Kevin J Worthen said the wall in his office adorned only with unused picture hooks isn’t a sign he is already packing for a move to the university president’s office.
The empty wall is rather a suggestion he was more interested in working than decorating when he took the office as BYU’s advancement vice president, and it has been empty the whole time he’s been there.
But a move is coming soon with the announcement that BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson will be released May 1 after 11 years as BYU’s president, and that Worthen will take his place.
In an interview with The Universe, Worthen said he doesn’t want to talk too much about his plans just yet out of respect for Samuelson, his “intellectual mentor.”
First receiving the news
For him, the change of command began in early January when he and his wife, Peggy, were asked to meet with the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
President Henry B. Eyring extended the invitation. President Eyring made it clear it was not a calling but a role that had been approved by both the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. “It didn’t take long to say yes, as overwhelming as it was,” Worthen said.
Worthen’s administration was not in his career plan but he has accepted administrative roles as they have been assigned to him. As BYU’s president, Worthen said he hopes to be able to continue teaching a professional seminar elective course at the law school.
The university’s organizational structure will give him time to interact with faculty and staff. “The thing I miss most being in an administrative position is you don’t have interaction with the students nearly as much,” he said.
Worthen spoke at length about the BYU student body, calling students “our greatest asset,” as they exhibit a unique exceptionalism, not just in academics, but in character.
“You look at the commitments they make to other parts of their lives and their whole person, and there really is no student body in the country that’s like this,” he said. “And people see it when they come here.”
Worthen said visitors who come to BYU are generally impressed by the students but struggle to describe what makes them unique.
“They recognize that the students are all attractive, bright, articulate, but many visitors struggle to describe it. They say things like, ‘They radiate, they glow,'” he said. “It really is the Spirit that’s there.”
This is part of the reason BYU is building a guest house on campus next to the Former Presidents’ Home, which will house up to five distinguished guests at a time.
“It is a hotel, but it’s one that’s right on campus, and that’s intentional. We want to help them have even more exposure to our students and the campus,” Worthen said. “If they’re here at a Forum, instead of staying in a hotel, they stay on campus and have a chance to interact with students; they come away more impressed.”
Worthen said his work as president isn’t likely to include radical changes but will be related to helping the university continue to accomplish its published mission statement, which he referred to liberally during the interview. He said he has spent a great deal of time thinking about the mission statement, and several parts in particular stand out to him, including the charge “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life,” and, “that assistance should provide a period of intensive learning in a stimulating setting where a commitment to excellence is expected.”
He said he feels the best way to accomplish these mantras is by promoting them from the bottom up.
“My sense is that the best thing we can do is get people focused in on the mission of the university and say, ‘Now, think and pray about what your role is in that quest for perfection and eternal life and in creating an atmosphere in which excellence is expected,'” Worthen said. “Whatever we do, we ought to be really excellent at it.”
Worthen said he believes the Lord has a hand in much of what happens at BYU. He said Church leaders have often had promptings to start new projects at BYU without knowing the huge impact those developments would have in the future. For example, he cited the International Center for Law and Religion Studies and BYUtv, both of which started as small ideas that grew into large programs with significant global influence.
The Lord’s hand is also evident in the lives of students at BYU, Worthen said. “Things will happen here that will prepare them in ways, and (they will) make connections with people that they won’t appreciate until later,” he said. “What seemed like coincidences really aren’t coincidences.”
Questions from Facebook
The Universe also invited its Facebook followers to suggest questions for the incoming president. Neither Worthen nor newsroom editors were surprised when questions about parking and caffeinated beverages on campus topped the list.
“I’ve decided after talking with law school deans and others over the years, parking is never solved,” he said. “It will always be an issue.” On the caffeinated drink issue, “That’s way down the list of things I’m going to be worried about,” he said.
Worthen describes Samuelson as a mentor who is part of an “intellectual lineage” of personal mentors that extends from Samuelson back through Neal A. Maxwell, J. Reuben Clark and James E. Talmage.
Worthen said he interacts with Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Jeffrey R. Holland, both former BYU presidents, and has had encouragement from Elder Oaks since accepting the presidential assignment.
“I can honestly say they are still loyal Cougars,” he said. “They have a special place in their hearts, it’s clear, for BYU and the students here.”
In terms of advice for current BYU students, Kevin Worthen said he hopes they will appreciate and take advantage of the opportunities available to them.
“There really is a broader part of being at BYU than just being in the library the whole time,” he said. “The students come to us, prepared to do that, so I’m not too worried about that. But I think it’s recognizing the other wonderful things that are available for a limited part of your life.”