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

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

A BYU student takes a selfie with new university President Kevin J Worthen during an impromptu lunch in the student cafeteria on Thursday, his first day on the job.

Mark A. Philbrick, BYU

PROVO — When the principal pinned Kevin Worthen against a wall in the junior high hallway, the skinny ninth-grader was understandably speechless.

It was the only time Worthen ever saw his father lose his temper with him, and he couldn't understand why.

One moment, the younger Worthen was nudging a friend and pointing toward a ripped phone book dangling from the hallway pay phone. The next, the 5-foot-8 kid was pinned against the wall looking up into the 6-foot-4 principal's eyes.

"Don't you ever do that again," his father said.

"My dad was very, very kind," Worthen said in an interview last week. "He was very kind and he demanded, if you will, that we be kind to other people."

It turned out that just as Worthen was pointing at the torn phone book, the most unpopular girl in the school — "the one everyone made fun of," Worthen said — turned the corner right by the pay phone.

Although his dad misunderstood — Worthen was pointing at the phone book and not the girl — it still made an indelible impression on the teenager.

"I knew it wasn't the time to say, 'I wasn't pointing at her,' but it really didn't matter, the lesson was delivered whether that was true or not. It left an impression. It instilled in me a sense of, 'You're kind to everybody, no matter what.’ ”

Worthen, 57, took over Thursday as the 13th president of BYU, America's third-largest private university, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The job includes a clear ministerial component he has embraced during 27 years at BYU, both on campus and off.

Colleagues say the former college basketball player, U.S. Supreme Court clerk, Fulbright Scholar, attorney, BYU law school professor, law school dean and university vice president is uncommonly unassuming despite "an exceptionally bright mind."

They also say, above all else, that he is kind.

"It was nice to chat with President Worthen for a few minutes," BYU student Malcolm Miguel Botto posted on Facebook after the new president ate lunch in the student cafeteria on his first day.

"He made me laugh."

Smart, unassuming

Craig Smith became Worthen's friend in the third grade, the same year Smith remembers running into Worthen one day in the library in Price. Worthen lived in Dragerton, a small town owned by a coal mine several miles away.

Smith was working his way through the Hardy Boys books. Worthen was carrying a stack of novels that included "Advise and Consent," the 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning political novel by Allen Drury.

"He was reading as an adult already in those days," Smith said.

Of all the tests they took in all the classes they had together in elementary school, junior high, high school and college, Smith, now a Salt Lake attorney, scored higher than Worthen one time.

Worthen earned an associate's degree at the College of Eastern Utah as co-valedictorian. He had turned down a BYU academic scholarship to play basketball at CEU and stick with his friends. Later, many of them lived together in what they called "the Price house" at BYU, where he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in political science.

"Kevin is a very smart guy, but he's also a very humble guy," Smith said. "He's usually the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn't advertise that and doesn't care if people know that or don't know that. Lawyers usually want to let you know."

His fellow BYU law students figured it out, Smith said. Their nickname for Worthen, who would graduate first in their class, was Zeus.

"Of course," Smith said, "Zeus was the smartest and strongest of all."

He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White in the mid-1980s. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Chile in the 1990s. In 2010, he held the prestigious position as chair of the membership review committee of the Association of American Law Schools.

"It's an especially significant position in legal education," said James D. (Jim) Gordon, Worthen's colleague on the BYU law faculty and now an assistant to the president for planning and assessment. "It's a tremendous credit to him that he was selected to chair that committee."

Gordon said Worthen "has an exceptionally bright mind" and is a thoughtful, careful analyst with excellent judgment.

Tuition and agency

Soon after he became dean of BYU's law school a decade ago, Worthen proposed a tuition hike for BYU law students.

He revealed that attempt publicly at a BYU-Idaho devotional four years ago. Students at the three BYU campuses and LDS Business College pay considerably less tuition than peers at other private schools because costs are "heavily subsidized by the tithe payers of the church."

"I questioned the fairness," Worthen said, "of using what in some cases is the widow’s mite to finance the education of lawyers, many of whom will have generous incomes over their careers."

His proposal rejected, Worthen pondered why in his BYU-Idaho devotional, which explored the LDS doctrine of agency, the freedom to choose that can be enhanced or limited due to good or bad choices.

One possible reason the LDS board of education, which includes senior church leadership, subsidizes tuition, Worthen said, is to help students graduate with far less debt than they otherwise might, or with no debt at all.

Debt can "enslave," limiting agency or choice dramatically, he said. Without debt, BYU law graduates would be free to choose to work in small towns for relatively little or to stay home to raise young children.

"Thus, the sacrifice of millions of tithe payers who subsidize your education leaves you free to choose to do what you — and the Lord — want you to do."

The lesson isn't that a Worthen administration will lead to tuition hikes beyond the typical annual cost-of-living-style increases. It was that the enhanced agency provided by low tuition comes with accountability.

Worthen told the students they needed to maximize their educational opportunity and live so they could receive inspiration about God's plan for them.

Church role

Two of BYU's previous five presidents — Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland — now serve in the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The last two presidents — Elder Merrill J. Bateman and Elder Cecil O. Samuelson — simultaneously served for most or all of their tenure both as BYU president and as church general authorities in the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Worthen isn't a general authority, but he is Elder Kevin J Worthen, an Area Seventy for the church in central Utah, and part of his new assignment is to be an example for and to minister to more than 30,000 students, 98 percent of whom are Mormon.

(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."

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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