Utah History Encyclopedia


By Jessie L. Embry
Ernest L. Wilkinson, president of Brigham Young University, attorney, and political candidate, was born 4 May 1899 in Ogden, Utah. His mother convinced him to attend Weber Academy, a Mormon-operated high school where Wilkinson became convinced of the virtues of the LDS Church educational system. Wilkinson graduated from Brigham Young University in 1921 and returned to Ogden to teach. He married Alice Ludlow in 1923.

After Wilkinson campaigned for Senator William H. King in 1923, he traveled to Washington D.C. expecting a job in King's office. When he was not given one, he taught high school and attended George Washington University law school. He graduated summa cum laude in 1926 and received a doctor of juridical science degree from Harvard in 1927. He taught at the New Jersey Law School and worked for a New York law firm. In 1935 he formed a law firm in Washington D.C. He is best known for his work in representing the Ute Indians. It took ten years to complete but brought $32 million in settlement claims, with nearly $3 million in attorney fees. After Congress passed the Indian Claims Commission Act in 1946, Wilkinson's law firm continued to work with other tribes.

In 1951 Howard S. McDonald resigned as BYU's president, and Wilkinson succeeded him. He actively campaigned to recruit students, improve the faculty, and increase the physical facilities. During the twenty years he served as president, the student body increased from 4,000 to over 28,000, faculty members quadrupled, and faculty with doctoral degrees increased 18 percent. More than 200 buildings were erected on campus; they included a library, a fine arts center, an administration building, athletic facilities, numerous classroom buildings, and five student housing complexes. Wilkinson believed all Mormons should have the opportunity to attend BYU and was disappointed when the board of trustees set a 25,000-student ceiling.

In 1964 Wilkinson resigned as BYU president in order to run for the U.S. Senate with the understanding that if he lost he would be allowed to return. He beat Sherman P. Lloyd in the primary but then lost to Frank E. Moss. Prior to the election, Wilkinson had refused to accept a salary at BYU, but after his defeat, he was given $20,000 a year, the largest of any university employee.

Because of age, poor health, and lessening support from church leaders, Wilkinson submitted his resignation in 1970. In 1971 Dallin H. Oaks became BYU's president. While Wilkinson hoped to be involved in the new J. Reuben Clark Law School, the school asked to help write BYU's centennial history. Wilkinson died on 6 April 1978.

See: Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young University: A House of Faith (1895); Ernest l. Wilkinson and W. Cleon Skousen, Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny (1976).