What BYU-Idaho does right

byuiYou might be surprised to learn that the church maintains not one but two large universities, including one about 280 miles north of Provo. The existence of BYU-Idaho is one of those things that seems to easily escape notice, even for Mormons in the middle of a vigorous debate about what must be done about BYU and LDS higher education. While the low level of scrutiny that BYU-Idaho receives is in general salutary for the university, it’s unfortunate for the discussions of higher education, as some of the most interesting experiments in the American university system today are being conducted in Rexburg, Idaho.

For all the challenges that come with rapid growth and the transition to offering bachelor’s degrees, BYU-Idaho is doing a lot of the most important things right. After teaching there for three years, and comparing my experience to what I have seen inside a half-dozen other universities or what I’ve heard from academics elsewhere (but not intending any of the following points about BYU-Idaho to slight any other school), a few things stand out.

  1. A clear mission and unique identity. BYU-Idaho understands and focuses on its mission: providing low-cost, open-enrollment, pre-career undergraduate education to LDS students in a consciously Mormon environment. That’s its niche, and it’s sticking with it. It’s not trying to add graduate programs, build a business school, or become more selective. To give one example of how the university’s mission drives institutional action, student internships make a lot of sense for a university with a pre-career focus, and so most BYU-Idaho students are required to complete one, and the university has staff members to help students find internships in their field. Having a clear institutional identity may sound trivial, but mission bloat is surprisingly common in academia. Even if open-enrollment undergraduate education is not your particular dream, a focused mission makes clear to all concerned where resources should be targeted and how faculty should spend their time, and it avoids the misery that results when missions and aspirations get out of line with available resources. The mission statement is not just lofty language for public consumption on the university’s website. Instead, everything else flows from this one fact: BYU-Idaho understands its mission and isn’t trying to change it.
  2. Teaching. A direct consequence of BYU-Idaho’s focused mission is the pervasive interest in teaching, support for pedagogical innovation, and dedication of resources to student learning. The Learning and Teaching people in Rexburg were the best I’ve ever worked with, and they weren’t hidden away where faculty never saw them. The university regularly brings in A-list national experts on higher education to talk to the whole faculty. Ken Bain came to campus. And it isn’t just talk; there was also support for innovation. Six weeks after arriving on campus, I had a crazy idea for how I could run my program. I wrote up a plan and showed it to my department head and dean, and the next semester it was reality.
  3. Student experience. Devoting an enormous amount of money, personnel, and infrastructure to a relative handful of student athletes can’t be reconciled with BYU-Idaho’s mission, so the university has no intercollegiate sports. That’s awesome, and by itself justifies taking a close look at what BYU-Idaho is doing. On the other hand, the university makes it very easy for students to actively participate in athletic, musical, outdoor, cultural, or volunteer activities. At some universities the center of campus life is the Greek system, and at others it’s clubs. What BYU-Idaho offers instead is a broad and diverse palette of extracurricular activities that receive extensive university support. At another university where I taught, just scheduling a classroom for an evening activity would incur hundreds of dollars in custodial charges to the department. At BYU-Idaho, all it took was a phone call to reserve a room. And use of a kitchen. And a custodial team to set up and take down tables and chairs. Simple things like that end up making a huge difference. It’s ridiculously easy for BYU-Idaho students to be involved, and it looked to me like they were mostly having a grand time. Who wants to be a spectator in the bleachers when you can be an active participant on the field of your choice?
  4. Location. The distance from Salt Lake City reduces the sense that everything that happens on campus is observed – or ordered – by an apostle, which keeps the acrimony level down. If you’re going to have a university whose Mormon identity is a key component of its mission, what place could be better than the most Mormon place on earth? In addition, Rexburg offers easy day-trip access to the kinds of places that people plan multi-week vacations around. Yellowstone is 80 miles away. So is Grand Teton. You can reach the Teton Valley hiking trailheads or ski slopes in 60 minutes, and other places are even closer. In three years, we visited Yellowstone a dozen times and Grand Teton a half-dozen, not to mention many other places. Non, rien de rien, je ne regrette rien
  5. Efficiency. BYU-Idaho hasn’t solved all the problems facing higher education in the U.S., but it has figured out one way to keep tuition low while paying healthy salaries to its full-time faculty. In national comparisons of the cost of each degree earned – including both tuition and institutional support – BYU-Idaho does extremely well. Frugality is part of its institutional identity. Classroom space in my building seemed to be in use nearly every hour of the day and nearly every month of the year. Students fill the library during its opening hours. Efficiency can be irritating when you’re trying to fiddle with the schedule and there’s no free classroom anywhere on campus before 3:15 PM, or when it’s late June and the academic year still has a month to go, but you can at least take pride in being part of an operation that wastes very little.
  6. Foundations, Pathways, and Kim Clark. Designing a coherent set of general education courses that emphasize depth over broad but shallow coverage is a pretty compelling choice. Leveraging the worldwide infrastructure of LDS meetinghouses and congregations to make higher education both widely available and keep it local is another compelling idea. And hiring the head of Harvard Business School to convince your students (and their future employers) that they can actually go anywhere and do anything? Pure genius.

