Steven D. Bennion Prepares Ricks for Twenty-First Century
Faculty and staff had a natural tendency to worry a bit about how a new president would compare to the previous president, what changes would be made, and how each would add definition to the “spirit of Ricks.” The coming of Steven D. Bennion in July 1989 was no exception. Any uneasiness was quickly dispelled. “I heard him laugh, and I knew things would be all right,” commented one staff member. Very quickly each member of the Ricks family knew that President Bennion genuinely loved them for who they were and respected them for what they did.
Much of President Bennion’s life seemed to have been spent preparing him for his calling at Ricks College. During his teenage years, he became acquainted with the Upper Snake River Valley working on the Grant and Sharol Wilson farm in Idaho’s Teton Basin. After graduating from Olympus High School in Salt Lake City, a stint in the Army Reserve, and a Church mission to Scotland, he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Utah in August 1965. He received a fellowship to matriculate at Cornell University from which he graduated in 1967 with a master’s degree in public administration. By that time he and his wife, Marjorie Hopkins, whom he had married on December 20, 1963, had two children so he “thought the honorable thing to do was to go to work.”
He had “two job offers, the more glamorous being to work for a congressman from Utah in Washington, D.C., the other being a higher education budget analyst for the governor of Wisconsin. I chose . . . the latter,” he said, “mainly because for some reason it felt better, but I [didn’t] know why.” He was a higher education budget analyst for two years before accepting an offer to work in administration in the University of Wisconsin System office. He worked for ten years at the university as a budget planner, academic planner, and director of a statewide nursing study. While at Wisconsin, he chose to pursue a doctorate in higher education administration and received that degree in 1977. A hiatus in his study occurred when he accepted a call to serve as a bishop at age 29.
In 1979 the family (he and his wife had had five children) moved to Salt Lake City where he became director of marketing and training for Church Welfare Services. The job was to be “an education function within that department.” He said even though it seemed “kind of an oblique in my career,” he accepted the position. About two-and-a-half years later, he was nominated and then invited to be the associate commissioner of higher education for Utah.
He was the associate commissioner for just under a year when he was nominated by colleagues and encouraged to apply for the vacant position of president of Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. He was chosen for the position in 1982. Edward L. Christensen noted in his Snow College Historical Highlights: The First 100 Years that Bennion became president “amid problems.” However, “the spirit of unity and the process of healing began with the appointment of Dr. Steven D. Bennion as [twelfth] president of Snow College.” He brought his innate interpersonal relationship skills to bear very quickly and the Snow College community benefited. Elaine Burnham, a member of the Snow English faculty, said of Bennion: “The college, the community and the hearts of the people are all better because of the ways you have touched them. Thank you.”
The presidents of Ricks College and Brigham Young University were called to be General Authorities during April conference in 1989. About one week later Elder Marvin J. Ashton called President Bennion and "asked if I would mind coming up [to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City] for an interview. He said that he, Elder L. Tom Perry, and Elder Neal A. Maxwell had been invited to serve on a search committee for finding presidents for both Ricks and BYU, and they were just casually interviewing some people, eight or ten, and would I come. I said 'sure,' and we set up a time."
The interview took about twenty-five minutes, and only three or four questions were asked. “It wasn’t an in-depth interview,” he said. During the interview it was apparent that Bennion “knew more about BYU than Ricks because of proximity.” He explained that Snow played ball against Ricks, and “that we had some similar objectives being two-year schools. . . .” At the end of the interview, in addition to being asked who he “might recommend for either job,” President Bennion was asked if he would be interested. He responded: “If I could see us any place, it would be Ricks.”
As President Bennion drove home, he fretted a bit that he had “been too candid.” When his wife asked about the interview he responded, “Well, I think I blew it, I was too frank.” About two weeks later President Bennion "received a phone call one morning from President Gordon B. Hinckley. He [asked if there would be anytime I could come and meet with the First Presidency in the next little while, like this week. It was a Monday morning. I said I will be in Salt Lake Wednesday. He said, could you meet with us at nine o’clock, and I said yes. I was trying to gather my thoughts. I finally said, is there anything I can do to prepare for this meeting, President Hinckley? He said, 'Be ready to say yes or no!'"
Interestingly, President Bennion was scheduled to be in Rexburg the day after the call from President Hinckley—the day before the meeting with the First Presidency. The meeting set for Tuesday in Rexburg had been decided upon about four months earlier. At that time President Bennion’s parents, Lowell L. and Merle Colton Bennion, had sold the boys ranch they operated in Teton Valley to Richard and Susan Jacobsen. President Bennion and five others agreed to organize a non-profit board to resume operating the boys ranch. He was asked to chair the board. The board decided to visit Ricks College to see if some collaboration among the board, the Jacobsens, and the college would be beneficial to all concerned.
President Bennion was distracted during the visit to the college knowing the next day he would be meeting with the First Presidency. He felt that if he was “going to be invited to serve it would be at Ricks and not at BYU, or perhaps something else with the Church.” He had more than a passing interest in the affairs of Ricks College that Tuesday.
The next day President Bennion was in the office of the First Presidency. He was “invited to serve at Ricks” as president. He accepted the calling and assumed the position on July 1, 1989. “My wife and I [love] Ricks and Rexburg and the great people in this area,” he commented. “We are grateful for the opportunity” to be here.
By the time he came to Ricks College he had almost twenty-five years of experience in higher education administration, by far the most experience of any president of the college.
When asked if he felt he had been called to serve as president of Ricks to “fix something,” he replied, “Not at all! My feeling when I came here was that I was following in the footsteps of giants.” He summed up his initial feeling by recalling what Elder Henry B. Eyring had said when he had been called to be president of the college: “I just hope I don’t mess it up.”
When Bennion arrived, he “found a very positive environment, the feelings and rapport among faculty, staff, administrators, and students were excellent.”
