BYU-Idaho: the next ten years (II)

byuiTo keep the rest of this post in context, let me repeat that I think Rexburg is a fantastic place, that BYU-Idaho has gotten the most important things right in its transformation from a junior college into a four-year university, and that its dress code is not a terribly important issue. The university’s path forward to becoming the kind of university it hopes to be, although not simple, is clear enough. Another tricky question for the future of the university is how to strike the right balance between local heritage versus consistency with the system flagship in Provo: How much BYU, and how much Idaho? Finally, maintaining BYU-Idaho as a good place for faculty and students is like hiking along a precipice; a few false steps could make it a mostly terrible experience for everybody. What tempting catastrophes and attractive disasters must be avoided?

II. How much BYU, how much Idaho?

There is no reason that all BYU campuses should work exactly the same. Each has its own mission and traditions. Nor is joining a lemming rush into the ocean helpful for anybody. But stubbornly reinventing the wheel (our wheels only need six sides, half of what they need in Provo!) just wastes energy. Knowing when to adopt the ways of Provo, and when to invoke the spirit of Ricks, is a delicate balancing act.

In some cases, BYU-Idaho needs to resolutely ignore whatever is going on south of the border:

Transfer credit. I regret to inform you that there is no such thing as a standard bachelor’s degree, or a standard history or math class, or general agreement on what a course in technical writing or anything else must contain. As a faculty member at BYU-Idaho, I tried to be flexible in looking for equivalent courses for transfer students, and I think people should make every effort to help students transfer courses efficiently, especially religion courses. But for transfer students, every course at the prior university has to transfer as some specific course at the new university, otherwise it ends up as useless “elective credit.” This is how it works everywhere, not just in the BYU system. Transfer students have to accept that some of their previous coursework will not transfer efficiently. Some credits are going to be lost even for students transferring between Rexburg and Provo. The only way to eliminate that entirely would be to enforce system-wide curriculum definitions, which would add a massive layer of inflexible bureaucracy at the system level. This is a Bad Thing, at least if you want your professors to have any say in what goes on in the classroom where you’re sitting. I’m sorry you have to repeat a class, but the alternative is much worse.

Local heritage. BYU-Idaho pursues two different approaches to its history as Ricks College. It very much wants to preserve some aspects of its history (frugality, teaching focus, close relationships between students, faculty, and staff) while entirely erasing others (Vikings are persona non grata on campus). Part of the challenge lies in managing community relations. The university is justly proud of its role in the 1976 Teton Dam flood, but some locals are still upset by the abrupt ending of intercollegiate sports programs, or something else the university has done—and everything the university does ends up upsetting someone in town; that’s the unavoidable consequence of being Rexburg’s principal employer. (Canceling sports was the right thing to do; entertaining the locals is not the university’s mission. But canceling summer swimming lessons at the only sizeable pool in town seemed like a needless thumb in the eye of people who have done a lot for the university.)

The R. It really would be preferable for the university to embrace the R on the side of R Mountain, rather than let it look ratty for the next fifty years or more before it fades from view entirely. Dear University Development Office: For a flurry of donations, just give alumni the chance to sponsor (say, for the low annual price of $50) one student to hike up the butte with a gallon of environmentally-friendly lime alternative or whatever it is they use to make white letters on hillsides these days. A lot of alumni drive past Rexburg, and the R’s state of decay says that you don’t care about their traditions, just their cash. Show that you cherish their heritage by repainting the R, and watch the donations flow in.

In other cases, BYU-Idaho could learn from what has worked elsewhere.

The dress code. BYU-Idaho’s honor code could be productively aligned with BYU’s in order to improve the university’s attractiveness to students who are seeking the environment of an LDS university but who only hear about BYU-Idaho in terms of honor code horror stories. The off-campus curfews are a relic of the 1960s, and the extra-stringent dress code probably leads the university to lose some students to USU or UVU who would otherwise be a prime target audience for BYU-Idaho. With tens of thousands of soon-to-be-RMs about to descend on the campus over the next few years, BYU-Idaho won’t have any problem attracting students for a long time to come, but it may want to attract more students who are both devout and academically prepared.

