Editor’s note: This story appeared in the April 2022 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.
Four years ago, BYU law student Kekai “Kiki” Cram had an experience on the BYU campus she has pondered over ever since. It is a cemented, crystal-clear memory. As she walked past the library, she saw a grounds maintenance worker do something peculiar.
“I watched this grown man move a garbage can, bend over and take a toothbrush-sized brush to clean a small stain off the cement ground that had been underneath the garbage can,” Cram said. “Maybe he thought, ‘out of all the things that are messed up, at least this is something I can do.’ I don’t know who that man was, but he was a piece of this institution.”
BYU is approaching its 150-year anniversary and the 50-year anniversary of President Spencer W. Kimball’s Second Century address. BYU’s dual credentials as a university and as a religious institution are increasingly rare in the higher education landscape.
But that also means it is increasingly important — and difficult — to determine exactly what makes BYU “successful.”
Who decides whether BYU is successful or not? Is BYU’s success based on students having testimonies of Jesus Christ’s gospel? Or are secular measures like rankings, accreditation, outside funding and alumni achievements more important?
Components of success
While talking to The Daily Universe, Cram reflected on that grounds worker cleaning the stain. “BYU is bright, clean and beautiful — we know this. We look good on the outside, but do we look inward often enough to make sure real people and students are taken care of?”
The measure of success at BYU is how well the university meets the BYU mission and AIMS, said Susan Rugh, dean of Undergraduate Education.
BYU’s mission “is to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life. That assistance should provide a period of intensive learning in a stimulating setting where a commitment to excellence is expected and the full realization of human potential is pursued.” A BYU education aims to be spiritually strengthening, intellectually enlarging and character building. BYU aims to set students up for successful lifelong learning and service.
BYU is recognized by outsiders as a high-performing institution. This includes its quality of education, athletics, peer reviews of faculty scholarship and alumni success in jobs and grad schools. Forbes magazine has repeatedly recognized BYU as the best value college in America. This takes into account BYU’s quality of education along with its relatively low tuition, which is subsidized heavily by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet, according to its mission and aims, high rankings do not fully represent BYU’s success.
BYU is unique in its intertwining of rigorous scholarship with the foundation of faith. Negative critiques of that spiritual foundation, or outsider perspectives on BYU’s imperfections, are also not fully representative of how BYU measures its failure.
In President Kimball’s address, he emphasized the BYU faculty’s double heritage to “speak with authority and excellence … in the language of scholarship” and to teach students vital and revealed truths.
“I think we can ask students to do the same; to come here and be committed to the gospel and to learn. To not separate those two things,” Rugh said.
The literal usage of BYU’s building space is an indication of BYU’s singular priority and purpose: to prepare people for eternal life and to teach them how to seek truth through study and faith, Rugh said. On Sunday, a professor’s office can become an office for a bishop of a young single adult ward. An auditorium usually used for American Heritage lectures can become a sacrament meeting place where students renew their baptismal covenants.
Justin Collings is a professor and associate dean of the BYU Law School.
“It’s important to realize we don’t just have a campus filled with multipurpose buildings,” he said. “We shouldn’t think of whisking out the devotional stage to replace the basketball floor as completely different activities.”
What happens on the Sabbath and what happens during the weekdays are two parts of the same work inside of BYU’s mission.
In a recent BYU devotional, Collings paraphrased words from former BYU-Hawaii president John Tanner, who said, “at BYU, we nurture a temple-like school in the shadow of a school-like temple.” For those at BYU, a “temple of learning” is not just a metaphor — it’s an act of worship.
“I always want to be a disciple of Christ who teaches law, not a law professor who goes to church on Sunday,” Collings said.
John Hilton III is a BYU ancient scripture professor and author of the book, Considering the Cross. He has seen the successful connection between intellectual and spiritual learning firsthand. A few years ago, he worked with a colleague to look at thousands of student course evaluations. They found that when students ranked a course intellectually engaging, they also tended to rank it spiritually strengthening.
A student recently told Hilton of her chemistry professor’s advice to read The Book of Mormon before she starts working on her homework. She told him she was getting much more out of her chemistry homework ever since she adopted the practice.
