A Conversation with Dallin H. Oaks, President of Brigham Young University
October 1975

“A Conversation with Dallin H. Oaks, President of Brigham Young University,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 17

BYU Centennial

A Conversation with Dallin H. Oaks,
President of Brigham Young University

Ensign: What does it mean to say that Brigham Young University has come to the 100-year point? What has been accomplished in 100 years?

President Oaks: The first achievement of the first 100 years was to survive the stake academy status. That is, there were more than a score of stake academies established by the Church, and, so far as I am aware, only four of them survive to the present as Church institutions: Colonia Juarez Academy, LDS Business College, Ricks College, and Brigham Young University. In addition, some junior or four-year colleges now owned by Utah and other western states can be traced back to the stake academies. There was something in the determination of the people, something in the location, something in the vision of its early leaders that caused the academy at Provo to survive while others went out of existence or were transformed into state institutions.

A more gradual, yet primary, achievement of the last hundred years has been the institution’s growth from a grade school—I think the highest initial level of instruction was the fifth grade—to high school status, then to collegiate status, and finally to a respected position as a university.

But these are simply facts of survival and growth. Something more important is the fact that for a century this institution has retained its basic ideals. The instruction that Brigham Young gave Karl G. Maeser that he shouldn’t teach the multiplication tables without the Spirit of the Lord is still the guiding spirit of the institution, despite the fact that it has grown from a grade school to a university. This is all the more remarkable when you reflect that during this same period of American history the influences of secularization have been so strong that scores and scores of church-related institutions are now no longer church-related or are church-related only in name.

The whole trend in American higher education has been to decrease the Christian emphasis in a Christian college, to abandon value orientation, and to become more and more secular. Institutions have also tended to abandon their private character in order to survive financially. They have to be neutral on matters of religion in order to be publicly supported. Beyond that, a college can’t be oriented toward specific values—or at least they think they can’t—and be tax supported. Brigham Young University has not been part of that trend. Although the current has been almost exclusively in the other direction, we have retained our basic value orientation. I, of course, refer to more than is suggested by the illustration of the multiplication tables. Throughout our curriculum we teach the basic values of honesty, patriotism, integrity, and faith in God. Those ideals are a vital part of our curriculum across the length and breadth of the university, not just in the area of religious instruction.

There are many objective measures of the accomplishments of the first century: splendid facilities; 25,000 students of high qualification and seriousness; and the number, qualification, and prestige of the faculty.

But the most remarkable and most important accomplishment of the first hundred years is that we have held to our values. And that is the most significant foundation upon which we build for our second century. That accomplishment is directly attributable to the fact that the board of trustees of Brigham Young University is composed of the leaders of the Church—the First Presidency, several members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and other General Authorities. Their guidance, in terms of the standards of the institution and its basic policies, is a real guidance. In that respect they play a more active role than many boards of trustees. Also, our Church Education System university and colleges are the only senior institutions to my knowledge that receive significant financial support from their sponsoring churches. Most American institutions of higher learning that used to be affiliated with churches now have no more than a sentimental affiliation, with no more than nominal financial support.

Ensign: In a sense you are the Karl Maeser of the second century. What do you see in BYU’s next 100 years?

President Oaks: I wouldn’t say I am the Karl Maeser of the second century. Every president has a hundred-year period following his administration.

On the question of the next hundred years, I can see a continuation of the basic value orientation of the institution. The kind of leadership we have, the sources of our financial support, and the ideals of our faculty and students all unite to assure me that we will continue to be an institution concerned with values. That part of our second century is easier to foresee than most others.

As I look into the second century I am deeply concerned with how we can maintain our position as an independent institution. The key to our uniqueness at BYU is our ability to bring the insights of the gospel of Jesus Christ into the enlightenment of study and action in all of our academic disciplines. Our ability to do the thing that makes us unique is dependent upon our being independent and free of the kind of homogenizing or uniformizing efforts that are taking place elsewhere in higher education.