Just two months after Bennion’s arrival an accreditation team visited. In their 1989 report they certified Bennion’s initial assessment: “The outstanding characteristic of Ricks College is the high degree of trust between the faculty, staff, administration, and students.” President Bennion commented that “that’s the template, the spirit and ethos of this place, and you don’t have to be here long to feel it.” A member of a previous accreditation team said to then President Bruce C. Hafen that “anybody could be president of this place; it has such good people, anyone could run it.” “There is some truth in that,” commented Bennion. Yet Ricks is a “complicated organization” with over “eight hundred employees, more than eight thousand students, a residential campus, and a lot of programs.”
President Bennion articulated some goals to prepare students for the twenty-first century. His “basic philosophical principle” was that “success is using what you have” and move ahead “within the policy guidelines of a tremendous board of trustees.” His first priority was “to nearly double the personal computers on campus for student use and to increase scholarship, loan, and grant programs.” Also, the “curriculum and equipment need to be updated in an effort to provide the best possible education for students.” Furthermore, he wanted to “enhance an environment in which the student with high honors and the student with learning disabilities will be challenged and thrive.”
He advised the faculty at the opening faculty meeting on August 21, 1989, that the “Board of Trustees has announced that all new facilities and their operation must be funded by money received from private funding.” Therefore, a fund needed to be established “consisting of private donations which can be used for the construction of additional buildings on campus.”
Charles“Tiny” Grant, director of development, was directing the capital campaign that had begun in 1985. The campaign was to continue through 1990. By 1989, Grant noted, the campaign had “reached 80 percent of its $10 million goal.” To augment President Bennion’s goal to enhance computer technology on campus, Grant said that whereas the first priority during 1989 was the endowment of scholarships and a student grant and loan fund, for 1990 the “top priority will shift to the endowment for computer equipment and software for student use.”
By the time President Bennion was inaugurated on November 10, 1989, he and his family had become an integral part of the campus community. His prodigious ability to remember people’s names made each feel important. His enthusiasm at athletic events, enjoyment of talking about Ricks while escorting General Authorities and other guests about campus, zest for the arts, support for those who maintained the campus and those who engaged in the “noble profession” of teaching, conviction that the college “is here to serve the students” and that “college students are like family to him,” and testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ influenced everyone. Obviously, President Bennion had become infused with the “spirit of Ricks.”
On Tuesday, September 5, the student body heard from their new president at the first devotional of the academic year. He “offered a formula for a successful experience at Ricks that would prepare them for their futures.” That formula included gratitude for the “privilege of being at Ricks,” recognition that “as a child of God, each of you is a unique first edition,” strengthening testimonies of the restored gospel by living its principles, and determination to set goals and achieve them with “patience and persistence, day after day.”
On September 19, Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve was the devotional speaker. He called to mind the importance of being worthy of obtaining, and using, a temple recommend. He also participated in a ceremony in the JosephFielding Smith Building, unveiling a painting of JosephFielding Smith, the tenth president of the Church. The painting was donated by President Smith’s six surviving children, four of whom participated in the ceremony, and was put on permanent display in the Smith Building. At the time, the building housed the departments of Religion, English, History, Education, Foreign Languages, Business, Economics, and Political Science.
On Thursday, November 9, 1989, the haunting sound of bagpipes and a muffled tattoo on drums announced the beginning of the inauguration gala honoring President Bennion. The Black Watch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Scotland, under the watchful eye and obvious appreciation of the kilt-clad guest of honor, performed intricate marches and musical selections. It was a fitting inaugural prelude for a man who had served a mission in Scotland and who maintained an abiding love for the Scottish people and their traditions. Fortuitously the Scottish performers had been lined up long before Bennion knew he was coming to Ricks.
Friday afternoon at precisely 2 p.m., the vanguard of the colorful inaugural procession consisting of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Elder Russell M. Nelson, Bishop Henry B. Eyring, Ardeth Kapp, Barbara Winder, President Bennion, and other guests entered the Hart Auditorium. They entered to William Walton’s stirring “Crown Imperial” march directed by Kendell Nielsen. President Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency, presided and conducted. After the invocation by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve, greetings were extended by Associated Students of Ricks College President Stephen E. Clark, Jr.; Dee Harris, Alumni Association president; Boyd L. Cardon, Faculty Association president; and Idaho State Auditor J.D. Williams representing Governor Cecil Andrus. Former Ricks president and now First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric Henry B. Eyring spoke about some of his experiences while at Ricks, calling to mind reasons Ricks is such a great place for teachers and students alike. He noted that he was often asked who should go to Ricks College. “Anyone who can smile at the absence of most sources of pride,” he said, “and anyone to whom faith bound with study looks like the good life.”
At the conclusion of Bishop Eyring’s remarks, the Ricks College Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kevin Call, played “Adagio” from Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky. Then President Hinckley charged President Bennion to “stand as a man, a leader, on the summit of 100 years of effort and growth to make Ricks College one of the great institutions of its kind in all the nation.” Also, “inspire the faculty, expect high performance from them, and . . . be appreciative of them.” Furthermore, “cultivate within the students those qualities of character, industry, and integrity which will make of them men and women better prepared to be good parents and able and contributing members of society.” President Hinckley then formally installed Steven D. Bennion as Ricks’ thirteenth president.
President Bennion accepted and responded to the charge by noting that the faculty are “here to serve. Their service is aimed to strengthen and build the students in every aspect of their lives.” He noted that Ricks College “from its inception . . . has been blessed by divine direction.” He considered six reasons why Ricks College is the “right choice for many students.” First, each member of the “vast and varied” student body, with all fifty states and forty foreign countries represented, come “to prepare for life. They are filled with enthusiasm, hope and dreams.” Second, the “spiritual mission of Ricks is carefully interwoven with its academic mission,” creating a “balanced learning environment.” Third, the “richness of quality academic and vocational offerings . . . [provide] a wonderful launching place for students, regardless of their future careers.” Fourth, the “caring, competent and committed faculty” provides the “foundation for student opportunities, spiritual development and excellent academic programs.” Fifth, the college’s “focus on experiential learning and the opportunity to participate is vital for student growth.” Finally, the spirit of Ricks “plays a vital part in the atmosphere that draws Ricks students from all kinds of academic, social, economic and ethnic backgrounds.” The spirit of Ricks “includes an uncommon commitment to service. . . .”
