Not all Big 12 student leaders oppose BYU as conference expansion candidate

Attendees of a Brigham Young University football game hold up a BYU flag on Sept. 21, 2013, in the LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah. (Photo Courtesy of Ken Lund | CC BY-SA 2.0)

Student body presidents across the Big 12 Conference are split on Brigham Young University’s bid to join the conference.

Early this month, the Student Government at Iowa State University kicked off the movement by passing a resolution that called on the Big 12 to reject BYU’s bid.

Last week, Kansas State’s Student Governing Association introduced a similar resolution.

The resolution has since been amended to remove all references to BYU. Instead, it calls for current and future members to have inclusive policies. It also cites the NCAA constitution, which includes a policy against sexual orientation discrimination.

The K-State resolution will likely be voted on at today’s SGA meeting.

At issue is BYU’s student Honor Code. Opponents of BYU’s bid say the Honor Code is discriminatory toward LGBT individuals.

The Honor Code reads:

“Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

Jessica Van Ranken, K-State student body president and senior in political science, and Trenton Kennedy, student body vice president and junior in entrepreneurship, previously told the Collegian that a noninclusive student Honor Code at BYU is enough reason to exclude the university from the conference.

“When you’re in the Big 12, you’re expecting a standard of inclusion and a standard of acceptance and welcoming when we know that my fellow students, as student athletes, are going to be traveling to those schools to participate in athletic events and competitions,” Kennedy said. “So I believe that it should be an acceptable standard to know that my fellow students are going to go to an accepting and inclusive atmosphere when they travel for games.”

John Currie, K-State athletics director, in an interview with the Collegian, said he supported the student leaders if they pass a resolution.

“If our student government chooses to make such a thing, then I’m very supportive of that,” Currie said. “Generally speaking from what I’ve seen in my time here, is that I believe our students make very good decisions and our student government is very thoughtful about how to go about things. So I’ll be fully supportive of whatever our SGA decides to do.”

BYU is one of about a dozen schools in the running for Big 12 expansion and is a private, religious institution owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Baylor and TCU are two other Big 12 private, religious institutions.

Other universities contacted

The Collegian sent emails to the student body presidents of the nine other Big 12 universities seeking comment on BYU and conference expansion. As part of the included questions, these student leaders were asked if there was a movement to pass similar resolutions at their universities.

Including K-State, nine of the ten Big 12 student body presidents responded to the Collegian’s requests for comment. The others were Texas, Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Iowa State and West Virginia.

Baylor did not respond to emails or phone calls by Wednesday evening.

Legislation has been passed or discussed at Iowa State, K-State, Texas and West Virginia. Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech student leaders said there was no legislation at their universities. The TCU student body president did not directly answer whether or not a resolution was in the works.

The student body president at BYU also did not respond to emails or phone calls. In order to speak to student leadership, the Collegian was directed to BYU University Communications, which did not respond to phone calls by Wednesday evening.

Student leaders respond

The Big 12 university student leaders took varying approaches to the issue.

Iowa State is the only university so far to pass a resolution opposing BYU’s bid to join the conference. Cole Staudt, student body president at Iowa State, said in an email he opposed the resolution that was passed.

“While I agree with the Senate’s goal of wanting to see the Honor Code changed, I opposed the resolution because I believe the way the Senate seeks change is wrong,” Staudt said.” By essentially saying to BYU, ‘We don’t like what you are doing so we are not going to work with you,’ the Senate is doing the very same thing we want to see changed at BYU. As I said to the Senate, you can not fight exclusion with exclusion.”

Kevin Helgren, student body president at Texas, said in a phone interview that he is working on a resolution. Helgren said he believes it will represent the sentiments of the majority of the 51,000 students at the university.

“I don’t think that you have to be liberal or left-leaning to read the language in BYU’s Honor Code and recognize that it’s discriminatory and exclusionary,” Helgren said.

Julie Merow, student body president at West Virginia, said in an email that the student government is working on a similar, yet different resolution to the one passed by Iowa State.

“We have two members of our student government who are working on constructing a resolution that will potentially ask BYU to consider a looser policy for homosexual behavior on campus before they join the conference, if voted to join,” Merow said.

She said student leaders have also discussed a second resolution related to the sexual assault policy at BYU. In April, a former BYU student reported she was suspended from the university after reporting her rape, according to the New York Times.