This homogenization of higher education can be attributed in large part to the increasing role of government in higher education through laws, regulations, and administrative guidelines. The more these kinds of requirements apply to higher education, the more like public education private education becomes. I think the number one threat to the accomplishment of our mission is the federal government’s efforts to control higher education. These efforts are well-meaning. Many of them pursue appropriate goals. But many of these goals are inappropriate as subjects for government compulsion on private education. I am deeply concerned about private higher education and its freedom to pursue its unique educational mission, its freedom to be different. That is the major problem that confronts BYU, the major challenge we have in years to come. At the moment, I foresee continued difficulties until we can resolve this problem.

I also see us pursuing our destiny, which the First Presidency has defined, to “become a leader among the great universities of the world.” I see us pursuing that destiny with increasing effectiveness. I see our students becoming more serious about their studies. As a result of their accomplishments, we will be known as an effective teaching institution. I see our faculty becoming more accomplished both in teaching and in creative work. Research and other kinds of creative activity will become a more important part of the university in years to come.

In a very important sense, BYU is a research and development arm of the Church. The talents that are gathered on our campus, in the physical sciences, behavioral sciences, arts, humanities, business, and law—in almost every area of man’s learning—are what the Church and its members will increasingly draw upon as the Church becomes more prominent and has a wider latitude of activity in the world.

For example, we have some splendid area study programs in the College of Social Sciences, with scholars who can be called upon more and more as the Church encounters the challenges of worldwide operation. We are a very important resource in many ways that are not well understood by the Church membership at large. And I see our capacity for service increasing by leaps and bounds. The university is valuable to the Church because of the number of students it teaches, but the large growth area for the second century will be in our potential for creative contribution toward meeting the many needs of the membership of a worldwide Church.

Ensign: What are some of the other areas where BYU now makes a special contribution to the Church?

President Oaks: When I say that some people may not be too aware of our special contributions, I am relying on the fact that people seldom speak to me about these other roles of BYU. People usually look on BYU as limited to the function of educating and graduating a certain number of students.

Here are just a few of our special additional contributions toward building up the kingdom. Within the last twelve months, two different task forces have been assembled from the faculty of our College of Business to advise in the management of particular Church enterprises. The Church Music Committee includes a large complement of BYU faculty in music and fine arts. Faculty of our College of Family Living are currently involved in several research projects of great interest to Church members. Faculty from our College of Education have pioneered some highly effective techniques that nonprofessional tutors are using to teach people how to read and write; our Division of Continuing Education is using these in its pioneering literacy programs in South and Central America. Scholars of our College of Humanities have achieved exciting breakthroughs in computer-assisted translation of languages, a project of obvious significance to a worldwide Church. And the list goes on and on.

Our Lamanite program is not only valuable for the 500 Indian students we enroll, but it is also the focus of an outreach program through our Institute of American Indian Services that touches almost a hundred Indian reservations and constitutes one of the most important social outreach programs of the Church. It is also one of our most effective refutations of the charge that we are not interested in minorities. In the geographical area where most Church members reside, the Indian is the oldest and most significant minority. The Church’s accomplishment and the amount of money invested in various Indian programs are very significant. I believe that we have the most distinguished minority program of any university in the country. As support for that claim I cite the fact that the nationwide record for graduation of Indian students in higher education is less than four percent of those who enroll. At BYU we graduate twenty percent of the Indian students who enroll, and that figure is rising rapidly. We expect that in two years the figure will be over forty percent.

Our College of Physical Education has had a faculty team working on physical fitness programs for missionaries. Our College of Biological and Agricultural Sciences manages a project that examines missionaries who have labored in parts of the world where there are intestinal parasites. We have just established a food and agriculture institute that will assist our members by finding ways to increase food production worldwide. Many writers for the Ensign, New Era, and Friend are scholars from BYU. We have one of the finest language training programs of any university in the country. Our scholars who pioneered in the Language Training Mission are now involved in improving techniques of instruction in that vital and expanding facility. While the university does not manage the LTM, our personnel are involved in performing supporting services.

We also have a fine management team providing support services for the university. These men and women have also been called upon to help various aspects of administration in other Church-affiliated organizations. For example, they went into Church schools in Mexico, helping set up cafeterias; they even gave assistance in the cafeteria in the new Church Office Building. And the BYU fund-raising organization has been modified to assist in fund raising for the entire Church.

Ensign: What steps does BYU take to offer the learning resources of BYU to the membership of the Church?

