Episode 13: BYU-Pathway Worldwide President Gilbert discusses innovations blessing Church education

BYU-Pathway Worldwide provides an accessible path to a spiritually-based degree at an affordable price without requiring students to step foot on a university campus. A prophetic effort 50 years in the making, the program is delivering online learning models that have benefited institutions across the world and assisted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in tackling learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

BYU-Pathway Worldwide President Clark Gilbert joins the podcast to share his experiences in helping to develop the program as a deeply committed teacher, leader and innovator. He also discusses the evolution of education and communication technologies that allowed for Pathway to bless the lives of students of all ages around the world. 

Transcription

Sarah Jane Weaver: In 1971, when President Henry B. Eyring was inaugurated as president of what was then Ricks College and is now BYU-Idaho, he stated that Ricks College would, “find direct ways to move the blessings of education from this campus, out into the lives of men and women everywhere.” Now, 50 years later, that prophetic statement has been fulfilled in ways we could have never imagined at the time. BYU-Idaho blazed the path for what today is BYU-Pathway Worldwide, a reduced-cost, online program that builds hope and spiritual confidence and allows students to receive a higher education without stepping foot on a university campus. Today we are joined by BYU-Pathway Worldwide President Clark Gilbert, who brought a wide range of academic and professional experience to this position in 2017. He is the former president of BYU-Idaho. He’s also worked as the CEO and President of Deseret Digital Media and Deseret News and as a professor at Harvard Business School. As a deeply committed teacher, innovator and leader, President Gilbert has witnessed the lightning pace of communications technology and helped develop and deliver online learning models that have benefited institutions across the world. Thank you so much for joining us today, President Gilbert.

President Clark Gilbert: Oh, it’s wonderful to be with you. Thank you.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Let’s start today and just talk about where we are in this great picture of education and where we’ve come in the last 50 years.

President Clark Gilbert: Well, it’s so interesting, as I’ve listened to that clip of President Eyring’s inaugural response in 1971 so many times and, you know, he had mentioned that; and then later, President (Merrill J.) Bateman at BYU had tried to ship CD-ROMs all across South America to distribute education; Elder (David A.) Bednar then back at BYU-Idaho, talked about educating people from Rexburg to Rio. We had known this was there, we had known that this was a need across the Church. It’s a fundamental part of our teaching and our doctrine. But it’s interesting that the Lord prepares His work in its time and season.

I remember being at BYU-Idaho; it was such an innovative place. I came there from Boston, served under President Kim B. Clark. So much was happening, and we had worked to expand the university’s campus footprint. In the middle of that effort that had taken over a year to analyze and prepare, then-President Clark came into my office one day, and he said, “We need to plan for students who will never come to this campus.” And he said, “I’d like to take that to the executive committee and then to the board. And we have about six weeks to work on a concept.” And I thought, “Well, we’ve been working on expanding the physical footprint for well over a year. How are we going to do this in six weeks?” And I remember Elder Clark came in one day and he said, “Clark, I know how we’re going to do it. Doctrine and Covenants 88:73.” And I got all excited, flipped open to verse 73, in Section 88.

And it was very short. It said, “Behold, I will hasten my work in its time.” And I’m almost deflatedly I responded to Elder Clark, “You mean your answer to how we’re going to do it is we’re just going to go faster?”

04:02

And then I started to study that verse. And that whole section, and the word time has a very specific meaning and the phrase “times and seasons” comes out of Doctrine and Covenants 88 and in D&C 52 and 53, the Lord talks about working with the laborers in His vineyard, and how in the time and season He would come down and work with them side by side. And the work would accelerate and it would hasten. As I’ve reflected on one time, we had to do it in a place that was innovative like BYU–Idaho. We had to do it at a time when online learning was developing in a very different way that the models were developing — were not going to progress on your own pace — but they were collaborative and interactive.