BYU-Idaho isn’t perfect. There are challenges on the horizon and at the door, which we’ll look at in a later post. Some people wouldn’t be happy teaching there, and some students would do better elsewhere. Particularly students who are ambitious, well-prepared for college, and serious about their academic disciplines will in most cases be better served in Provo or at another school, depending on their subject and career plans. But for a very large number of students who want to complete their degrees and then find a job without spending the rest of their adult lives under a crushing load of debt, BYU-Idaho is a good choice. Even as a work in progress, it’s an institution that Mormons can be proud of.

37 comments for “What BYU-Idaho does right

  1. My wife’s grandmother’s maiden name is Ricks, and yes she’s descended from Thomas E. Ricks. She’s still sore that the Brethren took his name off the college. I hope at least that the “R” is still on the mountain.

  2. This post, along with your Rexburg post, have helped nuance my view of the university and its town. While I still have major problems with each, it is good to bring a bit more balance to my opion.

    If you are taking recommendations, I’d now like you to bring more balance to my opinions on liver, country music, volkswagon beetles, and Miley Cyrus.

  3. Even though I’ve never been closer to Idaho than a few hours in Logan and so have no particular connection to BYU-I, it it inexpressibly refreshing to read a positive post about anything Mormonish, an acknowledgment that something somewhere is, in some measure, going right, even in the absence of counsel from the all-wise denizens of the virtual world.

  4. I’d suggest that you take the “e” off Kim Clark’s name and lend it to Ben Park for insertion in the appropriate spot in Volkswagen. :)

  5. John, the R is still there, but a bit faded. Someone should go dump some chalk on it, or whatever it is people use to make letters on hillsides.

    Adam, to inform and delight, that is my only goal.

    Ben, except for the spelling of Volkswagen, I share your views on the other things you mention, unfortunately. I’ll address BYUI from a couple more angles in upcoming posts.

    Ardis, every so often there needs to be a break from self-centered complaint and uninformed self-flagellation. One of the byproducts of moving around several times is a certain perspective on how things work in different places. There’s more than one way to do something, some better than others, and sometimes the good people of Utah or Idaho or the church as an institution have found a pretty good way of doing it.

    Mark, thanks for reminding me of the one last thing I wanted to check before I posted this. It’s fixed now.

  6. The campus is nice too, having, I understand, just been renovated and re-landscaped in the last year or two. The student center blows its Provo counterpart away, the Wilkinson Center, away, and the BYU-I Center is a mini version of the SLC Conference Center, which is pretty cool. So even though my wife the student and I can’t say too much about the student or faculty experience, I was definitely impressed with BYU-I on a superficial level.

