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On the frontier: How BYU-Idaho is pushing the boundaries of higher education

Editors Note: This is the first in a three part series on BYU-Idaho and the implications for higher education. Read part two of the series here. Read part three of the series here.

ASPEN, Colo. — Kim Clark sat on the stage, waiting for his name to be announced.

It was June in Aspen Colorado, and even here, in this beige-walled conference room, it felt as if the rugged beauty and cool mountain air of the Rockies could come seeping in.

That Clark was here, speaking at the prestigious Aspen Institute, struck some as unlikely. The annual summer gathering draws a "who's who" of America's most innovative thinkers and leaders.

Presidents and other senior administrators of America's leading universities and colleges strolled the wooded campus during the two-day event, between classroom discussions. Past presenters had included Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.

That Clark had been asked to give a keynote address on innovation in American higher education was a surprise to many in the crowd. Clark wasn't a big name — outside of academic circles, the former Harvard Business School dean was barely known. What's more, he presided over a small school in eastern Idaho most people in the audience had never heard of. Once called Ricks College, it had been rechristened BYU-Idaho, and Clark was here to talk about how the school was reshaping the landscape of higher education.

Midway through his presentation, he shifted to something that made the crowd almost audibly gasp: the role faith plays in his classrooms. He keyed up a slide. "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is a principle of action and power," it read.

This is the mission of the learning model at BYU-Idaho, Clark declared, knowing that in academic circles the subject of religion is largely verboten. "I think there was a little bit of tension," Clark says now, more than a year later. "Don't worry," he told the audience. He could "translate" his school's faith-based mission into secular terms as well. "That broke the ice; everyone laughed," Clark recalls. "I thought it was important for them to see and understand who we really are, but also to help them see what we are doing and how it could be translated into a different environment."

The rise of BYU-Idaho, detailed in the new book "The Innovative University," is until now a story that has rarely been told outside of the spartan concrete walls of the Rexburg campus. And yet, it's a tale that's gaining traction within the world of higher education and beyond. It is the story of how a small community college became a force in the debate over the future of higher education. Over the last decade, the school has morphed from a two-year junior college into a four-year university with an international reach and an enrollment nearing 24,000. The school's focus on students and teaching (over faculty and research), a year-round schedule, innovations in online learning (including the use of remote online instructors), and a program for distance education called Pathway have turned the conventions of higher ed upside down. Within the ivory tower of academia, traditionalists see the school's methods as heretical. Others think the school might be the most innovative thing this side of Harvard.

"It seems to be an inspired conception of an institution that can fill an important role in American society," said Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College. The success of BYU-Idaho, experts say, could provide a roadmap to other colleges and universities struggling with surging growth and dwindling coffers of state governments.

All of which explains why Kim Clark has become such a sought after voice on the lecture circuit, from Aspen to D.C. When he left his post at the helm of the Harvard Business School for BYU-Idaho in 2005, many of his colleagues were baffled. Why leave the most prestigious university in America for a school with open enrollment? Shortly before leaving Cambridge, PBS' Charlie Rose asked Clark a version of this question.

"People will know BYU-Idaho," Clark replied. "BYU-Idaho will be known around the world."


To understand where BYU-Idaho is today, you have to go back more than a decade in its history.

For some time, Gordon B. Hinckley, then president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had been mulling over a specific challenge the church faced. As its ranks were swelling, especially in the developing world, the cost structure of existing models for higher education made it increasingly difficult to provide affordable education for a world-wide church. Hinckley believed fiercely that self-empowerment came through education, but he worried that as the church grew and BYU became more difficult to get into, thousands of Mormon youth would potentially miss out on college.

In a 1999 world-wide broadcast, President Hinckley stated of the church's flagship university at BYU: "We can accommodate only a relatively few. If we cannot give to all, why should we give to any? The answer is that if we cannot give to all, let us give to as many as we can."

Within a year of that broadcast, a meeting was held on the main floor of the Church Administration Building, a granite blocked edifice that sits on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The building houses the offices of the LDS Church's First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and is the setting of some of the church's most important meetings.

