On the frontier: How BYU-Idaho is pushing the boundaries of higher education

Published: Sunday, Oct. 16 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

BYU-Idaho has changed dramatically since the 1913 photo above. The Jacob Spori building burned down in 2000 but has since been rebuilt on the same ground.

Michael Lewis

Editors Note: This is the first in a three part series on BYU-Idaho and the implications for higher education. Read part two of the series here. Read part three of the series here.

ASPEN, Colo. — Kim Clark sat on the stage, waiting for his name to be announced.

It was June in Aspen Colorado, and even here, in this beige-walled conference room, it felt as if the rugged beauty and cool mountain air of the Rockies could come seeping in.

That Clark was here, speaking at the prestigious Aspen Institute, struck some as unlikely. The annual summer gathering draws a "who's who" of America's most innovative thinkers and leaders.

Presidents and other senior administrators of America's leading universities and colleges strolled the wooded campus during the two-day event, between classroom discussions. Past presenters had included Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.

That Clark had been asked to give a keynote address on innovation in American higher education was a surprise to many in the crowd. Clark wasn't a big name — outside of academic circles, the former Harvard Business School dean was barely known. What's more, he presided over a small school in eastern Idaho most people in the audience had never heard of. Once called Ricks College, it had been rechristened BYU-Idaho, and Clark was here to talk about how the school was reshaping the landscape of higher education.

Midway through his presentation, he shifted to something that made the crowd almost audibly gasp: the role faith plays in his classrooms. He keyed up a slide. "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is a principle of action and power," it read.

This is the mission of the learning model at BYU-Idaho, Clark declared, knowing that in academic circles the subject of religion is largely verboten. "I think there was a little bit of tension," Clark says now, more than a year later. "Don't worry," he told the audience. He could "translate" his school's faith-based mission into secular terms as well. "That broke the ice; everyone laughed," Clark recalls. "I thought it was important for them to see and understand who we really are, but also to help them see what we are doing and how it could be translated into a different environment."

The rise of BYU-Idaho, detailed in the new book "The Innovative University," is until now a story that has rarely been told outside of the spartan concrete walls of the Rexburg campus. And yet, it's a tale that's gaining traction within the world of higher education and beyond. It is the story of how a small community college became a force in the debate over the future of higher education. Over the last decade, the school has morphed from a two-year junior college into a four-year university with an international reach and an enrollment nearing 24,000. The school's focus on students and teaching (over faculty and research), a year-round schedule, innovations in online learning (including the use of remote online instructors), and a program for distance education called Pathway have turned the conventions of higher ed upside down. Within the ivory tower of academia, traditionalists see the school's methods as heretical. Others think the school might be the most innovative thing this side of Harvard.

"It seems to be an inspired conception of an institution that can fill an important role in American society," said Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College. The success of BYU-Idaho, experts say, could provide a roadmap to other colleges and universities struggling with surging growth and dwindling coffers of state governments.

All of which explains why Kim Clark has become such a sought after voice on the lecture circuit, from Aspen to D.C. When he left his post at the helm of the Harvard Business School for BYU-Idaho in 2005, many of his colleagues were baffled. Why leave the most prestigious university in America for a school with open enrollment? Shortly before leaving Cambridge, PBS' Charlie Rose asked Clark a version of this question.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere