Monday, March 1, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Six

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 Six: Letters

After my terrible meeting with Jonathan Kau, I stopped circulating the petition. I could have continued to circulate it off-campus, of course, but it seemed clear to me that this mode of communication was not going to do well. I decided to try to use the power of information alone instead.

My next step was to ask Akash to schedule a meeting with Jonathan Kau's immediate superior, Vernon Heperi, the Dean of Students, to re-explain the situation. Akash was a little reticent, since his previous experiences with administrators had been negative as they quickly dismissed his questions and requests, explaining that this rule was just part of BYU and that was that, but he agreed to try anyway. The only time Dean Heperi was available, though, was during exam week: something went over, and Akash missed the appointment. That was his last semester at BYU, so the issue for him ended there.

I was concerned about future Sikh students though, so I made an appointment to meet with Dean Heperi and prepared to tell the story, from Sikh history, of why Sikhs first covenanted not to cut their hair. I hope to reach him that way and maybe get him to reconsider. When I showed up for my appointment, though, the secretary informed me that Dean Heperi had cancelled it. When I asked to reschedule, she explained that he'd cancelled it not out of time constraint, but because he did not want to talk to me about the issue.

Since I'd walked forty minutes to campus expressly for this appointment, I was more than a little disappointed. Note to readers: if you are ever going to cancel an appointment with someone because you see him or her as an Honor-Code-attacking rabble rouser, please make sure your secretary calls, preferably 24 hours in advance.

I was a little tempted to revive an early Mormon practice of shaking off the dust from your feet at the door of a persecutor right there at the Dean's office, but I decided that would not be appropriate, especially on the basis of one bad appointment, and another canceled one.

I began to write letters instead, moving figure by figure up the organizational ladder. I told about Sikh history. I suggested that barring a Sikh from keeping a beard would be like another university barring a Mormon from wearing temple garments. I checked with the campus Interfaith Chaplain, to confirm that Protestant and Catholic students were (thankfully!) officially allowed to drink communion wine although alcohol consumption is against both the LDS faith and the Honor Code and argued that a beard exemption on religious grounds is the same in principle. I warned of the possibility of hindering church work in India, a country with one-sixth of the world's population, if some important Sikh official happened to have a relative affected by the current short-sighted policy.
After I'd written the Dean, the Vice President, and the President, and a member of the Board over the course of perhaps two months (the remainder of my time at BYU), I got a letter from Vice President Sharman telling me personally that the issue was closed and BYU was not willing to grant beard waivers to future students for religious reasons.

It's possible, of course, that someone read my letters, but I think it's more likely that they were quickly perused to determine basic content, then forwarded to Sharman or Heperi to deal with. I'd imagine those two started with the assumption that I was causing trouble, and never got around to considering what I had to say.

In my frustration, I wrote a reply to Vice President Sharman explaining that I'd been treated badly despite making every attempt to do things internally, and that maybe my classmates had been right and I should go to the media next.

Before I did, though, my grandmother had an awful thought: what if such efforts created further problems for a current Sikh faculty member we knew (who wasn't orthodox but had still been hired years before with permission to wear a short beard)? My grandmother told me about some of the troubles he had already had with some intolerant Deans as a non-LDS professor at an LDS institution and said he'd struggled enough. She asked me to let the issue drop, and to stop writing letters.

I listened to my grandmother for three reasons: 1) she's wise beyond her years, and she has plenty of years 2) I had no particular reason to believe anything I could do would result in change anyway 3) I believe in the possibility of spiritual promptings: that God sometimes warns people what they should or shouldn't do through unexpected thoughts that won't go away. I wondered if God was warning my grandmother, who knew how to listen, about a possible negative consequence of my course of action, and the possibility was enough for me to listen to.

I thought my part of the story would end here, in the summer of 2006, just after my graduation, when I stopped trying to make a difference and starting learning instead to accept that pain I still felt over the way that the university I'd attended, sponsored by the faith I was devoted to, committed itself to a course of action I found devoid of empathy, counter to our faith's professed commitments to interfaith respect, and indicative of the ways in which Mormon organization still isn't particularly good at protecting against abuses of authority. Those are all difficult things to face, but probably also productive: lapses in empathy and respect and rampant abuses of authority are basically the human condition. No one has figured out how to prevent those things, so if you want to live on earth, you have to figure out how to live with them without surrendering to them instead. It continues to be good for me, I think, to wrestle with the questions raised by my experience with BYU over the issue of Sikh beards.

