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Church commissioner of education, college presidents speak about the fate of the religious university

Religious schools must differentiate on their unique spiritual purposes, even as they strive to tie into the broader academic community, writes Elder Clark G. Gilbert

Illustration by Greg Newbold for the Deseret News of a university campus and church steeple

Greg Newbold for the Deseret News


Deseret Magazine’s September issue focused on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from several universities. The issue was titled “Dare To Be Different: The Fate of the Religious University.”

Below are excerpts from three essays written by the Church commissioner of education and the BYU–Idaho and BYU–Hawaii presidents, with links to their full remarks. Read all the essays here.

Dare to be different

Preserving the distinctive light of religious universities

by the Church commissioner of education, Elder Clark G. Gilbert

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

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As a young professor at Harvard University, I had occasion to visit Memorial Chapel for personal prayer and meditation. It seemed like a solemn sanctuary in an otherwise secular learning environment. As I walked out on the steps of the chapel, I stared across the courtyard to the wide, imposing columns creating the bulwark entrance to Widener Library. It was as if i was staring from the temple of faith to the hall of reason. These two ideals seemed to be facing off in a conflict that, at least in this formidable secular environment, would almost certainly end for many with the victory of reason. ...

Today, I find myself serving as the commissioner of education for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a system that includes BYU, as well as BYU–Idaho, BYU–Hawaii, Ensign College and a global online offering called BYU–Pathway Worldwide. Too often I have felt external forces trying to reassert on these institutions that same Hobson’s choice I experienced standing on the steps of Memorial Chapel. I now recognize that these and other religious schools across the country enjoy a huge strategic advantage, but only if they dare to continue with and strengthen their religious identity — only if they dare to be different from their peers.

Read the rest of Elder Gilbert’s message here

The innovative university

Why business as usual won’t save the crisis of higher ed

by BYU–Idaho President Henry J. Eyring

BYU-Idaho–President Henry J. Eyring speaks with students following the first devotional of the fall 2022 semester on Sept. 13, 2022, at the campus in Rexburg, Idaho.

Michael Lewis, BYU–Idaho

There is nothing new about critiquing American higher education. After all, it was 1908 when Abraham Flexner first published his matter-of-fact titled book “The American College: A Criticism.” Ever since, there’s been a long line of would-be reformers, skeptics and staunch defenders of the academy.

But in recent years the conversation has become more urgent. Rising tuition, student loans and questions about college’s effectiveness have drawn public scrutiny. In this context, Sen. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, who is also a former university president, recently underscored the paradox that “American higher education is the envy of the world, and it’s also failing our students on a massive scale.” He asks, “How can both be true simultaneously?”

Read the rest of President Eyring’s message here

The purpose-driven university

How a unique mission helps expand college access

By BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III

BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III speaks during a BYU–Hawaii devotional in the Cannon Activities Center in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III speaks during a BYU–Hawaii devotional in the Cannon Activities Center in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Mark Gatus, BYU–Hawaii

As a doctoral student at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, I learned firsthand how devastating Alzheimer’s disease is to patients and their families. I then devoted my scientific career to developing a cure. Over nearly two decades, my research direction and experimental approaches were shaped by many forces. Some were noble influences that kept me aligned with my goal of curing Alzheimer’s disease. Other influences, even those that were simple practical constraints, distracted me from my purpose.

As university president at BYU–Hawaii, I lead strategy and innovation that supports the development and success of our students. Strategy in higher education is motivated by a variety of forces, including finances, institutional prestige, research outcomes and many others. Managing and balancing these forces while maintaining a singular focus on the institutional mission is an ongoing challenge.

Read the rest of President Kauwe’s message here

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