  7. Hah Mr Green –

    BYU-Idaho’s popularity isn’t so much what they are doing right, but what the other schools are doing wrong. A vast majority of LDS families in California are sending their kids to college in droves and it is all for one reason (which surprisingly you did not list). Cost.

    BYUI tuition with room&board is only a small fraction of the cost of most California state run schools. And that is a huge turn around from the situation 30 years ago when I was a California college kid.

  8. It’s nice to hear something positive about a place that I so thoroughly loathe. Truly. Before this post, I’d not seen much use for the Back 40 University. But you’ve shone a little light on the place, and I loathe it a little less.

  9. I enjoyed this, Jonathan, thanks.

    I’ve only been to the then Ricks once, over a long weekend while I was at BYU in Provo. My main takeaway was a cultural one, that BYU felt like Berkeley next to Ricks. I don’t know whether that is still the case, but my impression is that the student culture is even more stifling than what exists in Provo. Perhaps comment on that will come up in one of your later posts.

  10. I’d add one significant thing, Jonathan (though it may be a subset of a couple of your points): it’s actively recruiting and teaching inner-city kids who may not have otherwise gone to college.

    I saw it a little in New York, but BYU-I has a strong presence here in Chicago, everything from active recruiting to summer programs for high school kids to introduce them to the school and to plant the idea in their heads that college just might be for them.

    Like Ben P, there are things about BYU-I that I don’t like. But I certainly applaud its dedication to going after and educating kids who otherwise might fall through the cracks.

  11. As a businessman who ran into institutional recalcitrance from BYU-I’s internship directors, it’s nice to see a positive spin on things.

    I had wanted to offer an internship to a student, but, my company, a fully formed American corporation with a positive profit each year, operates out of home offices, and BYU-I didn’t think that was a “real company” or something. It was a bridge too far in a year when nobody-but-nobody-else was doing internships. Had it not been for departmental-level intervention, the student would not have graduated, on that narrow requirement. Eventually he did intern for me, but there was extra legwork.

    On the brighter side, the intern did excellent work, impressed me greatly, grew his horizons, and at graduation, TATA snapped him right up. If they can get over the home-office thing ever again I’d be happy to mentor another student.

    I wonder if K-12 people could take some lessons from what BYU-I is doing? K-12 are always going on and on about how schools need to make kids “college and career ready”…

  12. This is really nice. As I mentioned in a comment on your previous post, I spent a semester as a lecturer at BYU-I while I was on a break during grad school. I suppose I knew it wouldn’t be a good fit–I’m a liberal environmentalist, after all–but I expected it to be more like Provo, where I did my undergrad. Kevin (#10) is right–BYU-I makes the Provo campus seem downright progressive. It was quite a shock for me!

    Even though I didn’t enjoy myself there, I completely agree that BYU-I does some things very well. I think the internship focus is fantastic–a lot universities have a very hard time connecting their academic focus to actually helping students find a place in the non-academic world after graduation, and I think BYU-I’s program helps bridge this gap admirably. The way they track the terms, with students being assigned to two of the three, is a super smart way to accommodate more students in the existing infrastructure. There was no question that things were run very efficiently from a cost perspective, too, and as an instructor the level of support services I received was fantastic. No complaints at all about efficiency.

    A couple of things I think BYU-I could do better, if you’ll indulge me:

    1) There are not a lot of role models for women who are interested in careers. The vast majority of women who work on campus–and there are a lot of them–are administrative staff. The department I taught in had zero full-time female faculty. I couldn’t help but think that this sends a subtle message to female students about suitable future careers for them. This, of course, taps into the broader issue of how we regard women with career aspirations in the church at large.

    2) I was appalled at how many programs were not accredited when I was there about seven years ago (actually, the ones that stand out are engineering… maybe there weren’t that many others). Hopefully this situation has improved. Graduating from a non-accredited program can put students at a disadvantage.

