Elder Gilbert explains why the Church Educational System must have the courage to be different

Elder Clark G. Gilbert, Church commissioner of education, spoke at BYU Education Week about why there are so many BYUs

PROVO, Utah — To lead into his remarks during a presentation at BYU Education Week, Elder Clark G. Gilbert showed an old video clip from “Candid Camera,” the hidden-camera reality television series.

In the clip, three or four “Candid Camera” actors enter an elevator with a lone individual and face the back of the elevator instead of the doors. The actors perform the prank several times with different unsuspecting riders. Inevitably, the individual awkwardly turns to face backward in the elevator like the others. 

Elder Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy and Church commissioner of education, compared the experience of the elevator rider to the Church Educational System. 

“We ask our universities to be different from the world and from each other,” Elder Gilbert explained, or to stand alone despite pressures to “face the wrong way in the elevator.”

Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and commissioner of Church education, speaks during a BYU devotional at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Church makes a huge investment into education, he said and quoted Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who highlighted in his address to the National Press Club how education is a core tenet of the Latter-day Saint faith.

“We give significant attention, energy and resources to educating our youth,” Elder Bednar said. “All secular and spiritual education fall under the umbrella of our Church Educational System, and nearly 1 million student learners are enrolled.”

Why does the Church invest so much time, energy, money and human capital in each of the schools within the Church Educational System and why are there different institutions instead of just Brigham Young University? Elder Gilbert asked.

Each school has the same vision: To develop disciples of Jesus Christ who are leaders in their homes, the Church and their communities. “No matter what we do, no matter what the institution, that’s why the Church invests in these institutions,” Elder Gilbert said. 

He then briefly highlighted each institution under the Church Educational System umbrella and its different roles within the system.

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BYU: The educational ambassador

Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, hosts and gathers people from around the world — both in and outside of the Church — and is an ambassador for the whole Church and for the whole Church Educational System. “And it does this in a way none of the other schools can do,” Elder Gilbert said.

BYU is the flagship brand most recognizable outside of the Church, with top-ranked graduate programs, NCAA athletic programs and an emphasis on scholarship and research. 

Elder Gilbert teased to an article that will shortly come out in Deseret Magazine featuring several national faith leaders, such as Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University; Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, president of Catholic University; and Montse Alvarado, the chief operating officer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. 

These individuals probably wouldn’t come to any other institution within the CES stable, but they’ll come to BYU, Elder Gilbert said. “This is the distinctive role of BYU.”

As the ambassador, BYU is being asked to go be in the world but not of it. “There are tremendous pressures on BYU to turn around and face the wrong way in the elevator” or to be like other higher education institutions, Elder Gilbert said.

BYU President Kevin J Worthen has taught that for BYU to achieve its prophetic destiny, it must do things differently from other universities. It must be unique.

As an example, Elder Gilbert cited the recent initiative at BYU to create greater belonging for different races. “Absolutely,” Elder Gilbert agreed, “but mimicking … the world is not the way to do it. The DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) programs in the world are not the way BYU should do it. We should find a gospel-centered approach. We should be better than we are now, and we should be a light to the world but not replicating the world.”

BYU–Idaho: The educator

Graduates smiled during the convocation for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at BYU–Idaho during the July 2022 graduation. | Michael Lewis, BYU-Idaho

BYU–Idaho is the one institution in the system that has one job: to teach people on campus as effectively and as efficiently as possible. 

Since its transformation from a two-year college to a four-year university, BYU–Idaho’s enrollment has grown to roughly 90%+ of BYU’s. From growing from 15,000 to 35,000 students, the cost to the Church has not gone up above inflationary increases, Elder Gilbert reported.  

As the associate academic vice president several years ago, one of Elder Gilbert’s assignments was to build the financial model to grow the university. He was told by then-BYU–Idaho President Kim B. Clark that he wasn’t allowed to touch the class size. “BYU–Idaho has to provide great teaching, and in order for it to be great teaching, you have to know your students,” Elder Gilbert explained. Today, BYU–Idaho still has an average class size of 31, about a third of the size of other public universities. 

How were they able to provide quality experience to more students without increasing the cost to the Church? Elder Gilbert asked. Through several innovations unique to BYU–Idaho: the three-track system that allows for the efficient use of space; online curriculum delivery (about 25% is delivered online); the focus on undergraduate degrees with no research or graduate degrees; the lack of sports programs; and faculty who just have one job: to teach.

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“Ironically while what it does is incredibly simple, [BYU–Idaho] has no peer in higher education. There is no other university I’ve ever seen who unambiguously turns off research, unambiguously killed all graduate programs, unambiguously said, ‘Our faculty are here for one purpose and one purpose only: to teach and build students.’ It’s amazing,” Elder Gilbert said.

