If you walk around Brigham Young University’s campus in Provo, Utah, chances are you won’t see much in the way of facial hair.
The “no beards” portion of the school’s honor code, which requires men to be groomed and clean-shaven, has made the BYU campus a notorious no-hair zone for decades. Students who try to sneak beards by the faculty and administrators inevitably meet with a razor one way or another; they are likely to be turned away from exams if they sport even the hint of a 5 o’clock shadow.
But BYU recently clarified its honor code, codifying three categories that might allow a student to qualify for a so-called “beard exemption,” the school confirmed this week.
In recent months, some male students at BYU have petitioned the Mormon school to relax its beard prohibition. The university also has a small but not insignificant population of Muslim students, some of whom view growing a beard as a form of religious expression.
Students can now formally petition for exemptions based on medical, theatrical or religious needs. The university says this isn’t a change, just a clarification of existing policy in response to “legitimate” concerns raised by some segments of the student body. Previously, requests for exemptions were handled on a case-by-case basis.
Recreational beard aficionados need not apply.
“That guideline has not changed and I do not foresee it changing,” Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the university, told The Washington Post in an interview. “We looked at where we were receiving legitimate requests and made a decision to formalize exceptions in those areas.”
It’s welcome news for BYU’s Muslim students, some of whom might have been forced to shave upon enrolling.
“I committed to have a beard,” Hammad Javed, a BYU student from Pakistan, told KUTV, Salt Lake City’s CBS affiliate. “It was a tradition of the prophet. He had a beard.”
When he arrived at BYU, Javed got rid of his beard. Now, he says, he’ll grow it back as soon as possible.
The change represents a small adjustment to the school’s largely inflexible policy in the face of shifting social norms regarding facial hair.
The way BYU junior Shane Pittson sees it, the current honor code is mired in reactionary anti-hippie fears that became entrenched in the 1960s and 1970s. Beard culture has changed; facial hair is no longer a signal of rebelliousness, but rather a form of personal expression.
Pittson said there’s no reason — at least according to the Mormon religion — why beards shouldn’t be allowed. The prohibition, he said, simply restricts students’ personal freedom, which “is just never a good thing.”
Pittson doesn’t have any facial hair at the moment, but he once grew a beard just to see how quickly the university would crack down. It survived for about two weeks before a professor threatened not to grade any more of his work unless his facial hair went away.
“I was surprised by how quickly it happened,” Pittson said.
For now, BYU isn’t budging in response to the arguments that Pittson and others have made in favor of removing the ban altogether.
Students who want to apply for medical exemptions can petition the campus health center. Theatrical exemption petitions, which can be granted for students performing both on and off campus, will be considered by the theater department. Religious exemptions based on “observance and practice” will be coordinated by the university chaplain.
All three offices will forward their recommendations to the honor code office, which makes the final decision about whether to grant an exemption.
As far as Pittson is concerned, he’ll continue to make the argument that beard culture is more than just about trying to bring “hipster culture” to BYU’s campus, as some have suggested.
“Unless you consider the CEO of Goldman Sachs and the White House press secretary to be hipsters, then I think it’s bigger than that,” Pittson said, noting that both Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein and former White House press secretary Jay Carney have grown facial hair. “I think this is more of a cultural change than anything else.”