THE MAKING OF BMA: THE HONOR CODE

At the heart of BMA’s community lies the Honor Code – a guide for individual and collective trust and respect

As part of BMA’s 50 th anniversary celebrations, we present to you a monthly series, “The Making of BMA”, dedicated to remembering and celebrating the people, places, events, and traditions that have shaped the academy’s rich history.

Since its beginning in 1970, the academy has been home to 1,193  students including 36 who have gone on to compete in the Olympics and 145 who have been members of national teams representing the USA, Australia, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea, and Spain. Above and beyond the athletic success of its alumni, BMA prides itself on having seen the overwhelming majority of its graduates enroll in university or college programs. The scores of Burke students that have gone on to successful careers and personal journeys in wide-ranging industries and around the globe are a testament to the strength of our academic philosophy and the long-standing values of the school which are so impactful during the formative years of our students’ development.  

This month, former Head of School Finn Gundersen elaborates on how BMA’s Honor Code was established and evolved over time to serve as an ethical and behavioral compass for students and staff alike. As the academy grew in number and scope over the last decades, so did the need to develop foundational principles based on trust, respect, and freedom. The Honor Code has stood the test of time and remains the guiding light for how BMA community members are to behave individually and collectively to reach their fullest potential. 

As BMA community members reflect on the racial and social tensions that have reached new heights in communities around the continent and beyond, we turn inward to reflect on how the academy’s Honor Code promotes an unrelenting commitment to equality and respect for all in order to empower everyone to reach their fullest human potential.

Read below as former head of school, Finn Gundersen, shares how BMA’s Honor Code came to life to create the moral foundation for our community. Current head of school, Willy Booker ‘96, adds his reflections with regards to how recent generations of Burkies have made the Honor Code their own in light of the ever-evolving social context.

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Finn Gundersen

BMA Head of School 1984 – 1999

From the opening day in the fall of 1970, it was clear that Burke Mountain Academy, the first of its kind, would be different – even radically different. The foundation, the bedrock, would be how to live together in a community based on trust and respect and commitment by both the staff and the highly motivated student-athletes. 

Looking back on the ‘70s, it was an era where we were fortunate to have had the academic and athletic freedom to create an entirely new philosophy for learning, for daily ski training, and for living together and most importantly, for building a community based on agreed-upon shared values, seeking the best of the human spirit. 

In the beginning, it was almost easy with just two staff; Warren Witherell and Finn Gundersen, and twelve students, to gather together in the Frazier House living room, around a warm wood stove, to talk about how we would grow together. Warren would ask in meeting after meeting: “What kind of a school do you want, how do you want to live and work together, to try and fail and to try again?” The enthusiasm and open-mindedness was contagious, with ideas flowing freely, generating conversations filled with excitement, hope, and the promise to be the best we could be. 

The philosophy and values that emerged from those many gatherings are now an essential core of all staff and students who were ever members of the BMA community. Over the coming decades, these indispensable values: no grades, no leaders all leaders, from freedom equals responsibility, always seeking challenges to become more than you are, the critical role of hard work, givers not takers, humility and sportsmanship, social behaviors defined, curiosity, love of learning, and much, much more, would become our pledge to seek the best in each other. This foundation created the moral and philosophical compass for all, and the school worked best when on this course. 

To be given trust from the start, to believe that teenagers are capable of doing the right thing in all aspects of their lives, was a great gift of freedom within which to flourish. We accepted and expected that learning, at times, would be very difficult. We knew that to face any and all challenges would be hard because exploring one’s potential starts a life long quest of learning. If the community and the environment supported individual differences and thereby honored everyone’s contributions, then nothing was impossible to accomplish. 

Together, we could face the toughest and most demanding challenges of winter in the Northeast Kingdom. Trust was then and still is necessary for success. Because trust is the critical ingredient for the teamwork required for the BMA community to thrive. We all had to accept responsibility to fulfill the mission of the Academy, including our own mission to become the best we could be.

