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20th anniversary of BYU–Idaho: How its creation is ‘one of the most important educational events of the Restoration’

The BYU Idaho campus and the Rexburg Idaho Temple in Rexburg on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
BYU Idaho campus in Rexburg on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
20130710 Aerial photos of BYU-Idaho by Michael Lewis. (Helicopter pilot Richard Smith) Michael Lewis BYUI gallery Credit: Michael Lewis, BYUI
The sun rises on BYU Idaho campus and the Rexburg Idaho Temple in Rexburg on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Photos of the new BYU-Idaho Center and remodeled Manwaring Center in Rexburg, Idaho. Thursday, Dec.16, 2010. Credit: Michael Lewis
Photos of the new BYU-Idaho Center and remodeled Manwaring Center in Rexburg, Idaho. Thursday, Dec.16, 2010. Credit: Michael Lewis
President Hinckley and Dr. Eyring announce changes in Ricks College. photo by ravell call Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News
President Gordon B. Hinckley stands between Elder Henry B. Eyring (left) and BYU-Idaho University David A. Bednar (right) and waves good-bye to graduates and guests at the first ever BYU-Idaho University graduation Commencement Ceremonies. PHOTO BY STUART JOHNSON. (Submission date: 04/27/2002) Credit: Deseret News archive
20170919 Nine Ricks College/BYU-Idaho presidents gather for a photo on the occasion of the inauguration of the school's 17th president. Front low, left to right, Elder Bruce C. Hafen, President Henry B. Eyring, President Henry J. Eyring, President Clark Gilbert. Back row, left to right, Elder Joe. J. Christensen, President Stephen Bennion, Elder David A. Bednar, President Robert Wilkes, Elder Kim B. Clark. Sept. 19, 2017. Credit: Michael Lewis
20150915 BYU-Idaho President Clark Gilbert, right, poses with past university presidents Bruce Hafen, Joe Christensen, Elder David Bednar and Elder Kim Clark prior to his inauguration in Rexburg, Idaho, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
20170919 Nine Ricks College/BYU-Idaho presidents gather for a photo on the occasion of the inauguration of the school's 17th president, left to right: President Henry B. Eyring, Elder Bruce C. Hafen, Elder Joe J. Christensen, President Steven Bennion, Elder David A. Bednar, President Robert Wilkes, Elder Kim B. Clark, President Clark Gilbert, President Henry J. Eyring. Sept. 19, 2017. Michael Lewis
Elder David A. Bednar raises his scriptures in what has become tradition at BYU-Idaho devotional assemblies. Credit: Michael Lewis
Mayor of Rexburg gives his opinions on the pending changes to Ricks College. Photo by Scott G.Winterton/Deseret News June 22,2000. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Elder David A. Bednar, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during a fireside at BYU Idaho in Rexburg on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Elder David A. Bednar, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during a fireside at BYU Idaho in Rexburg on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Elder David A. Bednar, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife Sister Susan Bednar speak during a fireside at BYU Idaho in Rexburg on Sept. 22, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Kim B. Clark, (right) who was Harvard Business School Dean, and his wife Sue Clark (second from right), greet BYU-Idaho students for the first time following a devotional at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho. Clark has accepted the position as the new President of BYU-Idaho. The student shaking hands with President Clark at front left is Diana Jensen. June 7, 2005. photo by Ravell Call (Submission date: 06/07/2005) Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News
Kim B. Clark, President of BYU-Idaho, on campus at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho Nov. 1, 2005. Photo by Tom Smart Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News
President of BYU-Idaho Kim Clark speaks with a student after a university forum Oct. 29, 2009. Clark has been president of the university since 2005 and has overseen many innovative changes. Credit: Joey Ferguson
Kim B. Clark, President of BYU-Idaho, on campus at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho Nov. 1, 2005. Photo by Tom Smart Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News
Clark G. Gilbert and his wife, Chrstine Gilbert, walk to the podium with their family after the announcement that he has been appointed president of BYU-Idaho Credit: Ryan Chase, BYU-Idaho
BYU-Idaho President Clark Gilbert gets ready for his inauguration in Rexburg, Idaho, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Clark G. Gilbert will assume the responsibilities of President of BYU-Idaho in April. Credit: Erik Hill, BYU-Idaho
Dedication services for the new BYU-Idaho Center brought President Henry B. Eyring, Elder Russell M. Nelson, and Elder David A. Bednar to the Rexburg, Idaho campus on Dec. 17, 2010. Monday, Dec.20, 2010. Credit: Doug McKay
Students walk to a devotional at the BYU–Idaho Center in Rexburg, Idaho, on Jan. 28, 2020. Credit: Lawson Turcotte