The inaugural service concluded with the A Cappella Choir, under the direction of Clyde Luke, singing “Rejoice” by Linda Spevacek; the benediction pronounced by Relief Society General President Barbara Winder; and the recessional, Gustav Holst’s First Suite in E Flat for Military Band, played by the Symphonic Band conducted by James Brague. Those attending had been stirred by the panoply and the inspiration of the occasion.
President Bennion was delighted by the attitude of excellence at Ricks, whether in the classroom, on the stage, or in athletic endeavors. Among students in that record-setting enrollment the fall of 1989, were those who would gain national and international attention for themselves, the college, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The American Folk Dancers, under the artistic directorship of Charles West and accompanied by Melinda Rock, had performed in Canada and Germany. Showtime Company, with artistic director Russell Bice, assisted by music director Wilson Brown and vocal director Michael Belnap, represented Ricks in England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Mann in the spring of 1990. The ballroom dance team continued dominating the BYU International Team Competition, winning for a third straight year. Students Doug Hamelin and Heather Ball won the Silver Latin competition. Alan Bossard’s debate team won the championship at the National Junior College Debate Tournament in the spring of 1989—for the third straight year. Blaine Rawson won the extemporaneous and impromptu speaking titles and teamed with Amy Pack for first in the nation in the Lincoln-Douglas debate competition. Glenn Stubbs, faculty advisor for Sigma Gamma Chi fraternity, noted that for the sixth consecutive year the Ricks chapter won top awards nationally for its missionary efforts. The Ricks ROTC Ranger team consistently placed first or second in competition with four-year programs.
The men’s and women’s track teams continued their winning traditions both regionally and nationally. The Viking football team took their 8-1-1 record to the Real Dairy Centennial Bowl game in Pocatello against Garden City Community College of Garden City, Kansas, on November 17. Despite coming up on the short end of the 19-17 score, Ricks’ Randy Wadsworth intercepted two passes and was named defensive player of the game and punter Steve Young set a bowl record with a seventy-five-yard kick. The team ended up being ranked tenth nationally in the J.C. Grid-Wire rankings. Coach JoAnn Reeve’s 1989 volleyball team won a record forty-nine matches. They finished seventh at the national tournament in Miami, Florida. Robyn Steward was named All American and chosen a national First Team player. The women’s cross-country team, coached by Ferron E. Sonderegger and Doug Stutz, captured the national title for the second year in a row, the first time that had happened in NJCAA track history. Cindy Reeder, Heidi Smith, Elizabeth Humpherys, and Lynette Hansen were honored with All American status. The wrestling team, under Region 18 Coach of the Year Bob Christensen, placed fourth in the national finals. In the spring of 1990 football coach Ron Haun announced that Eric Moss was a First Team All-American selection, while Scott Walker was named an Honorable Mention All-American. The men’s and women’s basketball teams had successful seasons with the men winning twenty-seven while losing five; the women set a school record winning twenty-two games.
President Bennion said, “Athletic success was a wonderful reflection of teamwork with splendid teams. The athletic success was helped by the leadership of Community Services Vice President Brent Kinghorn, athletic directors Glenn Dalling and Don Rydalch, and dedicated coaches.”
The opening of the Berlin Wall in Germany provided President Bennion with a topic for his address to students and faculty at the opening devotional January 9, 1990. He spoke of many who were denied freedom by the Berlin Wall and many who risked their lives to escape. He reminded everyone how blessed they were to “live in a world where freedom to choose is remarkable.” However, that freedom “can be eliminated through wrong choices and addiction to drugs, pornography, or immorality.” He pointed out that those addictions are “Berlin Walls” to personal freedom. He concluded, “May we recognize the marvelous blessings of freedom we enjoy and the sacred powers of choice that have been given to us.”
At the faculty meeting January 11, President Bennion outlined goals for the college during the decade of the 1990s, which would prepare Ricks for the twenty-first century. First, continue to emphasize religious faith and character development in students. Second, enhance efforts to provide state-of-the-art computer access for students. Third, offer selective new programs. He commented, perhaps “the college may have to give up some existing programs to make room for programs that would better serve the needs of the students.” Fourth, provide continued career assessment and individual development with a renewed commitment to advising students. Fifth, learn to live with the enrollment ceiling. Sixth, carefully examine the college’s building needs. He felt that one of the most critical needs on campus was additional library space. Seventh, continue to serve the surrounding communities. Ricks must “reach out to meet local needs through continuing education programs, and athletic and cultural events.”
President Bennion conducted his first commencement ceremony April 26, 1990. Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy was the presiding authority. Noted in the May 5, 1990, Church News, Elder Pinnock advised the graduates that “the joy found in your lives from this moment on will be in direct proportion to your adherence to gospel principles and teachings.”
"Interestingly enough, some people live the commandments, but do not live the gospel. When asked to teach others, they find an excuse to not help. When the prophet asks them to read the Book of Mormon or to have family home evening, they do not. When asked to give a generous fast offering, they will not sacrifice to do so. When their influence is desperately needed in the blessing and visiting of others, they refuse or do not go. They then wonder why they cannot find more happiness within the Church, even though they are living what commandments are necessary to obtain a temple recommend."
President Bennion concluded the ceremony by counseling the 1,692 graduates to “set goals that will cause you to stretch and strain” and have “persistence and determination” in obtaining your goals. Finally, “the journey of life becomes exciting and fulfilling as we seek to serve and bless others.”
