BYU President Kevin Worthen began welcoming other university officials to a conference room on the third floor of the campus administration building bright and early on Sept. 10, 2021.
By 7 a.m., the group was in place and anxiously waiting. Finally, after an excruciating 20 minutes, the call arrived that he and BYU fans had craved for more than a decade, an official invitation to a Power Five athletic conference from then-Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
Within hours, Worthen spoke at a podium in the BYU Broadcasting Building in a blue tie and wearing a Y pin on his suit coat.
“This is an historic day for BYU athletics and for the university as a whole,” he said. “Our mission statement indicates that BYU is to be a place where a commitment to excellence is expected and the full realization of human potential is pursued. We strive to provide that kind of opportunity in everything we do, including our core academic endeavor. But membership in the Big 12 gives us the opportunity to reinforce that commitment for our student-athletes, by allowing them to compete athletically and academically at the very highest level.”
Big 12 membership is one of the pinnacle accomplishments of the Worthen administration at BYU, and 18 months later, BYU anxiously waits again to celebrate its official first day in the conference on July 1.
The celebration will happen with a new president in place at BYU. His presidency will conclude at the end of April. On May 1, he will hand the reins to a member of his President’s Council, academic vice president Shane Reese.
Worthen wept Tuesday when 15,732 people at the Marriott Center gave him a standing ovation after the announcement of the changes by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of BYU’s sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Worthen will finish what Elder Holland called a “remarkable, outstanding tenure” on May 1, calmly leading BYU through what has been a tumultuous nine years marked by far more than the struggle for a seat at the table in the highest level of college sports.
Worthen navigated the religious university through the COVID-19 pandemic, questions about race and a complaint filed with the federal Office of Civil Rights (later dismissed) over the school’s position on expressions of same-sex relationships.
He initially joked Tuesday that his first two goals as BYU president were to last more than three-and-a-half months so he wouldn’t have the shortest tenure, and then that he wouldn’t “muff it,” the advice President Gordon B. Hinckley gave the BYU football team before a game that would end with an announcement that the Cougar Stadium would be renamed LaVell Edwards Stadium.
He said he relied seriously on advice given to him at his inauguration in the fall of 2014 by President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency. President Eyring told him that past BYU presidents had set a strong course that could provide him with confidence and faith in times of crisis.
“President Worthen will then find himself saying quietly in the face of what appears to be a crisis, ‘Things will work out,’” President Eyring said.
“My next-level goal was to get to the point where no matter what the crisis may be, I could say things will work out,” Worthen said, “because we’re following the course set by predecessors and more importantly by the current board of trustees, who are prophets, seers and revelators.
“And then came COVID, and it proved the truth of this,” because BYU’s administration initially didn’t know “what in the world we were doing.”
Relying on others
Worthen told the students, faculty and staff assembled Tuesday that he relied on them when he most needed support.
“I want to thank the faculty and staff at this remarkable place,” he said. “I don’t know of a group of individuals who are more mission-focused than those two sets of people.”
The faculty sacrificed when Worthen dramatically expanded experiential learning, the practice of having undergraduates do research alongside professors. It is one of his signature achievements, drawing interest from other universities.
“For the faculty it often means that they forego the prestige and the honors of the world in order to involve undergraduates in their research, and they do it willingly and happily,” Worthen said Tuesday.
He coined the term “inspiring learning” to describe the practice in 2016. He said the phrase is a two-word summary of the BYU mission statement. He used “inspiring” because he said experiential learning benefits not only faculty and students but is inspiring to others as well.
BYU created the office of experiential learning in 2017.
Worthen said students regularly gave him strength.
“On countless occasions, (students) have lifted me up by their mere presence and the mere spirit that they carry,” he said, his voice breaking.
He didn’t even mention the practice of the student body chanting, “Whoosh, Kevin,” every time BYU basketball teams made a free throw for nine years.
Last year, Worthen successfully oversaw BYU’s defense when a student filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights that alleged the school discriminates against LGBTQ students by barring same-sex relationships.
The office dismissed the complaint, saying it lacked jurisdiction because BYU is exempt from federal regulations in Title IX that conflict with its sponsor’s religious doctrines, a point Worthen made in a letter to the OCR.
Worthen also appointed two landmark committees, one on sexual assault and one on race, that made major recommendations for change at BYU.
In 2016, the university adopted an amnesty clause that shields students who report sexual assault from being investigated or disciplined for Honor Code violations at or near the time of the assault. The clause was one of 23 recommendations made by the Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault formed by Worthen.
The opening phrase of the clause was unambiguous: “At BYU, being a victim of sexual misconduct is never a violation of the Honor Code.”
In 2020, Worthen created the committee on Race, Equity and Belonging and made Reese its director, motivated in part by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.
Worthen called the deaths tragic and said the campus had work to do to address injustice and that he was committed to it.
“BYU stands firmly against racism and violence in any form and is committed to promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect and love,” he said in a campus message.
The committee found individual and systemic racism and issued 26 recommendations designed to root out racism and bring “historic, transformative change” to BYU.