Elder and sister Uchtdorf speak at devotional in the BYU-Idaho Center. Credit: J. Lawson Turcotte, BYU-Idaho
Elder and sister Uchtdorf speak at devotional in the BYU-Idaho Center. Credit: J. Lawson Turcotte, BYU-Idaho
Attendees leave the first BYU-Idaho devotional of the winter semester in Rexburg, Idaho, on Jan. 14, 2020. Credit: Ericka Sanders, BYU-Idaho
Students make their way to a devotional at the BYU–Idaho Center in Rexburg, Idaho, on Jan. 28, 2020. Credit: Lawson Turcotte
Students leave the arena after listening to Elder David A. Bednar, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during a fireside at BYU Idaho in Rexburg on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Campus of Ricks College, which sprawled into farmland of southeastern Idaho, became the campus of BYU-Idaho, a four-year institution. Credit: Photo courtesy Ricks College
The sun rises on BYU Idaho campus in Rexburg on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Students crowd before the devotional Credit: Cami Su, BYU-Idaho
The new Gordon B. Hinckley Building at BYU-Idaho, dedicated in 2002, is a tribute to the Church President’s legacy to the school, said then-BYU-Idaho President David A. Bednar. Credit: Photo by Michael Lewis
A first look at new name of college, BYU-Idaho, is seen stenciled on vehicle. Credit: Photo by Michael Lewis
Elder David A. Bednar, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during a fireside at BYU Idaho in Rexburg on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Students leave the arena after listening to Elder David A. Bednar, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during a fireside at BYU Idaho in Rexburg on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The Waldron family poses for a picture while celebrating Rolayne’s graduation from BYU-Idaho in 2018. Credit: Courtesy Waldron family
Then-Elder Russell M. Nelson of Quorum of the Twelve, right, and Ricks College President David Bednar lead processional of final April graduation before college becomes BYU-Idaho. Credit: Michael Lewis
Then-BYU-Idaho President David A. Bednar visits with students Crystal Swanson, 20, center, and Shandy Williams, 19. Credit: Photo by Julie Dockstader Heaps
Elder David A. Bednar of Quorum of the Twelve, right, greets students at BYU-Idaho, where he presided during its transition from Ricks College. Credit: Dave Sheppard
Then-Elder Henry B. Eyring, left, President Thomas S. Monson and BYU-Idaho President David A. Bednar stand outside new Spori Building. Credit: Photo by Michael Lewis
Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Sister Susan Bednar, meet with friends from the faculty of BYU-Idaho, where he served as president until his call as a general authority. The reception followed Elder Bednar’s CES address. Credit: Photo by Greg Hill
Students pass by the Gordon B. Hinckley building inbetween classes at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho Nov. 1, 2005. Photo by Tom Smart Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News
Trevor Wilde, as 23-year-old sophomore, studies in the John Taylor Building with his wife, Tara Wilde and 16-month-old Taylor Ann Wilde on campus at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho Nov. 1, 2005. BYU-Idaho has a high percentage of married students. Photo by Tom Smart Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News
New stake center adjacent the Rexburg Idaho Temple serves married students at BYU-Idaho. Credit: LDS Church News
Photos of the new BYU-Idaho Center and remodeled Manwaring Center in Rexburg, Idaho. Thursday, Dec.16, 2010. Credit: Michael Lewis
BYU-Idaho student Alyssa McCarter helps her classmate Mike Cortez with a Manufacturing Processes Lab assignment March 17, 2011. They are taking part of BYU-Idaho’s schoolwide learning and teaching process of teaching each other. Credit: Michael Lewis
Students flood the new BYU-Idaho center, which seats 15,000 students, after a devotional April 26,2011. Credit: Michael Lewis
Students walking the sidewalks at BYU-Idaho between the Manwaring Center and the Smith Building Sept. 13, 2010. Betty Oldham, assistant to the president for planning and budgeting, said while the physical campus has changed since she went to school there 40 years ago, the feeling around campus has not. Credit: Michael Lewis
Around 1,000 BYU-Idaho students participate every semester in competitive-level sports that range from basketball and soccer to water polo and wrestling. Credit: Michael Lewis
John Taylor building on campus at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho Nov. 1, 2005. Photo by Tom Smart Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News
Fall 2012 marked the largest semester enrollment for BYU-Idaho. The university has seen continual and steady growth for the past decade. Credit: Photo by Michael Lewis
Hwan-Kyu Chung and his wife Jin-Hee push their baby Seo-Jun accross BYU-Idaho campus in front of the John Taylor Building. With Rick’s College, now BYU-Idaho, becoming a four year school has brought a few more married couples to the school. PHOTO BY STUART JOHNSON. (Submission date: 04/26/2002) Credit: STUART JOHNSON