One spring day in 2000, after a monthly meeting of the board on the church's education system, Hinckley pulled aside Henry B. Eyring, who served both as an apostle and as the Commissioner of the church's education system. Like Kim Clark, Eyring had left a post at a prestigious academic institution, Stanford University, to take the helm of the little known university in Rexburg. In 2000, his assignment as commissioner had him oversee an education system that included BYU, BYU-Hawaii, Ricks College, and the programs of religious study for hundreds of thousands of high school and college-aged students around the world.

"Hal," Hinckley said to Eyring, looking him in the eye. "Couldn't we serve more students at a lower cost by making Ricks a university?"

Eyring quickly ran the calculations through his head. "No," he said, considering the added faculty and the need for more office space and classrooms on the Rexburg campus if the school were to go four years. "It will cost you more, not less."

To Eyring, this was the sensible answer. But Hinckley saw things differently.

"No it won't," he answered.

Hinckley had already looked at opening other campuses, but the cost estimates that had come back were staggering. The way Hinckley saw it, the church had to figure out a new way to reach more students, and to do it at a lower cost.

On June 21, 2000, President Hinckley and Elder Eyring together announced the creation of BYU-Idaho. The statement was relatively brief and included the following roadmap for the university's future: "BYU-Idaho will continue to be teaching oriented. Effective teaching and advising will be the primary responsibilities of its faculty who are committed to academic excellence. The institution will emphasize undergraduate education and will award baccalaureate degrees; graduate degree programs will not be offered. Faculty rank will not be a part of the academic structure of the four-year institution. BYU-Idaho will operate on an expanded year-round basis, incorporating innovative calendaring and scheduling while also taking advantage of advancement in technology which will enable the four-year institution to serve more students."

The message was clear: Ricks would be a different kind of university, with a different kind of mission. The university was carving out its own DNA.

When the school announced these changes in Rexburg, Betty Oldham, now an assistant to the president at BYU-Idaho, remembers students cheering up and down the hallways. Their two-year school had become a four-year university, with the prestige of the BYU name.

For administrators and professors the reaction was mixed, and in some cases, decidedly different. Long-standing professors were worried about the proposal, and others didn't want to give up the opportunity to do research. Some wondered how making the switch would be possible. It seemed like a daunting, nearly impossible task.


The LDS Church turned to David Bednar, then the president of Ricks College, to oversee the change, which he learned of just two weeks before the announcement became public.

"There couldn't have been a better man for the job," said Henry J. Eyring (Henry B. Eyring's son), who has researched the history of BYU-Idaho extensively.

A long-time academic who had served as dean at the University of Arkansas, Bednar knew what traditionally happened to community colleges that transitioned into universities. They becaome more exclusive and more expensive. They built magnificent buildings to attract the best intellects and athletes. In other words, they become elite, and faculty expected to be treated accordingly.

Ricks was attempting to go the opposite direction. It would become a university, but in so doing reach more, not fewer, students, and at a lower cost. That would require sacrifices from the president on down. A spirit of frugality would infuse everything the university did going forward.

Bednar knew that convincing the faculty at Ricks to resist tradition wouldn't be easy. He decided to tackle the issue head on in one of his first speeches to faculty after the school announced the change. "We should be excellent scholars, and our scholarship should be focused on the processes of learning and teaching," Bednar said. "We will not be a recognized and highly regarded research institution in the traditional sense of that term. We will depend more upon inspiration and perspiration to make improvements than upon buildings and equipment. Then hard economic times will have little effect on the continuous innovation that will not cease at this school, even in the most difficult times."

Henry J. Eyring, one of the authors of "The Innovative University," described Bednar's role in those early days of transition as "superman changing the direction of a speeding train."

Some of the universities most ardent supporters worried that the changes would kill "the Spirit of Ricks," a sense of frugality, modesty, and student-oriented culture that permeated the environment. When he announced the end of the intercollegiate athletic program, many people in the community felt betrayed and deeply disappointed. To this day, some people in Rexburg still ask when the program will return.

