OGDEN -- Sure, everybody's been congratulating Weber State University on the 125th anniversary of its founding. But really, that's a little like celebrating a married couple's anniversary and only congratulating one of the spouses.
As important as Weber's 125th anniversary is -- and make no mistake, a century and a quarter is an important milestone for any institution -- equally important is the fact that those 125 years represent a lifetime of close cooperation between a school and a city.
Clearly, there is a deep connection, and affection, between Weber State University and Ogden City that goes back to the beginning.
"The main message is, there's been some tough times, and some good times for Weber," said John Sillito, an adjunct professor in the history department at WSU. "But in both times, the community has always stood by the school."
And vice versa. Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell says his city is "extremely fortunate" to have such an active community partner in Weber State. As an example, he cites the involvement of the school in landing the 1,100-job HomeDepot.com sales and customer service center.
"We weren't even on the list of potential cities," Caldwell recalls.
But the city pushed the company to make a site visit, and when that visit came, representatives from the WSU Provost's Office were there to talk about creating a specialized curriculum for the company's employees.
"They (Weber) went above and beyond what a typical large university would do to foster economic development in the city," Caldwell said.
Not bad for an institution that started out as little more than a glorified church high school.
Weber State University had its humble beginnings in what was called the Weber Stake Academy. In the 1880s, the LDS Church was creating a number of stake academies, "from Canada to Mexico, along the Mormon corridor," Sillito explained. These academies were an attempt to provide both secular and religious training to students in the area. In Ogden, one such school was created by the Weber Stake, a geographic collection of congregations in the LDS Church.
"It was literally organized by the Weber Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Sillito said. "It was clearly a church school, clearly run by the LDS Church."
The school's first day was Jan. 7, 1889. A modest 98 students were enrolled, although that would grow to 171 students during the first term, according to the book "Weber State College ... A Centennial History," by Richard W. Sadler. Sadler writes that in 1892, the academy also began training teachers for the schools of Weber and surrounding counties -- a mission that continues at the university today.
The first 25 years of Weber were spent doing the work of an academy -- primary and high school work.
"In many ways, it was like a high school," Sillito said.
By 1923, Weber had become what might be called a community college or junior college, according to Sillito.
In addition to a handful of name changes over the years -- from Weber Stake Academy to Weber Academy, then Weber Normal College, Weber College, Weber State College and, finally, Weber State University -- the school has moved several times. Early classes were held in the Second Ward meetinghouse, a red brick building on the southwest corner of Grant Avenue and 26th Street in Ogden. The following year, classes were moved to the old Ogden Tabernacle, at 22nd Street and Washington Boulevard, but that lasted only about a month before the stake closed the school -- worried, Sadler writes, that under anti-polygamy legislation the federal government might confiscate the tabernacle if it were used for anything other than strictly religious purposes.
The school struggled early.
"There were some financial difficulties, and they closed the campus for awhile," Sillito said. "The economy and the country were not doing well."
But in 1891, the school reopened in the new Moench Building, on Jefferson Avenue between 24th and 25th streets. Weber remained there until the 1950s, when it began the transition to its current location on Harrison Boulevard.
Ownership of Weber was transferred from the LDS Church to the state of Utah in the 1930s, thus "strengthening the tie between the institution and the community," according to Sillito.
"People believed transferring it from the church to the state would guarantee its continuation," he said. "They were struggling to keep the school open at that time."
Money was tight, he said, and some people even paid their tuition in meat and produce.
Then, in 1953, Gov. J. Bracken Lee tried to return ownership of the school to the LDS Church -- seeing it as an opportunity to save the state some money. But, Sillito says, residents held a referendum, and the transfer back to the church was "overwhelmingly defeated."
"The community fights that," Sillito said of the transfer. "And they don't fight it because they're anti-Mormon."
Rather, says Sillito, they fight it because the community feels a real ownership of the school. He said there have been several key periods in Weber's history where the school could've been marginalized. But each time, local residents have come to the school's defense.
"Each time, the community has said, 'We want this in our community. We're willing to support it financially and in other ways,' " Sillito said. "Weber is a school with such deep ties to the community."
And it is those ties to the past that help define Weber State University in the present, according to Michael Vaughan, WSU provost.
"Throughout that history, Weber has been embedded in the community," Vaughan said.
Chuck Wight, president of the university, says that Weber provides "the full spectrum" of educational offerings from a university -- "at least until you get to the doctoral level." He said that, in the most general terms, Weber State plays the role of a community college in the region.
"We want to make sure all people have reasonable pathways to complete their higher education," Wight said.
To that end, Weber is "a place where students can get the best return on their investment," according to Vaughan.
He and Wight point to rankings from affordablecollegesonline.org, which places Weber State 17th in the country, and No. 1 in Utah, in terms of educational value. Weber's tuition is just under $5,000 a year -- 40 percent below the national average, according to Wight.