On June 23, 2000, President Gordon B. Hinckley made an announcement that would prove to be monumental to the future of the Church Educational System.

Standing in the Church Administration Building in downtown Salt Lake City, the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the transformation of Ricks College from a two-year junior college to Brigham Young University–Idaho, a four-year institution.

After a little more than a year of gradual but substantial changes, on Aug. 10, 2001, the school was ready to officially use the BYU–Idaho letterhead and answer the phone with, “Hello, Brigham Young University–Idaho.”

That day, now 20 years ago, was an integral step in the Lord providing the blessing of education to thousands more of His children on the earth.

One of the greatest challenges of Church education — then and now — continues to be how to create opportunities for more students to be able to attend Church institutions of higher education, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told the Church News.

Elder Bednar, who served as president of the school during its transition from Ricks College to BYU–Idaho, said, “The creation of BYU–Idaho was one of the most important educational events of the Restoration.”

Students leave the BYU-Idaho Center after listening to Elder David A. Bednar, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during a fireside at BYU–Idaho in Rexburg on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019.
Students leave the BYU-Idaho Center after listening to Elder David A. Bednar, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during a fireside at BYU–Idaho in Rexburg on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. | Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Kim B. Clark, an emeritus General Authority who served as president of BYU–Idaho from 2005 to 2015 and later as the commissioner of Church education, explained that in the last 20 years, higher education in the Church Educational System has grown significantly. “All of that growth has come through BYU-Idaho,” he said. 

Other institutions within the CES have had small fluctuations, Elder Clark said, but overall enrollment has remained relatively stable. Since President Hinckley’s announcement, enrollment at BYU–Idaho has almost quadrupled. BYU–Idaho was also the birthplace of BYU–Pathway Worldwide, which reached an enrollment milestone of 50,000 students just three years after its launch as an independent institution in 2017. And it continues to grow, even through the pandemic.

More students are being offered the opportunity for a Church education than ever before, “and it’s all because the Prophet of God, Gordon B. Hinckley, was inspired by the Lord to make Ricks College become BYU–Idaho and to set it on a path,” Elder Clark said.

Henry J. Eyring was just a young boy when his family moved from the beaches of Palo Alto, California, to Rexburg, Idaho. His father, who now serves in the First Presidency, President Henry B. Eyring, had accepted an invitation to serve as the president of Ricks College. Their family would spend the next six years in the small college town in Southeast Idaho.

That young boy is now the president of BYU–Idaho. The miracle of BYU–Idaho today, he explained, is that it combines the best of Ricks College — “which I loved as a boy” — and today’s student-focused, gospel-guided university. “For that we can thank prophetic guidance, employee and student consecration, and the willing sacrifice of tithe payers,” he said.

New Church Educational System employees at Church owned schools such as BYU-Idaho will be required to hold a current temple recommend, according to an announcement made on Jan. 27, 2022.
Students walking the sidewalks at BYU-Idaho between the Manwaring Center and the Smith Building Sept. 13, 2010. Betty Oldham, assistant to the president for planning and budgeting, said while the physical campus has changed since she went to school there 40 years ago, the feeling around campus has not. | Credit: Michael Lewis

Prophetic design

Elder Bednar recalled President Hinckley’s phone call to him at Ricks College, when the Church president said it was time to make the junior college a four-year school.

In the ensuing conversation, the two discussed that BYU–Idaho should fulfill a distinctive mission and strive to bless a larger number of students. 

In the June 23, 2000, announcement, President Hinckley outlined that the school would “have a unique role in and be distinctive from the other institutions of higher education within the Church Educational System.” The university would report directly to the commissioner of the Church Educational System, which would mean that it would have its own identity and function.

