The Extra Dimension of Ricks College: A Conversation with President Henry B. Eyring

Henry B. Eyring


Ensign: Students go to college for many reasons. But what would you like those same students to be like when they leave Ricks College?

President Eyring: I want them to have confidence in a vision of themselves—a vision that entails three dimensions: the first dimension is personal confidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, and that it can work in their daily lives because they’ve actually had some experience in college proving to themselves that it does work.

The second dimension involves a personal confidence that a student can learn. Many students come from school systems that somehow helped convince the student that he was not a very good learner. Many students are brilliant. Yet, even among them, the problem is not generally to teach them humility, but to give them confidence that throughout life they can go on learning. The real block to life-long learning is a lack of confidence. For example, if I think I can read, I go on reading.

I learned something from my father. He didn’t criticize one of his graduate students doing scientific research one time when I thought he needed criticizing. I asked Dad why, and he said, “Don’t worry, nature will criticize him plenty. I will build him up.”

The third dimension is achieved when I see students with personal confidence that they can teach—not teach in the sense of being a lecturer, but in the sense that they are good nurturers. It is almost a by-product that when students are nurtured to learn, they see how to nurture others. And although students may not see it clearly, they soon will find themselves teaching others—their wives or husbands, their children, their friends, and their associates, in professional as well as in Church circles. Life constantly affords us an opportunity to teach—or to nurture the growth of others. Obviously, if students are nurturing others, they are also advancing in many other related areas.

These three dimensions—the capacity to make the gospel work in their lives, a conviction that they can forever learn, and the acquisition of some teaching skills that enable a student to be a nurturer—are very deeply felt by our faculty.

Ensign: How do you help someone through college to be a teacher—or nurturer—of others, whether it be his or her five children or a Beehive or Aaronic Priesthood class?

President Eyring: We have created one formal program, “Teaching in Small Groups,” in which students receive something analagous to the Teacher Development program of the Church, but with added technical and professional assistance such as videotape programs, where they have a chance to see themselves teach. This small course has produced some very interesting and heartwarming results. However, we know that all students will not take this one course, so we are experimenting in other areas. For example, many of our students are having exciting experiences teaching each other. Certain kinds of classes, by the nature of the material, provide a natural setting for students to teach other students. It may be ten minutes, half a class, or maybe it’s a large group of students for the entire class.

My guess is that an entire college career with experiences along these lines will have greater effect, in the long run, than the “Teaching in Small Groups” class, and will reach more students.

Finally, we hope that students at our institution will be surrounded by teachers and administrators who hope very much and who try very hard to see that students grow in this dimension of learning to teach—of learning to nurture others. When you are 18 or 19 or 22, it’s hard to be mature enough to know how much you are going to want to be a good teacher when you are 31 or 41. No student, of course, is forced to achieve all this—we just hope the educational process at Ricks College brings it about in some very unusual ways.

Ensign: Is it possible for the same spirit of “carryover throughout life” to also apply to campus curriculum, so that what is learned can be viewed as potentially useful in the home or Church or profession?

President Eyring: We hope so, because we like to think that our campus is pioneering in helping students develop skills that will have value and relevance throughout life. Many of our faculty members are developing small modules or segments for their courses that help students see how the material being learned can be of life-long benefit.

For example, in addition to learning all the regular skills in drama, wouldn’t it be wonderful if students of dramatic arts could also see how they could hold little impromptu theaters in their own family circles, or how they could have readers theaters in their own homes? In the English classes perhaps students could become excited about journal writing, where they have a vision of developing “family scripture,” a very controlled writing. Actually, a student is then trying to let the Holy Ghost touch him so he can write things that will touch his family. This is an entirely different type of class assignment, for example, than spending an entire semester learning how to write out one’s emotions. Journal writing—simply an example of how an English class can have specific long-term carryover value—is exciting because the writer is writing for an audience—his family—that he cares a great deal about.