"In a nutshell, we will continue to play the community college role, but also offer an exceptional value to students" pursuing their degrees, Wight says.
Vaughan adds that, here in 2014, Weber offers a little something for everyone.
"It's a great place for students to come," he said. "They may be very gifted students, or students with challenges -- it doesn't matter. Here, they can get the support they need to achieve their dreams."
Vaughan references the university's "Dream Weber" program, which began in 2010 to provide free tuition to students whose annual household income was $25,000 or less. Today, that program -- using a combination of state and federal financial aid, as well as money from private donors -- offers free tuition and fees for students whose annual household income is $40,000 or less.
"We want to make sure cost isn't the barrier to a college education," said Wight. "The only barrier is (a student's) commitment."
With the median family income in Ogden at $41,000, Wight says the Dream Weber program makes about 50 percent of residents eligible for a full-ride scholarship to Weber.
Wight says the last four presidents of the university have set him up nicely for success during his tenure.
"This institution has been moving forward, with no left turns," he said. "I'm grateful to these presidents that they've positioned us in a great place."
Ask the president about the future of Weber State University, and he'll point you to the five priorities he laid out in his inaugural address -- to keep college affordable, increase diversity, maintain beautiful and sustainable campuses, re-imagine the way classes are taught, and continue to strengthen the bonds between the university and the community. That's what he sees for the future.
Diversity will be a big part of that future, according to Wight.
"When you look at high school graduates in this area, about 50 percent are from communities that are traditionally underrepresented in colleges," he said. "However, that 50 percent is not reflected in our student body."
Achieving this diversity will require a change in the culture, Wight says, to create an expectation among potential students.
"When I was growing up, both of my parents were educators," he said. "I and my siblings knew we were going to college; it was just a question of 'where,' not 'if.'
"But for many here, it's 'if,' not just 'where.' That's the culture we want to change."
Wight also sees technological changes coming, but in moderation -- incorporating "interesting new types of technology into teaching," but never forgetting the human touch.
"The value our institution provides manifests itself in small classes," Wight said. "Twenty-two is the average class size at Weber, which is smaller than most of these students saw in high school. That individual attention is part of what makes us successful."
Wight says he envisions more hybrid courses. For example, instead of three days of class a week, it might be two days of class, with a third day interacting with the material in an online environment. This can preserve small class sizes and keep building costs down.
The university president is also keen on making Ogden a college town -- not an easy task given the commuter makeup of the school. Still, Wight says he and Mayor Caldwell are working to strengthen the ties between city and university. And the new 18,000-square-foot campus in downtown Ogden should help.
"The city is working to help us promote Weber State, and we're working to bring more of our cultural events to places like Peery's Egyptian (Theater) downtown," Wight said. "I think we'll be able to create a college town."
The university is also reaching out to other communities in northern Utah -- for example, growing the WSU campus in Davis County.
But in the final analysis, Wight says the future of the university revolves around those it strives to educate.
"My central goal is to make sure that Weber serves Ogden and the surrounding region in ways that provide outstanding value to students," he said. "Without students, we're nowhere."
And for his part, Caldwell says he's grateful that this tiny, 100-student Weber Stake Academy grew into a full-fledged university. He calls the institution "one of the most important relationships" the city has.
"The future of Ogden's wellbeing is tied to Weber State University, just like the city was tied to the trains that came through here for a hundred years," Caldwell said. "Weber State, with its close to 28,000 students getting a higher education, are the new workforce -- they're the ones that will be creating new businesses here. So that's a really, really unique relationship we have, and we're honored to be a part of it."
Contact reporter Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/mark.saal.
* Weber State University began as the Weber Stake Academy, which opened on Jan. 7, 1889, in the Second Ward meetinghouse on the southwest corner of Grant Avenue and 26th Street, in Ogden.
* Tuition that first year was between $3 and $6, depending upon the department, for a 10-week term. Today, undergraduate resident tuition and fees are $4,990 for a year of studies.
* The school started out with 98 students. Today, WSU lists enrollment at 25,157.
* Three members were on the original faculty at Weber Stake Academy. Today, the university employs 2,374 people -- including 473 full-time and 541 part-time faculty members.
* The school's first principal, Louis F. Moench, earned $125 a month. The current president, Chuck Wight, will make a little more than that -- $220,435 in his first year.
* Weber began granting baccalaureate degrees in 1964; master's degrees were first awarded in 1979.
* Today's student body represents all 29 Utah counties, all 50 U.S. states, and 55 foreign countries. The makeup includes 52 percent Caucasian, 9 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 1 percent African-American. Females are 53 percent of the students; males, 47 percent.
* There is a 20-to-1 student-faculty ratio at WSU.
* The main campus takes up 399.5 acres -- 69 acres of that is parking lots.