BYU-Idaho: the next ten years (I)

byuiBYU-Idaho is much different today than it was in 2001, when it changed its name from Ricks College and started to offer bachelor’s degrees. It shouldn’t detract from the accomplishments of the last decade to say that the university is still a work in progress; institutional change takes a generation.  There are more changes in store, challenges that soon need to be faced, and pitfalls that have to be avoided.

For BYU-Idaho to become the kind of school it aims to be, what are the highest priorities for the next ten years? What follows is based on – and limited by – my experience of having taught there for three years. My impression is that the university is already doing an effective job fostering religious commitment, providing wholesome entertainment, and pairing off compatible students; it’s the academic side where the most improvement is needed.

I’m also assuming that BYU-Idaho isn’t going to change its mission from open-enrollment, low-tuition, LDS-centric, undergraduate education. It aspires to become better at this mission, not to take on a different one. However, it seemed clear that it would like to become a better launching board for students with solid academic preparation who are planning on pursuing professional or graduate programs after they complete their degrees, and that it would like to be a more reasonable alternative to BYU for students who aren’t accepted there or who prefer the Idaho campus for various reasons.

The challenges that BYU-Idaho faces might be summarized in three questions: How much Brigham Young, and how much University? How much BYU, and how much Idaho? And what does it need to avoid at all cost? I’ll suggest some answers to the first question in this post, and look at the final two questions in the next post.

I. How much Brigham Young, how much University?

One of the great opportunities for BYU-Idaho is the chance not to do what everyone else has done. Not every wheel needs to be reinvented, however. Following academic norms in some additional areas would be helpful; in others, it must be avoided. Knowing what things fall into which category is the hard part.

For example, the relatively flat organizational structure and pervasive sense of camaraderie among the faculty made for a great working environment.  I enjoyed easy communication with not just my department head but also the dean, a nearly unique situation in my experience. Retaining this is essential. On the other hand, the decision not to use standard academic titles was well intentioned, but it ends up being more of an annoyance than it’s worth. Typical academic ranks—adjunct, lecturer, tenure-track assistant professor, tenured associate professor—already map neatly onto the existing categories at BYU-Idaho (adjunct, one-year faculty, CFS-track faculty, faculty with CFS status), so that using standard titles wouldn’t change much. On the other hand, not having access to a normal academic rank makes it difficult to represent oneself to the academic world outside of Rexburg, for example on letters of recommendation, conference paper proposals, grant applications, or CVs. In this case, BYU-Idaho should adopt the academic norms.

There are a few places where adjusting the balance between local practice and national or disciplinary norms is most critical.

Teaching loads. First and foremost, BYU-Idaho has to reduce faculty teaching loads. It’s not just me saying it; that was one of the main recommendations from the university’s recent and otherwise glowing accreditation report. Faculty have tried to express in various ways the human toll of teaching heavy loads with a minimal break between semesters three times a year, but the administration never really seemed to understand what the fuss was all about. Put simply, if you take what counts as a heavy teaching load anywhere else (4-4) and bump it up by 50%, you get the lightest teaching load available at BYU-Idaho (4-4-4; these aren’t quarters, but three complete semesters). Most people end up teaching more than that.  It doesn’t leave much time for research or improving courses, and it’s bad for family life. I barely remember 2011, the year I taught 5-5-4 and prepped six new courses while writing the first draft of a book manuscript. The best way to lower teaching loads is not to design a program so faculty can apply for course releases in a future semester that may or may not be granted, but to…lower the teaching load. The regional accreditor would like to see teaching loads reduced to 30 hours per year (the equivalent of 5-5). I could be happy and productive at 36 (teaching 4-4-4), as I enjoyed generous teaching assistant support and a minimal service expectation (apart from, you know, directing a program by myself), but anything above that made be grumpy.

Research. BYU-Idaho faculty need lighter teaching loads so that they have time for research. In one faculty meeting, Kim Clarke floated the idea of redefining the faculty mission to 80% teaching and 20% research, which sounds like an appropriate goal and perhaps the key to making BYU-Idaho the kind of school it wants to be, but it wasn’t clear that anyone noticed what he was proposing. The point is not to turn BYU-Idaho into a research powerhouse where a book is required for tenure, although requiring an article or the equivalent might be a realistic target. Instead, the importance of research for BYU-Idaho is that undergraduates who are serious about their fields need to be taught by people who are actively engaged in moving some part of that field forward. Not everyone feels this way, but I am convinced that people who teach at the university level need to have direct experience with how knowledge is created in their fields. And beyond that, students who are serious about their fields need to be taught by faculty with national professional networks, and in academia that is achieved through research. My research activity meant that I had a reason to present papers at professional conferences, which meant I had an opportunity to ask department heads with strong graduate programs how they might react to an application from one of my students. The university heavily promotes the “scholarship of learning and teaching,” but all research is student-centered research: students need to be working with professors who are active in and have professional networks related to more than pedagogy. Having research-active faculty is the next and possibly most important step for BYU-Idaho to become the kind of university that can send its graduates on to good graduate and professional programs, but it will require a significant change in institutional culture that will take decades rather than years to complete.