05:00

We had to do it when technology would be available across the Church. Today, our BYU–Pathway students are benefited by the presence of WiFi and chapels literally all across the world. And this wouldn’t have been possible in many of the areas we’ve expanded to. There’s a global footprint of Welfare and Self Reliance resources all across the Church. And so that little verse D&C 88: 73, “I will hasten my work in its time.” The Lord had been preparing the Church Educational System to do this for a long time. But it’s been in this time and season that He’s accelerated the work. And I believe it’s because He’s using education as part of the great gathering in these last days, and we see those miracles happening all across the Church.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well you must have glimpsed that potential, even two decades ago. You’re a professor at Harvard. And you leave that to go to Rexburg?

President Clark Gilbert: You know, it was interesting. I was there the day, Kim Clark served as the Dean of the Harvard Business School, I was there the day he announced he was leaving for BYU–Idaho.

06:13

I visited with him in the parking lot as he headed out to Rexburg. And he said, “You watch, the Lord will gather people to Rexburg, and they won’t even know why or how it’s happening. But he will gather them for this work.” And I looked back at him, and I said, “Well, that will be wonderful for those people.” And, a year later, Christine and I found ourselves living in our Rexburg.

And when Elder Clark had asked me about what can we do at BYU-Idaho, that would be unique, I’d worked with the inner city youth in Boston. And remember, having feelings, like maybe Rexburg would be a place many of these kids could go to because they, you know, were so good at serving everyday students, and not just the elite students. And I said, “Kim, I think we should be looking at how we could use that school to serve these students who didn’t have strong academic backgrounds.” And he said, “Yes, that’s an important population. But the problem is much bigger.” And then he said, “I’m talking about children in Russia, and in Ghana, and in Brazil, and in the islands; children who are making covenants and keeping covenants, and the Lord will seek to pour blessings out upon their heads. And one of the ways He will do it is through education.” And then he said, “My invitation to you is to come with me to Rexburg, to not only rethink education on that campus, but rethink education globally around the Church.” And so no, I didn’t, I didn’t see the vision early on. And, and even when I got there, we pioneered the first Pathway sites. They were in Nampa, Idaho; Mesa, Arizona; and Manhattan, New York. And I remember, J.D. Griffith, one of our vice presidents, and I went out to New York to do the focus groups. And the Lincoln Center chapel was full to the back. And I said, “Wow, look at all these parents who have come to support their youth to have access to education.” And it wasn’t long before we realized that they weren’t there just for their youth. They were there for themselves. And we realized there was this huge population in the Church, who never had access to education. Most people don’t realize that.

Even with the emphasis we put on education in the Church, over 55% of the U.S. Church here in the United States, they don’t have an associate or a bachelor’s degree. And then when you go to the International Church that’s 85 to 90%. So Pathway and what later became BYU–Pathway wasn’t created to be a release valve for campuses in the Church Educational System. It was really to open up education to those who had never thought they could access it. And that’s been a fundamental miracle in the design of BYU–Pathway from the start.

9:24

Sarah Jane Weaver: Certainly what has happened is far greater than anything anyone could have imagined. What is the ultimate potential of BYU-Pathway Worldwide?

President Clark Gilbert: You know, President (Russell M.) Nelson said Pathway is for the Kingdom. And it’s interesting, there are a number of things he was trying to teach us when he said that part of it is that Pathway is being used to build the Kingdom. I think part of it is also that Pathway is not part of any one institution; that it’s not for BYU-Idaho, it’s not for BYU. It’s not even for the Church Educational System.

10:00

Increasingly, BYU– Pathway is a resource for the Church itself. And when President Nelson says “Pathway is for the kingdom,” we really take that seriously. And we try to say, “How can we use these resources in ways that will bless the Church? You know, we meet with area presidencies all over the world. And we don’t ask them, how can they help BYU–Pathway. We say, “What do you need in your areas.” And in some areas, we’re focused on return missionaries and other areas, we use Pathway as a reactivation or missionary tool. In other areas, it’s a way to build and strengthen the self reliance of priesthood leadership. But whatever it is, we listen to the area presidencies all across the Church and say, “How can you use Pathway in your ministry?” And we just keep coming back to that teaching and that instruction from the Prophet: “Pathway is for the kingdom.” And that is, I think, the miracle that is happening right now. This is being used not just as an educational resource, but as a resource to build the Church and prepare the gathering for the last days.