    3) I’m not quite sure how to say this, but I was disappointed by what seemed to me to be skewed priorities for personal integrity. Dress and grooming standards, curfew–all of those things are taken very seriously. I don’t really have a problem with that, since students know what they’re getting in to, although I think some things were unnecessarily strict. But when I caught two students blatantly plagiarizing their term projects, I expected the honor code office to take the violations seriously. My discussions with the honor code personnel assigned to the case were highly disillusioning–it was clear he didn’t think it was as big of a deal as I did, and it just made me wonder about priorities on campus.

  13. Kevin, it’s probably not accurate to call the student environment stifling. The students I knew mostly seemed happy and liked the place as it was. It’s certainly true that some students would not be happy at all there.

    JrL, as Sam points out, the Pathways program is pretty much God’s Own Work when it comes to educational opportunity. I can’t say much about it, however, as I had little direct contact with it. The idea is pretty good, but I simply have no idea how it’s going in practice. Perhaps someone with more direct experience will comment.

    Rob, I can imagination situations where the home office prohibition made sense, although it might not make sense everywhere. Your experience points to one of the challenges that BYU-Idaho faces – we’ll get to those eventually – namely, sometimes inflexible bureaucracy.

    LA, thanks again for your comments. We’ll get to the things that need improvement soon, but to keep them in perspective I think we have to identify strengths as well. I think the university has hired more women in faculty and administrative positions recently, and women made up a sizable fraction of the faculty in my department, but I agree there’s a lot more room for progress. I’ve heard other faculty mention the lackadaisical attitude towards plagiarism, which points to some systematic issues that need to be resolved. (As for accreditation, I don’t know. The university as a whole recently received high praise from the regional accreditor, and the K-12 education program accreditation before that went fine, but I don’t work in a field where programs are typically accredited by disciplinary bodies.)

  14. i am a “pathway graduate” and can’t say enough good about the program. it’s the church putting its money where its mouth is and pathway’s design seems ingenious for all parties involved – teacher, student, university, church.

  15. I graduated from Ricks. I expect that people who know me in my profession now would find this fact hilarious. I hated it there — but not because of the education. In fact, every single positive thing I have to say about Ricks / BYU-I is about my program, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I don’t know anything about their current curriculum innovations; however, on that front, I actually have faith that the church is doing a good job with things. I’m sure they have only improved since I left fourteen years ago.

    I won’t rehash all the cultural reasons that Ricks sucked (because everyone in the bloggernacle has heard those a million times), but I agree 100% with Kevin. I found the student environment very stifling, and I was as churchy a super Mormon as the best of them in those days. When I showed up in Provo, it DID feel like Berkeley in comparison. I went to graduate school at a place that scores a Berkeley on the George Wythe College to Berkeley spectrum of progressiveness, and the difference between Ricks and BYU felt analogous to the difference between BYU and my graduate school.

    Now, I believe there are people who have better experiences than I did. I don’t begrudge them enjoying their time there and it certainly doesn’t automatically brand them an insufferable zealot.

    But I would never send my kid there.

  16. It seems that most college-bound LDS kids in Eastern Idaho go to BYU-I. A few might go to Utah State or Idaho State. Very rarely do they head towards BYU-Provo. BYU-I isn’t their back-up plan in case they don’t get into another school. For most of them, it’s their first choice. We’ve been in several wards in Eastern Idaho, and it’s extremely rare to meet people in the area under 40 who attended BYU-Provo.

    My wife spent two years at Ricks/BYU-I before going on to BYU-Provo, and she really enjoyed her time at Ricks/BYU-I. She had more friends there than at BYU-Provo, and her classes weren’t nearly as stressful. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it, for various reasons. But I do love the fact that they don’t obsess over sports and that they keep tuition low.

  17. I now live in the LDS-sparse rural South. I was hoping my kids would all go to BYU to be with more LDS kids for the obvious reasons. Now I’ll think about BYU-I as an option as well.

