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

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

In his talk, Worthen concluded, "Let us not sell God’s love short by confusing it with mere human kindness."

Worthen tries to be as good as his word, colleagues say.

"He genuinely cares about people," Gordon said. "He treats them with courtesy, kindness and compassion. He doesn't think about himself. Rather, he thinks about what's best for other people or the institution."

Absent professor

Worthen found law school the most interesting thing he'd ever done, and he became a successful lawyer focused on federal Indian law — "It's like constitutional law without the Constitution," he said — in an Arizona firm in the mid-1980s.

The money was alluring, but after finding legal answers for clients, he'd spend extra, unbillable hours finding out how and why the legal answer got that way. He was a professor at heart. He called former BYU law dean Rex Lee, who later became the university's 10th president, and asked how to go about becoming a legal scholar. Lee said he'd be a reference for Worthen as long as one of the schools he applied to was BYU.

When administration roles beckoned, Worthen hesitated. His father loved being a principal, but eventually became an assistant superintendent of Carbon County schools.

"He never said anything, but I always got the sense he felt he took one step too far, that going into school district administration took him away from the kids," Worthen said. "I had that same feeling when President Samuelson talked to me about being the advancement vice president. It took time to reconcile to it."

Worthen continued to teach a half-credit class while serving as vice president the past six years. He intends to continue.

Meanwhile, the history buff has to navigate BYU's largest drop in enrollment since the Korean War. Near 10 percent of the student body disappeared last fall after the LDS Church lowered the age requirement for missionaries. Rather than fill the empty seats temporarily, BYU chose to hold places for those who left.

Worthen's own LDS mission, to Monterey, Mexico, taught him how to work hard, finishing a job his father started.

"I'm not by nature a real hard worker," he said, so his father made him mow the lawn with a push mower and fill the stoker for the furnace with coal each winter night.

"As soon as I left home," he said, "I noticed we got a gas furnace and a power mower."

After his mission — "unrelenting in terms of work," he said — he worked in the nearby coal mines for two summers, where he learned work has its own reward and there is joy in accomplishing a task.

University administration jobs can be tougher, he said, because it isn't always clear when a task is done.

"Sometimes they go on," he said, "and there's always another chapter."

If recent history is a guide, for Worthen the next chapter likely will last about a decade.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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