REXBURG, Idaho — Professional Utopia was waiting for Garth Hall in southern Idaho. He just didn't realize it.

A longtime assistant coach at the Division I level, Hall once turned down an opportunity to run the Ricks College football program because he wanted nothing to do with junior college athletics. That was before he became disillusioned with big-time college sports.

By the time Hall ended up in Rexburg, he was simply looking for an opportunity to "change lives." He found the environment he was looking for at Ricks College, where the program matched his ideal of what athletics should be.

"This was as good as it gets," said Hall, who in 1997 became athletic director over a department that sponsored 264 scholarship athletes.

Three years later, Hall had a lot more lives to change.

On June 21, 2000, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley announced that Ricks would begin making the transition from two-year junior college to a four-year institution called Brigham Young University-Idaho. It was also announced that the school, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would phase out intercollegiate athletics and implement an activity program for the entire student body.

"We gave up something good for something better," Hall said.

When he looks at the evolution of the BYU-Idaho activities program, which serves between 8,000 and 10,000 students per semester, Hall calls it a miracle.

He isn't the only one who uses that word to describe what's occurred in Rexburg. Over the past eight years, BYU-Idaho has rapidly expanded in both the physical and academic sense, attempting to meet the needs of more students through resourceful innovation and become what the current school president calls a "new model for education." But through all the change, the institution has worked to ensure that some things — namely, the values that defined Ricks College — remain the same.

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WHEN FORMER SCHOOL President Henry B. Eyring, now a member of the LDS Church's First Presidency, gave a talk at BYU-Idaho called "A Steady, Upward Course" in September 2001, he used the word "change" more than 40 times.

"Change here is almost commonplace," said Roy Huff, the associate academic vice president of curriculum at the school.

Huff should know. His former home used to sit on a piece of land that was bought up and used to expand an area hospital.

That's what happens when a college town grows the way Rexburg has. What was once a school of 8,000 students now serves about 20,000 on a yearly basis.

From the beginning, the plan has been to accommodate as many students as possible by expanding the campus' physical facilities and implementing "innovative calendaring and scheduling," according to the original announcement. The exterior is just about complete, with two new buildings — the Gordon B. Hinckley Building and the Thomas E. Ricks Building — in use and two more projects — a new school auditorium and an expanded Manwaring Student Center — well under way. While there is only room for about 12,000 to 13,000 students on campus at any one time, BYU-Idaho accommodates more by using a three-semester system, where students attend school during two of three "tracks." Right now, 11,112 are enrolled in summer semester.

But fitting students on campus was just one element of the transition, which also necessitated a complete overhaul in the school's academic structure. Majors had to be narrowed and developed, and junior- and senior-level courses were created from scratch, according to Huff. Despite that, BYU-Idaho received accreditation after just three years, which Huff suggested is about four years faster than an institution would be expected to do.

Student demographics have also changed. The campus, which used to be composed mainly of individuals from the Wasatch Front and Idaho, is now more diverse and mature, according to Hall. There are students coming to Rexburg from around the United States and internationally, and 30 percent of the student population is married.

"It's a whole different ballgame now," Hall said.

Four-year status mandated that faculty adopt a different mind-set regarding students. Rather than preparing them to transfer, departments became responsible for securing professional contacts and internships.

"Now the goal is to have, to a certain extent, a finished product," said Kendall Peck, dean of the college of physical sciences and engineering. "Our goal now is to have them be employable."

More changes are imminent. Beginning this fall, BYU-Idaho will implement a new general education program called "Foundations," which will feature an increase in the number of required classes and create a "shared experience" among students, according to BYU-Idaho President Kim B. Clark.

Then there is the activities program, which school officials feel has flourished. Resources that were once directed toward the athletic program now provide all students with opportunities to compete in sports — from tackle football to lacrosse to ice hockey — and other areas such as outdoors, social, service and talent.

"It's about giving students opportunities to do things that develop them personally," said Hall, who chaired the committee that created the program.

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WHEN HALL BEGINS his 5:30 a.m. workout, basketball teams created through the activities program are usually already on the court practicing. He is also aware of students who participate in ice hockey waking up at 5 a.m. to skate on the naturally frozen ice and avoid the effects of the February thaw.

While the program provides faculty advisers, most of the organization and implementation is done by students, from coaching to officiating to event management. What has emerged is a "student leadership model," according to President Clark.

