Conversation: The Role of Brigham Young University
March 1999

“Conversation: The Role of Brigham Young University,” Ensign, Mar. 1999, 76–78

Conversation: The Role of Brigham Young University

The main campus of Brigham Young University is located in Provo, Utah, but the influence and benefits of the Church-owned university reach throughout the world. To ask about BYU’s role in the spread of the gospel and growth of the Church, the Ensign recently spoke with Elder Merrill J. Bateman of the Seventy, the first General Authority to serve as president of BYU.

Elder Merrill J. Bateman

Elder Merrill J. Bateman

Question: Would you share your perspective on the role of BYU?

Response: My belief is that the Lord is interested in Brigham Young University and that BYU is an integral part of the Church. We are all familiar with scriptures that show the value the Lord places on learning: “The glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36); “If a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life … , he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19); “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6). Brigham Young University represents a unique opportunity not only for intensive religious scholarship but for the teaching of secular subjects in an atmosphere of faith.

Some months after John Taylor became President of the Church, he was approached by Zena Young Williams, daughter of Brigham Young and dean of women at BYU’s predecessor, the Brigham Young Academy. Sister Williams expressed concerns about the academy’s financial situation and future. In reply President Taylor said: “I have been visited by your father. He came to me in the silence of the night clothed in brightness and with a face beaming with love and confidence told me things of great importance and among others that the [Brigham Young Academy] was accepted in the heavens and was a part of the great plan of life and salvation; … and there was a bright future in store for the preparing for the children of the covenant for future usefulness in the Kingdom of God, and that Christ himself was directing, and had a care over this school” (quoted in The Presidents of the Church, ed. Leonard J. Arrington [1986], 109).

Q: How does this university bless the whole Church?

R: BYU’s influence is reaching far beyond the 29,000 matriculated students who study here each fall and winter. First, BYU has recently begun a spring and summer visiting students program, during which anyone with an ecclesiastical worthiness endorsement and a high school diploma may attend BYU. The visiting students enjoy an intensive BYU experience ranging from courses and devotionals to campus activities and social opportunities. This past summer marked the debut of the program, and just over a thousand students participated, 70 percent of them from outside Utah. The university could handle many more thousands of students during the spring and summer visiting students program.

Even more exciting, however, are the opportunities provided by the Internet for the spread of BYU’s Latter-day Saint approach to faithful scholarship. The existing independent study enrollment is among the largest in the United States, with more than 40,000 enrollments for classes via exchange of written materials through the mail. But the Internet opens up a whole new world of electronic study. Currently more than 60 distance-learning university, high school, and personal enrichment classes are available online, and within the next three years the university hopes to offer close to 400 courses online.

As the number of Internet-based courses multiplies, so will the number of students served across the world at a much-reduced cost. We expect the number of students enrolled in BYU distance-learning courses to multiply as students become aware of opportunities. The quality of interactive, multimedia material available online will improve considerably with time and become even more effective in transmitting knowledge and providing learning experiences. The first person to sign up for an online BYU course was a Church member in Japan, which demonstrates the worldwide reach that a BYU education can now have.

Tying all these new opportunities together, the university has just launched a bachelor of general studies (BGS) program with eight areas of emphasis so far, including American studies, English and American literature, family history, family life, history, psychology, management, and writing. Former BYU students can count the credits they earned previously, and all BGS students may take courses toward the degree through independent study, BYU’s Salt Lake Center, local institutions of higher learning, and LDS institutes of religion as well as at the BYU campus through evening classes, during spring or summer, or on a space-available basis during fall and winter.

President John Taylor said: “You will see the day that Zion will be as far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are today in regard to religious matters” (The Gospel Kingdom, ed. G. Homer Durham [1987], 275). I believe BYU is at the forefront of realizing that vision. I foresee the day when LDS students will be able to complete a university degree by taking a combination of BYU courses over the Internet and courses in person at a local university. Pilot programs in Mexico and Brazil are already laying the foundations for that eventuality.

Q: How would you describe the influence of BYU in the world?

R: First of all, we should consider the positive influence of some 300,000 BYU alumni who we hope are applying gospel principles in their families, professions, and communities throughout the world. About 8,000 new graduates leave the campus each year not only prepared to make a contribution in the world but with deepened testimonies, and we hope they will be strong members of the Church wherever they go.

The BYU faculty is having a tremendous worldwide influence through their publications, research, discoveries, inventions, and creations. They have leadership positions in professional organizations, and they collaborate with other scholars, participate in faculty exchanges, and host educational, political, and business leaders on campus. The university provides worldwide leadership and support for faithful scholarship in scripture and history. For example, BYU is emerging as the world leader in the recovery and preservation of ancient texts from various religious traditions, including Judaism, Islam, and Syriac Christianity. The university does require considerable Church resources, but the benefits in the growth of the kingdom are immeasurable, from making faith-informed progress in scriptural, historical, cultural, scientific, and other areas of understanding to sending out uniquely prepared graduates, opening doors at the highest levels of governments, businesses, and institutions, and touching individuals on a personal level.

BYU initiatives have often been at the forefront of opening positive relations with other nations for both the Church and the United States. For instance, numerous BYU performing groups continually warm hearts and spread gospel messages worldwide, not only through performances but through extensive media coverage. Just this past summer alone, the jazz band Synthesis performed in Russia and Finland; the Ballroom Dance Company performed in England and Scotland; the Young Ambassadors performed in South Africa, Swaziland, and Botswana; the Living Legends performed in Canada; the Chamber Orchestra performed in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Poland, and Ukraine; and the Folk Dance Ensemble performed in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. In addition, during the past year about 400 other students participated in field-study and development projects throughout the world.

Q: What else would you communicate to members about BYU?

R: I would remind members that although BYU is putting much effort into developing efficient ways to spread its unique educational opportunities, the Church’s seminary and institute programs remain the most important means for youth worldwide to add a spiritual dimension to their educations.

Brigham Young University is a force for good of which all members everywhere in the world can be proud. Maintaining a world-class university brings the Church many benefits and blessings. The links between the Church and the university will continue to be strengthened and refined. As John Taylor said, the Lord is directing the university’s course.

From its beginnings in 1875 with 29 students, Brigham Young University has grown into a widely known institution with about 29,000 students and 1,500 faculty. (Photo by Mark A. Philbrick, Brigham Young University.)

About 8,000 students receive degrees at BYU every year. (Photo by Mark A. Philbrick, Brigham Young University.)