Faculty input. While classical shared governance isn’t likely to appear at BYU-Idaho any time soon, adopting (or consciously deciding to ignore) academic norms will require more input from faculty, as much of the administration does not have a great deal of direct experience with core academic disciplines or outside of Rexburg and Provo. As a result, decisions with serious academic consequences get made without anyone having thought through those consequences, or even being aware that there might be any consequences. Faculty need to provide one of the hands on the steering wheel, and the university needs strong academic leadership with experience consisting of more than BYU, grad school, and BYU. BYU-Idaho had the best university HR staff I’ve ever worked with, but the university could more easily attract qualified faculty if the academic departments had more involvement with faculty hiring from the beginning. Someone needs to be able to say that, in its seriousness for a university community, plagiarism is closer to fornication than to revealing too much ankle—the kind of thing that results in expulsion, not a scolding—in the consequences that should follow. Someone needs to be able to say that reducing the size of the university library’s already undersized collection is a thoroughly terrible idea (for the number of students it serves, the collection should be growing to several times its current size, not shrinking by 20%). One of the things that might threaten to ruin the university is the development of an administrative culture that disdains the faculty as inessential, hyperspecialized, and lazy. To get the university where it wants to go, and to avoid lurking dangers, the faculty need to help steer the ship, not just pull the oars.

Next time: How much BYU, how much Idaho? What tempting catastrophes and attractive disasters must be avoided?

20 comments for “BYU-Idaho: the next ten years (I)

  1. Great thoughts, Jonathan. I suspect very few parents who send their kids to BYU-I realize how differently it is organized internally compared to BYU-Provo or other universities. If they did there might be some pressure to upgrade the operation. Instead of spending tens of millions on yet more temples to serve the dead, how about we redirect the money to building up BYU-I into a real university for the benefit of our children? Or tap some of the billions salted away in securities and real estate to build up BYU-I for the benefit of our children? The problem goes deeper than just BYU-I.

  2. Dave, well, some organizational differences are good, some are bad, some are just different. Rather than pressure to change the organizational structure, I’d rather see pressure to send more money up north – sometimes the tradition of frugality tips into growth-stunting malnutrition. I don’t think “real university”/”non-real-university” are useful categories here, since the U.S. system of higher education includes an incredibly diverse range of institutions; BYU-Idaho is an outlier in some ways, and very mainstream in others.

    Russell, thanks for reading. I’ll try to pack in as much localism into part II as I can.

    Ben P., I’m glad you’re enjoying these posts. One never knows when one might end up in Rexburg for a while.

  3. Poor choice of terms on my part, Jonathan. What I meant was sufficient funds to make the faculty workload at BYU-I resemble state universities rather than community colleges. And let’s be clear: that would benefit the STUDENTS and the INSTITUTION because faculty could do a better job with students and become better scholars in their field. It’s not just about paying faculty more money or giving them less work. It’s about improving the education the students receive.

    That is what is being held out to the public, parents, and students by giving the institution the title university rather than college when it was rechristened BYU-I rather than Ricks College. But that’s not what is being delivered by BYU-I (yet). It’s just that now those who approved the name change (and received cheers for doing it) don’t want to take the next step, the responsible step, and help the institution match the title by giving it the funding it needs to do so.

  4. I’m no fan of BYU-I, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see it get better. These are interesting insights and I look forward to reading more.

    i knew teaching loads were high at BYU-I, but I had no idea they were as high as that. I teach 2-2 at my institution, Tuesdays and Thursdays only, and that keeps me more than busy (though, granted, it’s an R1 so the situation is very different). I cannot fathom what a 4-4-4 (or higher) would be like — even factoring out my research obligations. That really needs to be addressed for many of the reasons you cite, beyond just attracting quality faculty. (Because, in many fields, even your most teaching-oriented individuals coming out of PhD programs are going to balk at that load.)

    Also, the part about the library — absolutely unbelievable.

    And then this:

    One of the things that might threaten to ruin the university is the development of an administrative culture that disdains the faculty as inessential, hyperspecialized, and lazy.

    Are you saying that you already sense this as a trend? Do you feel there is any correlation with tendencies toward anti-intellectualism in the church?

  5. Thanks, Jonathan — all very reasonable and perceptive. (And I too am stunned by your account of teaching loads; I’m tired just trying to conceive it. I taught 4-3 with many new preps — and finishing dissertation — at a little college in my youth, and I wouldn’t want to go beyond that.) And of course I don’t know what you’ve left for future posts, but I have to add this: in trying to be a “real university,” let’s not get slavish, as at BYU Provo, about the authority of the prestige universities and professional associations. Because there’s much intellectual corruption out there: scientism on the one hand, and liberationist ideology on the other. BYU is addicted to the former; the latter is a corollary that can’t be put off forever. If a religious university has a distinctive intellectual mission (by no means exclusively pedagogical), then resources have to be devoted to furthering that mission — not just to being an ersatz Harvard or U Michigan.

