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Jaren Wilkey/BYU, BYU
"Whoosh, Cecil!" BYU President Cecil Samuelson gives his trademark thumbs-up signal one last time during the Y Awards banquet on April 3, 2014, with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and Sharon Samuelson at his side. Sister Samuelson may have been the bigger Cougar fan, known for constantly checking team scores on her smartphone. Cougar fans long yelled "Whoosh" after a made free throw at basketball games, then added "Cecil" to the phrase, prompting the president to give each chant two thumbs up.
Truly his leadership and influence for good cannot be measured. —President Henry B. Eyring

PROVO — Cecil Samuelson shared all the startled questions Brigham Young University alumni, faculty and fans had about him when he became the university's president in 2003.

Only he started asking them in 1989.

Back then, Samuelson was a vice president at the University of Utah and the search committee that would select Rex Lee as BYU's 10th president asked to talk to him. He assumed the committee wanted advice or insight on names on its short list.

He was right, but then one committee member asked Samuelson, "How do you think you'd fit at BYU?"

"I've never thought about that because you don't do what I do," he cracked, referring to his career as a professor and dean of medicine, "and I don't do what you do."

Committee members laughed, but Samuelson walked away thinking, "Why recruit an academic physician if you don't have a medical school or a health science center?"

Fourteen years later he was Elder Cecil O. Samuelson, immersed full-time in an ecclesiastical calling as a member of the presidency of the Seventy at the Salt Lake headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He thought his academic career was over — and had never given the 1989 search a second thought — when late church President Gordon B. Hinckley summoned him.

"We'd like you to be the president of Brigham Young University," President Hinckley said.

No search committee. No explanation for selecting a man with a medical background who'd been a founding member of the U.'s booster club, though President Hinckley did tell him, "We'd like you to put on a blue coat."

"I was out of his office in five minutes," Samuelson said. "It took 30 minutes for my wife to believe me."

Sharon Samuelson later joked that once she believed her husband wasn't pulling her leg, she started to wonder if she could believe President Hinckley.

Farewell, Cec

Today, the man known to friends as "Cec" — pronounced "seese" — walks away from BYU after exactly 11 years, giving way to Kevin Worthen, who had been working as one of Samuelson's vice presidents.

Samuelson, 72, changed the face of the university, oversaw a complete overhaul of his cabinet or president's council, steered the university through a recession that cost 70-80 faculty positions during a hiring freeze, and saw enrollment plummet last fall.

An interview in the final days of his administration also provided insight into the interplay between the BYU administration and the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns, operates and subsidizes the school.

Several of the white shelves on the wall across from Samuelson's desk were bare by the time of the interview. Behind his desk, a dark-brown bookcase no longer groaned under the weight of a voracious reader's books.

"For me, it's been a great experience," Samuelson said, "because at a really late stage of life and professional career, to come to an institution that didn't do what I did meant that I'd be immersed in new disciplines.

'I don't know that there's a period of my life that was any more intense of a learning experience than my 11 years at BYU."

He hasn't decided yet what he'll do "when I grow up."

Big challenges

Samuelson is an efficient sleeper, a skill developed in medical school. As president, he went to bed most nights at 10:30 and arose at 5 a.m. to shave and exercise. The one problem that "kept me up nights" was BYU's enrollment cap.

"Given the increasing quality of our student body, the thing that's most painful for me is we can't admit all the kids who want to come," Samuelson said. "Because of the increased expense of the place, we have to abide by the enrollment limits the board has placed on us."

Daytime enrollment hardly budged for the first 10 years of his administration, fluctuating between 32,679 and 33,427. Last fall it plummeted to 30,243, the result of an exodus to LDS missions by current students and would-be freshmen due to an unexpected reduction in the age requirements for missionaries.

University officials expect enrollment numbers to even out again shortly as missionaries return.

Still, as the church grows, thousands of teenagers consider "anywhere but BYU to be a great disappointment for them," Samuelson said.

Samuelson focused on the students who did come.

"All that we do must focus on our students," he told the faculty. "Our common commitment to and understanding of their growth and spiritual and intellectual development is the reason we exist as a university."

President Hinckley charged Samuelson with making BYU the best it could be, so Samuelson raised the bar for faculty teaching and expanded the emphasis on mentored learning, where professors and undergraduate students work together on graduate-style research.

He also worried about the possibility of complacency.

