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

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

"People will know BYU-Idaho," Clark replied. "BYU-Idaho will be known around the world."

FROM WHEAT FIELD TO INNOVATOR

To understand where BYU-Idaho is today, you have to go back more than a decade in its history.

For some time, Gordon B. Hinckley, then president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had been mulling over a specific challenge the church faced. As its ranks were swelling, especially in the developing world, the cost structure of existing models for higher education made it increasingly difficult to provide affordable education for a world-wide church. Hinckley believed fiercely that self-empowerment came through education, but he worried that as the church grew and BYU became more difficult to get into, thousands of Mormon youth would potentially miss out on college.

In a 1999 world-wide broadcast, President Hinckley stated of the church's flagship university at BYU: "We can accommodate only a relatively few. If we cannot give to all, why should we give to any? The answer is that if we cannot give to all, let us give to as many as we can."

Within a year of that broadcast, a meeting was held on the main floor of the Church Administration Building, a granite blocked edifice that sits on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The building houses the offices of the LDS Church's First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and is the setting of some of the church's most important meetings.

One spring day in 2000, after a monthly meeting of the board on the church's education system, Hinckley pulled aside Henry B. Eyring, who served both as an apostle and as the Commissioner of the church's education system. Like Kim Clark, Eyring had left a post at a prestigious academic institution, Stanford University, to take the helm of the little known university in Rexburg. In 2000, his assignment as commissioner had him oversee an education system that included BYU, BYU-Hawaii, Ricks College, and the programs of religious study for hundreds of thousands of high school and college-aged students around the world.

"Hal," Hinckley said to Eyring, looking him in the eye. "Couldn't we serve more students at a lower cost by making Ricks a university?"

Eyring quickly ran the calculations through his head. "No," he said, considering the added faculty and the need for more office space and classrooms on the Rexburg campus if the school were to go four years. "It will cost you more, not less."

To Eyring, this was the sensible answer. But Hinckley saw things differently.

"No it won't," he answered.

Hinckley had already looked at opening other campuses, but the cost estimates that had come back were staggering. The way Hinckley saw it, the church had to figure out a new way to reach more students, and to do it at a lower cost.

On June 21, 2000, President Hinckley and Elder Eyring together announced the creation of BYU-Idaho. The statement was relatively brief and included the following roadmap for the university's future: "BYU-Idaho will continue to be teaching oriented. Effective teaching and advising will be the primary responsibilities of its faculty who are committed to academic excellence. The institution will emphasize undergraduate education and will award baccalaureate degrees; graduate degree programs will not be offered. Faculty rank will not be a part of the academic structure of the four-year institution. BYU-Idaho will operate on an expanded year-round basis, incorporating innovative calendaring and scheduling while also taking advantage of advancement in technology which will enable the four-year institution to serve more students."

The message was clear: Ricks would be a different kind of university, with a different kind of mission. The university was carving out its own DNA.

When the school announced these changes in Rexburg, Betty Oldham, now an assistant to the president at BYU-Idaho, remembers students cheering up and down the hallways. Their two-year school had become a four-year university, with the prestige of the BYU name.

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