11:09

Sarah Jane Weaver: A lot of this has been done without bricks and mortar, it’s been done in a way that, that people can access from their living room or a home computer or wherever they have access to that.

President Clark Gilbert: The students in Pathway gather for a physical gathering at a state center or an institute building. And then the work, the courses, are all online. And then they work remotely around their schedules. And that’s why we have so many adult learners in the program. The average age of our students is 30 plus years old. And you know, it’s interesting. Outside my office, Sarah, I have a painting replica of Kim Baxter’s “The Saints at the Dock in Liverpool.” And it shows the Saints boarding the ships in Liverpool, headed to gather in the West. And they were poor, they were uneducated, and they were about to become immigrants. You know, you look at that and out of that came a whole network of schools across the Intermountain West and, eventually, BYU and Ricks College and then BYU-Idaho in this tremendous legacy and heritage of education. I look at that painting. And I remind myself and others I talk to that we have a legacy and a culture and a heritage that values education. But we didn’t come that way. There was something about our faith that allowed us and pushed us to want to become something more. President Eyring says, when you are converted, there’s a desire to learn and become something more and that often comes through education. President Nelson describes education as a spiritual responsibility. Elder (Dieter F.) Uchtdorf says, for members of the Church, education is not just a good idea, it’s a commandment. And so we have this heritage of education. And yet, so many people don’t have access to it.

There’s a fascinating discussion of Zion in 3 Nephi, right before the Savior comes. And it talks about things that keep us from becoming Zion. In 3 Nephi 6:12, it says “the people began to be distinguished by their ranks, according to their riches.” So we know that’s a common thing. You know, wealth and riches can separate us from each other and help break apart what would become Zion. But listen to this next verse. “They are distinguished by their ranks according to their riches, and their chances for learning. Yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others do receive great learning because of their riches.”

Now, it’s interesting when we first studied the students who would come to BYU-Pathway, we didn’t interview students who are coming to the campuses in Rexburg and Provo and even Laie or here in Salt Lake. We talked to people who weren’t going to school. In fact, our first focus groups were members who were attending Institute but not attending college. And we, you know, we read these quotes from the prophets about the importance of education. And we’d say, “Do you believe these statements?” “Oh, yes.” “Do you believe these men are prophets?” “Oh, absolutely.” “Well, why aren’t you pursuing an education?” And the first response was just like we read in 3 Nephi 6. “I just can’t afford it. It’s just not a possibility.” But then we heard two other responses that really break your heart. The first was, “Well, those statements are true, but they are for other people. They are for smart people. They weren’t intended for me.” It was almost like they had self-limited what they thought their potential was.

And others would say, “Well, I missed my window. You know, I’m 28. I have a young family. I can’t do it now. I’m providing and working full time. I have young children. I’ve just, I missed my chance.” And so when we designed BYU-Pathway, it was really with that population of the Church in mind. It is the population we just haven’t served traditionally, because we typically serve people who are going to make it to the campus. But there was this whole population. And, you know, we saw it that night in the Lincoln Center chapel in New York. They wanted this, but they couldn’t afford it. They lacked the confidence. And there was no way they could relocate to Provo, Rexburg or Laie. And so BYU–Pathway was really designed to remove those barriers. It lowered the cost dramatically. We currently charge about $75 a credit hour; that’s half the price of the community college. And then in removing fear, the whole curriculum was designed to build confidence. And then removing barriers to access. Not only was it online, but you could build it around your schedule. So someone working full-time could build it in ways that allowed them not to have to stop and be in class all week long. And so that just opened up tremendous growth, Sarah.