Worthen adopted many of the recommendations, one of which led to the creation last summer of a new Office of Belonging, and then gave the rest of the task to the office’s new director. But the school faced an immediate challenge the following month when visiting volleyball player made an unsubstantiated claim that she heard a racist slur from a fan during a match at BYU. Two teams canceled games with BYU after the allegation.
He helped forge new relationships and strengthened old ones with other religiously based universities. First, Worthen cultivated relationships with the many West Coast Conference religious schools.
“BYU is a better place academically, athletically and spiritually because of our interaction with members of the West Coast Conference,” he said.
The Big 12 provides new opportunities for strengthening ties to Baylor University, for example, a private Christian university in Waco, Texas. Baylor leaders and fans warmly welcomed BYU at a 2021 football game in Texas.
BYU also built stronger relationships around religious freedom with other flagship religious schools like Notre Dame and Yeshiva. Yeshiva President Ari Berman recently spoke at a BYU forum assembly about why faith-based education is important today.
BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies also continued to expand its international influence, helping launch the G20 Interfaith Forum during Worthen’s tenure. And BYU faculty joined friend-of-the-court briefs in multiple Supreme Court religious freedom cases.
Through the good times and difficult times, Worthen of course met monthly with the church Board of Education, which doubles as BYU’s board of trustees and includes the First Presidency — including past BYU President Dallin H. Oaks — members of the Quorum of the Twelve, which includes another past BYU president in Elder Holland, and other general officers of the church.
It was clear Tuesday that church and board leaders were happy with Worthen.
“Kevin is a man of God and a remarkable university president and a dear friend,” Elder Holland said. “He has been recognized as such across the nation. His skill and accomplishment have greatly enhanced the stature of the university, and we love him dearly.”
Elder Holland joked that the Worthens would be translated — taken up to heaven without death.
“I did see a chariot warming up in his parking stall,” he said to laughter, “a couple of fiery horses out there.”
He said he hoped Worthen might bring “his matchless influence” back to BYU’s law school.
Elder Holland said more would be said about President Worthen’s accomplishments at BYU commencement services for new graduates on April 27.
A new president
Reese shared how Worthen provided the advice he needed to stay at BYU as a freshman in 1989, when he wavered about whether it was the right school for him. (See story here.)
“Our campus community is eternally grateful for the grace, wisdom, kindness, individual attention and love you have so generously offered us during your amazing tenure as president,” Reese told Worthen. “Today we honor your unending energy, your bold vision and your unfailing loyalty.
“I will forever be grateful for your mentor’s influence in my life, first as a lost freshman and most recently as one who sits in council with you amazed at your love for BYU, its students, faculty and staff.”
Reese said Worthen set a tremendous standard for the university.
“I’m coming to grips with the huge shoes that I’m asked to fill,” he said.
He also praised the cabinet, known as the President’s Council, that Worthen leaves behind.
“He has assembled a really phenomenal team,” Reese said.
Worthen said one of the favorite parts of his tenure was the tradition of having BYU presidents serve so much alongside their wives.
“One of the reasons that this has been the most joyous professional experience I’ve ever had is because more than any other professional experience I have had, Peggy has been part of this by my side, and I have found that the more I’m around her, the happier I am and the better person I am,” he said.
While frequently emotional, Worthen also managed jokes. He said he consulted ChatGPT about his talk.
“It begins with, ‘I have been honored to serve as president of Brigham Young University’ and ends with ‘Go Cougars.’ Now, I don’t think I can do any better than that,” he said to laughter.
Another president of a church-sponsored university, BYU-Hawaii President Keoni Kauwe, tweeted his feelings about the changes.
“I have grown up as a leader watching Kevin Worthen and then working shoulder to shoulder with him in CES. I am grateful for his mentorship and example. Mahalo!” he wrote.
Shane is dear friend of mine. I am so excited that he and Wendy accepted this responsibility. The future is bright!— Keoni Kauwe (@PrezKauweBYUH) March 21, 2023
I have grown up as a leader watching Kevin Worthen and then working shoulder to shoulder with him in CES. I am grateful for his mentorship and example. Mahalo! https://t.co/BBVhmbxryV
Worthen said he wanted students, faculty and staff to leave Tuesday’s devotional certain of one thing about him.
“If you know nothing else about me and learn nothing else of my tenure, let me share with you that I believe with all my heart, mind and soul in the truth that there is a God in heaven,” he said. “He is our Heavenly Father, and he loves us in ways we cannot completely comprehend or understand.”
We sincerely thank President Worthen for his nine years of selfless leadership & support of BYU Athletics. pic.twitter.com/ESubV1i8pA— BYU Cougars (@BYUCougars) March 21, 2023
Congratulations to Shane Reese on his appointment to be @BYU's newest president! I look forward to seeing BYU advance its mission under his leadership. https://t.co/pob9CkSuUA— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) March 21, 2023
He also said God gave him an increased measure of love for BYU students and that he hoped they would feel that love while at BYU.
The devotional is available for viewing at BYUtv.org.