Eight Presidents: A Century at BYU
October 1975

“Eight Presidents: A Century at BYU,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 23

BYU Centennial

Eight Presidents:

A Century at BYU

The explosion of a powder magazine on Arsenal Hill north of Salt Lake City on April 5, 1876, shook that part of the city and brought down all of the plaster from the ceiling of the Twentieth Ward Schoolhouse, where Karl G. Maeser, a talented German schoolmaster, was teaching. Brother Maeser hurried in search of Bishop John Sharp at the office of President Brigham Young, where he reported the damage and asserted he could not continue teaching until the school was repaired.

“That is exactly right, Brother Maeser,” said President Young good-naturedly, according to an account by Maeser’s son, Reinhard. “I have another mission for you.”

Another mission! The teacher’s heart sank. He already had filled three missions for the Church, and was just beginning to see financial daylight. He had worked hard, serving at various times as tabernacle organist, bookkeeper, professor of pedagogy and German at the University of Deseret, and private tutor for President Young’s family.

“Yes,” continued the President, “we have been considering the establishment of a Church school, and are looking around for a man to take charge of it. You are the man, Brother Maeser. We want you to go to Provo to organize and conduct an academy to be established in the name of the Church—a Church school.”

Arrangements were completed for Professor Maeser to take over Brigham Young Academy in Provo immediately at a salary of $1,200 a year, to be paid in such commodities as the school treasurer might receive in tuition. In a few days he returned to President Young’s office and said, “I am about to leave for Provo to start my work in the academy. Have you any instructions to give me?”

President Young paused for a few moments as though in deep thought, then replied, “Brother Maeser, I want you to remember that you ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God. That is all. God bless you. Goodbye.”

Karl arrived in Provo on April 21, 1876, preached on Sunday, April 23, and opened the school the next morning—rather more promptly than was customary. There were 29 students, with Maeser as the only teacher. The first pupil to sign up was Reed Smoot, who later became a United States senator and a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Church.

In the difficult years that followed, the admonition of Brigham Young was the guiding star of Karl’s life: “Do nothing without the Spirit of God.” Brother Maeser became the spiritual architect of what now has become Brigham Young University, a vast institution of higher education with more than 25,000 students and a campus of more than 300 buildings, the largest church-related university in the United States. And the administrators who have followed Brother Maeser have carried on their work in the spirit he established.

Although he was the first permanent principal of the academy, Karl G. Maeser was not actually the first man to hold the position. Warren N. Dusenberry, with his brother, Wilson H. Dusenberry, must be accorded much credit for the early advancement of education and culture in the frontier Mormon town and for paving the way for the establishment of Brigham Young Academy. Arriving in Provo in 1862, they taught in Latter-day Saint ward schools and established two schools of their own, which both became very popular. One of these was designated in 1870 as the Timpanogos Branch of the University of Deseret, with Warren as principal. Brigham Young waived the rent on the Lewis Building, which served as the schoolhouse, because the school provided education for Latter-day Saint children at home. But in 1875 the Timpanogos Branch was suspended because of lack of support, and its demise provided the opportunity for Brigham Young to establish an academy there, a dream that he long had entertained.

On October 16, 1875, President Young signed a deed of trust establishing Brigham Young Academy, and signed over certain properties in the city for its support. He selected seven prominent Utah County leaders as trustees, with Abraham O. Smoot (president of Utah Stake and mayor of Provo) as board president. On December 4, 1875, they appointed Warren Dusenberry as first principal, but he was heavily involved in law practice and it was understood that he would serve only until a successor could be found. He served from January 3 to April 15, 1876, and he himself proposed Karl G. Maeser as the first permanent principal; Brother Maeser took over on April 24, 1876, for the second preliminary term.

The first full year of the academy began on August 21, 1876, with the dedication of the institution by Elder Daniel H. Wells. Fifty-nine students were enrolled.

The deed of trust was a lengthy document specifying properties and responsibilities, but it also included the following statement:

“The beneficiaries of this Academy shall be members in good standing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or shall be the children of such members, and each of the boys who shall take a full course, if his physical ability will permit, shall be taught some branch of mechanism that shall be suitable to his taste and capacity; and all pupils shall be instructed in reading, penmanship, orthography, grammar, geography, and mathematics, together with such other branches as are usually taught in an academy of learning; and the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants shall be read and their doctrines inculcated in the Academy.”

