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BYU and the temptation of campus activism

BYU has chosen a different, and decidedly more difficult, path, one that will undoubtedly continue to be a source of ongoing pride and tension.

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BYU student Emily Mullis joins others protesting the honor code at universities belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint during a rally outside the faith’s Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 6, 2020.

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

A distinguished graduate of Yale University once told me that, as a student in the 1970s, he happened to overhear a conversation at a nearby table between two notable literary critics, Harold Bloom and Cleanth Brooks. 

Bloom was lamenting the pressure cooker atmosphere on Yale’s campus as protests over New Haven’s Black Panther trials flooded the nearby New Haven Green. Tensions eventually erupted — quite literally and tragically — when two bombs went off inside Yale’s iconic Ingalls Ice Rink.  

Amid these circumstances, a fed-up Bloom told Brooks that he could not believe such times had come to Yale and he mused about seeking refuge on some other campus far away from the protests. 

Brooks finally queried, “But, Harold, where on earth would you go?” 

Bloom looked up from his Ruben sandwich, thought for a moment and said, “BYU, I suppose.” 

Bloom’s remark was likely made in jest. But, quip or not, BYU maintains a reputation — then and now — as the rare school where campus activism hasn’t yet come to define its core culture. 

To be sure, in terms of academics, BYU often resembles similar nationally ranked universities. But, in many other ways, BYU is distinct, different — perhaps even peculiar. When juxtaposed with the prevailing social norms of academe, BYU’s honor code in particular stands out. 

It’s the nub — the crux, the heart — of BYU’s conformist nonconformity.

Few in society today — let alone academia — are out clamoring for campuses to regulate the legal consumption of alcohol, curb consensual sexual relations or detail the dress, grooming and curfew standards of college-age students. 

Indeed, according to recent Gallup polling, nearly 70% of Americans say sex between an unmarried couple is “morally acceptable.” And, among respondents with no “formal” religious identity, the percentage goes up to 90%. At BYU, meanwhile, premarital copulating could get you kicked out.

Ironically, it’s these traditional values that now make BYU one of today’s most countercultural campuses. For the university’s core constituents — students, alumni, faculty, staff, trustees and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — this unanticipated distinction is a source of simultaneous pride and tension. 

Pride, because it’s no small accomplishment for an institution — particularly a college or university — to maintain rigorous moral standards at a time when they appear inconsonant with contemporary norms within higher education. 

BYU rightly embraces this achievement. With commemorative chocolate milk and knowingly anti-cool congratulatory T-shirts, BYU celebrates the school’s 20-plus-year reign atop America’s “stone cold sober campus” rankings.

But, as recent student protests attest, tensions still remain. 

Almost by definition, a nationally ranked research university must engage productively with outside institutions of higher learning and with the broader social intelligentsia. More often than not, however, these realms espouse differing — if not opposing — moral perspectives to those upheld at BYU. 

And yet, that’s no reason to disengage or retreat. 

It should be a call for the opposite. Granted, that’s no easy task. However, this seemingly precarious, liminal space in which BYU is called to dwell really shouldn’t come as novel terrain. After all, negotiating internal religious identity in the face of external pressure describes so much of the Judeo-Christian tradition, not to mention religious history writ large.

Since minority beliefs and perspectives often challenge or even contravene majoritarian norms, society sometimes reacts by seeking to change or reform nonconforming religious minorities. As social commentator B.D. McClay observes in a recent issue of “The Hedgehog Review,” “The sacrifice of Isaac, the sufferings of Job, and Christ’s commandment to hate your own parents and love your enemies are all examples of how religion upsets social and moral systems as much as it enforces them.” 

BYU’s honor code simultaneously encourages a moral, religious order while also upending, challenging, provoking, agitating and even irritating prevailing cultural and campus orthodoxies. As Yuval Levin puts it, today’s progressive activists have “become decidedly dominant.” From the corporate world to Hollywood, and just about every professional and social institution in between, “identity politics is the reigning orthodoxy.” Levin expresses his concern with this shift in his recent book, “A Time to Build,” detailing how college campuses have increasingly become yet one more “platform for performative moralism.” 

For many of today’s students, in his telling, universities serve more as pulpits from which to evince political opinions or express strongly held perspectives rather than as places within which students seek to be shaped, challenged and changed by a shared and dogged pursuit of truth, self-control, moral ordering and commitment to craft, profession or vocation. 

Students, according to Levin, are instead shaped by certain moralistic political dogmas that dictate specific activist obligations.

As important as some of this reformist political spirit can be — and as essential activism is to American progress — on college campuses Levin senses a waning focus on individual reform; a waning focus on students as intellectual and moral agents arriving on campus to be bettered by chosen commitments.

In my judgement, BYU has successfully avoided the temptations which have caused similar campus projects to abandon the effort because the institution remains by-and-large committed to character and educational formation. The school’s honor code is a central component of this formative function.

BYU’s honor code simultaneously encourages a moral, religious order while also upending, challenging, provoking, agitating and even irritating prevailing cultural and campus orthodoxies.

Levin observes: “As (campus activists) perceive it, they act on behalf of justice, and (consciously or not) they do so by deploying some of the forms of religious moralism without the content — at times almost literally the liturgy without theology. They implicitly seek to cleanse and to redeem society through acts of performative outrage against oppression and various forms of calling out oppressors.” 

He concludes: “The students vocally championing identity politics today take themselves to be challenging their elders, but they are actually among the most fully assimilated elites in American life — expressing some of our society’s shallowest prejudices as though they were profound, subversive insights.”

If Levin is right, and much of campus life today is defined by performative — and even shallow — moral bull horning, or back-of-the MacBook bumper stickering, then BYU’s model of inviting students to be molded and shaped into sturdier souls and scholars remains a much-needed experiment. 

The BYU model is a vital thesis — or perhaps antithesis or synthesis — challenging the college campus as usual. It asserts that formative, moral education — once at the heart of the academy — can still serve as an animating and grounding force for a research university. 

From Harvard to Yale and beyond, the temptation to abrogate collective moral codes — or formative religious commitments — is strong. In the face of conflict and social change, many once-religious campuses now bow before strictly secular alters and reap largely secular blessings. 

BYU has chosen a different, and decidedly more difficult, path, one that will undoubtedly continue to be a source of ongoing pride and tension. But, for believers (and for the genuinely believing institution) is there really any other road?

Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. His views are his own.