President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder Henry B. Eyring announce plans to change in Ricks College into BYU–Idaho, a four-year university.
President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder Henry B. Eyring announce plans to change in Ricks College into BYU–Idaho, a four-year university. | Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

In his 450-word, six-paragraph announcement, President Hinckley outlined the exact parameters for the university’s design.

“[The announcement] lays out a framework, and you look at it 20 years later and say, ‘Well, this is what actually has happened,’” Elder Clark said.

Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy and the new commissioner of Church education, served as president of BYU–Idaho from 2015 to 2017 before becoming the first president of the Church’s new online education provider, BYU–Pathway Worldwide.

After being called to serve as president of BYU–Idaho, Elder Gilbert recalled poring over many of the school’s foundational documents and speeches, including President Hinckley’s announcement.

“As I read President Hinckley’s announcement, I realized not only did he announce the creation of BYU–Idaho, he announced a very different kind of university. That was our birthright, and I knew BYU-Idaho needed to live within the distinctive parameters of that birthright. Without this distinctive design, the Church would have left the institution as a community college,” Elder Gilbert explained.

What exactly is BYU–Idaho’s birthright? President Hinckley said the university would continue to be teaching-oriented, with that being the primary focus of its faculty. The institution would emphasize undergraduate education only; graduate degrees would not be offered. Because faculty would not be focused on research and the school would not be offering graduate programs, the campus could operate “on an expanded year-round basis.” 

In addition, BYU–Idaho would take advantage of “advancements in technology,” which would allow it to serve more students. It would also discontinue intercollegiate athletics and “shift its emphasis to a year-round activity program designed to involve and meet the needs of a diverse student body.”

In essence, the Prophet created a distinctive model in higher education that is unique across all academia “in a one-page announcement,” Elder Gilbert noted.

Rob Garrett, the current vice president of enrollment at BYU–Idaho, said President Hinckley’s announcement is still used as a touchstone for administrators today when making decisions. “When there are new things or innovations to consider, I think it’s really important to us to not stray or drift from that announcement when BYU–Idaho was made,” Garrett said.

When he became president of the university, Elder Gilbert said, he began to recognize the “tremendous pressures” academic culture places on universities to conform to more traditional models in higher education, such as adding graduate programs and increasing faculty research.

However, he felt strongly that BYU–Idaho had to remain grounded in the birthright provided by the Prophet. “BYU–Idaho will only be able to continue to lead as it lives within its birthright. It is this student-focused discipline that allows it to be unique and create differentiated impact in the lives of its students. If BYU-Idaho ever lets go of this focus, it will lose its distinctive advantage and its prophetic differentiation,” Elder Gilbert said.

Aerial photos of BYU-Idaho in Rexburg.
Aerial photos of BYU-Idaho in Rexburg. | Credit: Michael Lewis, BYUI

Why Rexburg?

The campus of Ricks College, now BYU–Idaho, is sprawled over more than 400 acres on a hill overlooking the city of Rexburg and Snake River Valley. Those who have experienced a winter there can tell tales of icy winds and deep snowdrifts. The small town is roughly 20 miles from I-15 — the primary north-south highway of Eastern Idaho.

Elder Clark explained the area was settled by faithful Latter-day Saint pioneers, who made it their home despite the 1870 National Geographic Service deeming the area “uninhabitable.” These hardy pioneer settlers founded the Bannock Stake Academy in 1888. The school was later named Ricks Academy (1902–1917) after city founder Thomas E. Ricks and then named Ricks College (1917–2001).

Students walk to a devotional at the BYU–Idaho Center in Rexburg, Idaho, on Jan. 28, 2020.
Students walk to a devotional at the BYU–Idaho Center in Rexburg, Idaho, on Jan. 28, 2020. | Credit: Lawson Turcotte

Elder Bednar said heaven had a hand in the establishment of Ricks College and BYU–Idaho. “Why else would you build a school in Rexburg, Idaho? It’s not on the freeway, and it’s not close to anything, if you think about it. It’s been preserved, it’s been enlarged in really miraculous ways because heaven has an interest in what goes on there,” Elder Bednar said.

BYU–Idaho’s location was “paramount to the miracles that happened there” for three reasons, Elder Gilbert explained. First, “you would only go there as a student, as a faculty member or as an administrator if you knew the Lord wanted you there.”

Second, there’s a historical modesty, frugality and caring that’s rooted in the history of Rexburg. “That pioneer’s heart is still embedded in the culture of the university because of its roots as a frontier academy where people were consecrated to the Lord. They knew how to work hard and do more with less.”