  6. Dave, I think that’s a reasonable way to put it. You don’t turn a junior college into a four-year college overnight, and the university has come along way, but some of the remaining steps are going to be difficult.

    Adam and Kevin, I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. I’ve got one more post to go.

    Orwell, another way to think about the teaching load is in minutes of classroom instruction per week. Since BYU-Idaho uses 60-minute hours, I was teaching 960 minutes a week the semester I had a 16-hour load (which, to be fair, I kind of got myself into, but it was the only way to keep my program going that semester). For those of you teaching 50-minute hours, that’s the equivalent workweek of 19 contact hours each week, or somewhere above a 6-6 load on a normal semester system (except with a 1 or 2-week break between semesters and a summer foreshortened to six weeks). I admit that I went pale when I first heard the teaching load, but I was sort of able to make it work, thanks to my TAs, to taking some extreme measures towards efficient teaching, and to minimal time spent in meetings. (And I found that I did like the 60-minute hours in a shorter, 13/14-week semester.) It helped that I had several years of teaching experience to build on; if I had been a new Ph.D., it would have been much more difficult. Probably disastrous, actually.

    As for the administrative culture, I don’t think that’s where it is now, but where it might end up under some circumstances. Mostly the administration is well intentioned and administratively capable, but, like other places I’ve taught, sometimes administrators don’t really understand what faculty are concerned about, or why. As long as everyone is trying to make the situation work, things will mostly be OK, but it’s a delicate balance.

  7. Very nice post. I am glad you’ve highlighted the plagiarism problem–that was what I found most troubling about my brief experience teaching there.

  8. I agree with almost all your points, Jonathan, except that, rather than be a possible future, you’ve accurately defined the administration’s present view of faculty. In a department Q & A a couple weeks ago, President KBC gave lip service to the notion of gathering input, but left no uncertainty about the fact that “revelation only travels in one direction.” The underlying assumption, here, of course, is that all administrative decisions are divinely inspired. Having taught at BYU-I more than one complete second, I’m aware that assumption is faulty.
    I believe we have come some distance since VP Checketts would threaten termination to anyone even hinting at dissension, but we have much further to go. At least, if I may stoke the rumor furnace, KBC appears to be on his way out. Given the years of his tenure, that should not be a secret to anyone watching. God grant the next president is a humanist.
    Thanks for the post.

  9. Important stuff, Jonathan. It’s hard to overestimate the value of faculty who push the knowledge envelope for undergrads intending to pursue further education.

  10. I know that in the past Kim Clark responded to questions about the high teaching load with explanations of how “the Spirit will help.” This was shortly after he left Boston, so perhaps the realities of the situation have changed his view. The 4-4-4 teaching load is heavier than most community colleges, and it’s a sure way to burn out the faculty and continue to turn the place away from the kind of atmosphere that was often found at Ricks (where students could get to know the faculty, and one often felt that the faculty really watched over the students). The unfortunate thing is that Wheelright replicated the situation at BYUH (despite the fact that BYUH did not have the same mission to increase enrollment as BYUI did). Even worse is Clayton Christensen’s touting of these changes in _The innovative university_.

    They all seem to be largely unaware of how such a “business model” applied to a university can in fact erode its mission despite making it profitable.

  11. Yeah, merely based on my experience as a student there fourteen years ago I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find what Anonymous describes in many corners of the institution. I hope his or her (odds say its his, since we’re talking about BYU-I here, but who knows) experience is the exception, but I’m probably too cynical to let myself believe it. Jonathan, what say you?

  12. LA, thanks to you as well for bringing up the issue in a comment on a previous post. WVS and EDJ, thanks for tuning in.

    ABIDWTBF, it did seem that all the arrows ran in one direction on the charts of the administrations communications initiative, didn’t it? Figuring out how to listen to faculty is something that some administration needs to figure out, if not this one then the next one. (And the president coming to a departmental meeting is real progress – I thought that had stopped.) It’s not just to keep the faculty happy – although that would be nice – but there really are essential steps in the university’s progress that are dependent on faculty insights. If BYU-Idaho would like to send more students on to good graduate programs, then it needs to listen to the concerns of the people who have spent time inside those programs. Again, it shouldn’t take anything away from Kim Clark’s accomplishments to say that some things might be part of the next president’s mission.

    RG4, in fact, BYU-Idaho seems to have been the guinea pig for the “Bain model,” to which we owe the innovation of the track system. And the track system really does introduce some efficiencies! The way that BYU-Idaho has its physical infrastructure in use 24/7/365 is phenomenal. It keeps tuition low. And low tuition is great! But there are human costs that no one really wants to hear about, like burnout. Faculty are also the ones who first see when the university gets too efficient, reducing the quality of its core educational product in the process, which is another reason to seek their input.

  13. “One of the things that might threaten to ruin the university is the development of an administrative culture that disdains the faculty as inessential, hyperspecialized, and lazy.

    Are you saying that you already sense this as a trend?”

    Sense as a trend? No, I prefer “perceive this as a reality.”

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