It’s Time to Close LDS Church-Owned Schools

Brigham Young University should be put to pasture. We don't need it anymore. But should CES-run Institute suffice in lieu of BYU?

*NOTE* – Read my co-host Geoff’s rebuttal here.

Why church owned / sponsored schools should be dissolved

Back in the early days of the LDS faith, as missionaries went and taught people the gospel, they did so using the standard six discussion format (these were the pre-Preach My Gospel days); and after the missionaries would finish teaching that good ole Englishman investigator (in my mind, early missionary efforts only included England), the final test of his faith was when the Englishman would be invited to leave his home and country, bid a tearful farewell to family and friends, pack up all his belongings and gather with the saints in Zion (a mobile Zion in the early years).  This certainly would have been difficult, but new converts did it, and as the central body of the saints grew, people started recognizing the benefits of gathering with the saints.  If one was single, he or she was suddenly around other single people with like beliefs.  If one was interested in learning and growing academically, there was a diverse body of saints committed to help and serve at one’s disposal.  This body had varied backgrounds and skill sets with which it could assist and educate.  After a while, the wisdom in the call to gather became apparent.

Now let’s fast forward many years, to when the mission of the gathering of the saints has been fulfilled.  The central body of saints had grown to a sizeable number and was now very well established.  The financial comfort of the church was stable and growing, and there was a deep well of strong members in Utah from which the church could draw for leadership and other needs.  Once this was accomplished, the church took note, and decreed, “Stop gathering in Utah – Stay in your home country.”

To the layman this is crazy talk!  If I were a new convert, I wouldn’t want to stay in Poland, Antarctica, or Malta, where very few saints live and where living the gospel is more difficult, as opposed to going to where the Church is strong and developed.   I would want to move to Utah as so many before me have, where the blessings will be poured out in such abundance there won’t be room enough to receive them (This sentiment is held by many members in foreign countries who continue to emigrate against the wishes of the Brethren)!  But the decision is a wise one, as once we stop removing the saints from the weak parts of the vineyard, with time they will grow to be their own centers of strength, and the benefits of a central meeting place (i.e. – Utah) will be replicated, albeit on a smaller scale, in every location where there are saints to be had.

Applied to church schools

The previous example is a near-parallel comparison to the current scenario being played out within Church-owned schools and the Young Single Adult (YSA) crowd of the church.  Let me lay it out for you:

The Church has established four institutions of higher education (four main ones) that are the established gathering places for YSA.  If an individual comes home from a mission or gets to a point where he or she wants to go to college, the individual is faced with two options – stay home in Alabama, Nebraska, or London and be one of the very few YSA who have made a similar choice, or pack those bags, leave one’s home and country, bid farewell to loved ones and head to Utah where the strength of the single adults resides.  For if this individual wanted to marry a fellow Mormon, grow his or her circle of peers who hold similar beliefs, and have a real shot at staying active through those temptation-ridden early- and mid-twenties, there was one choice, and that was to migrate for the winter of your life – also known as those YSA years.  For a long time this gathering to Utah bit has worked well, particularly when someone was the only one in a particular age bracket in a home ward of Madison, Wisconsin.  But I submit to you, my fine readers, that the day of the Utah-centric church has passed and the overlooked atrocity that is Church-owned schools needs to go the way of early-day immigration in the Church.

As time has passed, church membership has grown among YSAs to a number that is sufficient to allow us to put an end to the migration-centric mentality that permeates our demographic; meaning that if everyone chose their university based on merit and desire rather than dating opportunity and Mormon pride, we would all be allowed a great LDS experience with the same benefits currently sought by moving to Utah, right here in our very own local communities and schools (in the largest geographic lens I can put on it – think communities outside of Utah).   We would have the same benefits of dating other LDS YSA, the Mormon groups of friends and so on, effectively fulfilling the instinctual needs that currently require a hajj to the Rockies.

Just think about the benefits!  Imagine your dating pool is all people who are from your geographic region, or people who have chosen to be in that region, so you save yourself the silly “You’re from where?  Ugh, I could never live there.  You can move here!” conversations that currently permeate Mormon dating.  Also, knowing that a social conversion is as important for a young single convert as a spiritual conversion, having a significant gathering of singles and well attended activities significantly improves the chances of people having an enjoyable experience at church/institute.

Just like immigration, Church schools have been useful for a time, but that time is passed and now we are just burning cash and impeding the goals of many of today’s YSA.  Imagine if we took the money saved from running these massive academic institutions and instead spent that on institute programs and increased course offerings, the influence and benefit would reach far more than the 30,000 student capacity of BYU.  There would be enough money left over to sponsor well planned and executed regional gatherings for singles, again magnifying the aforementioned positive effects for YSAs.

Some of the arguments against me are that we would lose out on significant PR advantages that come from the church owning a school, the exposure BYU athletics brings(for better or worse – seriously when was the last time we had a winning record that caused others to say “you BYU folks sure do have the work ethic and dedication it takes to win”), the exposure that graduating students going out into the workplace brings, and …. what else?  When you consider the benefits and goals of the academic institutions I think you will find that it’s a big PR push that is waning.  The novelty of the school has worn off and now it’s a bit of a cliché.  It’s time to pump the best PR machines the church has, we young, able, ambitious, do-gooder people back into the world instead of gathering us into the valley’s of Utah.  Beyond that, we can trade in the BYU stereotypes everyone has of us for a more grassroots exposure campaign.

“But wait Al, it offers education opportunities to those who wouldn’t normally get it … right?”  Hogwash. If you’re international, the return-ability (returning to their home countries after graduation) of foreign students coming out of church schools is abysmal, and anyone who doesn’t recognize that is fooling themselves. And for us domestic folk, I don’t buy that for a second.  If you stayed in state to go to school, you’re going to find similar state college opportunities at the sub-$5,000 a semester, and I promise you the gravity of that education will be greater than what BYU Idaho can offer you.  Sure, you’re not going to Harvard on the cheap like you could go to BYU, but BYU is a far cry from Harvard, so don’t compare them as though they were the same thing.  Lastly, sending some LDS professors into other institutions of learning would be a welcome reprieve from the absolute void that most universities have of LDS educators.

So that’s it, I think we should be done with the church-run schools.  They were a huge help for many years, not to mention that many folks have found their testimonies while there, but the era has now passed.  There is a quality education waiting at any number of institutions. The burden of being the sole provider of a good education to its members should be removed from the shoulders of the church.  It’s time to start being the leaven for the whole loaf, and the only way that is going to really happen is when YSAs of the church are able to establish local roots and benefit communities outside of Mormon-heavy church school communities.  President Monson … Tear down this proverbial wall … if you feel so inspired.

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