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BYU's new president hailed as brilliant, kind, compassionate

Published: Monday, May 5 2014 8:45 a.m. MDT

(The lack of a period after the initial J in Kevin J Worthen comes from his father, J Frank Worthen, who was named for his grandfather, John Franklin. Harry S Truman and Elder Stephen L Richards managed fine without a period, but Kevin and his brother and two sisters teased their father that on his birth certificate, where the J had no period, a clerk had written OK. J OK looked like "JOKE" to them.)

Worthen has displayed his faith plainly during three major talks. The first, a 1998 BYU devotional, was a deep study of charity with implications for BYU. He said Paul's letter to the Corinthians on charity was prompted by Corinthian questions about knowledge.

"It is clear," Worthen said, "that charity and knowledge are both essential to our exaltation and that the two are related to each other in a profound way."

Knowledge is "incomplete and unproductive" without charity, Worthen said, and faculty and student efforts to acquire knowledge should be equaled by efforts to acquire charity.

He also suggested members of the BYU community should use their knowledge to help others regularly and without pay.

He didn't directly mention BYU's mission statement or its "Aims of a BYU" — "BYU seeks to develop students of faith, intellect and character who have the skills and the desire to continue learning and to serve others throughout their lives" — but he may as well have. Colleagues know his devotion to them.

He displayed that devotion at least twice on his first day as president, once when he welcomed more than 11,000 women to campus for this year's BYU Women's Conference, and again in a Q&A released by the university. (One highlight: He can't do without ESPN or BYUtv.)

"There will be a lot of focus on the mission statement and Aims," he told the Deseret News. "If people will focus in on the how they can apply the mission statement in their areas and departments, inspiration will bubble up about what they need to focus on."

The set direction of the mission statement, and the role senior church leadership plays in its role as the board of trustees, means dramatic change at BYU is unlikely.

Worthen's predecessor Samuelson was both self-deprecating and truthful when he told the Deseret News, "The thrust we have is set by the prophets and continues to be, so it's almost incidental who the president is."

Loving kindness

Worthen shared his personal witness of Jesus Christ in the 2010 BYU-Idaho devotional on agency and its role in the plan of salvation, something he also did in his first address as dean of BYU's law school.

Then, last year at the annual BYU Women's Conference, he gave a talk on God's love that was again spiritual and intellectual.

He didn't share that story about his late father during that talk, but it was clear that since that day in the junior high hallway, he has continued to think deeply about kindness.

The story he did tell was about visiting the Gunnison state prison in central Utah in his ecclesiastical role as an Area Seventy and finding convicted felons who said they had come to find God's love even, as one of them said, after making their beds in hell.

"God’s love is so powerful," Worthen said, "that it reaches us not just in our temples, not just in our chapels, not just in our homes, but even in our prisons."

He related C.S. Lewis' views on God's love vs. human kindness. Lewis found much of humanity's feelings about kindness to be a simple desire to see people happy in the shallow sense.

"My father's kindness," Worthen told the Deseret News, "was more along the lines conveyed by the Hebrew word 'hesed' — often translated as 'loving kindness.' My father was loving enough that he set high standards so that we were stretched, but he was always gentle and kind in his admonition."

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