July 3, 1990, was Idaho’s one hundredth birthday. Ricks had been involved with the state centennial since the Centennial Commission and centennial committees had been established in 1986. Alyn Andrus, History Department chairman, was a commissioner. Several other faculty members served on committees. The college was recognized as one of very few organizations that had been in operation during the entire one hundred years of Idaho statehood. The college was recognized as an Idaho landmark and a sign was erected on a corner of the campus. The Spori Building also was listed on the National Register of Historical Places. The Idaho International Folk Dance Festival in early August was designated a centennial activity. Not only did Idaho get great publicity during 1990, but so did Ricks.
Summer school in 1990 had a record enrollment. By fall semester the college computer system had been upgraded. Several new faculty members had been selected from large numbers of qualified applicants. Responding to student demand, the Russian language was offered for the first time. The football team was chosen as the NJCAA pre-season poll number one team. The campus was beautiful and the buildings contained up-to-date equipment to enhance teaching and learning. The challenge now was “to be careful about complacency,” commented President Bennion at the August 28 faculty meeting. He advised that some ways to “combat complacency” were to attend the weekly devotional, to bear “testimony of the divinity of the Savior in class,” and to be available to students. Each faculty member was a role model for students and all were “viewed as guardians” by students’ parents. He urged stricter adherence to the college’s dress code. If faculty members were not complacent, students were not likely to be either.
President Bennion counseled students to abide by the college’s Code of Honor at the 1990 fall semester opening devotional. “We accept you as people of principle and integrity,” he said, “willing to uphold and honor those standards and your word. You will obviously be happier and at peace with yourself as you do.”
The Code of Honor was reviewed by campus groups and representatives of the faculty, staff, administration, and student leadership. Mack Shirley, vice president of student life, directed the review. A few changes in the code were made “in an effort to reaffirm its purpose and principles,” commented President Bennion. The code was based on the Church’s thirteenth article of faith, notably “being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, and virtuous.” All students, faculty, and staff were expected to abide by the Code of Honor and the dress and grooming standards and to exemplify the code, not only on campus, but anywhere in the world they may be. Bennion described the Code of Honor and the principles underlying it as a safeguard that keeps the “spirit of Ricks” alive.
The fall 1990 enrollment exceeded by 295 students the 7,500 limit that had been established in 1987. For the next several years until the limit was lifted in 1997, enrollment always exceeded 7,500. “Enrollment management is a refining art,” explained Gordon Westenskow, director of admissions and scholarships. Enrollment management “has been a remarkable challenge and pressure,” commented President Bennion. The “access issue is a big one; the toughest one we deal with administratively.” The president ideally wanted the traditional open admission policy of first-come, first-admitted to be continued. The basic criteria of the policy were that applicants had to be high school graduates, had taken the ACT, and had a bishop’s endorsement on their application. However, a limit to enrollment posed problems for an open enrollment policy. At some point “you have to draw a line and say, ‘We’re full.’ ”
Selecting criteria of where to draw the line was perplexing. When President Bennion first came to Ricks, applications were being taken into August. The next year the closing date was in May. By 1991 it had been pushed back to March. Obviously, the date could not continue to be pushed back. If it were, the day could come when prospective students would need to get their applications submitted while they were juniors in high school. The further back the closing date, the harder it would be to predict enrollment. Criteria established and approved by the Board of Trustees of the college to limit enrollment included “geography, ethnicity, male/female balance, serving and returned missionaries (if someone had honorably served a mission, we gave extra weight for that), under-enrolled programs (if we were going to use the campus wisely, we have got to make sure those programs get filled up),” explained Bennion. “The two major [criteria] were academic and spiritual.”
Deciding who would be admitted and who would not became increasingly difficult because of the increased qualifications of applicants. About one-half of the available spaces for admission were for the top academically and spiritually prepared. All other applicants were placed in a “hold pool.” Those who obviously did not meet application criteria were eliminated from the pool. Far more than could be admitted of those remaining were very close to each other in meeting the criteria. A solution was developed whereby the 30 to 40 percent of pool applicants would be randomly drawn by computer. The plan was presented to the Board of Trustees who approved it on a pilot basis beginning the winter semester of 1996. “As far as bishops and . . . our admissions office were concerned, it was a good way to go,” noted President Bennion. “It really helped students not to personalize rejection.” However, an unforeseen complication developed: “It started to be called the Ricks College lottery, and we didn’t need that,” he explained, “and the board didn’t like it either.” So the process reverted to screening the pool applicants based on the earlier-established criteria, with “a little more weight to geography” so those who came from areas where they have little chance to associate with members of the Church were given that chance at Ricks. President Bennion personally was receiving “fifty or sixty calls every spring, and the admissions office is almost under siege sometimes” from those wanting to know why they were not admitted or why their admittance was postponed to second semester or required starting at summer school.
In an effort to free up more space, a “fast track program” was being developed in 1997. Motivated and bright high school students were encouraged to take Advanced Placement courses and night and summer classes at a nearby college prior to coming to Ricks. When they came to Ricks they could complete an associate degree in one academic year and one or two summers. If the program developed as planned, five hundred to six hundred more students from the pool could be admitted, and that, commented President Bennion, “would be a great blessing.”
One outcome of the enrollment ceiling and the enrollment selection process was a dramatic increase in ACT scores and grade point averages of entering students. In 1987 the average ACT score was 18 and the average GPA was 2.7 on a 4.0 scale. In 1997 the average entering freshman ACT score was 23 while the average GPA was 3.4. Faculty members often commented to President Bennion that the “quality of students, both academically and spiritually, is better than it has ever been.”
