What you need to know about the history and rise of BYU-Idaho

What you need to know about the history and rise of BYU-Idaho

From Academy to University: The Rise of Rick’s College

In June 1888, the Board of Education of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counseled its stake presidents to establish educational academies where “religion could be taught as well as academic subjects. . . where the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants could be used for texts.”

That counsel prompted Church leaders in the Bannock Stake, which covered the Rexburg, Idaho, area, to organize a stake Board of Education and establish the Bannock Stake Academy, an educational institute that began basically as an elementary school with primary, preparatory and intermediate levels. Initially located in an already existing meetinghouse that required minimal remodeling, the academy officially opened its doors on November 12, 1888.

What you need to know about the history and rise of BYU-Idaho
The Bannock Stake Academy in 1895

Bannock Stake President Thomas E. Ricks offered the dedicatory prayer, noting that the new academy “was to give spirituality precedence over worldliness; the principles of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ were to be taught side by side with arithmetic, geography reading, and other mundane subjects.”

The academy’s principal, Jacob E. Spori, who had only arrived in the area in June of that year, also spoke, noting that “the seeds we arc planting today will grow and become mighty oaks, and their branches will run all over the earth.”

These leaders words would prove prophetic as, over the next century Bannock Stake Academy seeds grew into seeds, which sprouted what literally tens of thousands of Ricks College alumni call the “spirit of Ricks,” an intangible but extremely powerful something that encompasses the spirituality friendliness, and values found in this corner of southeastern Idaho.

Bannock Stake Academy’s first session ran ten weeks, and students could enroll at any point during that time. By the end of the session, 85 students were taking religion, grammar, arithmetic, reading, spelling, geography physiology, hygiene, natural history U.S. history, and vocal and instrumental music classes.

Bannock Academy was one of numerous academies established throughout the Church during this period and, like most of its sister schools, it struggled for existence from the very beginning. Primary challenges included financial problems (at one point, Principal Spori donated his salary to meet financial obligations; other teachers and officials would follow suit within the next few years to ensure the school’s existence), sporadic enrollment, and adequate facilities. Unlike its sister schools, however, Bannock Academy (which was renamed several times, most recently in September 2001 when it officially became BYU—Idaho after having been called Ricks College for more than 100 years) refused to disappear.

While Ricks College’s fight to survive lasted decades, there were milestones along the way. By the turn of the century, the curriculum was becoming mainly high school level.  Public elementary schools existed for younger children, but no high school existed in Rexburg or any of the surrounding communities.

The school’s present-day location was established when the building of a new three-floor facility was announced at the March 1900 Fremont Stake conference. The granite rock academy building, which was later renamed the Spori Building in honor of Jacob Spori, the school’s first principal, was completed in time for the 1903-04 school year. The building stood as a landmark for almost a century; it was only demolished earlier this year to make room for a new facility. In 1918, a gymnasium building was added to the school’s facilities, and for many years these two buildings comprised the whole of Ricks campus.

The academy’s name was officially changed to Ricks Academy on March 5, 1902, in honor of Thomas L. Ricks, who had died a year earlier. The school became Ricks Normal College in 1918, and with the announcement in 1923 that all Church schools would gradually phase out high school classes, the institution became Ricks College.

One of the school’s major hurdles was overcome in 1961 when the Church announced the construction of three new buildings on the Rexburg campus. This announcement closed a years-long, emotionally-laden period when the future of Ricks College was extremely uncertain. In April 1957, the rumor had run rampant that the Church was moving Ricks College to Idaho Falls, a larger community about 30 minutes to the south; that rumor was confirmed in a November 2, 1958, priesthood meeting where Church officials made the move official.

The announced move wreaked havoc on the Rexburg community, which had developed a deep loyalty to the school. Despite the seeming finality of the announcement, however, a few stalwart individuals refused to accept the decision and campaigned heavily to keep the school in Rexburg. For years the debate dragged on until April 26, 1961, when Church officials quietly made the announcement of the three new buildings, an announcement firmly establishing the school’s location in Rexburg.

While the school’s location may be sacred, its name was not. On August 10, 2001, Ricks College officially became and began offering upper-level classes, which will lead to the institute becoming a four-year college within the next two years. These announcements were made in June 2000 by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who explained that the changes were designed to give the school immediate national and international recognition.

During his announcement, President Hinckley noted that “the school will have a unique role in and be distinctive from the other institutions of higher education within the Church Educational System. . . . BYU-Idaho will continue to be teaching oriented. Effective teaching and advising will be the primary responsibilities of its faculty, who are committed to academic excellence.”

During the past year, college employees have worked long hours to make it possible to start offering 17 bachelor’s degree programs in the fall. Approximately 50 baccalaureate programs are expected by 2004, along with 19 associate degrees.

Despite these significant and somewhat dramatic recent changes, the century-old “spirit of Ricks” continues on the wind-swept BYU-Idaho campus. Throughout the last century, Ricks College has gained a reputation as one of the most successful junior colleges in the country. As BYU-Idaho, the schoofs reputation will only grow as an increasing number of college students experience for themselves the “spirit of Ricks.”


Much of the information for this article came from The Spirit of Ricks by David L, Crowder, published by Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho; copyright 1997

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