Languages. Finally, the university’s neglect of foreign languages is bad for the BYU brand. BYU enjoys the reputation of strong programs in languages, primarily because a critical mass of returned missionaries establishes a high standard for everyone. People regularly cite availability of unusual linguistic knowledge as one thing that attracts businesses to Utah. Southeastern Idaho should benefit in the same way, but so far there isn’t much to show for it. The treatment of the BYU-Idaho languages department isn’t helping. Although the languages faculty are as dedicated as any at the university and academically better qualified than most, the signs of willful neglect are unmistakable. Foreign languages disappeared from the university’s general education requirements a few years ago. While the student body in Rexburg has exploded, the number of faculty in the department has stagnated or even declined as senior faculty get pulled into administration and not replaced. Whole programs get turned over from long-term CFS faculty to a revolving list of short-term faculty. The large number of students with international experience and advanced language skills is a strength nearly unique to the BYU system, but much of this potential is being wasted because the university won’t approve some obvious steps: among other things, it should hire someone to run a minor in Portuguese (one of the strategic languages on everyone’s economic radar), and it should create a major in Spanish for professional use. It would help if people outside the languages faculty would stop telling returned missionaries that they already know everything they need to know about their language. They don’t. (At a minimum, returned missionaries need one semester of intensive grammar review and one semester of cultural history.)

III. Pitfalls to either side

For the most part, though, BYU-Idaho simply needs to maintain its course while it avoids the truly disastrous possibilities that beckon from either side of its path. Tempting missteps include:

A purge. When I first arrived on campus, I wondered if the Spanish Inquisition was going to show up. It never did; BYU-Idaho turned out to be a remarkably congenial place to work. But it would only take one paranoid purge to turn the working environment into a toxic dump of Superfund proportions.

A presidential cult of personality. Compared to other universities, the BYU-Idaho president has few checks on his power, and less need to focus on being the fundraiser-in-chief, resulting in a great deal of freedom to implement his vision for the university. That freedom could be easily misused for any number of misguided or self-aggrandizing projects.

From stopgap to universal solution. BYU-Idaho has come up with some innovative and relatively inexpensive solutions to educational problems for which it deserves praise. Typically these solutions involve defensible trade-offs in quality. Think of Pathways: it’s a great way to make education widely available and a decent way to prepare students for college, but it’s not an equivalent substitute for a college education. If it hasn’t happened already, someone will eventually come up with the idea of “Pathways for Everybody,” replacing most 100- and 200-level courses with Pathways-like distance-education efforts. Hopefully the economic advantages will not blind people to the sheer awfulness of the idea. This is a hypothetical example, but it’s a conversation that will play out in a lot of ways as the university decides how much to undermine its core product in order to reduce costs.

Adjuncts everywhere. A variant of this, shifting more of the teaching to part-time or non-CFS faculty, is the opposite of innovative; almost every college and university in the U.S. has tried to cut costs this way. It’s a terrible idea for BYU-Idaho because there is not a large local population of potential adjuncts with advanced degrees, the nearest graduate program in many fields is hundreds of miles from Rexburg, and the university can’t assume that it will always be able to find a temple recommend-holding, professionally experienced Mormon with a doctorate who is willing to move to Rexburg and teach 5-5-4 for a few years with no clear idea of what comes after that. The university was moving in the right direction a few years ago, but had to put its plans on hold because of uncertainty over the consequences of the missionary age change. Hopefully the university will return to emphasizing CFS-track hiring when those missionaries come back.

Lurching from one hasty innovation to the next. A steady upward course is good, and the university is eager to embrace innovation. Innovation comes at a cost, however, when a program changes so much between a student’s first year and the time he or she returns from a mission to find the requirements entirely changed, the old required courses no longer offered, and the credit-hour limit admits no exceptions, that leaving BYU-Idaho for somewhere else is the only way to finish a major. Taking notes of what doesn’t work in a course and fixing it for the next semester is improvement; implementing a major pedagogical innovation every semester is not. Faculty need time — a few semesters or a few years — to see what is working. Non-stop, break-neck innovation will just leave everyone miserable.

To be clear, this is not a covert description of what BYU-Idaho is really like. Most days I found the university to be a very good place to be; infrequently, I noticed something that suggested the potential for trouble ahead.