President Oaks: The current arrangement includes home study extension programs by which college credit may be earned anywhere in the world through BYU Continuing Education. Where college credit is not given, the course work is sponsored by the Church Education System. Our delivery systems also include traveling lectures—principally in the United States—worldwide travel study, and BYU On-Campus Education Week, to which many people travel each year. The Church Education System uses some BYU faculty in its “Education Weeks” or “Education Days” sponsored by requesting stakes and in certain lecture series such as “Know Your Religion.” Currently we have the largest continuing education enrollment of any single campus in the country, and it is growing at the rate of ten to fifteen percent per year. It is a massive undertaking, serving almost 300,000 people a year. We also have a great unused potential in this area, and when it becomes appropriate to use that potential we will be prepared. With satellite communications, we are on the threshold of a worldwide communications network that could be put into all our chapels if our leaders asked us to do so and resources were available.

Ensign: What were the reasons for adding the Laie, Hawaii, four-year college campus to BYU?

President Oaks: The board assigned that campus to BYU and changed the name of the Church College of Hawaii to Brigham Young University—Hawaii Campus to give that institution the kind of stature it needed to perform its role in the South Pacific and Asia and to overcome some confusion about what kind of an institution Church College of Hawaii was. This confusion resulted from the fact that in the Pacific and some parts of Asia the word “church” means a seminary solely for religious instruction and the word “college” means an institution on the high-school level. Many parts of the world receive graduates from this college and these graduates sometimes had difficulty with their educational credentials because of the name of the institution. It was a misunderstanding we don’t have in the United States, but it was prevalent in other parts of the world. By changing the name that condition was corrected, and by assigning the institution to BYU, we promoted a great coordination of efforts between these two parts of the Church Educational System. This also gave them access to the kinds of skills and assistance that BYU can share.

Ensign: Do members of the Church generally understand what a university is about?

President Oaks: Many understand well. What must take place in a university is learning how to learn. The most important thing that can happen to a person in a university setting, apart from the learning and reinforcement of values of which I have just spoken, is to acquire the appetite and skills that will be necessary for him or her to have a lifetime of learning, a lifetime of acquiring and using ideas and skills, of being able to grow with the growth of knowledge, of being able to find and apply knowledge to new problems. We don’t teach all skills. For example, a university does not teach many manual skills. It concentrates on intellectual skills. We teach the skills of how to think and how to communicate ideas accurately, whether by speaking or writing, in English or other languages, or by music, drama, art, mathematics or other symbols, or some other form of expression. Communication of ideas is an extremely important part of a university curriculum. We also teach many facts that are valuable to understand. But in the long run, the techniques of gaining knowledge will be more useful to a student than any particular body of knowledge itself.

In order for a university to perform its task effectively, it must be more than a conduit for knowledge that has been identified elsewhere. It must be involved in the discovery as well as the transmission of knowledge. When a university is involved in the discovery of new truths, it is an exciting and effective place to study and work. If a university is a place for discovery, this obviously means that one will be surrounded by people who don’t know all the answers on all subjects. Some people aren’t prepared to deal with that circumstance; they don’t have tolerance for uncertainty. I think we need to mature in that area; as a people we need to be more mature in our ability to handle differences of opinion and uncertainties about the extent of our knowledge.

In the area of our religious experience, we have our testimonies of the truthfulness of the gospel, and we have many eternal truths that are not subject to differences of opinion within the framework of our faith. But we have different ways of knowing these eternal truths than we have of knowing other subjects. Yet we sometimes transfer our certainties about religious truths into other areas that do not enjoy the kind of certainty and sanctuary that religious truths enjoy. When we make that transfer, we become too respectful of secular knowledge.

Sometimes the conflicts people think they see between religious truths and secular evidence or knowledge result from their giving too much respect to the theories of various branches of knowledge. They seem to see conflicts because they are trying to accept secular dogma with the same degree of certainty that the Holy Ghost prompts them to accept eternal gospel truths. And so we have the challenge of learning how to be properly skeptical of secular knowledge or theories—properly probing and challenging, properly willing to entertain an opinion different from that of someone else on a matter of secular knowledge, even though we have a great respect for that person—and at the same time, holding fast to the eternal truths that do not admit of challenge because they are revealed by God and authenticated by his prophets. This is a challenge to an institution like ours that other institutions do not have. The public, secular institutions I have mentioned don’t have this challenge because they are free to ignore the religious dimension. But neither do they have the advantage we have of confronting these two different yet potentially harmonious aspects of man’s experience.

