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Cory Nimer, Curator

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Ernest L. Wilkinson and BYU

Ernest L. Wilkinson served as president of Brigham Young University from 1951 until 1971

Ernest L. Wilkinson served as president of Brigham Young University from 1951 until 1971

One of the most dynamic individuals ever associated with Brigham Young University was Ernest L. Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s association with the university began during World War I. On October 25, 1918 Wilkinson was inducted into the Brigham Young University Student Army Training Corps and served until the end of the war. In 1919 he formally enrolled as a student at Brigham Young University and graduated in 1921 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

In 1923 Wilkinson and his new bride, Alice Ludlow, moved to Washington, D. C. so that he could began law school at George Washington University. He earned a Bachelor of Law degree in 1926 and pursued further study of the law at Harvard University, graduating in 1927 with a Doctor of Juridical Science. Wilkinson taught law for several years at the New Jersey Law School before embarking on a successful legal career in New York City and Washington, D. C.

In 1950 George Albert Smith, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, approached Ernest L. Wilkinson about becoming president of Brigham Young University. Wilkinson had definite ideas about the future of Brigham Young University and had been sharing them with the Church leadership for several years. He thought long and hard about the potential for successfully helping Brigham Young University realize his vision of the school’s future before accepting the offer. He did not begin his tenure until 1951 because of commitments that he had with his law firm. Ernest L. Wilkinson had a profound impact on the destiny of Brigham Young University.

Ernest L. Wilkinson and family in 1951 as he assumed the presidency of Brigham Young University.

Ernest L. Wilkinson and family in 1951 as he assumed the presidency of Brigham Young University.

During his twenty years at the helm, Brigham Young University experienced tremendous growth. Enrollment grew from around 4,000 students to nearly 25,000 students. The number of buildings on campus grew from twenty to more than one hundred. Academically, BYU went from five colleges to thirteen colleges and experienced a complete revision of the curriculum. Associate and doctoral degrees were added to the bachelor’s and master’s degrees already offered. The University changed from the quarter system to the semester system, scholarships were expanded, and the Honors Program was established. Under his leadership a number of new programs were instituted including the Army and Air Force ROTC, the weekly forum of great speakers, intramural sports, the Institute of Government Service, and the Institute of Mormon Studies. The total number of faculty increased from 193 to 1,070, with the proportion of faculty holding doctoral degrees increasing from 26% to 54%. The number of graduate degrees awarded annually increased over ten times, to 840. During this time period BYU’s performing groups traveled all over the world and the university’s athletic programs achieved national prominence in many areas. Perhaps, his proudest achievement was the establishment of wards and stakes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on campus. When he became university president one branch of the Church existed on campus; in 1971 ten stakes with ninety-eight wards were operating.

Ernest L. Wilkinson is unmasked as Cosmo in 1960.  Wilkinson wanted as many students as possible to have a BYU experience and worked tirelessly to grow the university.

Ernest L. Wilkinson is unmasked as Cosmo in 1960. Wilkinson wanted as many students as possible to have a BYU experience and worked tirelessly to grow the university.

The Brigham Young University Archives is home to several collections that document Wilkinson’s successful law career and his impact on Brigham Young University. They include:

  • MSS 2382 Wilkinson, Cragun, and Barker papers, 1949-1979 This collection documents Wilkinson’s legal activities on behalf of the Ute Indians. The collection contains legal documents of Indian Litigation Cases heard by the Indian Claims Commission, 1949-1970. Litigants include the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Indians, the Uinta Utes, the Spokane Tribe, the Coeur D’Alene Tribe, and the Southern Utes.

  • MSS 2291 United States. Indian Claims Commission Papers, ca. 1950-ca. 1980 This collection also documents Wilkinson’s legal activities on behalf of the Ute Indians. The collection contains legal documents from the law firm Wilkinson, Cragun, and Barker, concerning cases filed through the Indian Claims Commission. Click here to access the finding aid.

  • UA 1086 Ernest L. Wilkinson Brigham Young University President’s Records, 1949-1975. This collection documents Wilkinson’s activities as president of Brigham Young University. Click here to access the finding aid.

  • UA 1000 Ernest L. Wilkinson Personal papers, 1917-1978 This collection consists of two series. The Personal Papers series which documents Wilkinson’s personal and professional activities and the Corporate Records series which documents Wilkinson’s presidential tenure at Brigham Young University. Click here to access the finding aid.

  • UA 1071 Brigham Young University. University Communications Collection of Ernest L. Wilkinson newspaper clippings, 1951-1971 This collection contains newspaper clippings about Ernest L. Wilkinson that were gathered by University Communications. 

If you would like to gain access to these collections or learn more about the impact of Ernest L. Wilkinson on Brigham Young University, please contact the University Archivist at (801) 422-5821 or gordon_daines@byu.edu .

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