* * *

This is the last installment of this series of posts based on my experience of having taught at BYU-Idaho for three years. Would I recommend the university to students? Like most things, it depends. Would I send my own kids there? Some of them, yes. They would receive a comparable or better education while incurring less debt and likely enjoying themselves more than at a regional campus of a state university. For most academically ambitious students interested in an LDS university, Provo is probably a better option. (Attending a non-LDS university is also an option, of course; I simply don’t have enough direct experience to make a useful comparison.)

Would I recommend teaching at BYU-Idaho? Not everyone would be happy there, but the group that would not be happy is probably smaller than it thinks. I worked very long hours, but with a high degree of autonomy, and I found the work very satisfying. Does having BYU-Idaho front and center on my CV make my job applications radioactive now? No, it does not. I still get interviews for positions in my academic specialty from departments with doctoral programs at highly regarded universities. The response rate to my applications is about the same now as it has always been, but now I can say, When I was given an academic program to run by myself, here is what I did with it, and I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish in the time I had. When I was first hired, I thought that no one, myself included, could end up at BYU-Idaho without having failed in some fundamental way. Eventually I saw that this wasn’t true. For some people, people who want to unapologetically focus on teaching at the college level in an LDS environment, or who, in the spirit of the Renaissance, want to teach at a high level in three very different departments, BYU-Idaho is a dream job.

26 comments for “BYU-Idaho: the next ten years (II)

  1. I will concede that the former Ricks is a great place, but I have to question the wisdom of the church going the 4-year route exclusively. Where does it stop? When, for example, will there be a Church university on the East Coast or some other part of the country? When will there be a church university outside the U.S.? And where does that leave all those young people who need a two-year school? Two-year schools, whether they were junior colleges of years ago or community colleges today, serve a very important purpose in educating our people. Has the church given up on these kids? If the church can provide 4-year schools, why not 2-year schools?

  2. Kevin, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the series.

    Aaron, BYU-Idaho still offers 2-year associates degrees, so those students are still being served. I suspect it will be a long time before we see another BYU-X campus. Would it be cheaper to expand the capacity of existing campuses, or create a new one? Most likely the former, and it will be awhile before the space to expand in and around Rexburg is exhausted.

  3. Jonathan, let me add my praise to Edje’s and Kevin’s–this has been a wonderful exploration of ideas, some of which I hope to make use of for some of my projects and arguments. I appreciate it very much. A couple of particular comments:

    –Thanks for calling attention to the hillside “R” (once for Ricks, now for Rexburg, I guess). Those sort of explicit and outward and collective signs of identification can easily seem passe or weird and unnecessary in these days, but I would argue that they are an important way of building up a genuinely beneficial civic sense. As someone who never went to BYU-Idaho, and knows nothing about its traditions, I say: keep painting the mountain!

    –Your first two “Pitfalls” read as somewhat unique to BYU-Idaho, while the following three capture the same sort of conversations and trade-offs which any small university is faced with these days (though, to be honest, I have a hard time believing that BYU-I is facing them to quite the same degree as most other comparable institutions, because BYU-I has an assured funding source far greater than all except a very few other schools of its size). I would have liked to hear more about them. Is there any reason why a “purge” (however defined) is, in your view, increasingly more or less likely at BYU-I, or would hurt BYU-I more or differently than would other LDS institutions? Ditto for the “presidential cult of personality.” Am I right in thinking that you chose to write “cult of personality”–as opposed to the more straightforward “presidential power”–because of some genuine concerns and local observations of yours? If so, please share them.

    –Finally, Jonathan, this–“the university can’t assume that it will always be able to find a temple recommend-holding, professionally experienced Mormon with a doctorate who is willing to move to Rexburg and teach 5-5-4 for a few years with no clear idea of what comes after that”–must have been a difficult sentence for you to write. As always, I salute you guys, and wish you the very best.

  4. Edje, thanks for the kind words.

    Russell, I wouldn’t say that people are more likely to see enemies in their midst at BYU-Idaho than anywhere else, although I do think it would be hurt worse than other institutions if that kind of witch hunting started. BYU-Idaho depends on faculty identifying with the institution and its mission (rather than motivating them with the promise of professional advancement) to a much higher degree than most universities (and I suspect even more than BYU, but I’m not sure). Without a high level of trust between faculty and administration, the whole thing breaks down. As for the university president, that position is already subject to very few checks and balances outside of accountability to the trustees. In the grand scheme of things, having someone who can quickly make decisions and have his vision implemented is not a bad thing, provided that vision is more or less reasonable. Someone with a really off-kilter vision could do a lot of damage, however, especially if it were couched in revelatory language. This isn’t to say that it will happen, but I don’t know what would stop it if it id. Rexburg is a small place, and far from SLC.