The same is true with art. I carry a sketch pad around and illustrate things that I see. My sketches are not lovely, but the work is interesting to my family. At the end of the year, I paste these sketches in my daily journal, xerox it, have it bound, and give copies to my children. I didn’t put any sketches in the journal in 1973, and one of my little sons asked, “Where are the pictures?” When I said there weren’t any, just words, he simply said, “Oh.” The disappointment was there. The pictures grab him now; later, I hope the words will. But if all our students who took art could see and identify possibilities where they could use art throughout their lives in the home, in their family home evenings, and in giving lessons, then they have been helped immensely. It’s the same with athletics.

I once had a class in baseball. I wish I had learned how to throw a curve ball, so I could teach my son how to throw a curve. The same is true in swimming. In addition to all the regular coursework on how to be a better swimmer, couldn’t a small module of the class also be concentrated on how to help a child learn to swim? It’s a different skill to help a child overcome his fear of water. You need to spend time putting his head under the water and getting him to blow bubbles until he knows how to keep the water out of his nose.

The same principle applies to dancing—a small module in the course could concentrate on how to help students teach their future children to be free in body movement.

When I discuss these possibilities, I am not talking about new courses; perhaps we would not even need any great changes in the curriculum. Courses very acceptable to accrediting agencies and transfer schools can often result in the student walking out the door having learned basic and valuable lessons that are important in his life.

I would say the biggest problem in higher education is boredom. That can be overcome if the student sees that what he is learning will have some relevance and use throughout his life.

Ensign: How is your faculty responding to this idea?

President Eyring: They are mixed in their feelings. And I am happy about it—because through the efforts of analysis and discovery all of us are learning how to slant the standard college curriculum to meet the needs of students who not only need information now, but will also want to use it in 1984 and 1994.

This idea might be misunderstood by some teachers as a lack of appreciation for what they and their discipline are already doing. For example, we have a superb drama department, and they have put on some large presentations at literally a professional level. I have seen many plays; I enjoy drama. I think some of our Ricks College productions are better than those I’ve seen on Broadway—and I say that in an unbiased way. The drama faculty knows how happy I am with that—and how happy I am that they are helping students relate what they are learning to their futures. There are reservations here and there about theatre for the home, but as each faculty member comes to see that this suggestion in no way means a de-emphasis on the scholastic content of his course—only a special addition—then he might get quite excited about the idea. This is what has really happened to our people in many of our faculty groupings. I don’t know that I have ever been around people who combine the capacity to perform at professional levels with personal family orientation—and who do so with such great sympathy for the young student who is not yet a professional.

We have some truly great scholars at Ricks College: faculty members who are publishing—not because that is the number one priority on our campus, but because they simply are continuing to advance and discover. I have taught at colleges where the driving force was survival. If you were not a creative publishing scholar, you could not stay at the college. We maintain the emphasis on the student. If a teacher is a nurturing teacher, as well as a scholar, he can be at Ricks College. There are many college faculties that might approximate us in terms of professionalism, and there are other college faculties that might create a “home” atmosphere, but I don’t think the unique combination is quite as great as it is at Ricks.

This permits an extremely high quality of faculty-student relationships. For example, there is a Ricks professor who is leading his field in aspects of life science research; he is also tremendously involved in the lives of his students. Often, as I pass his office, there is a student from the rodeo team with him. That’s because he happens to like horses. And if a boy can’t get a special kind of help anywhere else, he gets it there. There is another faculty member, a superb researcher; I have never stopped at her office without being interrupted by a student who is there because “this is my friend. She talks to me.”

For the student who would like to be associated with a model of a great scholar and a person who cares about others, then that student will have a joyful career at Ricks. Our faculty is the key here. It depends upon how they view young people; it depends upon how they view what it is that young people need. The theme among our faculty members—if there is a theme—is a nurturing theme. Consequently, there is a great deal of effort to help students see long-term usage of what they are studying and learning.

Ensign: How do you see the role of Ricks College in the total Church Educational System?