“LDS Church officials have quietly done away with one of the thorniest issues to snag its junior college in Rexburg,” noted staff writer Terri Robinson in the March 20, 1997, issue of The Rexburg Standard-Journal. “After nearly a decade, the church has eliminated the 7,500-student enrollment limit at Ricks College.” Although President Bennion was pleased that the college’s trustees took the action, he understood that enrollment would still be “restricted by the space available.” The available space would allow for about 8,250 students for the 1997-98 school year and possibly grow upward to 9,000 in the future depending on available office space for additional faculty within current buildings.
Students currently enrolled find a campus adapted to their academic and spiritual enhancement. However, when President Bennion first came he observed that Ricks “did not have adequate space in certain areas.” The library was at capacity and not able to expand to meet expanding academic needs. Only 8 percent of the students could be accommodated at a time and national guidelines recommend 25 percent. The Smith Building was “highly used as an academic classroom building.” There was not enough room in the Snow Center for the Performing Arts for all the classes, so some music classes were being held in the nearby Fourth-Fifteenth Ward meetinghouse.
During the summer of 1991 some “serious space studies” were done. That fall two consultants were invited to study the campus physical plant and space needs and assist in the development of a master plan. “Out of that planning exercise came a proposal that we build a religion building and an administration building,” President Bennion said. The religion building would house the Religion and Humanities departments, as well as a college stake. Additionally, space would be available for Lambda Delta Sigma and Sigma Gamma Chi, the Church-sponsored sorority and fraternity. An administration building would not only allow administrative staff much needed space, but would allow the library to expand into the present administrative area that previously housed the library. Enlarging the Snow Center was needed to accommodate “a music rehearsal hall, individual and group practice rooms, a modest-sized secured art gallery, some drama theater space, and storage space.”
President Bennion presented the master plan and the space needs proposal to the Board of Trustees. “We had an interesting discussion,” Bennion commented. “They didn’t raise their hands and say that all of this is a go right then.” However, six months later the proposal was discussed again. Several months later approval was granted to start planning the religion building. The planning phase took about eighteen months. Then approval was granted to build the religion building, start planning the administration building, and look at raising money for part of the cost of the Snow addition.
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve represented the Board of Trustees at the religion building groundbreaking ceremony June 29, 1995. The Board of Trustees had enthusiastically endorsed the administration’s recommendation to name the building for Church President John Taylor, who had sent Thomas E. Ricks to colonize the Upper Snake River Valley. It was the first building on campus named for a pioneer-era prophet. “It is indeed appropriate to name the Ricks College religion building after President Taylor, a fearless defender of the faith,” stated President Bennion. Mack Shirley, vice president of student life and chairman of the building planning committee, stated that “the building is designed to reflect those elements of spirituality and religious reverence that are the trademarks of Ricks College.” The building will “house the religion and humanities departments as well as one campus LDS stake, and nine students wards,” noted Melinda Rock in a news release. “Space will also be provided for church social programming, as well as academic and social needs.” It would be the first new building at Ricks in seventeen years.
While waiting for approval for the major projects, several minor projects were approved and completed. Dirt was hauled out of the Austin Building basement so a much-needed computer laboratory could be built. The student health center in the Clarke Building was expanded. A logistics center and additional cabins were built at the Badger Creek ranch near Tetonia. Multimedia rooms were built in the Smith and Romney buildings.
Former Ricks President Joe J. Christensen had entered into a dialogue with Deloy Ward about purchasing the 160-acre Ward farm contiguous to the campus on the south. President Bennion and Charles“Tiny” Grant continued the dialogue. When the Wards appeared ready to sell, the possibility of the Church purchasing the land was presented to the Board of Trustees. President Bennion was “encouraged to go ahead and work with the real estate department of the church” under the direction of President Gordon B. Hinckley of the First Presidency to further explore the possibility of purchase. An agreement was reached with the Wards and the “Church bought the farm and gave Ricks stewardship for running it.”
Most of the farm was cultivated. “For the foreseeable future,” noted James Smyth, administrative vice president, “the college will farm the land to keep it productive and in good condition.” Grain was planted on about 100 acres and the farming was handled by students in the Division of Agriculture. About forty-five acres was in a rocky area with many Russian olive trees. Kim Black, the chairman of the Horticulture Department, could see that the area would enhance the learning of horticulture students if the area could be used as a low-maintenance arboretum. The trustees agreed that would be an excellent use of the area. The arboretum would complement the labor intensive horticulture demonstration gardens.
Being able to buy the Ward farm was “heaven sent,” commented President Bennion. Ricks was now “in a position with our master planning and with our development” of the John Taylor and administration buildings, which are south across the street from the Manwaring Center, “to recommend that we close at least one block of Viking Drive.” Viking Drive had long been used as a through street for the city and college. If Viking Drive were closed, the city would need to develop Seventh South as a through street. Since Ricks owned about four of the blocks on which Seventh South would be developed, a recommendation was made to the trustees that “the land Ricks College owned be given to the city for development of Seventh South, and they accepted that.” The trustees also agreed that “in the future Second West could go further south through our farm and that the Church would donate enough property for further development that would take Second West over to Eleventh South and then down to Highway 20.” Acquiring the Ward farm would make all this possible and greatly benefit the students and the community.
To further bless the lives of students, a construction technology laboratory was planned on the former site of the college trailer court in 1997. Lighted playing fields were constructed between Sixth and Seventh South. In 1997, a football practice field and baseball field were constructed where the biology primitive area was once located.
The college was involved with a complicated land swap involving ninety-five acres in Squirrel Meadows in Wyoming purchased by the college during President Christensen’s administration. It was intended to be used as an area for biological sciences research. However, the fact that the area is in grizzly bear habitat precluded housing students there. The U.S. Forest Service wanted Squirrel Meadows and was willing to trade some property in Island Park for the meadows. However, to trade government property across state lines needed congressional approval. That legislation was included in a budget omnibus bill that passed the national Congress in November 1996. The land the college desired to trade for Squirrel Meadows is contiguous to other land owned by the college at the Island Park Natural Science Center.