  5. I’ve enjoyed this series, Jonathan.

    I couldn’t agree more about the languages, Jonathan, especially the conspicuous absence of Portuguese.

    It would help if people outside the languages faculty would stop telling returned missionaries that they already know everything they need to know about their language. They don’t.

    Truer words were never spoken.

    I also agree that the presidential cult of personality is potentially an enormous problem. I can’t speak to anything the current president has or hasn’t done, but the mere fact that his power is virtually unchecked and that everything he does is defended as if it were the mind and the will of the Lord by far too many is a recipe for disaster (at some point, with someone, anyway).

    This dovetails nicely with the obsession with perceived innovation for innovation’s sake. It reminds me of missionary training every month at zone conference — or even the ever “newly-inspired” approach of the missionary program in general. There is always some new fad that everyone hails as the new inspired way, only for another new inspired way to take its place the next month or year. While there might be some real innovations in there somewhere, the bulk of it is usually just a repackaging old ideas to simulate the progress that the obedient have been led to expect. I can see how BYU-I is particularly susceptible this cycle of self delusion. On

  6. I sincerely hope they move back to an emphasis on permanent faculty, as you point out, not just because of the dearth of acceptably qualified people in the immediate area (which is an enormous problem). You mentioned before that the institution must avoid a climate in which the faculty is seen as the enemy. Sadly, the shift towards more adjuncts and temporary faculty creates a situation where the administration’s stranglehold on everything could very easily make that a reality. Moreover, the more permanent faculty are seen as expendable, the easier it is for purges to occur.

    When I was first hired, I thought that no one, myself included, could end up at BYU-Idaho without having failed in some fundamental way.

    Given the current job market in academia, this just isn’t close to being the case. That said, there is definitely an inferiority complex up there that everyone needs to get over. Why? Because the constant protestations that an individual “chose” to go there (presumably over more attractive options) feeds the holier-than-thou culture way too much.

  7. Enjoyed the series very much, Jonathan. I especially resonated with your bit on languages in this installment.

  8. I attended Ricks for two years, then returned to BYU-I 10 years later to do my 4 year as a non=traditional student, work through the growing pains of the university, and graduated with the first class in 2003.

    As I read your post, I wondered how much of the angst created by university changes was caused solely from policy, or because the university had changed. For example, use of the pool was quite accessible for many before the university went to year-round program. in the early 90’s I could schedule for scouting, lifeguard instruction, kayak instruction and more. That flexibility left when the pool was needed year-round after 2000. I would presume the swim lessons was a casualty of the same changes.

    Community outreach is valuable, as part of the mantra “Rethinking Education” getting the community to be engaged was in fact, a direct effort. Working with the Department Director at the Livestock Center, west of town, we created a Family Horseback Rendezvous – a noncredit class for a parent/child team to come learn horsemanship, riding skills, and more importantly, opportunity to bond. The course achieved its planned outcomes. I see more that could happen in this way in other departments. The Planetarium has been effective, but what other depts could also reach out?

    As for the topic of the R, you made it appear as if you were not aware that the R exists on Federal land, and after extensive study, it was determined that the R needed to be reclaimed back to nature. Its an eyesore now, but in time, it won’t exist. Nostalgia may need a back seat on this, and while the R did serve a purpose, the same purposes can be achieved without painting the side of a mountain. 1000’s of quality secondary learning facilities have done other effective things for generations, and BYU-I will learn to adapt.

    I cherish my return to the university, and regard many of my educators as friends. Perhaps in part because I returned as a NTS, but also the classes I partook were more engaged with my professors. I learned from them, about them, and in many cases in the field, learned along with them. The research and studies, practicals, and experiences, helped forge those bonds. I hope that your students had the same experience.

    For me, in 1985, Ricks College looked like an over-rated High School, and in many ways conducted itself as such. Its not the case anymore; Ricks has grown-up, and I believe will age well. In the process, casting off the methods and policies that are more burden than worth, while investing in its values and character that makes it, and I’ll say it, a better place to attend than BYU.