President Eyring: We share many things in common with all aspects of the Church Educational System, but primarily we share our mission of building a testimony of the gospel within our students. We share this with the seminaries and institutes, with Brigham Young University, and with all other arms of Church education.

Another area we have in common is that of high academic standards. But while we have keen interest in the student who has achieved academically, we also have keen interest in the student who has not yet begun to bloom academically. We are a place where many students discover their real academic potential.

Even when the day comes that Ricks may need to limit the number of students who are admitted, we would not have a pure academic cutoff. In fact, we would always try to be the kind of place that brings a person alive intellectually, professionally, and spiritually. I think this is the kind of contribution that we have been making and that we will continue to make.

Another contribution or special role of Ricks College relates to the nature of our being a two-year college. We are a place where there are many two-year programs that are career-oriented. We are continuing to develop these programs. For example, we are developing a special program for the student in agriculture. Not only will he learn a great deal about agriculture, but he will pick up a business background and managerial skills. We are doing the same kind of thing in other career-oriented studies. More and more, I think Ricks College will add to its two-year college studies and programs the additional kinds of courses where a young person may come and obtain the skills he needs and then depart into a profession.

A number of businessmen around the country come and tell us how our people are rising in their organizations. We give the students the skills to get the job—and also the additional preparation that lets them emerge in the organization as a leader.

I wouldn’t want to over-emphasize this uniqueness, but we do find ourselves adding an entirely new dimension to Ricks—offering the kind of program where, in two years or less, we can give a young person the kind of background he needs to be both worth something on the job immediately and also to have later management potential.

With all aspects of the Church Educational System we share the one great dimension—spirituality. On that score, we are all highly interlocked. But I think Ricks differs in who we serve and how we can serve them better.

Ensign: You have mentioned the spiritual atmosphere associated with the Church Educational System as a whole. How does Ricks College go about making the influence of the gospel carry over into everyday life?

President Eyring: In much the same ways that other Church schools and institutes do—but with some special Ricks College emphases. The key to gospel carryover anywhere, whether you’re at college or at home, is living what you have learned.

We have religion classes that are superbly well-taught by devoted Latter-day Saint teachers. But, in addition, we have given special attention to the living environment of our students. It is with roommates that most students make their personal daily decisions and where the gospel starts to come alive. Will the student live morally? Will he go on a mission? These decisions are not made so much in classes or at college devotional assemblies as they are around roommates.

We have discovered that roommates can be sources of tremendous spiritual influence. We try to give a lot of support to the idea of being a good roommate. We talk about it. This kind of discussion provides an environment in which some inspiring experiences occur as students care for each other, pray for each other, and help each other—whether it is with an academic problem or a spiritual problem.

Most of our students are living away from home for the first time. They are where they have to make many choices, but then most gospel living is the result of choices made alone. We try to build an atmosphere of support for the student who wants to be the best he can—who wants to be all that he wanted to be before he came to Ricks.

I think one of the greatest impacts of Ricks College is when students go home, for example, before Christmas. Some will say, “Help me prepare to go home. I’m wiser now. What will I do the day I arrive home to let them know that I’m trying to be a better and a different person?” I remember one girl who worked out a plan. She had talked it over with her roommate. It was her idea to take flowers home, to catch her family off guard. She said, “We’ve had our family arguments, but when I walk in, I want them to know that I have a different tone about me. I want to add love to the home now, not disharmony.”

Twenty years from now it won’t be hard to pick out what Ricks College did for our students. Many of their favorite, even sacred, memories will be centered around their roommate experiences. We don’t have any special roommate program. We just give a lot of emphasis to being a good one, on making the experience wonderful—like a missionary companion experience, something of long-term value.