The religious study requirements were carried out in daily services and continue to be observed in the university to this day. However, nonmembers of the Church were accommodated from the beginning. One of the most prominent was George Sutherland, who became a United States senator and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and who testified throughout his life to the inspiration of Dr. Maeser’s example.

As he opened the school, Principal Maeser found “the premises inadequate, facilities limited, students few in number and poorly prepared, and financial conditions exceedingly discouraging.” Despite these limitations, the dignified, proper professor soon had a model school operating. School started precisely at 8:45 A.M., and he instituted daily worship, graded classes, demanded discipline and courtesy, inspired scholarship, and organized a normal (education) class, his specialty. There had been some opposition, but this soon melted away as pupils became scholars and the school began turning out much needed teachers.

Fire burst through the roof of the Lewis Building about 10:30 P.M. on January 24, 1884, shattering the calm of that Sabbath evening. The bell in the old meetinghouse rang, and people ran from all parts of the city to fight the flames. They formed a bucket brigade from the mill race one block east, but soon the entire building was an inferno. Stunned, the throng stood by as their beloved school building vanished in a fiery spectacle.

Reed Smoot met Professor Maeser on the street and lamented, “Oh, Brother Maeser, the academy has burned!”

“No such thing,” the Professor shot back. “It is only the building.”

At a meeting near the ruins the next morning Brother Maeser mounted a chair, encouraged the students not to lose heart, and invited them to a meeting at the tabernacle.

Only one day of school was lost. Monday was spent in arranging the meetinghouse and the upstairs rooms of a bank, a store, and drugstore as improvised classrooms, all of which served as the school for the remainder of the term.

For the next year the board rented the upstairs of the new ZCMI warehouse near the railroad tracks on the south end of J Street (University Avenue). While it was rough, it provided more room than the school had in the Lewis Building, and was its home for eight years. That was a period of great distress that Brother Maeser called “those dark days.” The school could not pay its rent and teachers did not receive their meager salaries, but worked for anything that might be had—sometimes gathered in wheelbarrows—rather than close the school. President Abraham O. Smoot and other board members incurred personal debts to subsidize the school’s operation.

Work had been started on a new school building at Fifth North and University Avenue (BYU’s Lower Campus) immediately after the Lewis Building fire, but the work lagged many years for want of funds. Once when Dr. Maeser strolled to the unfinished foundation with his daughter Eva, she asked, “Papa, do you think they will ever finish this building?”

“My child,” answered the father, “not only this building but others will stand upon this ground, and not only here but also upon that hill yonder,” pointing to Temple Hill (Upper Campus). “Yes, my child, I have seen it all.”

The new building, massive and ornate, was finished and was probably the finest school building in the state at that time. Dedication ceremonies were held on January 4, 1892, and a procession led by Professor Maeser moved from the old warehouse to the beautiful new structure. The white-haired teacher paused at the entrance and said, “The old man taught school in a log cabin, but they have built a palace for his boys.” He was likened to Moses on Pisgah’s heights, for on that day he was released as principal (having been appointed superintendent of Church Schools), and Benjamin Cluff, Jr., was inaugurated as principal of the academy.

A true scholar with a vast range of knowledge, Brother Maeser was a powerful speaker (although with a German accent), and hundreds of his students honored him for the qualities of dignity, self-respect, and industry that he instilled in them.

“If it shall please my Heavenly Father, I shall be a teacher in heaven,” he said.

He compared the academy to a great banyan tree reaching out to put down roots and stated: “I should be ungrateful if I did not place myself on record as being conscious that Brigham Young Academy has been chosen as an instrument in the hands of the Lord God of Israel to plant the seed for an educational system of Zion, penetrating with its benign influence every fireside of the Saints, and opening to our youth the avenues to all intelligence, knowledge, and power.”

Benjamin Cluff, Jr., 1892–1903

While Dr. Maeser was aristocratic and staid in his German methodology, his successor, Benjamin Cluff, Jr., was a western-bred, impetuous, and dynamic innovator, who brought to the academy the educational advancements of great Eastern universities and developed the institution from a normal school with a very small college department into a university.

