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Inspiring Leading

Photo of Kevin J Worthen with BYU students on the Y. A span of blue text reads "Inspiring Leading."

Inspiring Leading

During his nine years at BYU’s helm, President Kevin J Worthen had a single-minded focus—the student.


By Denya I. Palmer (BA ’16) in the Summer 2023 issue

All images by BYU Photo except as noted. 

It was always about the students. It didn’t matter where—and there were a lot of wheres, from study-abroad and performance trips in Jordan and China and Scandinavia to basketball games in the Marriott Center to lunches at the Cougareat—President Kevin J Worthen’s (BA ’79, JD ’82) favorite BYU experiences were with the students. 

He joined Cougar teams for post-game prayers in the locker room, he hiked with eager undergrads to light the Y at Homecoming, and he posed for Instagram photos with students around campus—all to better understand the needs of students and to help them feel loved and supported. “He always seemed to find time to support their activities and . . . to interact one-on-one with them,” says Janet S. Scharman, vice president of student life until 2019. 

In 2022, when President Worthen was approached about traveling to Norway, “the first thing he said was, ‘Students? Will there be students?’” recalls international vice president Renata Tonks Forste (BS ’84, MS ’86). And when the trip concluded, “It was clear that [spending time with students] was the highlight of the trip for him,” she says. 

Worthen’s familiarity with students and their needs led to advocacy. 

“He radiated an enthusiasm, a passion for student success,” says President Worthen’s successor, former academic vice president C. Shane Reese (BS ’94, MS ’95). And students returned the affection for him and his wife, Peggy Sealy Worthen (BA ’03), as witnessed in their unprompted, extended ovation for the Worthens when Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (BS ’65, MS ’95) announced the end of President Worthen’s tenure in March. The prolonged applause spoke to what Elder Holland called the Worthens’ “remarkable contribution.” 

Worthen was there for BYU students during good times and amid trials, including serious worldwide challenges. In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardized nearly every service the university offered—from classes to housing. 

“Remarkable contribution.” 

Jeffrey R. Holland

With what Forste calls “humble and unassuming” leadership, President Worthen charted a path forward. The university pivoted quickly to send students home and provide remote learning in March 2020. Despite the physical distance, he saw it ultimately as “a community-building experience.” 

And later that year, as racial tensions ran high across the nation, President Russell M. Nelson charged the Church, including the university, to root out racism wherever it could be found. Worthen promptly directed the formation of the Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging, paving the path for a new Office of Belonging and vice president of belonging in 2022. 

Amid challenging circumstances and hard decisions, Worthen’s driving thought was “We’ve got to do the best we can for the students.” 

“President Worthen was concerned not only about the physical health of the students [during the pandemic] but also about their mental health,” remembers Forste. “He constantly sought to balance both the physical and mental needs of the students.” 

Worthen led campus through a cautious return to in-person learning in September 2020— navigating the challenges of sick students, empty stadiums, and social-distancing requirements. In January 2021 he urged the campus community to stay strong a little longer, providing loving encouragement to help students persevere. 

“President Worthen is about as good of an example of a Christ-centered leader as I’ve worked with,” says advancement vice president Keith P. Vorkink (BA ’94). “He doesn’t run away from decisions, but he has a sense of security and faith in the system and in this university to know that God will win out. And that allows him to allow those around him to feel stewardship and to grow themselves and in their responsibility.” 

President Reese believes Worthen will long be remembered for introducing the Inspiring Learning Initiative—an effort to increase the number of students participating in internships, work experiences, and research that applies their classroom learning in the real world. And it wasn’t merely aspirational—President Worthen drove efforts to establish a sizeable endowment, providing ongoing funding. “Fifty years down the road, I think that this will only continue to grow, and we’ll all say, ‘President Worthen, he’s the one who established our Inspiring Learning Initiative,’” says Reese.

Such experiences are “part of [students] gaining confidence in their ability to do things,” says Worthen. Since the Inspiring Learning fund was created in 2016, it has supported more than 30,000 experiences.

So what’s next for the Worthens? New Haven, Connecticut. Although Worthen has rejoined the BYU Law faculty, this fall he begins a one-year appointment as a visiting research professor at Yale Law School. Worthen has also been named the first BYU Wheatley Institute Distinguished Fellow in Constitutional Government—serving as an ambassador for the Wheatley Institute as he connects with others across the world.

“He doesn’t run away from decisions, but he has a sense of security and faith in the system and in this university to know that God will win out.” 

Keith Vorkink 

In the end, said Elder Holland, President Worthen will be remembered for his Christlike leadership. He is “truly a man of God [and] a remarkable university president,” said Elder Holland. “His skill and accomplishments have greatly enhanced the stature of the university, and we love him dearly.”

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The Worthen Years

By Miriam Brantley Merrill (’24) and Coleman S. Numbers (’25) 

Here’s a snapshot of BYU during President Worthen’s nine-year tenure.

2014

MAY 1 Kevin J Worthen (BA ’79, JD ’82) begins serving as BYU’s 13th president. 