Third, the school’s isolation provides a release from the pressures of the world and the pressures of academia. “You aren’t constantly comparing yourself to other universities. You aren’t constantly trying to be like the world. It is carved out and set apart from the world,” Elder Gilbert said.

When Elder Clark left his position as dean of Harvard Business School to come to Rexburg, some of his Harvard colleagues expressed concern. After attending his inauguration, however, one of those colleagues told him: “We’re not worried anymore. You have great people.”

The Lord brings extraordinary people there, said Elder Clark of Rexburg, “not just in terms of their talent but their faith, their consecration and their willingness to do whatever is needed. And that’s how we can work miracles through them because of their goodness.”

Nine Ricks College and BYU–Idaho presidents gather for a photo Sept. 19, 2017, on the occasion of the inauguration of the school’s 17th president. Front row, left to right, Elder Bruce C. Hafen (1978-85), President Henry B. Eyring (1971-77), President Henry J. Eyring (2017-current), Elder Clark G. Gilbert (2015-17). Back row, left to right, Elder Joe. J. Christensen (1985-89), President Stephen Bennion (1989-97), Elder David A. Bednar (1997-2004), President Robert Wilkes (interim 2004-05), Elde…
Nine Ricks College and BYU–Idaho presidents gather for a photo Sept. 19, 2017, on the occasion of the inauguration of the school’s 17th president. Front row, left to right, Elder Bruce C. Hafen (1978-85), President Henry B. Eyring (1971-77), President Henry J. Eyring (2017-current), Elder Clark G. Gilbert (2015-17). Back row, left to right, Elder Joe. J. Christensen (1985-89), President Stephen Bennion (1989-97), Elder David A. Bednar (1997-2004), President Robert Wilkes (interim 2004-05), Elder Kim B. Clark (2005-15). | Credit: Michael Lewis

BYU–Idaho 20th anniversary graphic
BYU–Idaho 20th anniversary graphic | Credit: Church News graphic

The transition

Bob Wilkes will never forget the day President Bednar came to his office in the Kimball Building on Ricks College campus to ask what he thought about the school becoming a four-year university and offering bachelor’s degrees.

It wasn’t uncommon for the college president to pop his head into the vice president of student life’s office and address issues and questions concerning the campus, but this question surprised Wilkes.

“I said, ‘That would never work,’” Wilkes recalled during a Church News interview. He then explained his reasons to President Bednar.

President Bednar listened, Wilkes said, and then asked, “Would it make any difference if you knew that President Hinckley thought it might be a good time to do that?”

“I said, ‘That would make all the difference, President.’”

Wilkes, who later served as interim president between President Bednar’s call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Kim B. Clark’s installation as university president, said his response was indicative of many faculty and employees. “Once we knew it was coming from the Prophet, there was no more debate about it or question about it.”

In looking back, Elder Bednar described the 15 months between President Hinckley’s announcement and the official transition to BYU–Idaho as flying a jetliner at 35,000 feet and trying to repaint, renovate and work on all the mechanical features while it’s in the air.

“You couldn’t say to everybody: ‘Well, excuse us. We’ll be back in 18 months when we have this all worked out.’ So we had to continue running a two-year school while we were becoming a four-year school,” Elder Bednar said.

President Bednar and the other administrators had to decide which associate programs would remain, which would be eliminated and which ones would become baccalaureate degrees. In addition, they had to eliminate the athletics program while creating the activities program, which was student-driven. They also implemented the three-track calendaring and admissions program and reevaluated campus space and a host of other programs and procedures. 

“It was a crazy time,” said Betty Oldham, who worked as the president’s assistant at that time. “But it was probably one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had, because we saw miracles unfold and revelation was given.”

BYU–Idaho 20th anniversary graphic
BYU–Idaho 20th anniversary graphic | Credit: Church News graphic

Said Elder Bednar: “The Lord’s hand was in every aspect of that endeavor.”

There were a few who struggled or were disappointed with aspects of the changes. However, Wilkes noted, “most of the time it was just a matter of helping people feel good about it and become part of the answer.”

Oldham remembered sitting in a meeting with President Bednar and the administration vice presidents when President Bednar announced that President Hinckley was going to make the school a four-year university.

“What happened in that meeting set the tone because many of the vice presidents had deep roots to Ricks College with family who were Snake River Valley/Ricks College people,” Oldham said. “But to a person, the response was simply ‘What do we need to do, President?’”

