Some BYU alumni plan to withhold donations and skip sporting events until enforcement of the Honor Code changes

Celia Ockey and her husband have donated to Brigham Young University nearly every year since they graduated in the 1980s.

By now, she estimates, they’ve given the private Provo school about $40,000. They’ve earmarked most of it for the basketball team, which they love to support by going to games and funding scholarships.

But the Ockeys aren’t planning to give any more money to their alma mater. Not this year, at least. And not, Ockey said, until BYU changes how it enforces its strict Honor Code.

“It’s just putting a black mark on the university,” she said. So for now, she added, “we will donate elsewhere. There are other schools.”

The religious university, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has faced renewed criticism in the past few months for how its Honor Code Office handles allegations of misconduct and imposes punishment. Students have come forward to talk about their experiences, including being asked probing questions without knowing what they’re accused of, being encouraged to turn in their peers and being threatened with suspension for actions such as holding hands with a person of the same sex.

BYU decided in 2017 to grant amnesty for Honor Code violations to students reporting sexual assaults, after victims said they were being punished. The new discussion has again garnered national attention, prompting the school this week to announce that it’s beginning to update its policies to be more transparent.

For many alumni, though, doubts remain. And it’s causing some to reconsider their ties and contributions to the school.

Ockey, her husband and others are cutting off their donations. Some have pledged to no longer attend football games. A few say they’re worried about having the school listed on their résumés.

“It’s all very disappointing,” said Ockey, 56, who suggests shutting down the Honor Code Office. “I’m just appalled that there hasn’t been more action.”

When BYU alumnus Joshua Butler bought a new car two years ago, it was an easy decision to get a license plate with the school’s signature "Y" on it. He enjoyed his time at the school, and he knew the $35 he paid yearly would go toward student scholarships — which was important to him because he received similar financial help when he attended the Provo university between 2010 and 2015.

But, after reading stories on a popular Instagram page about how students say they were treated by the Honor Code Office, he feels “a little bit embarrassed” driving around with such a public sign of support for the school.

"I love BYU, and I think it's a great school," he said. "But there's some crap that I wasn't aware of that needs to be changed."

Now 32, Butler said he came out as gay during his time at BYU and had a positive experience. He felt safe there. But when he scrolls through the Instagram account and sees stories of LGBTQ students who say they were punished by the office or lived in fear of being turned in, it bothers him.

"I just have this sense of survivor's guilt," he said. "I feel terrible for these other [students] who didn't have as good of an experience as me.”

The issue of LGBTQ students feeling targeted by the Honor Code Office was raised frequently during a protest held on campus last month, which more than 500 people attended. Some said they were punished for being in a same-sex relationship or identifying as transgender.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of students gather on the campus of Brigham Young University, for a rally to oppose how the school's Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students, Friday, April 12, 2019, in Provo, Utah.

The Honor Code forbids “not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” It also prohibits premarital sex, sets certain rules for when and how dating occurs, contains a dress code and bans the consumption of alcohol, drugs, coffee and tea.

Butler said he’s struggled with what to do about his license plate. He wants to support other young students — especially those like him — but he worries that his money could be a waste if a student who benefited from his donations ended up getting kicked out of school for something minor.

He’s decided that if BYU doesn’t make changes soon, he’ll switch out his license plate for a different one.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said Thursday that the university has found that communicating with its alumni, including sending updates from new Honor Code Office director Kevin Utt, has helped address their worries. That communication also has helped the university “correct the misinformation” shared online, Jenkins said, adding that it’s important that alumni know many of the concerns raised “do not reflect current practice.”

“Alumni everywhere, like our students, have reminded us of their commitment to the principles of the Honor Code,” she said. “We will continue to make them aware of the improvements we are making to our procedures and practices.”

Utt said this week that the school will start updating how it enforces the rules. Part of that will be ensuring students know what they are accused of at the beginning of the process — a disclosure the school’s spokeswoman acknowledged hasn’t always happened.

Plenty of alumni say that the criticism hasn’t changed their support for the school.

Chuck Beckstead went to BYU in the late 1970s, and three of his children attended school at the Provo and Idaho campuses. He signed the Honor Code when he was a student, he said, and had no issues at the university.

