BYU-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?