    Thanks for the post!

  18. My son recently graduated from BYU-I. I’m impressed with the variety of majors that are offered. He transferred from BYU in Provo to take advantage of the new Web Design degree being offered at BYU-I. It was an excellent program and prepared him in every way for a career in that field. What was discouraging to him though was how few of his BYU Provo credits transferred to BYU-I. They transferred as elective credits but not to the specifications required to satisfy BYU-I’s GE credits. Even religious credits such as mission prep and Old Testament didn’t transfer as religion credit. It took him an extra year to make up all the classes specific to BYU-I’s GE requirements that he had already completed in Provo, but it was worth it to him to get the web design degree. It would be nice to see more cooperation between the two schools in that respect.

  19. A friend of mine did a 2-yr degree at BYU-I before graduating from BYU. He has gone on to finish a science PhD at Yale and MBA at Harvard, so yes, BYU-I grads can go anywhere and do anything.

  20. I guess, Ben S., but if we actually had numbers on that, I’m sure we’d see that the majority of these cases pass through Provo before whatever lofty heights they reach. I could be wrong, though. I would be curious to know what BYU-I’s graduate school placement numbers are like, given that — correct me if I’m wrong — that isn’t what their way of doing things is designed for.

  21. I enjoyed reading this and the thoughtful comments. I have a huge concern, however, that women’s careers are not taken are seriously at BYUI. When you discuss the internship programs, could you please speak to this? I hear many horror stories of male students telling female that ‘they are taking a breadwinner’s place’ and I wonder if, on some level, the faculty and administration might feel that way as well.

  22. “I had wanted to offer an internship to a student, but, my company, a fully formed American corporation with a positive profit each year, operates out of home offices”

    Kramerica Industries. Am I right?

  23. so yes, BYU-I grads can go anywhere and do anything.

    Sure, as long as they stop somewhere else along the way.

  24. Laurie, transferring always ends up as a major headache for someone, as every program is different. Usually I could look at a student’s past coursework and come up with a reasonable equivalent for transfer credit, but sometimes there are complications – the former campus covered in three semesters what we covered in two, or something like that. Programs with a very specific sequence of courses – at BYUI or anywhere else – present even worse complications. Sometimes the Powers That Be decree that Everything Must Transfer, as some states have done, and you end up with transfer students in 300-level courses who really need to start at the local 200 level rather than 300 level, where they aren’t prepared to succeed. Or you force every school in the system to offer the same curriculum, which is a bureaucratic nightmare. Or you muddle through and hope it works out OK eventually. It usually does. You’d think that the religion credits would transfer more easily, though.

    Ben, Orwell, Peter, I think the BYU-Idaho administration is very interested in becoming a place where graduates can both get jobs and get into grad school. It’s not there yet. I suspect it does OK for placement into respectable professional programs, but for students who were serious about grad school in an academic discipline, I always discussed transferring to BYU. I did know some students who were admitted to good grad programs, but the path would have been easier from Provo. I’ll talk about what could be done to change that in a later post.

    Moss, I didn’t see those kinds of attitudes among the faculty of my department or college, and I simply don’t know about other areas of campus. I doubt that women are treated any differently when it comes to help with internships. At the same time, there are students on campus – both male and female – with deplorable attitudes of various kinds. The benighted also need a college education, and we can’t stop them from speaking their minds, although introducing them to alternative ways of looking at thing is sometimes successful in the long run. We could do a better job teaching people to own their choices and stand up for them, whatever benighted people may think.

  25. They need to change the name. It’s confusing to have 3 BYUs. Maybe Ricks University? Or Spencer Kimball University?

  26. “But I would never send my kids there.”

