Utah History Encyclopedia


By Jackson Newell and Takeyuki Ueyama

James E. Talmage, John R. Park, and Carl G. Maeser

The early history of higher education in Utah is rather difficult to describe, because terms like college and university were used loosely in frontier America. However, if we define higher education as formally organized instruction leading to a degree beyond a high school diploma, then the story begins in Salt Lake City, just three years after Mormons under Brigham Young established the first permanent non-Native American settlement in the Great Basin.

The legislative assembly of the State Deseret (soon to be organized as the Utah Territory) chartered the University of Deseret in 1850, naming Orson Spencer chancellor, and also selecting twelve regents to guide the institution, which was considered the "parent school" of an intended network of colleges. But funds were scarce and the assembly voted the next year to "disestablish" the university. It remained moribund until 1869, the same year that the transcontinental railroad ended Utah's period of pioneer isolation. John R. Park, M.D., was appointed "Principal" that year, but the university still remained little more than an idea. The school did issue fourteen first-year certificates in 1875, but another decade passed before the first bachelors' degrees were granted. The University of Deseret became the University of Utah in 1894, anticipating the U.S. Congress's action to admit Utah to statehood in 1896. By that time, however, the university was hardly alone, since higher education in Utah had already experienced its first major period of expansion.

In 1874 the Board of Regents founded Timpanogos University in Provo as a branch of the University of Deseret. A year later, Brigham Young's family took responsibility for the Provo school and named it Brigham Young Academy. The Mormon Church assumed financial responsibility for the academy in 1896, and changed its name to Brigham Young University in 1903. In the meantime, the legislative assembly took advantage of the Morrill Land Grant Act and established the Utah Agricultural College in Logan in 1888. Less than a decade later, the assembly chartered the Cedar City branch of the University of Utah Normal School, and then transferred the branch to the Utah Agricultural College in 1913. This institution eventually became Southern Utah University.

The democratization of higher education advanced rapidly in Utah, reflecting in part the complicated ties between church and state and the numerical and political dominance of the Mormons. The LDS Church founded Weber Academy (now Weber State University) in Ogden in 1890; it also founded Dixie and Snow colleges. Because of economic pressures on the Mormon Church caused by the Great Depression, all three institutions were deeded to the state in 1933. Since that time, the state system has added several schools-namely, a branch of Utah State Agricultural College in Price, now the College of Eastern Utah, and two technical and vocational training facilities that began in the aftermath of World War II and became comprehensive community colleges in 1987. Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley Community College brought the number of state public institutions of higher education to nine. Enrollment in these nine institutions grew from 13,700 in 1950 to more than 75,000 in 1990. The dramatic increase in higher education enrollments reflected not only the population growth of the state, but also higher entry rates among high school graduates, as well as greater numbers of non-traditional students who continue or return to college later in life.

Turning to the private sector of Utah higher education, the Presbyterian Church opened Westminster College in Salt Lake City in 1875. Now an independent liberal arts college, Westminster enjoys support from a broad spectrum of the community and offers courses to about 2,000 students annually. Westminster College and Brigham Young University (which enrolls more than 25,000 students) constitute the fully accredited private sector of higher education in the state. They awarded nearly half the bachelors and masters degrees in Utah in the 1980s.

Other post-secondary institutions also serve the state. LDS Business College, founded in Salt Lake City in 1886, sought to broaden its curriculum a century later with the long-term aim of accreditation. Several for-profit institutions have recently sought a market in Salt Lake City, but on the University of Phoenix, a branch of an Arizona business enterprise, appears to have established a foothold.

The governance of public higher education has been a matter of frequent controversy since early in this century. Should every college or university have its own board of trustees, or should coordination or direct control be lodged in one statewide body? A study sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior recommended a single governing board in 1926, and other consultants and task forces reaffirmed the proposal in subsequent years. The Utah Conference in Higher Education was formed during World War II to stimulate voluntary cooperation, and until 1974 it sponsored an annual meeting to hear and discuss an address on Utah higher education by a prominent Utah college or university leader. The first tangible effort to coordinate institutional governance, however, occurred in 1959 when the legislature mandated the Coordinating Council for Higher Education, and George Vest became its first Executive Director. Administering the federal Higher Education Act of 1965, however, required greater powers, and led to the creation of the Utah System of Higher Education in 1969. This system was based on a fifteen-member State Board of Higher Education (now, the State Board of Regents), which governed all nine institutions by seven guidelines within which monetary gifts could be sought and accepted.