“Maybe chemistry isn’t an inherently spiritual subject, but the teacher was using his chemistry class to help this student have spiritual and intellectual benefits,” Hilton said.
The exemplary quality of BYU’s secular and educational components is essential to its character. However, the true distinction of BYU as a university has been made clear. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland emphatically echoed one of the main themes of President Kimball’s address.
“We must have the will to stand alone, if necessary, being a university second to none in its role primarily as an undergraduate teaching institution that is unequivocally true to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in the process,” Elder Holland said at University Conference in August 2021. “If at a future time that mission means foregoing some professional affiliations and certifications, then so be it. There may come a day when the price we are asked to pay for such association is simply too high, too inconsistent with who we are.”
Working through difficult realities toward a better future
Cram remembers leaving her family and home in Hawaii for her freshman year; since then, her time at BYU has been a stretching experience. At times, she has felt out of place and unattached.
“Everyone was so bright and strong and out of thousands of students, I was just one floating around. I still feel that way every once in a while,” she said. “But I think I have my peak moments here when my classmate leaves me a note or I give a friend a ride home or other moments when I feel we’re caring for one another. That’s the type of ‘success’ that I’ve been chasing since being away from home.”
Current BYUSA president Paul Victor said building caring interpersonal relationships and promoting diversity has made his BYU experience successful. Race and diversity, or the lack thereof, are common discussion points surrounding BYU.
In 2021, BYU President Kevin J Worthen announced the creation of the Office of Belonging to enhance “belonging services and efforts on campus.” The office’s creation was guided by a report from the Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging (CoREB). The committee worked for several years to interview individuals, host focus groups and receive electronic testimonials on people’s experiences as minority members on campus.
However, many felt there had been too much history of inattention towards students of color. After the office’s announcement was posted to Twitter, some seemed to feel that creating the office was a reactionary, placating decision.
Rugh deeply appreciates the emphasis Church President Russell M. Nelson has made on “abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.” Being taught by President Nelson and led by President Worthen, Rugh believes there is goodwill among faculty, administration and staff to make all students feel welcome and equally treated.
She believes that more than any other university, BYU should be excelling in this area and it is currently not.
“If you were to ask me, ‘what are the challenges that lay ahead from President Kimball’s address?’, I would say this is our first big challenge. We’re not there yet and we know we’re not there yet. But we are doing so many things to try to be there,” she said.
As the first Indian BYUSA president, Victor said he works diligently to promote pride in culture.
“I wear my traditional Indian dress to all devotionals,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard for us to wear those things on campus, but it’s been meaningful for me.”
Alongside many others, he recognizes the difficult reality of micro-aggressions toward students of color. He recounted the deeply hurtful experience of an Indian friend as she walked to class.
“A white girl came up to her and said, ‘oh, you smell nice! But aren’t Indians supposed to stink?’”
Collings knows BYU’s spiritual commitments and convictions are never excuses or reasons for complacency in its treatment of students or its educational objectives.
Rugh watched the CoREB committee live up to the core gospel belief that “all are alike unto God.” The committee work that led to the Office of Belonging and the Race, Equity and Belonging report was done with intentional respect and effort to listen.
“It takes time to do something the right way. This is our challenge as administrators and faculty — it’s not the challenge of the students coming to BYU. It’s our challenge and I know we’re on the right path,” she said.
Victor respects how much BYU has grown, developed and become the university that it is today. The most concerning things he has seen within the BYU community involve people placing labels on others or focusing solely on the negatives.
Periodically members of the BYU community have made offensive comments or caused harm. For example, BYU religion professor Brad Wilcox in February 2022 made a statement at a youth fireside about previous Church policy on ordination of Black men. The university expressed concern, Wilcox apologized and expressed gratitude for being shown why his comments were hurtful.
Victor cited that incident as an example of how the BYU community can help each other become more respectful of each other.
Victor encourages students to focus on what they can do to have the best experience and education, as well as what they can do to bless the lives of those around them.
“My biggest wish is that we could be accepting of everyone and also forgiving,” he said.