After it became apparent that Squirrel Meadows would not work for an outdoor laboratory, school biologists Lynn Speth and Melvin Griffeth proposed a place on Yale Creek in Island Park for student study. Speth, Griffeth, Charles “Tiny” Grant, Dave Richards, and President Bennion drove to Island Park to look at the property. They quickly “determined that it would be a much better location [than Squirrel Meadows] as the base of operations for our expeditions and for our Discovery programs in geology and biology.” They found out that Roger and Sybil Ferguson and family owned the property that included a lodge and about thirty-eight acres. The Fergusons leased the property to the college for several years with an option to buy. The proposal presented to the Board of Trustees met with a favorable response, except purchasing the property would be delayed until Squirrel Meadows was sold or traded. The property was leased for five or six years while the college continued to try to divest itself of Squirrel Meadows. The Fergusons offered the property to the college at a “reduced and very reasonable price.” But, after waiting several years, they said the college needed to buy the property or it would be sold to someone else. President Bennion approached the trustees again and was given approval to buy the property, even though the Squirrel Meadows divestment was not yet completed. (The college is currently close to selling the Squirrel Meadows property.) The generosity of the Fergusons and support of the Board of Trustees made the Island Park acreage a splendid acquisition.
The Teton Mountain Student Leadership Institute also was begun under President Bennion’s administration. The institute is located on the Jacobsen ranch about twenty-two miles southwest of the Badger Creek ranch in Teton Basin. The Jacobsen ranch is the former boys ranch operated by President Bennion’s father, Lowell Bennion. The Jacobsens built a new lodge on the site in 1989. “Shortly after completing it they invited me over one day to visit with them,” commented President Bennion. “You know, we just get up here two or three times a year to use it as a family,” the Jacobsens said. “Would Ricks College be interested in using this lodge during the academic year?” Bennion quickly replied “Oh! I’m sure we would.” The Jacobsens said they would make it available for “one-dollar a year plus maintenance costs,” provided the college could come up with a beneficial program for both the college and the owners. The outcome was the Teton Mountain Student Leadership Institute, administered out of the Student Life area. Lynn Smith started the program which is “designed to help strengthen the work ethic, to encourage service, to build leadership values, and self-esteem.” The institute is “an inspired way to touch any student on campus,” commented Bennion. “You don’t have to be a student leader to participate.” After one year, Smith was called to be a mission president and Brian Schmidt was hired as director of the institute. Schmidt had worked on the boys ranch for ten years both as a camper and a counselor, so he was very familiar with it. Additionally, he had received administrative training as the first intern with the president’s staff. In 1991 the innovative administrative intern program in the president’s staff office had been established, designed to “nurture young leadership as well as perform valuable work for them.”
In the midst of a busy schedule on campus and in the community, President Bennion acknowledged his surprise when he was called as a regional representative in April of 1992. For more than three years he served in this capacity in the Rexburg and St. Anthony regions. He commented, “This service in working closely with stakes in Driggs, Ashton, Rexburg, St. Anthony, and Sugar City helped me to more fully appreciate the wonderful members of the Church in this area.”
From the start of his tenure at Ricks, President Bennion was especially concerned that students have access to computers while learning up-to-date computer technology. Currently, all faculty members have computers and students have access to more than twenty-two computer labs on campus. After some arduous work by a special committee and the able assistance of on outside consultant, a fiberoptic backbone computer network was installed on campus. Personal computers were tied to the network, plus it “paved the way for us to be able to tie in with internet, E-mail and all the rest.” To get a grip on the “technology tiger,” a council of eight people was established in 1996. Chaired by Don Bird, the academic vice president, the council helped to develop computer technology policies and “sift and review priorities in terms of spending” and direction. The Information Services Division, directed by Ron Martin, included more than thirty people working to keep up with rapid technological advances so students get the best training available. Martin had chaired the Campus Computer Committee for more than ten years and was familiar with campus technological needs. Martin also had been appointed by President Bennion in 1991 to “develop an operational plan for computing . . . over the next 12 to 18 months.” In that capacity he had familiarized himself with the variety of technology being used on campus as well as on other campuses. Martin had become the expert.
President Bennion also put his fund-raising experience to good use. Each year from 1990 to 1995 about $3 million was raised. In 1995 a goal was set to raise $17.4 million by the year 2000, or about $3.5 million each year. About $9.2 million will go to grants and scholarships, the “lifeblood of most higher education private fund-raising efforts.” He saluted the solid efforts of both Charles“Tiny” Grant and David Richards and the development staff to raise private money. Funds will be made available for student mentoring programs, where students “work with a faculty member or administrator in some program where they can contribute work.” Funds are needed for the Learning Assistance Lab where students tutor other students. Funds are needed to “enhance the academic environment,” such as the Thomas E. Ricks Endowment for Effective Teaching. Faculty members can receive modest grants from the endowment “to fine-tune their skills, to enhance their curriculum, to do some travel and attend things that will be beneficial directly in their teaching.” Other endowments have been established for the visual and performing arts, Island Park Natural Science Center, Teton Mountain Student Leadership Institute, and technology enhancement. Other private funds are needed for building and campus beautification projects, such as the Snow Center addition and the low-maintenance arboretum. Funds are needed for the Chicago Inner City Youth Program where social and behavioral science students go to Chicago’s inner city each summer to work with mainly black Latter-day Saint youth in building trust and leadership. For many of the young people it has been their only “positive experience with a white male or female adult.”
The Jacob Spori World Citizenship Endowment also will “help provide travel opportunities to faculty, and, eventually, students,” and, in the process, greatly facilitate Ricks’ preparation for the twenty-first century. Faculty members have traveled to Russia, Africa, and China as a result of the World Citizenship Endowment and have returned to classrooms able to interact with students with an enthusiastic global perspective.
