Why start a university in isolated Rexburg? 4 stories about BYU–Idaho to celebrate the 20th anniversary

August 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of what Elder David A. Bednar called “one of the most important educational events of the Restoration”—the transformation of Ricks College from a two-year junior college to Brigham Young University–Idaho, a four-year institution.

Elder Bednar served as president of the school while it was in transition. In a recent Church News article, he and others who were involved shared several interesting behind-the-scenes stories and insights about that process. Here are four fascinating stories behind that decision and process:

1. Why Do This in Rexburg?

In 1870, the National Geographic Service deemed the area where BYU–Idaho now sits as “uninhabitable.” Regardless, Elder Bednar said heaven cared about establishing a university there.

“Why else would you build a school in Rexburg, Idaho? It’s not on the freeway, and it’s not close to anything if you think about it. It’s been preserved, it’s been enlarged in really miraculous ways because heaven has an interest in what goes on there,” he told Church News.

Previous BYU–Idaho president Elder Clark Gilbert gave three reasons why Rexburg has proven to be a great home for the university:

  1. Students, faculty members, and administrators would only go there if they knew the Lord wanted them to. 
  2. The pioneer history of Rexburg is rooted in hard work and consecration to the Lord. 
  3. The isolated location “provides a release from the pressures of the world and the pressures of academia.”

2. When the Prophet Said It was Time

Church News writes that former BYU–Idaho vice president Bob Wilkes will never forget the day President Bednar popped his head into Wilkes’s office with a very surprising question. President Bednar asked what Wilkes thought about transitioning the college into a university and offering bachelor’s degrees. Wilkes’s reply? “That would never work.”

President Bednar listened to Wilkes’s reasoning and then posed another question: “Would it make any difference if you knew that President Hinckley thought it might be a good time to do that?”

“That would make all the difference, President,” Wilkes tells Church News he remembers replying. “Once we knew it was coming from the Prophet, there was no more debate about it or question about it.”

3. Like Trying to Repaint a Flying Jetliner: The Process of Transition

Elder Bednar and his colleagues had only 15 months to officially transition Ricks College to BYU–Idaho. Church News writes that Elder Bednar compared that time to “flying a jetliner at 35,000 feet and trying to repaint, renovate and work on all the mechanical features while it’s in the air.” After all, the two-year college had to keep serving its current students while the transition was taking place.  

Among the tasks Elder Bednar and his administrators had to tackle were deciding which degrees would be offered, eliminating the athletic program in favor of an activities program, implementing the three-track calendaring and admission program, and reevaluating campus space.

Betty Oldman, the president’s assistant at the time, told Church News “it was a crazy time” but also “one of the most spiritual experiences” she’d ever had as she watched countless miracles unfold.  

4. ‘Does Any of This Scare You?’

On June 23, 2000, President Hinckley made the public announcement that Ricks College would become BYU–Idaho. Church News writes that the night before the announcement, Oldham was at the copy machine as President Bednar was leaving. She asked him, “Does any of this scare you?”

“If I thought I was doing this alone I’d be scared to death,” President Bednar replied, “but I know who’s in charge.”

Oldham said his response changed her perspective and reminded her that they wouldn’t be without the Lord’s guidance as they moved forward.

Read more about the history and life of BYU–Idaho at Church News

Lead image: Lawson Turcotte