"These were difficult things to do," said Henry J. Eyring, noting that at the time Bednar and his colleagues worried that the growth and transition to a university "would ruin the place." But Eyring says Bednar understood that the real spirit of the school didn't have as much to do with Ricks football or being a two-year institution as it did with "serving good, ordinary college kids and helping them become extraordinary." Under Bednar's steady leadership, the new university quickly took shape, based on Gordon B. Hinckley's unique design. Over the next four years, the school added over 60 baccalaureate degrees, received accreditation as a four-year institution, and rapidly expanded its enrollment base. For the faculty and other employees, the changes were literally breathtaking; everything seemed to be in constant flux, and the phrase "change fatigue" gained currency in water-cooler conversations. In 2004, President Bednar was was asked to fill another assignment with the church, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Many thought the next president would surely slow down the pace of change.

Ironically, it was a research scholar who would be tapped to build this new teaching institution.


More than 2,000 miles away, Kim Clark stood in a finely appointed conference room overlooking the Harvard campus. Outside, the trees were blooming beneath a bright spring sky, as students scurried across the wooded campus on their way to class.

Clark was standing before 200 faculty members for a hastily called meeting. Larry Summers, the embattled university president, stood beside him, looking downtrodden and exhausted.

"Dear faculty and friends, I am here to announce my retirement as dean of the Harvard Business School," Clark said. There were audible gasps — Clark had been at Harvard for 35 years, and had served as dean of the business school for the last decade. Surely, he was leaving for something even more prestigious and high profile.

"I have accepted a position to become president of BYU-Idaho," he said. The decision baffled his colleagues. The Boston Red Sox season tickets, the tree-lined streets of Cambridge, the cafes and bookstores for what, exactly? BYU-Idaho didn't even crack the top 100 on US News and World Report's annual ranking of colleges and universities. Most of his colleagues had never even heard of it.

"Many of you may be wondering, 'Why this? Why now?'" Clark continued, explaining that for some time he and his wife had felt it was time to do something else. Ricks had a "pioneering spirit" that resonated with them, he said, but most importantly, he and his wife had received a call several weeks before from President Gordon B. Hinckley, the leader of their church, and he extended the invitation. "We have counseled with our students for years to do what matters most to them and have an impact," Clark said. "Our church and our family are the most important things in our life. Thus, it is time for us to 'walk the walk,' and we are going."

When Clark sat down the faculty erupted with applause. Finally, after repeated attempts to get everyone to sit down and stop clapping, Summers took the floor. He had known Clark since graduate school, he explained, and had thought about talking him out of his decision but had then realized, "I was not the president he listened to."

Many of the school's leadership were sad to see him leave. "Kim brought (Harvard's) research to a new level, by aggressively expanding the faculty to infuse new research talent into our ranks," said Teresa Amabile, a classically trained psychologist at the Harvard Business School.

The day Clark left Boston for Rexburg in June of 2005, it was 70 degrees and the trees above the tennis courts near his office were blooming. When he got to Idaho, he was met by 30-mile-per-hour winds and temperatures of 40 degrees. Rexburg had no airport and no mall. These were not the trappings that attracted Clark and others to the Rexburg campus.

And while he and his wife didn't know anyone in Rexburg, they felt like there was something special about the place. Clark could feel it the minute he stepped on to campus. And while Clark's experience was dramatic and more publicly visible, he quickly learned that it paralleled those of so many others who had been drawn to the campus.

Like so many before him, Clark knew immediately upon arrival that BYU-Idaho was a different institution.

"I realized very quickly that things happen really fast here — not typical of traditional academia," he said.

While much had been accomplished during Bednar's tenure in terms of turning Ricks into the vision President Hinckley had for the school, many challenges remained.

In his inaugural speech to faculty and students in 2005, Clark laid out three imperatives: raise the quality of every aspect of the experience students have on campus, make a BYU-Idaho education available to more young people and lower the relative cost of education.

"As we reflect on these three wonderful imperatives, you might imagine that to do them all — to raise quality, to serve more students, and to lower relative costs — would be extremely difficult, if not impossible," Clark said. "Indeed, it is traditional and even natural to see in these three imperatives only dichotomies and trade-offs — higher quality but only with higher, not lower costs; serve more students, but only by raising costs, or reducing quality. But we are not bound by tradition… . In short, this is a very unusual university."

Clark said that teachers understood and respected the three imperatives. It's when he begin to implement them that challenges arose.