Academic freedom-the liberty to pursue knowledge and consider ideas in laboratories and classrooms without fear of external intervention-is historically the core principle of higher education. It depends not only on professional responsibility (the obligation to investigate, report, and teach ethically), but also on public forbearance (the willingness of government and private interests to respect this principle). Utah colleges and universities, like those elsewhere, have struggled to defend and to be worthy of this trust. The presence of a dominating religious group in the state, however, led to two notable confrontations early in this century-at Brigham Young University over the teaching of evolution in 1911, and at the University of Utah in 1915.

University of Utah president Joseph L. Kingsbury notified four respected professors in February 1915 that "for the good of the University" they would not be reappointed the following year. A bitter conflict emerged between the faculty and administration, and seventeen prominent professors tendered their resignations to protest the punishment of their colleagues for voicing views contrary to those of the president. The newly formed American Association of University Professors (including philosopher John Dewey) investigated the case thoroughly and judged that the president had acted capriciously. The matter was resolved in favor of the faculty. The legacy of these episodes is twofold. The University of Utah administrations in particular, and other public institutions in general, have maintained-and state government and Mormon Church officials have respected-academic freedom in both principle and practice. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1950s, when University of Utah president A. Ray Olpin offered to resign rather than succumb to the political pressures to require faculty to sign a loyalty oath. The other element of this legacy is that Mormon Church leaders, to provide an alternative educational environment for their students, have developed BYU as a large, high-quality institution. The presence of a Mormon Church-owned university in Utah, therefore, may have mitigated against possible church temptations to interfere with academic freedom in public higher education.

Five themes characterize the history of higher education in Utah: increasing secularization but continuing interdependence of public and private sectors; growing centralization of governance in the state system; increasing access to and participation of Utah citizens of all ages; a chronic shortage of financial resources per student compared to other states; and a tradition of successfully defending academic freedom, particularly at the University of Utah and at Utah State University. Institutional councils serve as advisors to university presidents and have powers to oversee personnel and fiscal affairs, facilitate communication between the institution and its community, and assist in planning, implementing and executing fund-raising and development projects. A Commissioner of Higher Education serves as executive director of the system, but the college and university presidents report directly to the Regents. As states go, Utah has a relatively decentralized organizational structure and a rather diffuse approach to lobbying lawmakers.

In the 1980s Utah experienced persistent revenue shortages. Tax money was scarce in most states, but outside of Utah the college-age population was generally stable or falling rather than rising. Faced with this problem, the Utah Legislature and Board of Regents mandated a series of controversial reforms including concurrent high school and college enrollment for college credit, prepackaged teaching programs offered via interactive educational television, and increased use of nationally normed, commercially produced tests to assess student learning and institutional effectiveness. At issue were questions of teaching quality, student motivation, and academic freedom because of the removal of decisions about course content, teaching philosophy, and the quality of student work from colleges and their professors and the placement of them in the hands of state policy-makers or testing companies. Utahns struggled to respond to their sustained crisis in educational finance without sacrificing the campus-to-campus diversity and professional autonomy that historically undergirded good teaching and research. The issue of system-wide (or even legislative) control versus campus-based decision-making pervaded the educational environment nationally during this period, but nowhere were these conflicts more acute than in Utah.

Fund raising became a preoccupation of governing boards and college presidents in the 1980s, due to changes in federal tax policies, concern about the national debt, and public resistance to raising taxes. Federal policies had shifted responsibility for funding educational programs further to state and local agencies. When their coffers ran low, college officials turned to private donations to close the fiscal gap. Throughout Utah and American higher education has been the importance and peril of large-scale fund-raising campaigns. Controversies over renaming academic programs and other facilities suggested the need to establish more stable public funding to create accessible, high quality, post-secondary education for citizens throughout the state at comparatively low tuition.