1920s

President Brimhall retired in 1921. Fiercely devoted to BYU, Brimhall was known for his hard work and his inspirational preaching, counseling, and teaching. When a watch was stolen from a locker, he came down hard on the culprit, proclaiming in a morning devotional that every tick of the watch would say “thief, thief, thief, thief” to the new owner. It was reported that the next morning upon entering his office, Brimhall found several watches on his desk. In addition to being president, Brimhall served on the Church Board of Education, the General Board of the YMMIA and the Church Board of Examiners. He also fathered fourteen children.

Franklin S. Harris, at 36 the new president of BYU, earned his doctorate at Cornell. He was a professor of agronomy at Utah State Agricultural College, having served for ten years as director of the School of Agricultural Engineering and the Experiment Station. Broadly educated himself, Harris believed in a well-rounded education for students. He was determined to make BYU a great Church university. As BYU continued to grow, one of his first priorities was to recruit outstanding faculty.  Because several of the Council of the Twelve held doctorates or had otherwise excelled as experts, one of Harris’s first innovations was to have these educators lecture at BYU and offer credit for attendance. Those giving lectures included Joseph Fielding Smith, Dr. John A. Widtsoe, Dr. James E. Talmage, Dr. Richard R. Lyman, Stephen L Richards, and Dr. Adam S. Bennion.

When Harris became president, BYU had a college enrollment of 438 students but was not yet accredited. After completing their undergraduate work, students got into graduate schools based on personal merit. Harris began early to make BYU better known. President Heber J. Grant, also of the same mind, invited several top American educators to speak at the April General Conference in 1921 and 1922. Other innovations instituted by Harris included a new extension division and Education Week.

The first building constructed after Harris became president was the Heber J. Grant Library completed in 1925. But BYU’s future was anything but certain. Faced with rising costs and the fact that public education made Church education in many ways redundant, the Church began closing academies and turning its junior colleges over to the states where they had been located. These included Gila College in Arizona, and Weber, Snow, and Dixie Colleges in Utah. Ricks College in Idaho escaped this fate when the stake presidency in Rexburg and other leaders offered funding. As in the past there was also serious discussion regarding closing BYU and focusing on only religious education in seminaries; BYU managed, under Harris, to weather this storm. However, Harris wasn’t totally occupied with campus administrative problems. In 1926 he read an invited paper at the Pan-Pacific Science Congress in Tokyo and then continued on a world tour of universities and educational systems

As a new president, Harris quickly established five new colleges, among them the College of Arts and Sciences, where the English Department was housed. He also established graduate and research divisions and imposed stricter graduation requirements. Before receiving a degree, students had to be approved by a faculty member in their majors, by the dean of their college, by the Committee on Graduation, and by the University Council. Students were not permitted to register for more than sixteen credits per quarter without special permission. Entrance requirements also became more rigorous. Harris was not known for delegating much authority. In fact, he and the registrar, John E. Hayes, were the university’s only full-time administrators. Harris did most of the hiring and had the last word on salaries. Finally, after making required improvements and changes, BYU was accredited in 1922 by the Northwestern Association and in 1928 by the Association of American Universities.

Financing BYU continued as the major problem, particularly faculty salaries. Between 1921 and 1929 the faculty increased by thirty-five percent and the student body by two hundred fifty percent, but the budget by only twenty percent. Pleased to be a part of a growing college and believing in its prophetic destiny, many faculty made great sacrifices to stay at BYU. Suggestive of this sacrifice, William J. Snow wrote to Harris while on sabbatical at the University of California, “Even a teacher has a stomach, feels it necessary to wear clothes, assumes it his privilege and joy to have a family [and] has in consequence to . . . pay bills, or suffer humiliation.”  Still, with Harris’s encouragement, and even on limited incomes, many faculty sought advanced degrees. At this time the budget included no provisions for retirement. Teaching loads typically varied between thirteen and nineteen hours a week. Harris, confident of BYU’s destiny as a great university, used money from the budget to buy additional property on Temple Hill for a campus, money which some thought should have gone to salaries.