16:33

We are barely 10 years old. This past year in 2020, we crossed 50,000 students. We are in 150 countries. And it’s just a miracle. And part of the reason that it is happening is because we’ve removed those barriers to education, and increased chances for learning.

But I think the more fundamental reason is: it’s a time and season. The Lord’s doing His work, and He’s preparing things for us that we could never have imagined. We couldn’t run Pathway without all of the resources of the Church. Not only do we have courses in our program that are from BYU–Idaho and Ensign College, but we do our religion courses from Institute. We have support from volunteer Church missionaries all over the world — 2,500 volunteer missionaries. We partner with Welfare and Self Reliance to help with job placement, and to know what curriculum is valued in these areas. I mean, there is WiFi and chapels all over the world. I often joke to people who aren’t of our faith, and I say, “Only McDonald’s and Starbucks rifle the footprint that we have, and we have WiFi in all of those locations.” But McDonald’s and Starbucks don’t have 2,500 volunteer Church service missionaries waiting to help and strengthen and build these students.

17:59

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I was so glad that you mentioned early Church emigrants. I love that Charles Dickens met some of those immigrants and called them “the pick and flower of England.” And they really, they really weren’t. They were poor. They were leaving the country for various reasons, mostly their faith, but something had happened to them after they joined the Church and there was an elevation that had changed their lives. The Church had elevated their lives. And I’m sensing that’s what’s happening now with education.

President Clark Gilbert: What you’re describing is exactly what happened. I met a young man in the Bay Area and he was a Polynesian immigrant living in a very expensive area of the country, working at McDonald’s, joined Pathway, was going to quit. His bishop and the missionary couple who worked with him encouraged him to continue. He got a certificate in web design. He now works for an engineering firm in the area. He said, “Literally, I was going to be working at a fast food restaurant my entire life. And through the miracle of education look what has happened. And Raul Hidalgo was one of our students in Mexico, he commuted (two hours) each way to get to the Pathway gathering that we had in Mexico City. And he doubled his income with his first certificate. He was later called as a branch president. He met his wife in the Pathway gatherings. He has gone on to graduate school. And these stories go on and on and on. And I had a bishop in Southern California who said to me, “Clark, I know one of the major reasons we do this is to help with temporal self reliance, and that’s wonderful. But,” he said, “I’ve had nine people in my ward go through Pathway and they’re physically different. They look you in the eye, they’re confident. They raise their hand and a gospel study class. They volunteer. They accept a calling. Their posture has changed.”

And, I think, you know, we really believe in this Church and in BYU–Pathway, that the potential we have isn’t bound by our birth circumstances or starting point or parents’ education, that we have potential way beyond what we expect, because we have divine capacity because of our Father in Heaven. And we have one of the highest retention rates of any program in the country, particularly for the risk profile we have. And a lot of organizations come and study what we do. In the Chronicle of Education has written articles on our retention and our mentoring efforts. But what they don’t realize is, we are teaching people who they are. And once they know that, they want to become something more. And so, you know, those who are already converted use Pathway as a way to accelerate their progress. Those who aren’t, come to the BYU-Pathway program, and they change and become something different, and the Lord magnifies them. And we’ve just, you know, we see these stories over and over again, about expanded potential that people thought was not there that has come out because of the experiences they’ve had in the program.

21:26

Sarah Jane Weaver: And when we talk about times and seasons — and how the Lord prepares the Church for certain things — we are in a unique season right now, that is defined by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. How have everything that was learned in the early days and as Pathway was developed, how is that helping and sustaining all Church education right now?