"I don't think we see a lot of complacency," he said, "but we could see people start to think, 'We're working hard, we're getting some recognition, maybe we've done the best we can do.’ ”

He couldn't be complacent as his cabinet evaporated. Brad Farnsworth, Alan Wilkins, Gerrit Gong and John Tanner left for church assignments. Fred Skousen retired. Tom Griffith replaced U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Capable replacements helped him manage campus construction, among other things. The construction was a bit of a surprise to Samuelson. Soon after arriving at BYU, he said he thought campus facilities were in great shape, a statement he said haunted him as he presided over a major overhaul of on-campus student residences and construction of the Joseph F. Smith Building, Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center, BYU Broadcasting Building and a new Life Science Building due for completion this fall.

Holding firm

Samuelson had several reminders in his office that helped him hold the line on BYU's budget. President Hinckley told him any time he wanted to add something, he had to stop doing something else.

So he kept a widow's mite on his desk that reminded him — and visitors — that the church subsidizes BYU's budget with tithing funds and gave him courage to "sharpen your pencil and be a little careful."

A member of his cabinet gave him a big red button that, when pressed, says "No" about 15 different ways.

A photo of the LDS Church's first presidency — the senior, executive members of the board of trustees — sat on one of those empty white shelves by the door. He'd point to it when someone came asking for money.

"I'd say, 'That's a great idea. I wish we could do it,’ ” Samuelson said. “ ‘But you've put me in a position where I'm going to have to decide either to disappoint you or to disappoint them. As much as it pains me, I hope you'll understand why I've chosen that I have to disappoint you and not them.’ ”

Most, he said, laughed and understood.

"BYU is a major part of the Church Educational System budget," he said, "not all of it but a major part of it, and the CES budget is second only to the church's building program. … It's a tremendous investment that the church has made in us."

Those office props came in handy during the recession. The university instituted a soft hiring freeze, which meant departing faculty and staff were not replaced unless Samuelson made a case for an essential hire and the board agreed.

The school went down about six dozen faculty members and still isn't back to pre-recession numbers, but Samuelson said that process and the combination, closing and moving of some academic departments created a better university.

He also oversaw major transitions in BYU sports — football became an independent program, most other sports moved to the West Coast Conference and BYUtv and a deal with ESPN improved the program's national exposure. Coaching moves rated high on his own list of accomplishments.

"We have stable, successful coaches with the right values and modeling for all involved," he said.

Church influence

BYU is unusual in that its board meets monthly. In fact, the board's executive committee meets monthly, too, which means Samuelson met twice a month with the church's senior leadership, including President Hinckley and his successor, President Thomas S. Monson.

In the past, BYU presidents brought vice presidents and others with them to make presentations. President Hinckley ended that practice. Now, besides the president of BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii and LDS Business College, board meetings are restricted to the three members of the First Presidency, three members of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a member of the Seventy, the general Relief Society and general Young Women presidents, the commissioner of church education and his assistant and the director of seminaries and institutes.

"One of the things I've learned is there are a lot of things that can happen here for the good of the church that the church couldn't do for itself," Samuelson said. "For example, we have a law and religion symposium at the law school every fall. Many who come might find it difficult to be invited to just come to the headquarters of the church, but when they can be invited to a first-rate university that is interested in religious liberty not only for members of The Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but for all religions, denominations and traditions, then they want to come and they embrace it.

"The fact we have a first-rate university recognized around the world gives us distinction in ways that give us opportunities to get into countries, to meet people, to see things, to do things that would be awkward if the church didn't have BYU."

'Whoosh, Cecil'

Though his ties to the U. left some skeptical of him throughout his tenure, most of the 80,000 who graduated through those 11 years warmed to Samuelson. After each made free throw at basketball games, students yelled, "Whoosh, Cecil," and he responded with two thumbs up.

In March, when President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the church's First Presidency, announced Worthen would replace Samuelson, the audience gave Samuelson a standing ovation.

"Truly his leadership and influence for good cannot be measured," President Eyring said.

Sharon Samuelson cried. Her husband's emotions were harder to see but were caught on a seven-minute legacy video produced by the school. He said he isn't one to weep.

"Am I going to moon or lament over not being here? No, I'm not, but I'm going to glory that I've had the opportunity. I'm going to wish my successors well. I'll continue to cheer for our teams and our faculty and our students because you get to know them very well and love them. This is kind of like coming home from a mission.

"Frankly, it's been wonderful, and it's been enough."