One of President Bennion’s earliest initiatives was the addition of Russian to the Spanish, German, and French languages being taught on campus. In consultation with Dean Sorensen, academic vice president, and teachers in the Foreign Language Department and Humanities Department, it seemed that Russia and Ricks could bless each other. John Galbraith “provided a lot of leadership” concerning the need to learn and teach about Russia. During the summer of 1990 Galbraith, Robert Schwartz, Larry Saunders, and their wives went on a five-week tour through Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. An outcome of the tour resulted in Schwartz of the Foreign Language Department and Robert Marcum of the Religion Department being invited to be visiting professors at the three-year-old Humanitarian University of Ukraine in Donetsk. Dr. Sergei Vetrov, rector and president of the Donetsk university and his wife, Larisa Vetrova, visited Ricks in January 1995. Dr. Vetrov praised Schwartz and Marcum for their work at the university. “We hope to have a long, cooperative relationship with their university,” stated President Bennion. “It is unique in its values and spiritual strength. Indeed, we have much in common.” Philip Wightman of the Religion Department and Wes Smith of the Chemistry Department later became visiting professors at the University in Kharkov in Ukraine during the 1996-1997 academic year.
During the 1992-1993 academic year a visiting professorship was approved by the trustees and was established at Ricks through the generosity of a private donor. Tamara Ignativa from Moscow, Russia, was invited to fill that first professorship. John Galbraith had been introduced to her by his brother and sister-in-law, David and Frieda Galbraith. “He interviewed her and felt good about her. We had her come and she was great,” exclaimed Bennion. “She gave us wonderful new insights into Russia. She is an articulate person.” Professor Ignativa “loved her experience here. She talked about the spirit of Ricks, the spirit of the gospel. We were just enthralled by Tamara,” Bennion said. In 1996, John Galbraith was called as president of the Russia Novosibirsk Mission in Siberia. He replaced Jerry Sherwood, also of the Ricks faculty, who opened the mission in 1994. In 1997, Robert Schwartz was called as president of the Russia Rostov Mission.
In 1992 the Music Department approached President Bennion about the possibility of sharing the “gospel through music in ways that are more than just playing the classics.” The outcome of the discussion was to commission a Latter-day Saint composer to write a composition that would be performed initially by Ricks College. After the inaugural concert on campus, the composition would be taken on tour. Bennion commented to Kevin Call, the conductor of the symphony orchestra, that Crawford Gates was a “personal friend from my Wisconsin days.” Call agreed that he would be a great choice. Bennion called Gates and asked him if he would be interested. The outcome was the inspiring Visions of Eternity, based on the seventy-sixth section of the Doctrine and Covenants. Gates, very much a perfectionist, was “overcome by the quality of our orchestra and combined choruses.” After the inaugural concert on campus, the composition was performed in Idaho Falls, Logan, Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Provo during March and April 1993. Several General Authorities were in attendance in the Tabernacle to hear the performance conducted by Call. President Gordon B. Hinckley was quoted in the March 27, 1993, Church News, commenting to Crawford Gates: “The whole church has been blessed by reason of your talent and will continue to be blessed by this oratorio. Like all good music it will go on and be heard by this generation and generations to come.”
Visions of Eternity was followed in 1995 with Robert Cundick’s Song of Nephi. Cundick, like Gates, found Ricks’ student musicians wonderfully talented. Song of Nephi was taken on much the same tour as Visions of Eternity and was received as an “inspired production.” “I could not have hoped for a better performance from these wonderful young people,” Cundick was quoted in a March 25, 1995, Church News article. “I just stand in awe of the Ricks College Music Department—the students and the instructors.” K. Newell Daley, a music professor at Brigham Young University, wrote an oratorio entitled Immanuel in 1997. The tour of Immanuel was extended to St. George, Utah, and culminated with a fireside in the Marriott Center at BYU. Daley, like Gates and Cundick, met with music students so they could “get the benefit of interaction with the composers. . . . It’s a great opportunity for our students,” commented Bennion, “and I think it’s wonderful to have new, inspired compositions that our people can premier. It’s a highlight for these great students.”
During the eight years of President Bennion’s presidency, there were many highlights beyond those already mentioned. Athletically, conference and national championship teams were produced and many athletes were awarded All-American honors. Performing groups thrilled audiences in many parts of the world. An astounding level of expertise was achieved in the fine arts. Students demonstrated academic excellence in all classes. Many faculty and staff were honored as exemplary teachers and employees. Several faculty received state and national awards for excellence in their disciplines. Other faculty were appointed to state or national organizations and served with distinction. An active Alumni Association spread the “spirit of Ricks” worldwide. Academic lecturers and forum speakers from several institutions instructed students on a wide variety of subjects.
Several General Authorities delivered inspiring addresses at devotionals and baccalaureate services. Notably, President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke at a regional conference of the five college stakes October 29, 1995. Almost ten years had passed since the President of the Church had been on campus. President Hinckley admonished students to “Love the Lord, cling to the Church and live the gospel.” Many faculty and staff were called into bishoprics, stake presidencies, and as mission presidents.
The number of full-time faculty saw modest increases during President Bennion’s eight years. Although turnover was low, many faculty retired after long and distinguished careers. President Bennion hired about 40 percent of the present faculty. He made two changes in vice presidents. James Smyth replaced Rex Bennion in 1989 as business vice president. Academic Vice President Dean Sorensen, who was called to preside over the Illinois Peoria Mission, was replaced by Don Bird in 1995. Sorensen had served with distinction in that position for seventeen years. Many faculty were involved in research, writing, and publishing, which greatly benefited their students. However, these efforts were only supportive to the principal teaching mission of Ricks.