    After attending and graduating from Ricks College, I left there with a love/hate relationship with it. Based on the “hate” part, I also swore that I would never send my kids there. Until I had kids. As I’ve watched my kids grow and develop I’ve softened my stance on BYU-I, realizing that two of my children have personalities in which they would be quite happy there. The third would probably be kicked out midway through his first year for breaking a number of rules. When I was making the choice my senior year in high school as to which college or university to attend I felt that Ricks was the right choice for me. Despite my difficulties with my time there, I still remember that feeling and know that that was the correct choice for me. I hope I can allow my own children to make that choice when the time comes.

  27. Great info.

    I have not attended Ricks/BYU-I, but I personally know dozens of people who did and every single one raved about it. There must be something going on up there that made my second-hand contact so universally positive.

    P.S. I’m glad you didn’t mention capris. :)

  28. Kris, I think I’m in a similar place. Some of my kids would do great there. Some would do great, but really should go somewhere else. And some would probably not have a good time there at all.

    Alison, capris are coming in the next installment.

  29. I’ve always admired the no intercollegiate athletics decision that was made when BYUI was formed from Ricks. I didn’t know about many of the other pluses that you mention. I sounds like BYUI is doing a lot right. Unfortunately, all of it put together does not outweigh their determination to out righteous the righteous and position BYUI as the modern day mormon madrassa.

  30. “…their determination to out righteous the righteous and position BYUI as the modern day mormon madrassa.”

    Not in danger of a wee bit of hyperbole there, are you KLC?

  31. A few years ago, I attended a J. Reuben Clark Law Society lunch in Idaho Falls where the speaker was Henry Eyring, son of President Eyring, and a vice president at BYUI. He spoke about the very specific ways in which the major innovations at BYUI were part of the original charter given them by President Hinckley when he decided to turn Ricks college into a bachelor degree school, and his own feeling that they are inspired direction from a prophet. That included calling Kim B. Clark to head BYUI, and his colleagues at Harvard Business to lead BYUH.

    I currently teach as an adjunct at a branch campus of Washington State University in the Tri-Cities in southeast Washington. Like BYUI, the branch campuses here and in Spokane and Vancouver, WA, don’t have their own intercollegiate athletics programs, but they charge the same tuition as the main campus in Pullman (next door to University of Idaho in Moscow), which is twice the tuition at BYU Provo. Most of the Mormon college students in my stake go to BYUP or BYUI, for that reason.

    In my experience, it is easier to get a BYUI student intern at our company here in Washington than one from any of the WSU campuses, just because of the higher level of support from the school.

    I would be interested on your views of the student body diversity issue. A comparison between BYUI and its pioneer descendants and the BYUH campus that draws on the Mormons of the Pacific Rim would be interesting.

  32. One thing I noticed about BYU-I is the gratitude expressed by students for the teaching they receive there. The campus is beautiful. For some students who need additional instructive support it is fantastic to have such an affordable, beautiful school with such a good atmosphere. These are not the downtrodden cast off students who wish they were somewhere else, these are grateful people with a good school, good teachers and good opportunities ahead of them. I applaud everything they’ve done.

  33. I’ve taught here at BYUI for nearly twenty years. We are doing some things well. I tell my own kids and others who ask that, if you are selective about your teachers and if you’re willing to take some educational risks (read “take classes designed to get you to think rather than merely get you a degree and a job”), you can get a very fine education here.

    Yes, some folks on campus focus waaaaay too much on things like capris and flip flops at the expense of real ethical training (the plagiarism thing; or the case of the student hired by an eastern firm, moved there at company expense, first day on the job offended by profanity, waited until the day the move reimbursement check was banked, only to resign–yeah, there are some priority issues). Most of those people’s jobs depend on being enforcers, I think. Of the faculty with whom I associate most, we care less about dress and grooming issues and much more about real ethical development.

    Oh, and, yes, from BYUI one of my sons went straight to Cornell Law and his best friend went straight to Yale Law, both without stopping somewhere else along the way, or without passing “Go” or collecting $200. Can be done from here, which I believe was one of my earlier points.

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