor

Much ado is made about free speech on campus these days, usually by conservatives in contempt of outspoken leftist students. But at too many universities, the censuring of unsavory conduct is still done the old-fashioned way — top-down. So it was at Brigham Young University when a student was allegedly raped in her apartment off-campus. She only reported the incident to Provo police four days later, citing fears that the university would kick her out if they learned about it. Sure enough, weeks later, she was brought before the administration and told that she was being put under investigation for violations of the university’s honor code.

But she hadn’t cheated on a test or anything like that. After all, most other universities’ honor codes limit the focus specifically to academic integrity. No copying, no plagiarizing, no lying on official materials. Simple expectations from any university. But certain universities, particularly those with a religious bent like BYU and Liberty University, delve much more deeply into personal and social conduct.

Students at BYU are expected to uphold all sorts of archaic and, frankly, silly behavioral standards that have nothing to do with their academic attainment or respect. No skirts above the knee, for example. No tea or coffee. No homosexual conduct, of course. And no women and men together in private rooms.

Not only are these standards silly, but they also provide a convenient excuse for the university to wash its hands of any responsibility for the crime. If the student had followed the honor code, this wouldn’t have happened. Victim blaming at its plainest.

As the alleged victim herself explained, the university’s honor code presents a significant obstacle in something as ordinary and proper as reporting a crime. Rape is underreported enough as is. Lord knows how many other cases have been forgotten because the survivors were afraid of the same consequences.

But even more broadly, intrusive honor codes like these are symbolic of a university attempting to dictate the moral code of its students. That’s a scary thought. Never mind that universities are meant to create leaders who will determine for themselves the ethics of tomorrow. A proscriptive moral code like BYU’s, reminiscent of the house rules at a middle school dance, can only result in arrested development, a generation of students who will carry the same unexamined prejudices of their forebears — the same prejudices that keep rape survivors from reporting their crimes.

Honor codes like BYU’s are simply artifacts of an older generation who are content to have children seen and not heard. But if universities are meant to create a new generation of thinkers and leaders, then these codes need to go. These authoritarian university practices are much more destructive than any form of peer-led political correctness, simply because students cannot fight back.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 2 print edition. Email Richard Shu at [email protected].