A university should help a person want to do the very best he or she is able to do, to help each of us set a high standard for ourselves. However offensive grading may be in a university, it is expressive of the fact that we were graded before we came to earth and we are graded from now until judgment day. We are graded by our peers, by our employer, by our spouse, by our children, by people who surround us, and by the world. But the severest grader of all should be ourselves. This is the idea of excellence that a person should pick up from both his religious and his secular learning. It is the drive for excellence that should motivate our students as well as our faculty and supporting personnel. We expect our faculty to increase their teaching effectiveness, and to increase their excellence in original research and other creative work. We expect this—and it is happening. We also expect our personnel to serve the Church on their Church service time, not on the time of their employer, even when that employer is the Church. We expect when we hire a person that we will have his or her full employment time.

As I go around the Church and people make themselves acquainted with me, they sometimes say, somewhat self-consciously, “I went to blank university,” or “my children are at blank college.” I’m always a little saddened when people seem self-conscious about this, as if they thought I would be disappointed that they are not at BYU. It is, of course, essential that many fine Latter-day Saints who are serious students and devoted to the gospel enroll at BYU. But I think it would be a very unfortunate thing for the Church if BYU enrolled the 25,000 ablest or most promising college students in the Church, or if our youth felt they had a religious duty to enroll at BYU, or if parents felt they had a duty to send their sons and daughters to BYU. The Church has adopted the basic philosophy that it will not educate all of its college-age young people in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. The board of trustees has approved the building of hundreds of institutes of religion adjacent to public and private colleges and universities across the country and around the world, staffing them with capable and faithful teachers. Here in the state of Utah we have half a dozen splendid universities and colleges, and the same is true of many other states. Many of these have large numbers of faithful young Latter-day Saints. Each person needs to find his or her own best educational choice, and for many this will not be BYU.

Ensign: Does Brigham Young University have a character and personality?

President Oaks: I think the spirit of the Y is typified by the breadth of our educational concern. That is the unique thing today. Our uniqueness might have been described differently many years ago, but today it is the spirit of learning that pervades the campus. The essence of BYU today is our concern for the whole man, concern for growth in the intellectual, cultural, spiritual, and physical. Members of our community are concerned at all times of the week with all four of those areas of growth.

We take as our domain a very broad range of interests, and that too is part of the spirit of BYU. We are totally immersed in all aspects of human life.

Ensign: If you had a chance to talk personally with each of the 25,000 students, what would you say?

President Oaks: I think I would ask them why they have come and what they expect to get out of their education at BYU. Then when I had heard their expectations and desires, I would counsel each individually about what they will have to do in order to achieve those expectations.

In talking with young people I have often found them to have some very unrealistic expectations about what can be done for them by other people. They underestimate what they must do for themselves. Their successes will result from their own efforts and not from something someone puts in front of them. The law of the harvest applies to educational endeavors as well as it does to anything else. Young people need to understand that if they have an unsatisfactory roommate they must not use that as an excuse for unsatisfactory studies. They have to readjust themselves, such as by changing the place where they live or by studying in the library. It is their responsibility—not mother’s or father’s, not their teacher’s, not President Oaks’s, not the General Authorities’; it is their responsibility. I would also want to spend some time reinforcing their values, assuring them that they are not going to lose their testimonies as they go through the process of higher education. I would assure them that if they put forth the effort, keeping their lives in balance, they will grow and develop and mature and their eternal progress will be furthered in these exciting student years of life.

Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn

One of hundreds of religion classes where the “basic values of honesty, patriotism, integrity, and faith in God” are taught.

Vast and numerous are the special contributions made to the Church and world by BYU faculty members.

President Spencer W. Kimball addresses a class during one of many visits to campus by General Authorities.

The newly constructed J. Reuben Clark Law School.

Within walking distance of campus, the Provo Temple enhances the spiritual atmosphere of the collegiate setting.