Friday, February 19, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Five

This is the latest installment in a long story about my struggles with BYU's administration after finding out that although I'd been allowed a beard in order to act in Church films (despite a rule BYU has had against beards since the late 1960s), a Sikh friends of mine had been denied permission to keep a beard in accordance with Khalsa Sikh religious practice. If you're interested in this story, you should probably start reading at the beginning.

Part Five: Your Cause is Just, But I Can Do Nothing for You

When my class found out about the university's refusal to grant Akash a beard waiver, Maria, who was in the class as a sort of hobby while finishing law school, suggested contacting media, bringing in camera crews, and shaming BYU into changing. I was apprehensive about that approach for several reasons, which I discussed with her and Akash:
1) Though reprehensible, the university's stubbornness on the issue probably had more to do with ignorance regarding Sikhism than ill intent. It might be preferable to go to them first with information and a moral appeal than to go to the outside. (Jesus said something like this, I believe: if someone offends you, go to that person first before making a public issue out of it.)
2) BYU and its sponsoring church were often intentionally misrepresented and ridiculed in various media. Bringing in media immediately might put the issue in the wrong light and make BYU feel attacked. We didn't want that.
3) People often see a negatively-charged piece of news like this story could be without ever subsequently hearing the conclusion. If media came in and BYU changed, many people would likely associate BYU with its mistake and never hear about the change. Our society, unfortunately, is often more interest in who to condemn than whose repentance should be celebrated.
By making the issue internal to BYU instead of public, I hoped we'd avoid the issue getting out of control and possibly damaging Mormon-Sikh or Mormon-Indian relations.

When I'd spoken, Akash laughed. He said that I was talking like a Gandhi while she was talking like one of the more militant early independence fighters. Maria and Akash said I should go ahead and try first.

The first thing I did was to go visit the Honor Code Office official who was then over beard waivers. I'd talked to him before when my own waiver was granted: he seemed like a kind man who'd explained the policy, asked me to be respectful and not make other students feel jealous, etc., so I didn't feel alarmed to approach him about this issue. He listened quietly to what I had to say as I told him about Sikhism and Akash. Then he said something like "my heart goes out to guys like Akash, but I don't make the rules, so there's nothing I can do about it." I asked who could do anything about it, and he said that the Honor Code was set by BYU's Board of Directors, a supervising committee outside of the campus that included members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the Church's leading bodies.

I left my appointment wondering how it would be possible to reach members of the Board. These were extremely busy women and men: as far as I know, you can't just make an appointment with any of them. People are discouraged from even sending letters to Apostles, who, despite the official discouragement, always have giant piles of letters to deal with.

The first thought that came to my mind was a petition. If circulated only on campus, a petition could keep the issue mostly internal, but also draw attention to the importance of the issue. Even busy people will often read a document with a few hundred hand-gathered signatures on it. And I was fairly confident that the vast majority of BYU students would be sympathetic to Akash with even a very basic understanding of the facts.

I drafted a short petition that started with the quote, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you." Those are the words Martin Van Buren, then President of the United States, used to respond to Joseph Smith's plea for legal redress over the beatings and murders of many Mormons, and the final extermination threat and expulsion of all Mormons from their properties in the state of Missouri at the state governor's order--one flagrant example of America's failure to fully live up to its promise of religious freedom. "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you," I said, was exactly what the Honor Code office was being forced to say to people like Akash whose religious practice was at stake. It would be far better, I argued, to reinstate a religious beard waiver and to risk a few people abusing it than to block even one student from practicing his religion with full integrity on our campus.

Before circulating the petition, I took it back to the man in the Honor Code Office to get his opinion. He told me that officially speaking, he couldn't speak for or against such a thing, but he said it sounded reasonable to him and he wished me luck. (I never saw him again--by the next year, he was no longer working there.)

Friends and I then began circulating copies of the petition to our friends and classmates and gathered a few hundred signatures. Along the way, one signatory, who'd interacted with the administration before, mentioned to me that petitions had to be approved before circulation. She gave me the office number of the Dean of Students and I went by right away and filled out their official "request to petition" form and left it at the office. I asked my friends to stop circulating copies of the petition until doing so was formally approved.

I was more than a little surprised when I got word shortly thereafter that approval to circulate the petition had been denied and that I needed to come meet with Assistant Dean Jonathan Kau. I came, hoping for some answers.

I was shocked and upset when he told me that the issue was actually in the hands of Dean of Students Vernon Heperi and Student Life Vice President Jan Sharman, not the Board, and that they'd discussed it and the issue was closed; also that I was attacking the Honor Code, that I may be allowed to have a beard because I had a certain look, but that if I didn't immediately stop raising the issue, my own beard waiver could be revoked. "I'm not threatening you" he immediately added (note to readers: if you ever have to tell someone you are not threatening them, you probably actually are).

There have been several times in my life when I've felt as if my heart has just been broken, and very few of them have been romantic in nature. That meeting with Jonathan Kau was so painful that to this day, I try to avoid walking close to the Dean of Students office when I walk through the Wilkinson Center on BYU campus.

I don't ever like to be wrong (it's a major fault of mine), but it's hardest to be wrong about thinking that people will be basically honest, respectful, and fair and then finding out they're not.

It was particularly difficult because I am a Mormon who passionately believes in the ideal of Zion: that through our faith, we could create a society of goodness, equality, humility, reverence. It's hard, believing that, to get hit in the gut, hit down in the part of your soul where five hundred years of family history goes, with the terrible distance that often exists between our Mormon community and our Mormon ideals.

Next up: In Part Six, I stop circulating the petition and try to continue asking for change, but in what I hope will be a more acceptable way.


  1. I think the confusion over who actually makes these policies is a frightening thing.

    When someone can say "It's the board of directors" when it's really the Dean of Students, we risk treating as inspired what are obviously the works of men.

    And it makes me sad that an act meant to protect the spirit of the Honor Code-- which is (I think) ultimately a defense of religious morality--was treated as an attack because it suggested a change to those man-made policies.

    When two men sitting in an office can declare an issue closed, without even having a discussion with those involved in the issue... it just makes me sad.

  2. And please tell me that this isn't the end of the story.

  3. Wow, where was I when this was all going on? I mean, I was IN Hindi class, I was learning...but I did so totally not realize this was happening within that group of people with whom I loved learning Hindi.


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