The year Harris became president the English Department added two new instructors, Harrison R. Merrill and Reinhard Maeser, who had earlier been teaching at the Beaver Branch. The department curriculum also expanded, adding a variety of new courses: Advanced Composition; Short Story Writing; Newswriting; Advanced Narration; The History and Development of English; The Romantic Poets—Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron and Scott, Shelley and Keats; Modern European Drama (Continental); Modern Drama (British); Modern Drama (American); Modern Novel; Tennyson’s  Minor Poems; Tennyson’s Major Poems; and Browning. Many of these courses represented the breaking up of earlier survey courses and also suggested the faculty’s growing expertise. The course in news writing also indicated a post-graduate practical application for English studies not apparent earlier. Short Story Writing became the first creative writing class offered at BYU.

The following academic year, 1922-23, six new faculty members joined the department:  Edward M. Rowe, Anna Egbert, Edward A. Morgan, Edward H. Holt, William H. Boyle, and Harold Bentley. New courses included Argument and Debate, Grammar, Contemporary American Literature, Shakespeare’s Comedies, and Prosody.  Also for the first time seven courses were listed as upper division. The new American literature course (“A survey of the present-day writers of America”) indicates a new appreciation for important living American writers, although, regrettably, none was listed. It would be interesting to know which Americans writers were thought worthy of study.  The following year, six courses in American literature were offered, an increase of three over the previous year.

In 1929 the English Department hired its first Ph.D., Parley A. Christensen, P.A. to his friends. Christensen had received a doctorate at Stanford in English literature. He was famous among students for his reading voice (he read Shakespeare beautifully) and his sharp wit and intellect, students referring to him covertly as Parley Agamemnon. One story relates that Christensen, irritated by a chattering student, asked, “Young man, do you have anything important to contribute to this class?” The student muttered, “No.”  “Well,” Christensen continued, “have you anything trivial to say?” The chastened student made no reply.

Also in 1929, for the first time, requirements for a B.A. and for a new M.A. in English were listed. The B.A. required thirty hours, in addition to three lower-division courses in rhetoric and composition. Other requirements included five period courses; three hours in advanced English composition; Chaucer or Old English; Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, or Browning; Shakespeare; and twenty-four hours in one or more foreign languages. A course in English history, if not taken in high school, was highly recommended. The M.A. required a B.A. in English or its equivalent, two courses in Shakespeare, Old English, Chaucer, and additional courses.

In addition to adding the M.A., the 1929 catalog also, for the first time, divided English courses into lower and upper division but did not list graduate courses as a separate category. New lower-division courses included Argument and Debate, Advanced English Grammar, Early American Writers, Later American Writers, American Poets, American Novelists, American Short Story Writers, three Masterpieces of English Literature courses, and Contemporary British Literature. New upper-division courses listed are Editorial Writing, Feature Writing, Magazine Writing, Book Reviewing, Poetry, English Drama, Mediaeval Literature, four English period courses, Matthew Arnold, the Victorian Poets, the English Novel, the Modern English Novel, the English Essay, Beowulf, the History of the English Language, History of Criticism, and Types of Poetry. Christensen is listed as the only faculty member teaching ten of the new courses, suggesting that expansion of the department offerings waited on the hiring of the right faculty. The new courses also suggest a department very much on the move. However, the catalog didn’t list a single upper-division course in American literature, suggesting a continued bias against its merit or appropriateness for university study.

In 1929, the National Executive Committee of the Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union (ICOR) invited President Harris to head a scientific expedition to the Soviet Union to find land suitable for a Jewish colony. Wealthy American Jews wanted to purchase land in eastern Russia to establish a large colony of Russian Jews where they could live their lives unmolested on their own land. Harris accepted the invitation and spent four months in Russia studying possibilities. In addition to the scientific work his team did in finding a suitable place for the Jewish colony, Harris served as a goodwill ambassador for both the Church and BYU.