In addition to this roommate emphasis, the Church provides its usual and remarkable institutional support in terms of stakes and branches. We have two student stakes, and most students are in college branches. But whether they are in a resident ward or a college branch, they have all the incomparable opportunities for growth that the Church affords everyone throughout the world—home evening discussions, priesthood home teaching, Relief Society visiting teaching, and Church callings by the score. All this, of course, is under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical leaders called by the Church to preside over these stakes and branches. When you ask a student what he likes about Ricks, three things are generally mentioned: 1) his roommates; 2) his college branch; 3) a special teacher or person who has really cared for him.

This person may be the branch president or someone else in the branch who has manifested a great amount of concern. I often ask students, “Why is your branch so outstanding?” They may mention the branch president, but not infrequently, I will hear that it is “the young men who hold the priesthood.” You would be surprised at the number of girls who come from part-member families who say that it was watching some returned missionary or the young men in the branch—where no one was making the young men do anything—that showed them what the priesthood is all about. “Now, I think I know what the priesthood is,” I’ve heard many suggest.

Ensign: From what you’ve described about the Ricks College environment, it would seem that there is a special spirit about your campus. Is there such a thing as “the spirit of Ricks”?

President Eyring: Without a doubt! And this is something that is very special, almost sacred, to me. I did not know about it before I came here—because I had never set foot on the campus until I was named president. But I soon learned, and have thanked God for it ever since.

Let’s start with basics. About 80 percent of our faculty members—bright, gifted, intelligent teachers and scholars—grew up in rural settings. I grew up in a city of thousands. That makes me a city boy by comparison. As I have observed our faculty members—whether they came from the smaller towns in Utah or Idaho or Arizona or whether they came from Pennsylvania or New Hampshire—I have sensed that there is something about the family emphasis in the rural life, in farm and ranch life, that builds a special feeling in people of caring for each other, of helping each other. Our faculty members have come from families which have had to work hard together to make a living. They have grown up in settings where nature, Heavenly Father’s nature, determined their success. They have learned a special kind of independence and special kind of dependence on the Lord. You bring a faculty together with that kind of background and you can imagine the marvelous chemistry that results. It flows over into the students. There is no way to stop it.

Even though less than 50 percent of our students are from Idaho, I have observed that many of the students who come to Ricks—whether it’s from New York, Maine, or California—come with similar kinds of values. They are often rural and smalltown in background—but not always. These special values can be fostered in downtown Manhattan. I know people who have done it. But instead of raising crops with the family to build those values, it takes special family projects to achieve these same values.

When I was named president of the college and before I had arrived on campus, I would ask people who had been here to tell me how they felt about it. They said, “I love it.” A kind of person is attracted to Ricks who can love it, who loves the gospel, who loves the prophet.

What kind of special chemistry is it, this spirit of Ricks? It’s a capacity to love, to care, to nurture others. It’s a modesty, a feeling that says, “We don’t know it all and we have much to learn.” These young people will be teachable throughout their lives. It’s a genuineness, an honesty so sweet and unbeguiling that it touches your heart. It’s a very special but real thing. It’s almost tangible. I get emotional when I talk about it. I cannot think of any of the attributes of the spirit of our campus and not help but associate them with the attributes encouraged by the Lord.

In fact, the name of the college town symbolizes this unique spirit. Ricks College is in Rexburg. Rex is a word meaning king; burg is a word meaning city. Rexburg, then, is the city of the King.

And the people who live there bring this special spirit to Ricks—a spirit that seems to put Christ the King first and themselves second. It’s really very remarkable.

Ensign: As you have equated the product of Ricks College—a special kind of student—with the world of the 1970s, what have you concluded?

President Eyring: The Ricks College student—with Latter-day Saints everywhere—lives in a climate of optimism. As the world continues to go through hard times, with nation after nation and economy after economy suffering similarly, Latter-day Saints—and that includes Ricks College students—are the kind of people who note quietly that God is in his heaven; he cares about us; life will go on. Our people at Ricks are not absorbed so much with the idea that “we are the elders who will step forth and preserve the Constitution,” but rather, “the Lord will preserve it, and I will help.”