“I see no problem with the Honor Code,” he said. “Someone is always going to be disappointed about how they were treated. There are always two sides to a story, and reality is somewhere between the two.”

Chad Wright, who earned a bachelor’s in history in 1999, said those going to BYU should go in with the intention of keeping the Honor Code. The people “griping and complaining,” he said, too often are not committed to the rules and are “the small minority.”

He liked having the code because he felt it brought a greater sense of morality and unity to campus. It’s a big part of why he chose to go there. Like many who feel the same as he does, he’s encouraged students to go to another school if they can’t handle the enforcement of the rules.

“I praise BYU for having standards that are more than your typical college,” Wright said. “I think it’s a shame that the media uses 500 or 600 people to help paint BYU in a bad picture.”

Many of those who have challenged the enforcement of the Honor Code have said they support the church, BYU and the campus rules. Their objections focus on whether the school cares more about punishing students than helping them.

As a new alumna, 23-year-old Maddie Whitten hopes the university will do more to address the fear and stigma around being called into the Honor Code Office. Young people, the April graduate said, are going to make mistakes, and the process should be about forgiveness and empathy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maddie Whitten, 23, a recent graduate from BYU with a degree in psychology and family life feels the Honor Code at the school needs more changes and doesn't like the way it is enforced.

Whitten was turned into the office in August 2018, as a senior, by her landlord. She said the landlord accused her of lying after Whitten reported the woman for collecting money on building repairs that were never made.

“I freaked out,” she said. “I had no idea what I had done wrong. I was going through everything I had [ever] done.”

When she finally found out, and explained her experience, the school still gave her a warning, Whitten said, and told her not to violate the code during her last year at the school. That made her paranoid about all of her actions from then on.

“I did everything right, and I was still brought in,” she said. “It ruined my last year. It’s tinged every happy memory I had there.”

Whitten said she doesn’t want to donate to the school and wants to move away from Provo now. Her little brother will be going there in the fall, and she’s warned him: “You have to be careful.”

John, who asked to be identified by only his first name because of the tension this issue has caused in his marriage, said he doesn’t want any of his five kids to go to the school after reading about the treatment some students have faced.

When he attended BYU from 1996 to 2006, he was called into the Honor Code Office and asked to talk about allegations that his roommate let a girl stay over one night. He was taking a semester off at the time and, he said, administrators told him that if he didn’t talk, they’d evict him from his campus apartment.

At the time, he thought that was normal. As he’s read the stories of other students, John added, he’s come to realize that it wasn’t.

“It’s a religious school,” he said, noting that he understands that it will have rules, “but I feel like the gestapo enforcement and telling on your neighbors needs to stop. It’s not a safe place.”

Others told The Salt Lake Tribune that because of the controversy, they don’t plan to attend alumni events, cheer for BYU at games or wear the school’s fan gear. One man said he doesn’t tell people he graduated from BYU. A woman said she would have transferred from the school if she had known what some students were experiencing.

If enough alumni share their concerns, it could impact the school’s fundraising, or potentially push it to make changes.

J. Dee Itri, who earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at BYU, said most alumni still largely love the school. But the only way they can make their opinions known and potentially influence change, he said, is to do things like withhold donations and stop attending events. He plans to do both.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune BYU fans and school mascot Cosmo look on as Utah holds a 35-0 lead over BYU in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, NCAA football at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday December 19, 2015.

Itri bought a house in Orem so he could regularly go to basketball, baseball and football games at his alma mater. For now, he said, he intends to stay home.

“It’s just a matter of principle,” the 35-year-old said. “I’m not going to go until they figure their stuff out.”

He graduated in 2008 and estimated he’s donated more than $1,000 since then. He hopes to be able to continue that again one day — possibly contributing as much as the Ockey family over his lifetime. But first, he said, he wants to see significant change and maybe an apology from the Honor Code Office.

“It’s not a BYU thing. It’s not a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint thing. It’s a humanity thing,” Itri said. “They’re treating people in less than human ways. You’re holding over them their diplomas. You’re threatening to kick them out of school. No one should have to feel like that kind of anvil is hanging over their head.”