President Clark Gilbert: You know, it’s interesting. All of our courses are online, but we have a weekly gathering, usually in a physical location. And about three years ago, the Church Board of Education approved what we call Virtual Pathway, where you would gather in a Zoom Room. And that took off. People who couldn’t get to a gathering, people who lived in far-flung places, we had people enrolled in virtual pathway in Eastern Europe, in the islands in the Caribbean, states in Maine and Vermont, you know, who couldn’t get to big location of other Saints. And it had grown to about a third of our program. By early 2020, when the pandemic hit, we literally flipped every gathering to a Zoom Room gathering, trained all of our Pathway missionaries how to do it. We were able to roll this out all across the world. And through the pandemic, we just keep growing and growing. And it turns out being low cost, accessible online, in the middle of a global pandemic, means you can just grow right through it. And we just continue to see record enrollment, because of this. And as fast as we’ve grown, Sarah, I think the BYU-Pathway will just keep expanding because the need is so great across the Church. And traditional educational models don’t work for most people. So the affordability, the online nature, the flexible schedule, and the spiritual confidence you gain through the program, all have made it really transformative. And it’s worked right through the pandemic.

23:35

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’d also like to talk about something else that’s happening right now. You served as CEO of Deseret News Publishing Company and Deseret Digital Media, just as newspapers were being hit by a disruptive innovation, which was the internet, years ago. But we have now reached the point where the Desert News stopped publishing a daily newspaper. That’s something you actually predicted would happen just about this time. Talk about newspapers and what you’re seeing happening right now.

President Clark Gilbert: You know, when a new technology like that comes along, and by the way, the internet has done that to news and information. Online Learning is doing that to higher education. When it comes along, the tendency is to try to cram it into traditional models. And we’ve had to navigate this both in higher education and in my work with the media companies. You know, many of the journalists were bright and intelligent and capable. But they didn’t see the unique things that the internet could do for them. And one of the things we really worked hard to do when I was at the desert news is to teach people the power of the internet and the reach of it and you know, how to socially distributed and other forms of media like you’re doing here with this podcast, you know, none of which were possible. I used to say, you know, we can be a local Wasatch Front newspaper or we can be a voice to the world for faith and family. And the world needs that more than ever. And the internet allows us to have distribution we could never have had, just learning how to do something different.

While the old way of doing things is still viable, it is really hard. It was hard to create Desert Digital Media, when we kept distributing a newspaper seven days a week. You know, it’s hard to create KSL.com, when you add the broadcast going every day a week. In some ways, Sarah, I envy you a little bit now because you keep pushing the online potential of what you’re doing, without the burden of a daily print organization. And I think one of the big differences between the media and higher education is some parts of higher education are really in trouble. Their cost structures are too high. They’re not very well adapted for the modern student. They don’t serve adult learners. You could go on and on and on. But there are other parts that are really compelling. You know, enrollment at the Church schools, for example, BYU, and BYU–Idaho are at record levels. And I actually don’t think they will decline the way we saw newspapers decline. I think newspapers was a much more immediate threat to the traditional model. And so, you know, when these changes come along, you’ve got to figure out what’s unique about it, and how do we embrace what’s new, and not try to replicate it or cram it into the old model and old way of doing things. And I think in the case of the Desert News and the Church News, you have another asset — which is, it should be really motivating to the journalists and everyone who works there. “Hey, because of the internet, my reach is way higher. And the work I do is going to have a greater impact and is not bound by a constrained model of print, delivery and print production.” And I think when I saw the release of the changes at the Deseret News, I think the figure was 500 times the reach for the internet, versus the print. And if we’re in this for influence, and for good, and to be a voice for faith and family and an increasingly secular and lost nation, something that comes along and multiplies our reach by an order of magnitude, or orders of magnitude, is one of the most wonderful things. And so it’s just learning how to embrace that. And at the end, while you manage down some of those other constraints, and I think the Desert News has done a wonderful job with that. And, and I really do think that Desert News has become a national voice for faith and family. And when I was here, we used to say “When your family needs to know more, that Desert News is there.” And you know, today, a family in Boston, a family in Florida, a family in the Bay Area, can read the Deseret News every day. That just wasn’t possible 25 years ago.

28:22

Sarah Jane Weaver: And in those early days of change at the Desert News, when you first came there, it took me a while to catch the vision. I was an early resistor to the whole thing and ultimately quickly adapted to the potential that I saw. I was grateful that you just connected the changes that we are going through in the media, to much that is changing in education. What are some of the great challenges of education right now?