ROTC was brought onto the campus in the last few years. I have been surprised at the reception of this large program. We began as a satellite program of Idaho State University; now we are almost as large as the Idaho State University program, because our young people have a feeling about their country. I know this is the same at Brigham Young University. I think that in a country moving away from what might be called old-fashioned patriotism, Ricks is moving the other way. But as I travel throughout the United States (often in the South and especially as I visited some Texas universities), I am amazed at how the young men and women call you “sir,” how the young men open the doors for the girls, and how the students dress nicely. They have flags there, sing the national anthem without embarrassment, and have prayers before meetings. It should be comforting for American Latter-day Saints to know that there are many people in this nation who feel the same way they do about certain values. We must not become arrogant and get the idea that we are the only symbols of goodness and rightness and patriotism.

But because of the attitudes of those like the Ricks College student, I would say they and those like them are the hope of the nation, or of any nation who has students like these. Ricks College students aren’t the type who think they are going to lead the nation, or become Secretary of Defense. We’re not an explicit West Point in governmental and civic leadership. If you grow up thinking you are going to be Secretary of State, the Lord is going to have a hard time working with you.

Look at religious history—and I’m sure this pattern holds true more than we realize in secular history. When the Lord wants to raise up a leader, how often he takes the one with the speech problem, the one with a difficulty, the one from an obscure setting—or if he is from a favored setting, the Lord gives him experiences that humble him and take him through a long process of refining. Then the leader emerges. I would not see the Ricks College student experience as an exclusive leadership experience, but our students are acquiring traits and levels of self-confidence that are going to make them quiet leaders throughout their lives, both in civic affairs and in Church callings. I have great faith in them. They are students who are what we call “priesthood saddle-broke”—they can take guidance, they can take instruction. Couple that attitude with the confidence of knowing that the Master will teach and guide them the rest of their lives, and you have a person ready to be a vessel of the Lord.

Ensign: What are your thoughts about the contemporary Latter-day Saint college student?

President Eyring: I have the feeling that it is hard to be 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22 in this world right now. This age group is made up of people who are human, and they have the same pressures that their non-Mormon friends have. But I am tremendously impressed with Latter-day Saint youth.

In working with them, I have developed more compassion. When I was a bishop I thought I developed compassion, but it has increased immensely as I have seen young people trying to live the gospel of Jesus Christ in the present world. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes they don’t do it easily. It means hard choices, often against friends at home, against changing circumstances in the world, against great unknowns. But, I have sensed in them an unusual ability to love others. That gives me great hope.

Ensign: Being a college president provides one with an unusual perspective on youth and contemporary society. If you had five minutes with the parents of your students—or the parents of any Latter-day Saint student—what would you say?

President Eyring: I’d say the same thing parents have been told as long as there have been parents. I suppose the Lord would have said it to Adam: “Listen to Cain a little more. See if you can understand his feelings. See if you can get him to tell you how he feels about his brother.” Most young people do not use their families as sources of strength as much as they could if they felt easier in going to them, in being understood, in being heard. When they get into difficulty, if youth have a father and mother they can approach they do best. They may have the best counsel in the world—the best teacher, the best bishop—but dad and mom are the ones with whom repentance works best. Where that is the case—even in the worst of difficulties—they come out all right.

It’s thrilling to meet parents who are like that. Hopefully, it is also the kind of parent we are turning out at Ricks College.

As you can see, I love Ricks College. I love our faculty. And I love our students. To me, it’s all a special miracle in my life.

[photo] Through music one learns depth of emotion and senses a feeling for the infinite.

[photo] The artist, through the creation of inanimate objects, gains a deeper respect of Him who created us.

[photo] Dance can be a creative expression bringing joy to the soul.

[photo] Teamwork: a necessary aspect of successful living.

[photo] Youth are typically vibrant and full of a love of life.

[photo] Individual help combined with a sense of humor makes irresistible instruction.

[photo] To inquire is to learn more of God and his creations.

[photo] To many, the friendships made at college are as important as the academic knowledge gained.