The independent news organization of Duke University

Div School 'covenant' draws fire

A new "conduct covenant" recently passed by Divinity School faculty came under intense criticism during a meeting of the Student Life Ministry Tuesday, as Divinity students questioned administrators about the level of student input in creating the covenant, as well as how closely key phrases will be interpreted.

The covenant, passed in early March by the Divinity Council, is essentially an expansion of the school's current honor code redesigned to include conduct both inside and outside of the classroom, said Senior Associate Dean for Academic Programs Willie Jennings.

The document - which applies to students, faculty and administrative staff - has been in the works for six years and was supposed to be in place for the start of the 2002-2003 academic year, but was delayed in the fall.

"As a Divinity School committed to forming and educating persons for the ministry of Jesus Christ, we covenant together to embody truth in every aspect of our lives, including our academic world," the covenant reads.

It continues by specifying various ways in which faculty and students should uphold their integrity, including "open[ing] ourselves to judgment," "liv[ing] honestly before our friends," and "encourag[ing] each other to ever-deepening commitment to Christ in prayer, fasting, chastity, worship, study and acts of charity, justice and mercy."

Jennings explained to SLM members: "This is a conduct code that will be less of a policy statement and more of a teaching statement. We want to develop more integrity in our relationships."

He added that the impetus of the covenant's creation in the mid-1990s was a series of drastic circumstances at the Divinity School. One student embezzled money and lied about having cancer; a male student physically abused numerous female students, sending one to the hospital; and a faculty member lied about his publications and teaching record.

Students, however, said that despite the covenant's long history of development, few knew of its creation before finding it in their mailboxes in early March.

"Why wasn't there a larger effort to bring forth students to get involved in the process?" asked Divinity student Jeremy Ayers, perhaps the most vocal of the opponents. He further noted that unlike an honor code, the covenant impacts a student's entire life.

But administrators countered that students have been involved with the covenant's creation since the very beginning. The matter was brought at least once before the SLM, Jennings said, and the organization's coordinators serve on the Divinity Council's executive committee, which has overseen the development of every word and sentence in the document through numerous drafts.

Still, Ayers said the lack of a direct student vote or school-wide forum on the wording of the covenant goes against one of the very principles of the document-the goal of increasing the sense of community through dialogue.

Citing Matthew 18:15-20, the covenant advises that "members of the covenant community who are aggrieved by the conduct of other members of the community should find a friend and approach the offending party to work out the misunderstanding or offense." Jennings said he anticipates that almost all breaches of the covenant will be addressed through this method.

However, more serious matters such as plagiarism, cheating, theft, abuse of property, fraud or harassment, should be brought directly to Jennings' office to be addressed.

"We don't ever want to use [the part of the covenant that applies to graver matters]. We hope [that part] becomes dust," Jennings said. "But maybe we can embody the first part, the Matthew 18 part."

Jennings said he welcomes further discussion among members of the Divinity School community about the implementation of the covenant, especially the interpretation of certain words that have already sparked controversy, including "chastity."

If strictly interpreted, the covenant could potentially lead to punishment for those who have sex outside of marriage, are involved in homosexual relationships or participate in deviant sexual behavior - all issues which some students argued have yet to be fully agreed upon by the Church.

"If you want to have conversations with the community, why don't we have conversations about what chastity means?" Ayers said.

Not all SLM members were upset about the covenant.

"I was very thankful when I saw this because of the women I know who have been so hurt by this community," said Divinity student Alisa Lasater.