Cecil Samuelson

PROVO — Brigham Young University provides free parking to students because it proves the school is trying to be a better neighbor to families living near the campus, university President Cecil Samuelson said Thursday.

BYU made a controversial decision last year to switch to free parking after years of charging students for parking passes. At the same time, it began to charge $70 a year for bus passes that had been free.

Students had avoided paying to park by parking in residential neighborhoods east and south of campus. Some students have parked on residential lawns and given the school a reputation as a poor neighbor.

"I hope you'd all be embarrassed as I've been to be considered non-Christian folks," Samuelson said during a wide-ranging campus question-and-answer session at the Varsity Theater that drew about 75 students. "Free parking lets us make a demonstrable effort to show our neighbors we are trying to bring students onto campus."

The university has more than 16,000 parking stalls on campus to accommodate about 30,000 students, 1,600 faculty and 2,500 staff. Parking on the outer edges of campus are never full, although some parking at LaVell Edwards Stadium is a long walk to and from classrooms.

The policy change was made with student input. The BYU Student Service Association, better known as BYUSA, conducted focus groups and collected other student feedback on the policies in the spring of 2005. The changes were announced in fall 2005.

Some students protested, saying the switch to free parking encouraged the student body to abandon mass transit in favor of personal vehicles, but BYU administrators say research showed the free bus passes, available since 2002, did not reduce the number of students with cars.

They have said the switch to free parking has not increased traffic on and around campus. Also, those who relied on mass transit when it was free have purchased bus passes.

Samuelson said BYU still subsidizes the bus passes because the $70 it charges doesn't cover the full cost of what BYU pays UTA each year. Neither UTA nor BYU would reveal the annual fee BYU pays for the passes.

One student proposed that BYU split the cost, charging $40 for a parking pass and $40 for a bus pass. The university has considered the idea, and Samuelson said it was worth further exploration.

The Q&A addressed other topics, from BYU's dress-and-grooming standards to the private university's ability to allow religious discussion.

Samuelson said he didn't know why the dress-and-grooming standards, which don't allow beards, do allow for mustaches. He'd prefer it if students would follow the standards without reminders from campus staff.

"I don't believe we need anyone going around with a tape measure," he said.

The president responded favorably to the idea of an All-Arts Pass. BYU offers an $85 All-Sports Pass to students, who can use the pass for admission to any ticketed NCAA event on campus. BYUSA has been researching the possibility of a similar student pass for fine arts and performing arts events. Administrators are evaluating the research, said Nathan Ward, assistant director of student leadership.

Samuelson is also a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU, and a student asked his advice on balancing time and drawing closer to Jesus Christ.

Samuelson counseled him to aware of what he called "the myopia of the proximate" and keep focused on three or four things most important to him. After telling the student to emulate Christ, he said, "I'm thrilled to be at BYU, where we can have this kind of dialogue without worrying about political correctness."

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