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

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

For administrators and professors the reaction was mixed, and in some cases, decidedly different. Long-standing professors were worried about the proposal, and others didn't want to give up the opportunity to do research. Some wondered how making the switch would be possible. It seemed like a daunting, nearly impossible task.

CHANGING THE DNA OF A UNIVERSITY

The LDS Church turned to David Bednar, then the president of Ricks College, to oversee the change, which he learned of just two weeks before the announcement became public.

"There couldn't have been a better man for the job," said Henry J. Eyring (Henry B. Eyring's son), who has researched the history of BYU-Idaho extensively.

A long-time academic who had served as dean at the University of Arkansas, Bednar knew what traditionally happened to community colleges that transitioned into universities. They becaome more exclusive and more expensive. They built magnificent buildings to attract the best intellects and athletes. In other words, they become elite, and faculty expected to be treated accordingly.

Ricks was attempting to go the opposite direction. It would become a university, but in so doing reach more, not fewer, students, and at a lower cost. That would require sacrifices from the president on down. A spirit of frugality would infuse everything the university did going forward.

Bednar knew that convincing the faculty at Ricks to resist tradition wouldn't be easy. He decided to tackle the issue head on in one of his first speeches to faculty after the school announced the change. "We should be excellent scholars, and our scholarship should be focused on the processes of learning and teaching," Bednar said. "We will not be a recognized and highly regarded research institution in the traditional sense of that term. We will depend more upon inspiration and perspiration to make improvements than upon buildings and equipment. Then hard economic times will have little effect on the continuous innovation that will not cease at this school, even in the most difficult times."

Henry J. Eyring, one of the authors of "The Innovative University," described Bednar's role in those early days of transition as "superman changing the direction of a speeding train."

Some of the universities most ardent supporters worried that the changes would kill "the Spirit of Ricks," a sense of frugality, modesty, and student-oriented culture that permeated the environment. When he announced the end of the intercollegiate athletic program, many people in the community felt betrayed and deeply disappointed. To this day, some people in Rexburg still ask when the program will return.

"These were difficult things to do," said Henry J. Eyring, noting that at the time Bednar and his colleagues worried that the growth and transition to a university "would ruin the place." But Eyring says Bednar understood that the real spirit of the school didn't have as much to do with Ricks football or being a two-year institution as it did with "serving good, ordinary college kids and helping them become extraordinary." Under Bednar's steady leadership, the new university quickly took shape, based on Gordon B. Hinckley's unique design. Over the next four years, the school added over 60 baccalaureate degrees, received accreditation as a four-year institution, and rapidly expanded its enrollment base. For the faculty and other employees, the changes were literally breathtaking; everything seemed to be in constant flux, and the phrase "change fatigue" gained currency in water-cooler conversations. In 2004, President Bednar was was asked to fill another assignment with the church, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Many thought the next president would surely slow down the pace of change.

Ironically, it was a research scholar who would be tapped to build this new teaching institution.

LEAVING BOSTON FOR REXBURG

More than 2,000 miles away, Kim Clark stood in a finely appointed conference room overlooking the Harvard campus. Outside, the trees were blooming beneath a bright spring sky, as students scurried across the wooded campus on their way to class.

Clark was standing before 200 faculty members for a hastily called meeting. Larry Summers, the embattled university president, stood beside him, looking downtrodden and exhausted.

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