Former president John Clarke, who had been honored with the first “A Man Committed to Excellence” award by Sigma Gamma Chi fraternity in 1990, died on February 20, 1991. President Bennion’s eulogy of President Clarke was published in the Spring 1991 Summit:
"President Clarke’s greatest legacy to Ricks College was not the growth in enrollment or buildings, it was his unflinching commitment to people—to students, faculty and staff and the community—in good times and difficult times. His love for people and faith in them provided a remarkable anchor and stability for Ricks as it emerged from a very small campus to the largest private junior college in America. His personal warmth and leadership helped nurture and strengthen what we have fondly called the “spirit of Ricks.” All of us now at Ricks owe him and his family a great debt of gratitude for his uncommon commitment and contribution."
On April 23, 1992, as part of baccalaureate services, former President Henry B. Eyring was awarded the first honorary degree conferred by Ricks College. President Bennion stated that the award was representative of his vital contributions to the mission of Ricks College today—to build testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and encourage living its principles. He had striven to provide a quality education for students of diverse interests and abilities; to prepare students for further education and employment, and for their roles as citizens and parents. His efforts to maintain a wholesome academic, cultural, social, and spiritual environment at Ricks were all components of this recognition and honor.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve was commencement speaker on April 24, 1993. President Bennion presented Elder Maxwell with an honorary degree, noting, “We honor you as a prolific author and eloquent speaker, and for traveling virtually the entire world in teaching and moving the restored gospel of Jesus Christ forward. . . .” An honorary degree was presented to Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Boyd K. Packer at the devotional assembly on September 19, 1995. He was honored as “a gifted and inspired teacher who proclaims the word of God with clarity and power, and as an author and much-loved speaker.”
At the April 1996 commencement, Elder L. Tom Perry, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, was the speaker. A snowstorm started as the students marched, giving Elder Perry a graphic visual aid for his message of the pioneers crossing the plains through Iowa in 1846. Elder Perry was presented an honorary degree for his great service to the youth of the Church and to Church education.
Kris Shelley from Corona, California, was elected president of the Associated Students of Ricks College for the 1992-1993 school year. She was the first woman since World War II to be elected president. Her identical twin, Kim Shelley, was elected executive vice president.
In 1993, students benefitted from the implementation of a spring holiday which, President Bennion said, offered students a “refresher or renewal period before they gear up for finals and the end of the semester.”
A record number of diplomas—3,297—were awarded April and May graduates in 1995. Among the graduates was Clendon Gee, 87, of Sugar City. Gee had started at Ricks in 1927 and was elected student-body president. Because of the economic depression of the time, he had been unable to complete a degree.
A new interdisciplinary environmental science program was offered the fall semester of 1995. The program provided “students with a basic understanding of the complex environmental issues and opportunities faced by society,” commented Irma Anderson, chairman of the Division of Business and advisor to the program. It will also “develop and refine the students’ environmental values, and prepare them for transfer to colleges and universities for further studies.”
Darwin Wolford, a prolific composer of sacred music, coordinated the first Hymnfest in the Barrus Concert Hall on July 14, 1995. Everyone was invited to join with college and stake musical groups and, as Wolford stated, “get out of our mundane rut and begin singing oblations to the Lord.”
At a devotional President Bennion proclaimed to students that “this is a special college—there’s not another one like it. The people you meet and the spirit you feel here will be one of your greatest treasures.” He commented in an interview, “We are here to build people, people who work here, people who come and attend. This place matters greatly. . . . This is a special place. The opportunity to have that synergy where you tie the spiritual and academic and social and cultural together, you can see the light of the gospel shining in ways that are hard to replicate.”
Speaking on April 26 to a record-setting 2,762 graduates of the class of 1997, Elder Henry B. Eyring noted that you have strengthened the “spirit of Ricks.”
"Because of what all of you have done, there is a greater spirit of sub-mission to the teaching of truth. There is a greater faith among those who come here that there are, with the help of God, no limits to our growth. And I am convinced that there is even more persistent labor being performed because there is greater assurance that we are in the Lord’s service when we work and study here."
Elder Eyring praised President and Sister Bennion for their great contribution to Ricks College. “They have labored as only those who know they were on the Lord’s errand will labor,” he said. He noted that after eight years as president of Ricks College, President Bennion would leave to become the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City as of July 1, 1997.
In his April graduation address, President Bennion said, “You [the graduates] are indeed a light in troubled times—times where many have lost their moral direction and spiritual anchor. The challenges in today’s society of drugs, pornography, alcohol, immorality and more require that you not be a fence-sitter. The consequences are too serious.” He noted his confidence in and love for the graduates and for Ricks College. He also invited his wife, Marjorie, to stand at his side while he expressed his gratitude for her support and talented service to both Ricks College and their family. He acknowledged, “She is the main reason we were invited to come serve here.” He had expressed similar appreciation for her a year earlier when the Associated Women of Ricks honored her with the Exemplary Woman Award.
That President Bennion would be leaving Ricks was no surprise to most of those attending graduation. The announcement of his appointment as president of Southern Utah University had been made on March 21. The announcement was noted in several Idaho and Utah newspapers, as well as the March 29 issue of the Church News.
Many students, faculty, administrators, community leaders, and patrons of the college who had been influenced by President Bennion offered their best wishes and fond farewells. Perhaps student Susan Stratton, writing for the March 26 issue of the Scroll, the college newspaper, best encapsulated all the valedictories:
"President Bennion is truly one of Ricks College’s finest leaders. He has cared so much about the students and faculty while he has served at Ricks. His love for us has shone through his whole countenance. He will be missed by everyone, even those who did not get the chance to personally know him. His quick laugh and large heart has helped us draw near to him, not only as a president, but as a true friend."
On May 27, the First Presidency announced that Dr. David A. Bednar, a business management professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and an Area Authority Seventy in the North America Southwest Area, would assume the position of president of Ricks College on July 1.
President Bednar found that President Bennion had prepared Ricks for the twenty-first century by his inspired leadership; that this modern college is the result of generations of faithful saints; that a thirst for knowledge and a love of the gospel permeate every classroom; that excellence is the standard in all aspects of the college; and that constant definition is being given to that nebulous, yet very real, “spirit of Ricks.”
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