As a boy, “Benny” was an avid reader, and in the spring of 1877 traveled the 67 miles from Coalville to Provo to enroll in the recently established Brigham Young Academy. While there, he worked as a janitor to pay his expenses. Later, after a mission to Hawaii, he was engaged as a teacher.

Cluff was granted leaves to study at the University of Michigan, and graduated high in his class with a B.S. degree in 1890 and a master’s degree in 1893, one of the first Utahns to obtain an eastern university degree. While he was away, George H. Brimhall served as acting principal, but Cluff’s letters show he actually ran the school by correspondence until he did not have another penny with which to buy postage stamps. In one letter he wrote: “I think that it is now fully demonstrated that it is not so much the man who stands at the head of the academy as it is the spirit that activates the school.”

Cluff’s administration was beset with financial difficulties caused in part by the panic of 1893. With the help of President Abraham O. Smoot and others, he was able to keep the struggling school on its feet and even gain a new building, now known as College Hall. In 1896, Cluff proposed that the Church should take over the school as an auxiliary. New articles of incorporation were adopted, establishing the school as a Church institution, and the Church assumed its $80,000 indebtedness. The academy had been operated as a Church school, but governance had been in the hands of the Young family and the board.

In 1895, at the suggestion of Brother Cluff, the Board changed the title of the chief officer of the institution from “principal” to “president”; in 1903 they changed the name of the school from “Academy” to “University.”

Vastly widening the horizons of the school, President Cluff introduced psychology; organized the first Normal College, Commercial College, and Art Department; and inaugurated class organizations, with Richard R. Lyman as first president. He also organized Founder’s Day, the student loan association, competitive sports, the Alumni Association (with George H. Brimhall as first president), the first student newspapers, the first summer school in the state, a Collegiate Department, and degrees for college work. The students heartily accepted Cluff’s introduction of yells and cheers, which horrified Church officials when they first heard them. The school’s prestige rose so rapidly that many stake academies sought to become branches of the academy.

In one of the highlights of his career, Cluff headed an academy-sponsored South American expedition to engage in archaeological study of Book of Mormon sites. After terrible hardships, the expedition returned in 1902 with little success.

While Cluff was gone, the academy became the official Church Normal Training School. In 1901, Church President Lorenzo Snow became president of the board of trustees, and since that time the position always has been held by the President of the Church. During Cluff’s administration the faculty grew from 21 to 59 and the student body from 275 to 1,622.

George H. Brimhall, 1904–21

Installed as president on April 16, 1904, George H. Brimhall selected Joseph B. Keeler and Edwin S. Hinckley as his counselors. Trained as a teacher at Brigham Young Academy, President Brimhall worked to build the university’s collegiate program and to make it an outstanding teacher training institution. In 1906 the Bachelor of Arts degree replaced the Bachelor of Pedagogy, and in 1916 the Master of Arts was approved. In 1909 BYU was designated as the Church Teacher’s College.

A tireless worker, although often in ill health, President Brimhall was instrumental in the construction of the Training School Building, Maeser Building, Women’s Gymnasium, Mechanic Arts Building, and the acquisition of University Hill, where the modern campus is located. In 1904 the Missionary and Preparatory Building was constructed; here missionaries from many stakes were sent to attend the Missionary Department before leaving for their labors.

It was also a period of many other advancements. Football, which had been banned since 1900, was reinstated in 1920; the block “Y” was placed on the mountain in 1906; the Timpanogos Hike was inaugurated in 1912; and there were many important visitors, such as Helen Keller, John Dewey, David Starr Jordan, and U.S. President William Howard Taft.

While World War I raged in Europe, President Brimhall rallied the forces of the university to the effort. The school became an official camp of the Student Army Training Corps, a new Mechanic Arts Building was constructed for military technical instruction, the Maeser Building became a barracks, and many activities were conducted to raise money. It was also a time of tragedy. Sixteen BYU students gave their lives in the war, while at home an influenza epidemic wiped out entire families and the campus had to be closed for several months.

Franklin S. Harris, 1921–45

In his inaugural address on October 17, 1921, in the Provo Tabernacle, President Franklin S. Harris expressed his intention to make BYU “the great Church university,” and in his 24 years of service (longer than any other president) he brought about vast changes toward fulfillment of the dream. The collegiate student body (there was also a high school) increased from 438 to over 4,000, and the institution was transformed into a university of national reputation.