I was wrong, though, in thinking that having dropped the issue would bring my role in it to an end. The other thing I still had to learn is that sometimes even well-intentioned actions bring with them years of hard-to-swallow consequences. I was done trying to change the administration, but they were farther than I ever would have imagined from forgetting me.

Next up: in Part Seven, unexpected consequences catch up to me.


  1. I was talking with some friends recently who insisted that BYU still issues beard cards to people who have religious exemptions. I told them they didn't anymore, based on your story. I wonder how many other people think BYU still allows religious exemption for beards?

    Also - dare I suggest that BYU has a other-Christians bias if they allow exemptions for communion wine but not beards?

  2. PS - I want to send the link to this story to a couple friends who'd be interested in reading about it. Do you think you could post links to the other parts of the story in this post (or maybe the next one) to make it easier for anyone who's joining late to read it?

  3. I think most people naturally assume that BYU would and does have an exemption b/c it makes sense that they would. I doubt they go out of their way to advertise that they don't: honestly, that's part of the problem. I wouldn't mind so much if it were clear to everyone in advance that BYU wouldn't accommodate them.

    In terms of organizing the story: I'll make a table of contents post tomorrow with quick summaries and links for each part so it's easier to access late. Good idea.

  4. James, this series is completely heartbreaking. I remember my sister telling me about working on this issue when she was at BYU (around 2007?). It was frustrating and infuriating hearing about it then, with plenty of distance, and reading your intimate experience in working on this is that much more so.

  5. I am glad to hear your sister was working on it! Thank her for me for the awareness and commitment. That's quite moving, actually.

    As to the heartbreaking/frustrating side: I take comfort in knowing that life is supposed to break our hearts a little. Having broken hearts can make us more sensitive, ethical, and committed people. If we just get frustrated and angry--well, frustration over students who looked to get around or break rules is probably what motivated this change in the first place. If we are only frustrated, I think we close ourselves off and make the same mistake administrators did.

    If we let our hearts break a little, though, maybe we'll learn to listen. And as Guru Nanak taught: listening itself is often an act of holiness.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Thanks for your beautiful thoughts about broken hearts. I think you are right that experiences like this can be formative, in a good way.

    Diane is my sister! I sent her the link to your series, I'm glad to see she left a comment.

  8. Emily,
    I've posted links to the Prologue at the beginning of each installment and links to the next installment at the end of each installment. That seemed like the best way to ease up navigation for newcomers.

    Sister blah 2 and sister blah 2's sister,
    Thanks for the support then and now. And I hope these kinds of experiences are formative for us in a good way, so that we don't make all the same mistakes that have already been made. I, for one, am confident that I'll make enough new mistakes on my own without needing to copy everyone else's. ;)

  9. Note for reference: Diane left her email address in her comment, so she asked me to delete it. The comment said that she'd met with Steven Baker at the Honor Code office about the issue and would be willing to email me her notes. I emailed her and she emailed back: apparently, among other things, Baker told her that according to his research, no major religion truly required it adherents to wear a beard.

    Can you out-research an Honor Code Office director? My guess is that most of you could find five sources reliably documenting a religion's requirement for a beard in less than five minutes. Which means that maybe in a generation, we'll have better policies on campus.

  10. The problem with the director's statement may not be lack of research. It may be an overly limited definition of what constitutes a "major" religion. Which, of course, would be even more ironic than the idea that in all of his "research" he couldn't find information that is available on wikipedia.

    Mormonism is by no means considered a "major" religion except in our few western states that share a pioneer heritage. The problem here seems to be a lack of perspective. First, bad perspective on the question of major-ness, and second, lack of perspective regarding what is more important: stopping the few clowns who may claim religious belief in order to score a beard card, or wounding the feelings of even one honest, faithful person who feels that by shaving he is breaking a promise to God.

  11. What makes me so angry about this policy is that my husband had a beard for a year of his education. He has no religious reason to have one, he just wanted to see when people would tell him to shave. An no one did. He took tests. He went to class. He used the computer labs. No one said a thing. And trust me, toward the end, that beard was not trimmed.

    So not only is the policy clearly missing a case in which it is critical that a student have an exception, the policy is also being unevenly enforced.

    I really wonder how much of that uneven enforcement has to do with the fact that my husband is blonde.

  12. I know I am very late to this party. But the actions of Mr. Vernon Heperi are very unprofessional and out of line. I have had contact with him from his early years in the Multicultural department. He is a classic social climber in the church with GA ambitions. He has never worked in any other place but BYU. And has become an institutional inbred.

    He is one of the main reasons while I wont donate directly to BYU.


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