"We've just created a large array of opportunities for students to participate in leadership activity," said President Clark. "The university is becoming a leadership-development organization."

Extending more opportunities to a greater number of students is a concept that aligns itself with BYU-Idaho's ideal of a "student-centered university," where administrators and instructors are encouraged to always consider what's in the best interest of students.

"It's very unusual in higher education," President Clark said. "Most universities are faculty-centered, but we really are student-centered ... That's a fundamental commitment at the university, and it permeates the place."

Teaching is the "top priority in the university," according to President Clark, and the institution has several unique standards in place that reinforce that emphasis. The concept of "publish or perish" has no sway on campus, because faculty are asked to focus on instruction and curriculum development rather than pursuing their own projects. Research that involves student participation is usually given priority, and instructors are asked to follow a "Learning Model" that encourages peer-to-peer teaching rather than lectures.

"The idea that a faculty member stands up and just lectures for 50 minutes, and the students come, they listen, they leave, those days are gone," Huff said.

There is no system for faculty rank at BYU-Idaho, and instructors fall under a common pay scale that takes into account time spent at the school and academic degrees. According to Craig Bell, chairman of the department of business management, such standards encourage collaboration, rather than competition, among departments.

"That just facilitates a lot of wonderful things," he said.

The combined efforts of departments will be manifest when the first Foundations courses are taught in the fall. In revamping the general education program, 122 faculty members collaborated to establish 26 new courses, with each one being created by no fewer than three separate departments.

Huff acknowledges that being on faculty at BYU-Idaho is unique and does require sacrifice. Other institutions may offer more money and recognition, and because of BYU-Idaho's three-semester system, summer vacation is a thing of the past for some.

But Huff also suggests religious conviction plays a role within what he calls a "consecrated faculty."

"It's all about covenants," Huff said. "They realize, it's not about me, it's about the kingdom."

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KYLIE BAIR IS now the student body president at BYU-Idaho. But when she was just a freshman taking a Family Proclamation class, the instructor took the time to learn her name. To this day, the junior and her former teacher are on a first-name basis.

"That means so much to me," Bair said.

Huff, who teaches religion classes at the school in addition to his administrative duties, said the institution's emphasis on teaching allows him to focus on people. His goal is to know each student individually.

"If I can call them by name, they will know that I care enough about them to know who they are," he said. "I don't just teach my subject. I teach students."

Despite the tremendous growth of BYU-Idaho, the administration remains committed to the values of Ricks College. To this day, that name is not forgotten.

President Clark, who left his position as dean of the Harvard business school to come to Rexburg, recently gave a speech where he called the "Spirit of Ricks" the "defining characteristic of BYU-Idaho." He describes this spirit as "essentially the ministry of the Holy Ghost on the campus.

"It's the gifts of the spirit working through all the individuals on campus to create a very distinctive feeling and atmosphere here," he said.

President Clark describes the "Spirit of Ricks" as encompassing love, obedience, friendliness, hard work and sacrifice — "a feeling that we're here to love each other, serve each other, teach each other," he said.

"And you can feel it around campus."

For Peck, who was once a student at Ricks College, it's a "nurturing spirit" that is evident in the institution's efforts to keep class sizes small and promote interaction between students, faculty and administration.

Referencing the school's former name is one way the expanding institution holds to its founding principles. Remembering the school's mission is another.

According to President Clark, BYU-Idaho is above all a "disciple-preparation center," where classes open with prayer, the gospel is discussed among various class topics and student honor is at the core of the university.

"Our mission is to help our students become converted to the gospel and live its teachings," he said.

It's a concept that has resonated with Bair throughout her time on campus.

"I've taken that personally," she said. "This is such an amazing place to become a disciple of Christ ... The atmosphere, the spirit here, it makes it easy to be a disciple of Christ."

Hall, who arrived during the tenure of President David A. Bednar, remembers going on an administrative retreat shortly after President Clark's arrival and spending almost three hours discussing the school's mission statement. They came away concluding that it was a "true document," Hall said.

The mission of the institution hasn't "wavered one bit," according to Hall.

"Even with the transition, I don't think it really changed from what Ricks College was," he said. "It's a different dynamic, but we're about developing, frankly, disciples of Jesus Christ ... I don't think we've ever lost sight of what our purpose is."

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