The old organization was replaced by more modern colleges and divisions—Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Commerce and Business Administration, Education, Applied Science, and Fine Arts, Division of Religion, Graduate School, Extension Division, and Research Division.

President Harris put on an intensive campaign for national recognition of the school, and accreditation was granted by all of the prominent accrediting agencies of higher education.

As the school celebrated its semicentennial in 1925 it reported an enrollment of 1,133 students, and the Heber J. Grant Library was dedicated. Also built were the President’s Home, a stadium, the Brimhall Building, Stadium House, Allen Hall, Amanda Knight Hall, and Joseph Smith Building.

During the 1920s and early 1930s the Church closed down many Church schools and academies and turned over some colleges to the state. Nevertheless, strong friends of BYU, particularly Elder David O. McKay, insisted on making BYU the central school in the Church system, to be developed as a complete university.

During the Great Depression, faculty members took a 22 1/2-percent salary cut and building maintenance was neglected. But while the size of other schools declined, enrollment at BYU gained and the faculty remained loyal.

A major organizational change came in 1939 when the board of trustees, which had been made up of local members, was changed to a board of General Authorities.

From the stringencies of the depression the university ran into the difficulties of World War II. Housing was scarce because of war industries in the area, and enrollment dropped to a low of 884. BYU became an official camp of the Specialized Army Training Program.

In 1945 President Harris accepted a position as president of Utah State Agricultural College, where he served five years. An outstanding agricultural scientist, he had brought much respect to BYU through his participation in advisory missions to many foreign countries.

Howard S. McDonald, 1945–49

At the end of World War II, Howard S. McDonald, then superintendent of Salt Lake City Schools, became president of Brigham Young University to guide it through four years of transition and the impact of the postwar educational boom. Enrollment when President Harris resigned was a little over 1,500 students, but by the fall of 1945 it had jumped to over 2,700 as the servicemen returned. By 1947 enrollment had reached 5,440, placing tremendous pressure on housing, classrooms, and faculty.

Although it was a time of stress, President McDonald urged continued efforts toward the creation of a greater university. He took steps to increase the faculty and to reorganize the graduate school and student counseling service. He proposed the construction of science, fine arts, and union buildings, more dormitories, a library addition, and a fieldhouse. Only the Carl F. Eyring Physical Science Center and the dormitories became a reality during his administration. The science building alone practically doubled the building space on campus.

To alleviate the overtaxed housing situation, in 1946 the university erected Wymount Village for 200 married veterans and 350 single veterans by moving 45 war-surplus, temporary buildings from the Ogden Arsenal. A number of temporary buildings were also provided for offices and classrooms.

President McDonald left on October 30, 1949, to accept a position as president of Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences. For two years Dr. Christen Jensen, who had served since 1929 as dean of the Graduate School, served as acting president of BYU.

Ernest L. Wilkinson, 1951–71

During World War I, when Brigham Young University became an official camp of the Student Army Training Corps, a young soldier named Ernest L. Wilkinson was billeted in the Maeser Memorial Building, where he was stricken with the dread influenza that took many lives. In his fervent prayer he promised his Heavenly Father that if his life was spared he would strive to do something important for the university. Ernest lived through the siege and 33 years later became president of the university, with his office in the very same room where he had slept as a soldier.

In the interlude, he had graduated from BYU, George Washington University Law School, and Harvard University, and had become a nationally famous attorney. With the same energy, he pursued his goals at Brigham Young University, serving from 1951 to 1971. In that time BYU grew into the largest church-related university in the United States, as the enrollment rose from 4,654 in 1950 to 25,021 in 1971, accompanied by an amazing building program, expansion of the faculty, and growth of the academic program.

But with all of this growth, President Wilkinson considered the greatest accomplishment during his administration to be the organization on campus of stakes and wards (later branches) of the Church. The first stake, with twelve wards, was organized in 1956, and the campus organization now has grown to twelve stakes and 120 branches, with student officers in most positions. This religious dimension on campus has not only prepared students for future leadership in the Church, but has also had an effect on the dress and deportment of the students, who have won the admiration of many thoughtful observers. During the campus unrest throughout the nation during the late 1960s BYU maintained its calm and its standards, a fact that was noted in many national publications.

