BYU is about to be the focus of a new protest. It’s called Bike for Beards. Students, and perhaps some alumni, will bike from Provo City Library on over to the administration building and ask to have the beard ban removed by presenting a list of printed comments from their website to the administration. While I am not affiliated in any way with this group, I did submit my own argument for changing the policy. Since this is an issue that virtually every BYU alumnus/alumna could have an opinion on, I’ve reproduced my submission here. Most of what I wrote actually came from a memo I intended to send the administration while I was a student, but alas procrastination won out.
The BYU honor code standard against beards deserves critical review as it has outlasted its purpose. As a recent alumni, I am still troubled by this outmoded and unchanged policy.
As others have undoubtedly noted, wearing beards was not an honor code violation in BYU’s early history. When Elder Oaks became president of the university in 1971, he discussed the reason for the no-beard policy in his commencement address (on the topic of the honor code generally):
In the minds of most people at this time, the beard and long hair are associated with protest, revolution, and rebellion against authority. They are also symbols of the hippie and drug culture. Persons who wear beards or long hair, whether they desire it or not, may identify themselves with or emulate and honor the drug culture or the extreme practices of those who have made slovenly appearance a badge of protest and dissent.
The beard wasn’t just a beard in the 60s and 70s; it was a symbol of political and cultural dissent closely associated with the hippie culture and deteriorating social norms. In light of that culture, a beard ban made perfect sense. Elder Oaks even recognized that the ban was not meant to outlast its intended purpose:
Unlike modesty, which is an eternal value in the sense of rightness or wrongness in the eyes of God, our rules against beards and long hair are contemporary and pragmatic. They are responsive to conditions and attitudes in our own society at this particular point in time. Historical precedents are worthless in this area. The rules are subject to change, and I would be surprised if they were not changed at some time in the future.
Elder Oaks explained that the ban could outlast its intended purpose, which I and many others would argue is exactly what has now happened.
The beard has lost its political symbolism. It has no lasting stigma among white-collar professionals such as doctors, lawyers, professors, and engineers. Liberals are no more likely to wear beards than are conservatives. Only in the business world are beards still stigmatized. And while that should weigh as an important consideration, one professional sector’s preferences should not dictate the dress code where other professional sectors are indifferent.
In the spirit of Elder Oaks’ remarks, tattoos, multiple piercings, and outrageous hair color should all still remain suspect violations of the honor code. These symbols remain part of America’s anti-professional counterculture. The beard has moved on.
Naturally, some beards are outrageous and certainly taboo in the professional world. Brigham Young’s beard would simply have no place among white-color professionals. The honor code should not open the door to all facial hair. Just as the honor code allows hair without permitting outrageous hairstyles, so too should it allow for beards without outrageous beard styles. A possible modification could read: “Beards should be well kempt and decorous,” with some latitude in enforcement of this standard. Such a standard would be keeping up with the times and capture the spirit of Elder Oaks’ policy reasons for the beard ban.
Finally, as a note about the need for occasional policy changes: In Elder Oaks address, he reiterated the then-current prohibition on women wearing jeans or sweatshirts as appropriate enforcements of the honor code. Those prohibitions have since been dropped. The honor code has always followed what society recognizes as reasonable dress and grooming standards. Far from prohibiting women’s sweatshirts, the campus store sells women’s sweatshirts to students! Occasional modifications to the honor code have always been appropriate. In that vein, the beard has gone from social pariah to a reasonable grooming standard among professionals. The honor code should reflect that change.