Through the magic of the BMA community, the mission succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams and the school grew dramatically. With each new class, the values of Burke were renewed, as the early fall gatherings continued to explore the bedrock principles by which we would all live. However, because perfection was never our goal, instead it was always to learn from our successes and the inevitable setbacks that each student athlete faced, violations of our values and standards happened from time to time. 

After a particularly gut-wrenching lapse (the details having been lost), Warren decided, with the support of everyone, that a better understanding and stronger commitment was needed. One’s signature, and therefore one’s honor, was used to signal one’s pledge to live by the BMA values and philosophy. 

Below are two examples of the honor code, the first an earlier version, and the second today’s current one. Over the decades, slight changes were made to either clarify a point, or expand upon one, or to raise our sights even higher, to reach for an even better community. To add an even more serious level of commitment, parents were asked to read the Honor Code, as well as the student handbook, and pledge their support for the values of the school and the standards by which their child would live.  

Even after fifty years, the core of BMA remains, we will all strive to help each other fulfill our hopes and dreams in a community based on hard work and trust.

Early Honor Code:

Burke Mountain Academy has a special system of trust, values, and goals. I understand that we all live together, and I will respect and be courteous to my schoolmates. Even though there are few specific rules, I understand that I am trusted to act in the best interest of the Burke Mountain Academy community.

I support the standards of the Burke Mountain Academy community as set forth by the Headmaster, and as stated in the Guide to Philosophy and Community Values, and the Student Handbook. I pledge my commitment to live by these standards both on the school campus and wherever I am identified as a Burke student or athlete. I will not use illicit drugs including alcohol.

I understand that my personal support of these standards is important to the strength, openness, and trust of the entire Burke community. I acknowledge that any failure to sustain these standards shall be just cause for my dismissal from the school.

My signature, dated below, promises my commitment to these standards now and in the future, and attests to my support of them in the past.

Current Honor Code:

Burke Mountain Academy has a special system of trust, values and goals. I understand that we all live together, and I will respect and be courteous to other members of the BMA community including staff and other students.  Even though there are few specific rules, I understand that I am trusted to act in the best interest of the BMA community.

I support the standards of the Burke Mountain Academy community as set forth by the Head of School and as stated in the Guide to  Philosophy and Community Values, and the Student Handbook. I pledge my commitment to live by these standards both on the school campus and wherever I am identified as a BMA student/ athlete.

I understand that my personal support of these standards is important to the strength, openness, and trust of the entire BMA community. I acknowledge that any failure to sustain these standards shall be just cause for my dismissal from the school.

My signature, dated below, promises my commitment to these standards now and in the future, and attests to my support of them in the past.

A poster of the Honor Code is prominently displayed in the Dining Hall where the tradition of lunch announcements continue to this day.

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Willy Booker ‘96

BMA Head of School 2017-Now

As important as the Honor Code was to those students sitting around the wood stove in Frazier in the early 1970’s, it is equally embraced by the Burke students today. Many aspects of Burke have evolved over the years; the campus has grown, the internet arrived, and now students can get practically anything one might desire within 48 hours thanks to Amazon Prime. These developments have inevitably changed the nature of the Burke experience but at its heart, the Honor Code remains not only remarkably unchanged but just as essential to our community as it ever was.

Warren had a saying that the community had to be molded and shaped like a lump of potter’s clay each year. True to his wishes, we begin each new year with a series of discussions about how we want to live and work as a community, the values that will guide us, and what the Honor Code means to each of us. In this way, we begin each year by honoring the tradition of the school but also respecting the Burke value that the students have real and meaningful agency in how they want the school to run.

As Finn noted, there are inevitable infractions that test the underlying trust in the community. We still choose to embrace these moments not as failures but as opportunities for growth and delve deeply into discussion, and debate as a full school. Why do we have an Honor Code? Are we willing to make the sacrifices to live in a community based on trust; a school without locks on our doors? Each and every time, we walk away amazed at how passionate the students are about the Honor Code and their pride in being a part of a school with real values. The students fight as hard as ever for this community and the code that has guided us for 50 years. The Honor Code is alive and well and burns brightly in the hearts and minds of the Burke students today.