To 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.