President Clark Gilbert: I think the cost structure; only healthcare has grown faster in the in our nation than higher education as far as a percentage of the gross national product. And higher education cost structures have been growing at 15 to 20% per decade. That’s just not sustainable. And so one of the challenges is just the growing cost structure.

Another challenge is that students want more flexibility, you know, the 18- to 24-year-old student today is barely, you know, over a third of all students in higher education. And yet we’ve built our entire historical models around “come live in the dorms and be on a campus.” Well, that’s just not going to fit the learning patterns of modern adults. And another aspect of that is life-long learning. We teach that it’s a principle that you know, you need to build the skills to be a life-long learner. But most universities aren’t really involved in that once their students leave at 24 or 25. And today, people are going to retool and rescale all through their lives and they’re not going to come back to a campus to do that. So, online learning is another part of that, that’s critical.

You know, I think another area that’s a challenge is just the lack of being student focused. So much of the profession has moved to incentives just around full-time faculty and many faculty are amazing teachers and work well with students, but they often work in environments that don’t have those kinds of incentives. And so, you know, those are generic operating models for higher education. Of course, you know, in the Church, we think something even more fundamental is missing, which is the education for eternity and the development of your spiritual side and laying a foundation for who you’ll become. And, you know, I think in the Church Educational System, we have such a portfolio with BYU as the flagship, which does have research and does have graduate schools and has a football team. But you move to BYU–Idaho, and it’s teaching focused, undergraduate focused, and really powerful for that 18- to 24-year-old learner who’s trying to go to a place that is focused on student growth and student learning.

Then you have BYU–Pathway that comes along and serves a whole different population. And it’s really remarkable as a system, the Church Educational System has the ability to reach all across the Church, In D&C 97 it says, “Wherefore I the Lord am pleased that there should be a school in Zion.” Well, we have a school in Provo, we have a school in Rexburg, but Zion’s everywhere the stakes of Zion exist and BYU–Pathways allowed us, for the first time, to really have a school in Zion, wherever Zion is. And I think it’s a miracle that we have so much innovation happening across the Church Educational System. And we haven’t tried to make each institution do all things for all people. But we’ve let them specialize so we can fill and serve the whole body of Christ.

32:11

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and that’s what President Eyring saw 50 years ago. He actually said in his inaugural, “we have got to find ways for this college to serve young people whose needs are shaped by a great variety of cultures and situations” and we’ve described both of those in this podcast, and for students who may not be able to come to this campus. And then, he said, “we have to find direct ways to move the blessing of education from this campus into the lives of men and women everywhere.” It was a vision that is fulfilled now with Pathway. We have a tradition at the Church News podcast to let our guests have the last word. President Gilbert, as you summarize things today, I’m hoping you can answer the question: What do you know now after leading and serving and working with students and directing this amazing educational effort across the globe?

President Clark Gilbert: I really have grown increasingly humbled by the reality that the Lord is in charge. We can be as brilliant, and smart, and as hard working as we want. But if it’s not in the Lord’s time and season, they won’t work. And if we’re willing to trust in His direction, and be ready when, you know “drawn nearer into me while I am near,” and be ready when He is here. He’ll do amazing things with us. And I look at the growth of Pathway and it is amazing to behold, and we have bright people doing their best to discover and innovate what needs to be done and to work with BYU-Idaho and Ensign College and the rest of the Church to find solutions. But the real miracle that what’s happening is the Lord’s doing His work. And He’s laboring right beside the laborer and the vineyard. And when that happens, He hastens His work. It’s not just because He cares about education, it’s not just because He cares about the temporal self reliance of the Saints, and He does on both counts. But I fundamentally believe He’s preparing the world for the return of the Savior. And part of that is the work He’s doing to gather His Church by building capacity and leadership through education all across the world. It’s a miracle to behold.

34:44

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by peering with me through the Church News window. Thanks to our guests to my producer, KellieAnne Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on theChurchNews.com.