Most of the challenges of that year were logistical and physical, Elder Bednar said. “But the nature of the people, the quality of the people, was what made it possible to overcome those challenges.”

In an article published soon after the official transition, Elder Bednar told the Church News, “I can’t think of a time I’ve worked harder. People on campus have worked to make this happen. You have to work like it depends on you but recognize the Lord’s part.”

On the night before President Hinckley was going to make the public announcement, Oldham was at the copy machine finishing up a project when President Bednar was leaving. “Does any of this scare you?” she asked.

“If I thought I was doing this alone I’d be scared to death,” President Bednar replied, “but I know who’s in charge.”

Oldham said that exchange changed her perspective in many ways. “It wasn’t about him, it wasn’t about us. It was about making it the school the Lord needed it to be and He would guide every step of the way.” 

The fact that the school went from being a junior college to having fully accredited baccalaureate programs in a year is incredible, Elder Clark remarked. “It’s almost unbelievable. People worked really hard, and the Lord blessed them and used them here. It was miraculous.”

Preserving the spirit of Ricks

In a campus devotional address offered roughly a month after the school’s official launch as BYU–Idaho, Elder Henry B. Eyring, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and former Ricks College president, said someday an employer who has hired a BYU–Idaho student will be astounded by that student’s leadership and resourcefulness and ask, “Where did that come from?”

“And I’ll smile and say, ‘Well, come with me to Rexburg,’” Elder Eyring said. “And I may not be able to show it to you, and I may not be able to prove it to you, but you’ll feel it.”

President Gordon B. Hinckley stands between Elder Henry B. Eyring, left, and BYU-Idaho University David A. Bednar, right, and waves good-bye to graduates and guests at the first ever BYU-Idaho University graduation Commencement Ceremonies.
President Gordon B. Hinckley stands between Elder Henry B. Eyring, left, and BYU-Idaho University David A. Bednar, right, and waves good-bye to graduates and guests at the first ever BYU-Idaho University graduation Commencement Ceremonies. | Credit: Deseret News archive

That feeling that permeates campus has often been referred to as “the Spirit of Ricks” and was a defining characteristic of Ricks College which school administrators and leaders have strived to preserve.

“From the very beginning, we emphasized the fact that BYU–Idaho would be characterized by the spirit of Ricks,” Elder Bednar told the Church News. “The spirit of Ricks is not just being friendly. The spirit of Ricks ultimately is the Holy Ghost, who enlightens the mind, brings joy to the spirit and to the soul.”

The spirit of Ricks is exemplified by a faculty member who notices that a student is absent from class for three consecutive periods and seeks out the student to find out what’s going on and how they can help him or her get caught up, Elder Bednar explained. “You don’t find that at many four-year universities. That was characteristic of Ricks College. That’s the Holy Ghost, inspiring a covenant-keeping disciple of Christ to be concerned about one student. So we simply said, ‘We are not going to lose that quality as we become BYU–Idaho.’”

Elder Clark said when he became president, the administration and faculty expended “a significant amount of effort” to preserve the spirit that’s found on campus. “You can just feel the spirit all day long when you’re on that campus,” Elder Clark said. “And we worked really hard to have that same kind of spirit of love and humility and frugality and obedience that brought the Spirit of the Lord there.” 

President Hinckley’s announcement mentioned that there would be minimal changes to the school’s mission, which is “to develop disciples of Jesus Christ who are leaders in their homes, the Church and their communities,” Garrett said. 

“I think one of the best ways we can honor the legacy of Ricks College today is by really focusing on our DNA and the purpose of why we’re here: to develop disciples of Jesus Christ,” Garrett said.

The sun rises on BYU Idaho campus and the Rexburg Idaho Temple in Rexburg on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.
The sun rises on BYU Idaho campus and the Rexburg Idaho Temple in Rexburg on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. | Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

‘Rethinking education’

One of BYU–Idaho’s hallmarks is its innovative spirit which is reflected in its motto: “Rethinking education.” President Eyring said during his campus devotional address in 2001 that the phrase “rethinking education” is not simply a slogan. “The school is to be a place of educational innovation permanently.”

During Elder Bednar’s involvement as president of a transitioning educational entity, “we had to reexamine everything,” he recalled. “BYU–Idaho is all about rethinking education. We rethought how to admit students. We had to rethink how and when students attend the school. We had to rethink the nature of internships.”