“Another member of WVU’s student government is working on a second resolution that will address BYU’s sexual assault policy and how the institution handles these cases,” Merow said. “We are hoping to put out a ‘call to action’ as opposed to condemning them for their Honor Code.”

Alternative voices

Not all Big 12 university student leaders are working on resolutions opposed to BYU’s bid to join the conference. Daniel Pae, student body president at Oklahoma, said, over the phone, his student government has no plans for similar resolutions.

Ben Sharp, the student body president at Texas Tech, said in a short email response that he is not working on any resolution regarding BYU.

“I represent a culturally rich and diverse student body and university, and strive each day to represent their interests,” Sharp said. “However, with that being said, my office has not been involved in discussions regarding new members to the Big 12 Conference.”

Gabby Naylor, student body vice president at Kansas, said in a phone interview there is no resolution in the works. She also declined to say whether or not the BYU Honor Code is discriminatory toward LGBT individuals.

“As of our student senate right now, we do not have any statement for that one,” Naylor said. “No comment.”

John Paul Watson, student body president at TCU, gave a short email statement where he did not take a position on BYU’s Honor Code or say whether or not a resolution will be discussed at the university.

“In accordance with TCU’s anti-discrimination policy, we are a campus that values inclusivity,” Watson said. “With this in mind, we are working with key stakeholders to gauge opinion and ensure the proper steps are taken in handling this matter.”

After publication, Dillon Johnson, student body president at Oklahoma State, replied via email.

“At this time, there have only been casual discussions on the issue between members of our organization,” Johnson said. “I’ll refrain from weighing in on the topic until formal actions are made by legislative branch (if that happens).”

BYU and Baylor student leaders did not respond to the Collegian.

Religious liberty

Several Big 12 student body presidents discussed BYU’s religious liberty in relation to their Honor Code and LGBT discrimination.

“I would encourage everyone to approach this issue with an open mind and with respect,” Staudt said. “People from around the world go to BYU because of the religious community that exists there that cannot be found anywhere else. If we truly want to make change in this world, it doesn’t happen by turning people away. It happens when we show respect and kindness to people.”

Staudt said Baylor removed a discriminatory policy last year and that BYU can also become more inclusive.

“Change is made by respecting those who you disagree with and seizing opportunities to work with people,” Staudt said. “Baylor just removed a discriminatory policy last year and BYU can change, too. We must understand that changing something so ingrained in one’s religion takes time and we have to be patient but continue to fight for the community we want.”

Merow said BYU can have religious liberty and still have an inclusive Honor Code.

“It is important to remember that BYU’s Honor Code is based on their religious beliefs and they are entitled to their views and moral codes,” Merow said. “As the Big 12 Conference, we need to be accepting of members from all walks of life and I do not believe it is our place to shun them for their conduct, but offer an alternative policy and encourage them to consider a more inclusive Honor Code that will match that of many Big 12 Institutions. We will not fix exclusion by excluding.”

Helgren said religious liberty for BYU does not mean the Big 12 has to invite the university to join the conference.

“I’ve had a number of people say, ‘You know, they’re a religious institution, isn’t that their right?’ Absolutely,” Helgren said. “As a predominantly Mormon institution, they have every right to use particular language in their Honor Code. And we, as a public institution committed to diversity and inclusion, also have every right to call upon the leaders of the Big 12 to exclude them from our conference for the sake of equality.”

The message

Cody Smith, a student senator at Iowa State who voted for their resolution, said in an email that unless BYU changes its Honor Code, the Big 12 should not invite BYU to join the conference.

“The question should not be whether the Big 12 leadership takes this resolution seriously, this resolution represents the voices and values of 36,660 Cyclones and should not be ignored,” Smith said. “This resolution represents 36,660 students who say that unequal treatment based on sexual orientation at any institution, regardless of religious affiliation, is unacceptable and unwelcome in the Big 12.”

Helgren said there is a clear message to the Big 12 leadership and the university presidents who will vote on conference expansion this fall.

“(A resolution) is a formal way of saying ‘this is what the student body thinks,'” Helgren said. “I think that the more voices you have in one corner, the more powerful of a message they send. So I think that if we got resolutions floating around the Big 12 from almost all, if not every single university in the conference, it’s going to send a really clear message to the board of the Big 12.”

Jason Tidd graduated from Kansas State University's Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May 2017. He was the spring 2017 editor-in-chief, fall 2016 news editor and spring 2016 assistant news editor. While at K-State, Jason played baritone in the Pride of Wildcat Land marching band.