You 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.