By Richard D. Poll

Brigham Young Academy, c. 1896

Founded in Provo, Utah, in 1875 to provide religion-centered education to Mormon youth in central Utah, Brigham Young University has become the largest church-sponsored university in the United States, with a 1993 winter semester enrollment of 27,985 full-time day students and an additional 3,632 part-time students. Less than a third now come from Utah, and all of the states and more than eighty foreign countries are represented in the cosmopolitan (yet 98 percent Mormon) student body.

This educational centerpiece of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was created as Brigham Young Academy under a deed of trust from church president Brigham Young. The Mormon leader's death in 1877 reduced the endowment and forced the school to look to its local constituency for funds to supplement tuition. Philanthropists including Abraham O. Smoot and Jesse Knight, some church subsidies, and a faculty and staff willing to accept low wages kept the institution alive until after World War II, at which time the church began making large and dependable contributions.

Brigham Young Academy was housed in Lewis Hall, in downtown Provo, until fire destroyed the converted mercantile building in 1884. Temporary accommodations, including a ZCMI warehouse, served until a new Academy building on University Avenue was dedicated in 1892. Other structures were added on this block before the Maeser Building was built in 1911 on Temple Hill, where the BYU campus subsequently developed. A demonstration Training School and Brigham Young High School were discontinued in the 1960s and the last university-related classes moved to the main campus shortly before Academy Square was sold in 1975.

Three principals led the academy before it was renamed Brigham Young University in 1903. Warren Dusenberry conducted the first term. Karl G. Maeser, a well-educated German convert to Mormonism taught the second, whose twenty-nine members included Senator-to-be Reed Smoot. Under Brigham Young's charge to teach nothing "without the spirit of God," Maeser directed the Academy from 1876 to 1892, at which time about 700 students were enrolled, some thirty of college age. Benjamin Cluff, Jr., put more emphasis on collegiate work, particularly teacher training, and the Normal College awarded its first degree (Bachelor of Pedagogy) in 1897. Bachelor of Science (1902), Bachelor of Arts (1906) and Master's (1916) degrees followed.

Adoption of the university's name coincided with the school's designation as the teacher training agency for the LDS Church. Since 1901 the church president has chaired the board of trustees, and since 1939 only church officers have served on the board. Preparing public school teachers has remained an important function of BYU, and most teachers in the church institutes and seminaries have received undergraduate or graduate training there.

The presidencies of George H. Brimhall (1904-1921) and Franklin S. Harris (1921-1945) witnessed the transformation of BYU from a school with 14 faculty and 899 students (only 74 in collegiate programs and 825 in the high school level academy), to an accredited university with 2,375 college students in 1939-40 and a faculty of 142 (27 with doctorates). When World War II cut enrollment by two-thirds, the question of institutional viability was again raised by the trustees. The postwar influx of veterans under the presidency of Howard S. McDonald (1945-1949) put this issue to rest, and the campus was soon dotted with converted war surplus buildings to accommodate an enrollment that reached 5,400 in 1947-48. Christen Jensen served as acting president, 1949-1951.

Two decades of prodigious growth owed much to the presidency of Ernest L. Wilkinson (1951-71). An energetic lawyer, Wilkinson persuaded the trustees to send BYU recruiters to church conferences, and enrollment that had slipped below 4,700 in 1950-51 began a climb that passed 25,000 in his last year as president. A multimillion dollar investment, mostly church funds, produced an impressively landscaped array of almost 350 academic, administrative, residential, and support buildings. Doctoral and professional programs were established and the J. Reuben Clark Law School opened. Travel-study and semester-abroad programs were launched and the adult education offering was expanded. NIT basketball championships in 1951 and 1966 helped generate an institutional commitment to intercollegiate athletics; nationally ranked teams and individual competitors in many intercollegiate men's and women's sports came later.

An honor code regulating dress and deportment, a requirement of religious instruction each term, a new system of student wards and stakes, and an increasing component of former missionaries promoted cultural unity in the geographically diverse student body, while an honors program attracted bright Mormon high school graduates. Wilkinson was more successful in recruiting a competent faculty than in maintaining harmonious relations with some of its members - the question of academic freedom, always sensitive at BYU in areas impinging on religion, produced additional tension because of the president's management style and strong political views.

Succeeding university presidents Dallin H. Oaks (1971-1980) and Jeffrey R. Holland (1980-89) directed an era of consolidation, in which facilities, programs, and funding were brought up to standards commensurate with the growth and maturation of the student body. The board of trustees imposed an enrollment ceiling that was maintained with difficulty; raising admissions requirements and deportment standards were the primary methods. Responsibility for funding capital improvements was transferred to the university, and aggressive alumni relations and endowment programs were developed. The church college in Laie, Oahu, became BYU - Hawaii, and a residence center for religious studies was established in Jerusalem despite resistance from orthodox Jews. Policies of refusing public funds (except for research contracts and student grants) and resisting federal regulation, initiated under Wilkinson, were defended in the courts and through active participation in the American Association of Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities.

In the 1988 fall term Brigham Young University enrolled 26,986 day students, plus extension and other special categories students. They were offered eighty-five different majors through eleven colleges and two professional schools served by almost 1,700 full- and part-time faculty, 2,100 administrative and full-time personnel, and 9,000 part-time student employees in over 500 academic, administrative, residential, and support buildings. During that school year 5,869 degrees were awarded, including 955 master's and 243 doctoral degrees. At the year's end Rex E. Lee became president of this prominent educational institution.

See: Ernest L. Wilkinson, ed., Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, 4 vols. (1975-76); Ernest L. Wilkinson and W. Cleon Skousen, Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny (1976); Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young University: A House of Faith (1985).

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.