  9. WVS, I’m glad to hear these posts were enjoyable.

    Orwell, in general I think pedagogical innovation is good, and I took advantage of the chance to do some radical things. You’re right that some of today’s innovations are nothing new, while others are more substantive – but even good innovations have to come at a measured pace. You can’t flip a classroom one semester, make it a hybrid course the next, then turn it into a service learning opportunity right after that. And, again, I’m not saying that’s usually what happens at BYU-Idaho – but the focus on educational innovation is such that it is possible for too many changes to be implemented too rapidly. You’re probably right that the undercurrent of extra holiness is just the flip side of the inferiority complex with respect to Provo; I think we have to give Kim Clark credit for helping people feel like they’re part of a bold new experiment, rather than people who couldn’t get in to BYU.

    Shawn E., thanks for your comment, even if it shoots down my fundraising idea. Could the university just borrow the south butte for the next century while the north butte recovers? In any case, your comment gets at something I’ve tried to express in this series of posts: the university wasn’t done changing in 2003 and isn’t done now, but on a good day (and there were many good days), teaching at BYU-Idaho felt like the best job in the world.

  10. Given the tremendous population growth at BYU-I and in Rexburg over the past few years, it’s not surprising that BYU-I would start limiting access to its pool, especially given that Rexburg had been relying on BYU-I for that need for way too long. Even tiny towns in Eastern Idaho, just a fraction of the size of Rexburg, have their own pools. BYU-I’s move communicated to the city of Rexburg that they needed to start improving their own infrastructure instead of relying on BYU-I’s. Also, I imagine the fact that BYU-I is now just as busy in the summer as in other months means that BYU-I students use the pool a lot more in the summer than they did in the past, which would naturally limit the ability of the wider community to use it.

    Lots of people in Eastern Idaho were mad when BYU-I dropped their sports program, but I agree it was a fantastic move. There are better ways for the locals to get their sport fixes than to have tithing dollars pay for it.

  11. Jonathan,

    I certainly don’t mean to suggest that pedagogical innovation is not a good thing — just that, in an institution which already has a reputation for priding itself on overdoing other “values” (some legitimate, some less so), a perceived divinely inspired mission to innovate could quickly take on a life of its own in all the worst possible ways.

  12. Ultimately, the failure of Ricks College athletic teams to pay their way, doomed the sports program. I believe the one exception was the men’s basketball team, which seemed to pack the house most games.

    Do you think during the next 10 years, there will be serious consideration of starting a basketball program at BYU-I? There would be much support for the return of Viking basketball from students, alumni,and Rexburg area residents. The Ricks basketball teams were always competitive and brought much publicity for the school in Idaho and the region.

  13. Our stake has been very active in getting kids who otherwise might not have gone to college to consider BYUI. They organize a trip every year to take them to Rexburg and many of them have enrolled. From them we hear that it is almost impossible to transfer from Idaho to Provo. They say that even religion credits won’t transfer. I don’t know if this is true but you would think that religion classes taken at any BYU would have no problem being accepted at another BYU.

  14. Let me add my praise: this was one of my favorite series in the ‘nacle this year. I find your points and arguments clear and convincin. However, as the son of a former Ricks football player, your point in athletics stung a little bit…

  15. Orwell, yes, I’d agree with that.

    Tim, my impression wasn’t that the pool was terribly busy in summer. No one I talked to could explain the decision. Rexburg had just invested in its infrastructure – in the form of an outside water park. (Dear Rexburg City Council: What the heck were you thinking when you built a water park that’s only usable between June 1 and September 15?)

    Scott, nearly all college athletic teams everywhere don’t pay their way. With apologies to Ben P., I don’t think intercollegiate sports are ever coming to Rexburg. One of the great things about the university is how activity funding is spread around to anyone who wants to participate, not just the top 15 players on campus.

    KLC, I don’t know how difficult admission to Provo for Idaho students is. The biggest factor seems to be GPA, according to the person in the BYU admissions office whom I once once asked about it. I knew several students who transferred, but I don’t know what the acceptance rate is. I understand that students who finish an associate’s degree have a somewhat easier time with transfer credit, as the associate’s degree takes care of a lot of general education requirements – and the approaches to general education in Rexburg and Provo are so different that it’s not surprising that there are transfer hassles. Religion courses would seem to be pretty much the same, though, so it’s irritating that they don’t transfer easily.