Rugh urged people to remember that universities are not businesses or high schools. Universities change deliberately and carefully.
“We’re scholars and we believe in doing research, doing things right, with a lot of patience,” she said. “It can be very hard to be patient, especially when you feel you’ve been wronged and I have complete sympathy for the views of those who have waited too long.”
The experiences of LGBT students on campus have been at the forefront during the last several years. Several incidents created emotional discussions across different platforms. In 2020, a change in wording to the Church Educational System Honor Code prompted much discussion. In 2021, a man was recorded using a gay slur and pouring water over LGBT-supportive chalk drawings on campus.
In 2022, the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education dismissed a complaint filed against BYU about treatment of LGBT students. In connection with that episode, BYU re-emphasized its commitments to following the law, valuing all students and continuing to teach and practice Church doctrine. The federal government acknowledged BYU’s religious protections.
“At BYU, where our religious mission is inextricably bound up in the doctrine of Jesus Christ, we simultaneously stand firm in our religious beliefs and reiterate our love and respect for each member of our campus community,” President Worthen wrote to the Department of Education last year.
President Kimball expressed his testimony of Church leaders’ hearts and minds being open to revelation as they continuously determine the direction of the university and how to improve it.
“No one is more anxious than the brethren who stand at the head of this Church to receive such guidance as the Lord would give them for the benefit of mankind and for the people of the Church,” President Kimball said.
Collings believes the new emphasis on hiring employees who have current temple recommends is a signal of the Lord wanting a more consecrated faculty.
“That’s what we’re aiming for — not to just have a collection of friendly people who don’t drink coffee,” he said.
Consecrated students, faculty and staff desire to be built upon the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, eventually building toward a society built on the ways of the celestial kingdom.
“We’re not there yet, none of us are. But obviously, if we fail in our spiritual mission, then we fail full stop,” Collings said. “No success can compensate for failure in that, BYU is a part of God’s kingdom. If it’s not advancing the work of the kingdom, it shouldn’t exist.”
Embracing BYU’s mission in the second half of the second century
Cram expressed her desire for more open conversations between BYU’s administration and campus members.
“We make covenants to God and we make promises to the university to live certain ways; when we fall short, we need to repent and right our wrongs. I hope the university will do the same,” Cram said.
In his address, President Kimball said, “We should deal statistically and spiritually with root problems, root issues and root causes in BYU’s second century. We seek to do so not in arrogance or pride but in the spirit of service.”
For someone who may be wrestling with an agonizing issue and feel shattered by it, Collings recognizes they may think, “the leaders of the Church and BYU are talking to me about faith, repentance and personal revelation — but I want them to talk about my issue!’” Leaders and teachers are not saying, “don’t worry about that issue, it’s not a big deal,” he said.
Frustrated individuals may feel something along the lines of, “we’d love a 40-minute devotional that dives into detail with what I’m struggling with.”
As individuals and the BYU community as a whole wrestle with difficult challenges in the second half of the second century, Collings said the person who can give healing is the Lord Jesus Christ. Healing from heart-wrenching concerns comes from Jesus Christ if each child of God turns to Him and repents. It will not help anyone to resist prophetic teachings or rebel against the doctrine of the Church, Collings said.
In the Second Century address, President Kimball said, “we hope that our friends and even our critics will understand why we must resist anything that would rob BYU of its basic uniqueness in its second century.”
BYU’s mission and success is distinct. President Kimball reiterated this by further stating, “education is a part of being about our Father’s business and that the scriptures contain the master concepts for mankind.”
Hilton reminds himself of all those around the world who look to BYU with hope and would love to benefit from its scholarly and spiritual community.
“I know there are many people across the world who would love to be at BYU, but can’t be,” he said. “As a part of the BYU community, I need to have a sense of humility in my heart knowing I need to treat this opportunity to be here in a sacred way.”
Cram reflected on why BYU has been a successful place for her, not solely because she is a high-caliber student, but because she was at BYU when she learned to be a wife and be a better sister. At BYU, she met her best friend and met professors she knows genuinely care about her.
“I’ve found people who are like family and I try to keep my covenants. BYU is a good place because it helps us do those things,” she said.