During the Wilkinson administration the campus grew to a spacious, beautiful plant of more than 300 buildings with over five million square feet of floor space.

President Wilkinson also placed great emphasis on scholarship, and during his administration the curriculum was completely revised, and the original five colleges were expanded to thirteen. To the bachelor’s and master’s degrees were added also the associate and doctor’s degrees. The school changed to the semester system and instituted an Honors Program for gifted students, Army and Air Force ROTC, a weekly forum of great speakers, an Indian Education Program, youth leadership, a Master of Business Administration program, and institutes of Government Service, Mormon Studies, Book of Mormon Studies, and many others.

In 1971 President Wilkinson stated in an address to the faculty: “I hope all who are associated with this university will never forget that it was started by a prophet of God and that prophets still guide its destiny. No statement that I can make to you gives me more satisfaction than to say that BYU is now the university many dreamed it would become.”

Dallin H. Oaks, 1971–Present

Dallin H. Oaks was only thirty-eight years old when he left a position as professor of law at the University of Chicago in 1971 to become the eighth president of BYU. He also held the nationally prestigious position of executive director of the American Bar Foundation, the research affiliate of the American Bar Association.

Working within an enrollment limit of 25,000 set by the board of trustees, the dynamic young president embarked on a program of excellence and wasted no time in implementing bold new programs and policies. With hardly time to get his feet wet, he had adopted a new calendar of three semesters, made plans for several new buildings, involved students in fund raising, discontinued two colleges and reorganized two others, reemphasized the university’s policies on dress and behavior, set up programs to tighten and improve the curriculum, initiated a whole series of moves to delegate authority to faculty officers, and completely reorganized all committees and boards. Four major buildings have been dedicated since he assumed office, and three other major buildings have been started—the J. Reuben Clark Law School, the library addition, and the bookstore addition. More degrees were awarded at the 100th commencement in April than were awarded during the first fifty years of the school’s history combined.

Of these advancements and many more, President Oaks said they were in keeping with his goals, “first, to reinforce our drive for excellence as an academic institution, and second, to preserve the distinctive spiritual character and standards of BYU.”

This month—October 16, 1975—Brigham Young University marks its one-hundredth anniversary and looks back on a century of dedication and struggle, but phenomenal growth. Chosen for the centennial celebration is the slogan “Dedicated to Love of God, Pursuit of Truth, Service to Mankind.” Yet no firmer guidepost could be found for the future than that given at the school’s beginning to Karl G. Maeser: “Do nothing without the Spirit of God.”

As it enters its second century, the university is mindful of its role as enunciated by President Spencer W. Kimball: “The uniqueness of Brigham Young University lies in its special role—education for eternity—which it must carry in addition to the usual tasks of a university. This means concern—curricular and behavioral—for not only the ‘whole man’ but the ‘eternal man.’”

  • Edwin Butterworth, Jr., is director of public communications at Brigham Young University. He serves as ward clerk in the Oak Hills Second Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.

Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn

Warren N. Dusenberry, 1875–76

Karl G. Maeser, 1876–92

Benjamin Cluff, Jr., 1892–1903

Top right: Staff of the first student newspaper, the “BYU Student,” spring 1891. Bottom right: The Lewis Building, first home of Brigham Young Academy. It burned in 1884. Bottom center: In 1897, the second year football was played at the Academy, this team won the state and college championships. Far right: The faculty in 1891–92, with bearded Dr. Maeser in the center.

George H. Brimhall 1904–21

Franklin S. Harris, 1921–45

Top: This cooking class of about 1904 was learning on a coal-burning stove. Bottom: Meanwhile, other students were working on drafting exercises.

Howard S. McDonald, 1945–49

Top: The Academy studentbody turns out in about 1900 to welcome visiting General Authorities in front of what is now called the Education Building. Bottom: Muddy streets did not hinder band practice under Robert Sauer in 1924.

Ernest L. Wilkinson, 1951–71

BYU’s basketball team on a 33-day tour of South America in 1950, undefeated in twelve games. During the Western Athletic Conference’s twelve years, BYU has won or shared the basketball championship five times.

Dallin H. Oaks, 1971–present

BYU students leave sacrament meeting in the Joseph Smith Building in 1963. There are now twelve stakes and 120 branches on a campus that doesn’t slow down for weekends.