Two separate groups of educational entrepreneurs are planning to open private colleges in the next few years aimed at Latter-day Saint students who are not admitted to Brigham Young University or its campuses in Idaho and Hawaii.
Nauvoo, Ill., and Moapa Valley, Nev., are the sites of the proposed schools, to be known respectively as Nauvoo University and Desert Valley Academy. Both of the planned schools have already established Web sites nauvoouniversity.com and desertvalleyacademy.org as well as school administrations, boards of directors and plans for housing and instructing students in a "Mormon-friendly" environment secular universities can't match, say those who are spearheading the efforts.
Spokesmen for both groups have talked with top leaders of the LDS Church about supporting their endeavors but were told the church is not currently interested in expanding into higher education beyond its existing campuses.
Both groups say they are basing their business plans on the success of Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista, Va., which was formed by a private group of Latter-day Saint businessmen and educators based on the values and standards at BYU. It opened its doors in 1996 with 76 students and has since grown to attract several hundred per year.
Evan Ivie, former director of BYU's popular Semester in Nauvoo program, said when the church decided to discontinue the program in 2006, several people expressed interest in providing a college venue for LDS students there based on the region's key role in church history and the fact that the church recently reconstructed the Nauvoo Temple.
"I think there was a strong feeling that good was being done and something additional here would benefit students, faculty and the town. As we've examined church history and seen the goals that the early Saints had of having some kind of academic institution here, we've been touched by their devotion to education and the desire to have that as a centerpiece for the city of Nauvoo. We share in that desire."
Ivie said he's seen "strong interest" among many LDS academics to move to an area "where they can attend a temple and be involved with an academic institution, maybe even teach some classes. There's a natural flow for the kind of people we need for a university here in Nauvoo."
He anticipates city and county leaders in the area "will welcome this as a very positive step forward in this area," and said he plans to talk with them in the near future about specifics of the planning that is under way.
The nonprofit institution won't have any of its own campus facilities in the early stages, he said, noting the building that formerly housed the BYU Nauvoo program has been demolished.
Planning is under way for future campus buildings, but local motels and meeting facilities that cater to tourists during the summer are the likely venues for student housing and classrooms initially, "until we get enough of a campus for them to move into."
A few individuals have come forward to help with funding, Ivie said, but he doesn't know at this point where the bulk of the money for such a costly enterprise will come from. When private individuals founded Nauvoo Restoration Inc. in the area in the 1950s, "they needed funding to buy buildings and renovate some 30 sites they restored. There were church members who showed up who had the funds to be able to do that. It's a matter of faith that that's going to happen."
With many of the details still to be worked out, administrators do anticipate opening next fall and are hoping to attract at least 50 students for the first semester, he said. Initially, bachelor's degree programs will be offered in general education, history and English.
"Some former faculty and staff of BYU Nauvoo have been invited to return and help us get this started," and those listed on the Web site as board members include Susan Easton Black, professor of church history at BYU; Michael Kennedy, president of the Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society; and Beverly Simone, president of Southeastern Iowa Community College.
Another board member listed is Vee Wilson, who is also listed as president of the planned Desert Valley Academy in Nevada.
Asahel "Ace" Robison, chairman of the board for Desert Valley Academy, said that school's fundraising the initial goal is $75 million was "moving forward quite well, and then the economy smacked us in the face. ... We're in a position, fortunately, where we can wait it out a little bit."
Robison serves as an LDS stake president in Moapa Valley, and said he has felt the pull of the area's "pioneering spirit" in his quest to help build the school.
The group has developed a curriculum and established a corporate identity in Nevada, and has received approval for tax-free status with the IRS. Wilson, a longtime educator who is to serve as president, spent a year volunteering at Southern Virginia University to gain experience and an understanding "of what it really takes to make it happen," said Robison, a government affairs consultant with longtime experience in Washington.
The group brought in non-LDS businessman and educator Larry Moses to help with financial projections and construction planning for a campus that organizers hope will eventually serve from 1,200 to 1,500 students. The group has architectural plans and has been looking for property on which to build. Organizers had planned to open in fall 2009, but those plans are now on hold.
Both Ivie and Robison say they're concerned about young Latter-day Saints who don't get into LDS-owned schools and eventually find themselves outside the church looking in.
Ivie said he would like to one day see "100 LDS colleges spread throughout the country. ..."
"We can create the right environment for them, where they don't have atheists and antagonistic teachers and classes and subjects antagonistic to testimony," Ivie said.
Robison said he'd like to see "some kind of 'confederation' of colleges that are LDS-focused, exchanging informational resources," in the future. He's watched more than 80 percent of the high school students in his LDS stake graduate from LDS seminary. Yet after time away from home at school or a job, only about 55 percent of the eligible young men serve an LDS mission, he said."That's too much of a drop-off. ... We're here to raise young men who will go out into the world and serve the Lord in the mission field then be faithful in doing whatever they're called to do thereafter, and 55 percent just isn't good enough."