One early innovation the school implemented was the three-track calendaring system, which allowed it to service many more students while keeping the class sizes small. “Instead of thinking that school is only from September until April and then having the physical plant and all the facilities underutilized for the summer, you use it all year-round,” Elder Bednar explained. “So you increase by a very significant percentage how many students can be admitted. It’s used year-round.” 

BYU-Idaho student Alyssa McCarter helps her classmate Mike Cortez with a Manufacturing Processes Lab assignment March 17, 2011. They are taking part of BYU-Idaho’s schoolwide learning and teaching process of teaching each other.
BYU-Idaho student Alyssa McCarter helps her classmate Mike Cortez with a Manufacturing Processes Lab assignment March 17, 2011. They are taking part of BYU-Idaho’s schoolwide learning and teaching process of teaching each other. | Credit: Michael Lewis

Most universities want to reduce enrollment and then charge each student more money. BYU–Idaho, however, has been able to increase enrollment while reducing the cost per student.

“If the world of higher education is going one way, we’re going to turn around and look and probably go the opposite way,” Elder Bednar observed.

When Elder Clark was asked to take the helm of BYU–Idaho, the Lord made it very clear that the university was to pursue three imperatives, he said.

  1. Increase the quality of the student experience, in all its dimensions.
  2. Find a way to serve a lot more students.
  3. Lower the relative cost of education.

“We had to really think hard and change the way we approached some things,” Elder Clark said.

The first thing the administration did was modify the academic calendar to three equal semesters. Instead of the summer semester consisting of two shorter terms, it would now be an equal semester with winter and fall with the full academic program and full faculty.

They also fully implemented the learning model that encourages students to teach one another and be accountable for their own learning. That became important down the line, Elder Clark explained, when they used it to design the online suite of courses.

Offering more courses online once again allowed them to increase enrollment. If every freshman takes one online class, for example, that allows the school to admit that many more students because there is a seat now that’s available because someone’s not sitting in it.

“It allowed us to serve more students with the space we have and also with the faculty we have,” Elder Clark said, “and so we were able to grow the student body significantly more than otherwise we would have been able to at the same cost.”

The next innovation that began during that period was the advent of the BYU–Pathway program. BYU–Idaho created the first-ever PathwayConnect sites in Nampa, Idaho; Mesa, Arizona; and Manhattan, New York. Roughly a month after the initial launch, Elder Clark recalled sitting in general conference and having a clear spiritual impression: “You need to expand Pathway. You need to go international. And you need to do it now.” 

They soon received approval to expand to 10 sites, with one in Mexico and one in Ghana. Today, BYU–Pathway has expanded to 150 countries around the world. 

And although BYU–Pathway is now an independent entity, it continues to work in partnership with BYU-Idaho to grow online enrollments all across the world. BYU-Idaho online instructors and course development efforts remain a pillar of the entire program.

President Gilbert spoke of how BYU–Idaho has always been a leader with doing more with less. “Ironically, people think, ‘Well I need more money to fund innovation.’ What I learned at BYU–Idaho is frugality can often lead to innovation. And I learned more about innovating with less from my time serving at BYU–Idaho than in all of my years studying innovation at the Harvard Business School.”

Photos of the new BYU-Idaho Center and remodeled Manwaring Center in Rexburg, Idaho. Thursday, Dec.16, 2010.
Photos of the new BYU-Idaho Center and remodeled Manwaring Center in Rexburg, Idaho. Thursday, Dec.16, 2010. | Credit: Michael Lewis

Potential of Church education

As Elder Clark thought back over the past 20 years at the changes within BYU–Idaho and Church education, a scripture came to mind. “For I, the Lord, have put forth my hand to exert the powers of heaven; ye cannot see it now, yet a little while and ye shall see it, and know that I am, and that I will come and reign with my people” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:119).

“The Lord is saying: ‘I have put forth my hand and I am exerting the powers of heaven. You can’t see it quite yet. In time you’ll see it. And when you see it, you’ll know that I am.’ You can see this happening in so many aspects of the Church,” Elder Clark said. “You can see it happening in education across the Church.”

And this is just the beginning, Elder Clark said. The Lord is going to bless His children through education. “We can see Him moving with power, and I’ll tell you I’ve lived it. I lived it at BYU–Idaho, and I lived it when I was commissioner of education. It’s just amazing and wonderful to see, and there’s so much joy. You just rejoice that the Lord is doing His work.”

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