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From wheat field to innovator: how BYU-Idaho is changing the landscape of higher education

Published: Sunday, Oct. 16 2011 11:58 p.m. MDT

Before the university could ever look at reaching places like Manhattan, administrators had to first focus on sharpening their ability to increase the number of students they reached on their Rexburg campus ever year. One day in April of 2005, shortly after arriving at BYU-Idaho, university president Kim Clark was sitting in his office that overlooks the Rexburg campus, when Max Checketts, the then-academic vice president of the school, walked in with a stack of papers, a six-sided cube and an idea.

For the last four years, the school had grappled with a vexing problem: How could they bring more students to campus without raising costs? Clark's predecessor, David Bednar, had come up with a temporary solution. The school would adopt a year-round calendar, with two block semesters in the summer, and in so doing, would increase the number of students without having to build any new buildings.

But this model presented a challenge. Students with the highest grades could pick what time of the year they wanted to come to BYU-I, and they typically choose to come during the fall and spring semesters. Moreover, the course offerings were not equivalent, so access for summer was very different than the fall and winter semesters. And while the summer months brought thousands of more students to the campus, this was minimal compared to what it could offer.

The six-sided cube Checketts held in his hands dated back five years and included the main principles upon which BYU-I had been built. To move forward, Checketts laid out a plan: BYU-I would move to three semesters.

For the system to really work, the school would have to make every semester equal, meaning they would need to offer every class, assign students of different backgrounds and academic ability to certain semesters and provide equivalent offerings across all three semesters. To do this would require professors to work year round.

For many long-time faculty members, this was a tough pill to swallow. Most professors at the school had already sacrificed greatly to be there, giving up salary and visibility at other universities because they believed in BYU-Idaho's faith-based mission. They didn't earn overly large salaries, and they had already been asked to give up tenure and research, something almost no other administrator at a four-year university would ask.

Now they were being asked to give up most of their summers — the most beautiful time of year in Rexburg, a place known for its long, cold winters.

"It was dead on arrival," Clark said of presenting the plan to the faculty. "People didn't like it."

Clark didn't give up.

He knew the three-semester plan didn't just mean reaching 50 percent more students, it also meant more savings since up until then buildings sat half-empty in the summer and counselors, administrators and salaried-personnel were still working during these months with many less students. The school could save 20 percent of these fixed costs per student while also raising teacher's salary by 15 percent and giving them the month of August off.

But Clark also wanted to build a shared sense of ownership with the faculty in making the transition.

So Clark and Checketts created a discussion board for faculty to submit ideas on how to implement the three-semester plan. More than a dozen faculty members submitted formal plans, and many more used the message board to hash out the implications of the different proposals. When Clark submitted the different proposals to the faculty for approval, 80 percent voted for the original plan Checketts and Clark came up with, with varying degrees of refined suggestions.

"In almost everything we do, there is a lot of discussion and debate and a lot of engagement of the faculty," Clark said.

The faculty was now on board; convincing students to switch to a three-semester plan had its own set of challenges. Betty Oldham, the assistant to the president, got dozens of calls from parents upset that their children had been assigned to summer classes. What about family vacations? What about summer jobs?

Today, there are far fewer complaints about the summer and spring semester from students. Before the implementation in 2004, total spring enrollment was 8,287. In 2011, it had risen to 14,296.

"I used to get letters and phone calls of people pleading their cases," Oldham said. "I don't get those anymore."

IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION

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