REXBURG, Idaho — Lori Woodland came to what was then Ricks College in 1985 and built her life around her family and basketball.

As coach for the women's team, she remembers being "devastated initially" when President Gordon B. Hinckley announced more than five years ago that the school would not only offer four-year bachelor's degrees but that it would eliminate intercollegiate athletics.

Even so, she was determined to put a good face on the change. "That very day, I told some of the kids in the neighborhood who were asking about it, 'When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.' I told President (David) Bednar I didn't understand it, but we follow the prophet in our home," even though the decision "wasn't easy. They were tough times."

But as the days turned into weeks and then into months, Woodland said she came to a larger understanding of "why it had to happen. Sometime you have to give up something that's really good to get something that's better."

Now a full-time member of the religious education faculty at BYU-Idaho, Woodland sees how the school's activities program has spread the wealth of resources, once focused on a few students, across the entire campus. All who wish to be "participants rather than spectators" may participate. The focus: experience-centered learning and leadership.

Vaughn Stephenson, humanities department chairman, was "completely shocked" when he heard President Hinckley's announcement. "I knew every good reason why we would never be a four-year school, yet most of them were actually solved" once the transition took place. He was even more surprised to learn earlier this year that the dean of the Harvard Business School would be coming to Rexburg. He succeeds Bednar, who was named to the church's Quorum of the Twelve.

"I think President Hinckley's intellect is vastly underrated. I am just amazed at the clarity of what he is trying to do here. We thought we were doing well serving a greater number of students, but I think we're achieving even more as a four-year school. I wouldn't have believed that before."

After joining the faculty in 1989, Stephenson watched the school attract students with average ACT scores below 20. While many were driven to achieve, the lack of four-year status meant less motivation for some than a traditional university setting provides.

"Now I don't know if I would find a student with an (ACT) score below 20. They told us in faculty meeting the other day the average score is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25. That's astonishing to me."

Many of today's students served two-year missions for the LDS Church, and a large percentage are married. "There's just a sense of maturity among them that tends to filter down through the entire student body," he said.

Both faculty members agreed that what was once dubbed "the spirit of Ricks" has become "the spirit of BYU-I," an intangible but real feeling that pervades the campus.

Sabra Martinsen, Murray, a senior majoring in university studies, said it wasn't the course of study but the school's religious emphasis that drew her to BYU-I. "I like the emphasis it places on spirituality in our lives and bettering ourselves, intellectually as well as spiritually. You get a whole education and not just the secular part."

She said the quality of her experience is enhanced because "the spirit is here and people are so friendly. It feels like there is a genuine spirit of love here as a campus. I love it here." President Clark has simply added to that, Martinsen said.

Tyler Hansen, Blackfoot, Idaho, a senior majoring in psychology, said he's been impressed with the faculty in his program and their ability to talk about secular philosophies in tandem with religious truths. "We dissect them both, but bring them back into one. They've been really good at teaching what the field teaches, then letting us as students decide how that incorporates into our belief system. We talk about it in class a lot."

Hansen has met with Clark several times and believes "he is exactly what the university needs at this time."

Kellie Thacker, Littleton, Colo., a freshman majoring in photography, said she chose BYU-I "because I was tired of everything that's going on in the public schools . . . (The school is) more than what I expected. It's amazing. I love to be in class and have the gospel brought up. It's just normal to everyone."

She's impressed with Clark, she said. "I think he will be able to do a lot of great things for this school."

Stephenson said the faculty agree. "There's this tremendous sense of academic credibility that his presence here has given to the entire institution."

In some ways, the irony of cosmopolitan, Ivy League experience transplanted directly into a rural, religious school still lingers among his colleagues. "Of all the people to bring up an in-depth discussion about learning by faith on this campus, it was the Harvard guy that initiated the discussion."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com