Brent Webb speaks about BYU’s unique role as a religious institution


Mechanical engineering professor and former BYU academic vice president Brent Webb encouraged forum attendees to remember the university’s role in uniting faith and reason in his address on June 6.

Webb expressed his disappointment at the beginning of his forum, saying he commonly hears students talk about how they come to BYU because it is cheap. Webb said those at BYU can be very grateful that it is so affordable, making attendance possible for many. However, students should learn to appreciate what “truly makes this university a remarkable place to pursue an education.” 

“The strength of BYU is so much more than its affordability,” Webb said. 

Webb encouraged those in attendance to look back to the university’s founding to see the strength of BYU. He recounted the life story of Karl G. Maeser, who began the academy that would later become BYU. 

Brent W. Webb addresses the BYU community in a campus forum on June 6. Webb spoke about BYU’s unique mission to combine study and faith. (Emma Butler)

Maeser joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany, according to Webb, and served many missions before arriving in Utah to work as a teacher. 

“Against overwhelming odds, with meager financial support, meeting in makeshift facilities, even opposition from the local community and the prospect of failure around every corner, Brother Maeser toiled in response to the call of the prophet to build a church school,” Webb said. 

Maeser’s faith in the vision for the academy sustained him through the challenges he faced in building the school, and he labored selflessly to plant the seeds for its fulfillment, Webb said. This prophetic vision of a new kind of educational institution has guided the growth of BYU through the years. 

Webb spoke about BYU’s unique mission — while BYU offers an extraordinary academic experience and equips students to make a living, it offers something else to students. 

Webb asked audience members to think about trying to drive a car or touch a distant object with one eye closed. He compared that idea to how BYU allows people to look at education with the eye of study and of faith. Webb shared examples of how this concept has better allowed him to understand certain scientific processes, including how the sun’s peak radiated energy lies in the range that human eyes are sensitive to. 

“Considering that scientific fact with the perspective of both faith and reason leads me to believe that the Creator knew what He was doing in establishing the sun as the primary source of energy and light to our earthly home,” Webb said.

Additionally, Webb spoke about the importance of addressing the problems of humankind, and how teaching students to reason by the Spirit can assist in this mission. 

“The world needs thinkers who both rigorously and prayerfully approach their disciplines, and are willing and able to access the perspective that comes from seeing with both eyes — faith and reason,” Webb said. 

The unique environment at BYU has blessed Webb’s career, he said. Webb shared a variety of experiences that illustrate the spirituality of BYU, including his research in heat transfer and thermal radiation, which helped show him that learning is always magnified by the Holy Ghost. 

“BYU is a place where students can gather from all over the world with others of like mind and heart to pursue their university studies. Here, students, staff and faculty, living true to covenants that guide their lives, create a unique environment freed from the distractions found on other campuses. Here, we aspire to see the ideals of the Lord Jesus Christ embraced and modeled at scale in a university community among those who seek to be His disciples while deeply engaged in their disciplines,” Webb said.

While acknowledging that this has “long been the subject of tongue-in-cheek BYU humor,” Webb also touched on the social interactions that students can develop at the university, which may lead to finding an eternal companion. 

Webb spoke about the way the BYU community views students and how faculty, coaches, supervisors and staff see them as divine beings with divine potential because of the gospel understanding that is core to the BYU community. This belief in students’ potential is one thing students rated as having a great impact on their achievement and their spirituality in classes, according to a study Webb referenced. 

Webb acknowledged that his address was more of a devotional than a forum.

“But my point is, isn’t that the point of BYU?” Webb said.

“Here, faith and reason, research and revelation are complimentary. Here, in this gathering of disciples, it is our opportunity and charge to seek the ‘full realization of human potential.’ This place matters,” Webb said.

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