    Stephen, Ben, I’m glad you enjoyed the series.

  16. I guess I should amend my “almost impossible” to “not worth pursuing”. Yes, it is possible to transfer from Idaho to Provo but if you have to essentially start over, even retaking religion classes, why bother?

  17. KLC, for some students, transferring may in fact not make much sense. But for students who finish an associate’s degree and have most GE requirements waived, transferring to Provo may not be too complicated, and it can yield

    * access to a program that doesn’t exist at BYU-Idaho
    * access to a stronger program than the one in Rexburg
    * a better launching board for applications to grad school or professional programs
    * geographic proximity to a spouse/fiance/boyfriend/girlfriend

    In the long run, losing a year or two or three is worth it if the resulting BA degree is a better fit for the student’s career goals. As an undergrad, you can reinvent yourself relatively easily. Afterwards, the costs rise quite a bit.

  18. This has been an excellent series. Thank you for bringing up all of these issues about the university, Jonathan. Your series has raised a number of important points and has helped me work through my pre-existing thoughts about the institution and whether I’d be willing to send any of my children there.

    About some of your points in this post: my family lives far from the West, so when we visit infrequently, my children are always bemused by the letters on the mountains. But if it’s already there, the university (student government, perhaps) should certainly maintain the “R.” And a weak language program should most definitely be addressed. What a shame it would be to waste all that potential.

  19. Jonathan, as others have said, thanks for this series. I have very little interest in BYUI—I didn’t go there, and it doesn’t have a law school, so I won’t go there professionally—but I found your analysis interesting and enlightening.

  20. Amy, the language programs aren’t weak! They have strong faculty and students. What they are is undernourished.

    Sam, I’m glad you enjoyed the series. Don’t be too certain that you’ll never end up in Rexburg, though. Stranger things have happened.

  21. What I’ve thought for a long time now is that we LDS need to have “focus schools” at a variety of regional flagship and branch universities. Students go to a BYU school primarily because of cost and the desire to be around thousands of other LDS, including potential spouses. However, you don’t need 15,000 or 35,000 other young LDS to have a sufficient population of prospective dates and like-valued friends. In 4 years at BYU, an extroverted person might meet (briefly, on any level of significance) about 2-3k students. Any more than that is just excess, IMHO.

    If you had a population of 3-5k LDS students at a campus like Ohio State or Texas A&M (50k students), they wouldn’t be a distraction or dominant population (ie they wouldn’t bother the university). They wouldn’t be able to stop applicants, since they can’t ask about religion, except perhaps refusing students from Utah (who could go to the U anyway). And it would be good for LDS and non-LDS students alike to have the added diversity at their school, without one group being overwhelming. LDS students might appreciate the gospel more when they see firsthand what happens to some friends without it, and vice versa. Plus, it would help eliminate employment prejudice against students with a BYU degree, since the employer would simply see the state school’s name.The Church could easily put the 8-10k it spends on a student at a BYU toward a grant of PEF loan toward going to a state school, and that would roughly equalize the cost, at least at reasonably priced schools, especially at resident tuition. They could then focus on strong institutes at those focus schools.

    Right now we have a few super-concentrated campuses named BYU, which are very costly and stifling to some students who grew up in sparsely-LDS environments, and then we have scattered weak institutes at most major schools, which are small enough that they don’t provide LDS kids with a big enough pool of potential friends and partners. It would be better for LDS students, and I’d argue for the other students of those schools, if instead there were a dozen or so “focus” schools across the country with an LDS population of a few thousand on a campus of 30k+.

    The biggest problem I see with this concept is getting it started. Obviously the Church can’t simply come out and say “if you’re an LDS high school Jr and your ACT is over XX, and you live east of the Mississippi, please apply to Ohio State”. It would have to be organic, a word of mouth sort of thing, which is notoriously hard to start. It would only work if at least a thousand or so students went the same year, and without institutional Church support that would be tricky. Once it was going though, the Church could justly claim no involvement, and simply support the growing institute there like it would at any school.

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