BYU-Hawaii: Asia/Pacific capstone

The BYU Hawaii Campus and students | Courtesy BYU-Hawaii

Church President David O. McKay prophetically decreed that BYU–Hawaii would serve students throughout Asia and the Pacific Rim. Today roughly 100 countries are represented in BYU–Hawaii’s student body, Elder Gilbert said.

And for the first time in its history, the school is being led by a native son of Hawaii, President John S.K. Kauwe III. Since he began his tenure in 2020, BYU–Hawaii’s enrollment of students from the target area has increased from 51% in fall 2021 to a projected 63% this fall. “President Kauwe is moving BYU–Hawaii to its unique role,” Elder Gilbert said. 

If a student from South Jordan, Utah, fits the profile of the university or is looking to work, study and live in a multinational environment, he or she could be a good fit for the university. “But if you’re looking for a fun place to go to the beach on Tuesdays, we don’t want to use Church tithing to subsidize it,” Elder Gilbert said.

Ensign College: Applied curriculum provider

A man walks out of the campus building of Ensign College, formerly LDS Business College, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The purpose of Ensign College is to provide enough education to students to get their first job and an understanding of how to get their second job. So all the curriculum is applied or practical. 

“That’s what they do, and they do it uniquely well,” Elder Gilbert said. 

Ensign College offers certificates that can be earned in two semesters, associate degrees that can be earned in two years, and a limited number of Bachelor of Applied Science degrees.

“It’s supposed to get you a job after your certificate or after an associate’s [degree] so if life gets in the way — and it does for many students — they’re not left saying ‘I have 60 credits, and I’m unemployable,’” Elder Gilbert explained, and that no matter how far they got, students can say “My job prospects are better.”

BYU–Pathway: Access provider

Stella and Fabio with their two children, Ethan and Eduarda, at their home in Saratoga Springs, Utah. | Michael Lewis, Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

At the recent inauguration of BYU–Pathway President Brian Ashton, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who serves as the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Church Board of Education, said, “I consider the creation of BYU–Pathway Worldwide to be the most important and most far-reaching development in the Church Educational System of this Church since the creation of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion over a century ago.”

People who never had access before can get a high-quality, spiritually based education because of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, no matter where they are in the world, Elder Gilbert said. It has grown to serve more students than BYU and BYU–Idaho combined. 

A recent development to make BYU–Pathway even more affordable internationally in places like Africa, he said, was to move international instruction to the Philippines. Filipino teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, go through training and meet other quality standards, but they’ve found that the student outcomes and course evaluations are identical or better.

Why the Philippines? It has a large Latter-day Saint population (roughly 850,000 members), it’s English-speaking, there’s a high education base, there was tremendous support from the area presidency, a strong regulatory environment for outsourcing and it’s financially stable, Elder Gilbert explained.

“BYU–Pathway can grow to fill the Church and multiples of the current enrollment, and the tithing costs will not grow.” 

Seminaries and Institutes: The spiritual anchor

Elder Gilbert explained that for several years, institute attendance has been decreasing, so they recently launched the Innovate Institute initiative to help better meet the needs of young adults. 

The core purpose of institute remains creating personal connection and conversion to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, Elder Gilbert said, but the four areas of impact are:

  • Relevance: Young adults want to find answers to their questions and talk about issues they face.  
  • Belonging and purpose: Young adults want to feel welcome, safe and included and to feel a sense of community.
  • Accessibility: They want courses that fit into their schedules.
  • Conversion: Young adults want to feel connected to Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, each other, their instructor and the program.
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In response, institute has begun creating more relevant curriculum and stopped treating institute like a university course with required reading, required attendance and a grade, unless the student wants credit to transfer to one of the BYUs. “But the primary focus is to gather and be spiritually edified,” he said. They also changed times and availability of courses.

Elder Gilbert said that this last year they experienced an encouraging increase in enrollment.

BYU Education Week attendees walk through the Tanner Building in Provo, Utah, on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.  | Brooklynn Jarvis Kelson, BYU

Courage to be different

Each institution is doing something different to bless a worldwide Church, Elder Gilbert said. Each institution has a different purpose and a charge from the leadership of the Church to be different. 

He quoted the poet Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood And sorry I could not travel both. ... I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

In conclusion, Elder Gilbert declared, “In the Church Educational System, our schools must have the courage to be different — different from the world and, interestingly, different from each other.”

The Lord is using education in the great gathering of Israel happening in the Church today, Elder Gilbert said. “He is preparing the world for His return, and the Church Educational System is one of the many resources He will use in that effort.”

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