MAY 20 The Sacred Gifts exhibit, showcasing depictions of Christ by European masters Heinrich Hofmann, Frans Schwartz, and Carl Bloch, concludes after drawing nearly 240,000 visitors to the Museum of Art. 

SEPT. 6 BYU football blasts No. 25 Texas 41–7 in Austin with a dynamic performance from quarterback Taysom S. Hill (BS ’16), including a hurdle into the endzone for one of his three rushing touchdowns. 

SEPT. 9 President Henry B. Eyring speaks at President Worthen’s inauguration: “He will be at peace about the university . . . because it and those who study here and teach here are on the course set and maintained by the long line of those who have served before him.” 

NOVEMBER As basketball season commences, the Roar of Cougars (ROC) student section transfers its “Whoosh, Cecil!” chant to President Worthen, who follows his predecessor’s tradition of giving a double thumbs-up after each “Whoosh, Kevin!” 

NOV. 14 Studio C releases “Top Soccer Shootout Ever with Scott Sterling” on YouTube, ultimately racking up nearly 90 million views and immortalizing Matthew R. Meese’s (BS ’09) hapless goalie as “the man, the myth, the legend.”

2015

JAN. 27 Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Animation Studios and author of Creativity, Inc., addresses the campus community in a BYU forum. 

MARCH 9 Junior basketball guard Kyle W. Collinsworth (BS ’16) records his sixth triple-double, a single-season NCAA men’s record. 

President Worthen with President Russell M. Nelson at the dedication of the new BYU Life Sciences Building.

APRIL 9 Elder Russell M. Nelson dedicates the BYU Life Sciences Building, completed in 2014 to replace the Widtsoe Building. “In this facility, the focus will be centered on learning from and about God’s living creations,” says Nelson. 

MAY 3 For the third year in a row, BYU men’s rugby defeats rival Cal to claim the Varsity Cup Championship. 

SEPTEMBER BYU introduces a new religion core with the classes Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel, Foundations of the Restoration, Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon, and Eternal Families. 

OCT. 13 A cappella group BYU Noteworthy debuts “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” on YouTube, eventually garnering more than 70 million views.

2016

JAN. 31 Kalani F. Sitake (BA ’00) is named the new head football coach. 

The Provo City Center Temple

MARCH 18 BYU introduces “Spring Day,” an academic holiday observed on the third Friday of March. 

MARCH 20 The Provo City Center Temple, built from the remains of the burned Provo Tabernacle, is dedicated

AUG. 22 At University Conference President Worthen announces the Inspiring Learning Initiative, a widespread effort to increase meaningful research and other experiential-learning opportunities for students. “We want the BYU experience . . . to be an inspiring source of light and truth throughout their lives,” he says. 

OCT. 26 Following a six-month study on sexual-assault reporting and response procedures, the university adopts an amnesty clause, shielding victims from investigation for Honor Code violations that happened at or near the time of reported sexual misconduct. 

DEC. 5 BYU announces plans to replace its coal-powered Central Heating Plant and iconic smokestack with a natural-gas-powered cogeneration facility that produces usable heat and electricity simultaneously. 

DEC. 29 Legendary football coach and stadium namesake R. LaVell Edwards (EdD ’78) passes away at age 86.

2017

FEBRUARY BYU completes construction of the donor-funded Marriott Center Annex basketball training facility. 

A row of caffeinated beverages

JULY Two new, six-story MTC buildings open. The BYU Laundry was moved to make room. 

AUG. 28 In his University Conference address, President Worthen announces plans to increase availability of BYU Online, computer-based learning for matriculated students. 

Kristin Chenoweth performs at BYU

SEPTEMBER Dining Services announces that caffeinated beverages will be sold on campus, cracking open a bubbling can of social-media enthusiasm. 

OCTOBER BYU begins shifting admissions criteria to emphasize qualitative measures such as essays over extracurriculars, test scores, and GPA. 

OCT. 17 Emmy and Tony Award–winner Kristin Chenoweth, star of Wicked on Broadway, performs at BYU Spectacular! during Homecoming Week. 

2018

A Utah Transit Authority bus

JAN. 1 BYU and the Utah Transit Authority enter a 10-year agreement to give the campus community free access to public transit. The Utah Valley Express bus line, with three campus stops, opens in August. 

JAN. 14 Following the death of President Thomas S. Monson (MBA ’74) on Jan. 2, Russell M. Nelson becomes the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the chair of the BYU Board of Trustees. 

A shot of the BYU Engineering Building

SEPTEMBER The Engineering Building opens, featuring high-tech labs, collaborative spaces, offices, and a new restaurant—Harvey’s (named after famed BYU engineer Harvey Fletcher [BA 1907]). 

SEPT. 4 Toasting 21 years as the Princeton Review’s No. 1 “stone-cold sober” university, BYU Dining Services debuts, a limited-edition mint-brownie-flavored chocolate milk.

2019

BYU performing arts group touring in China

APRIL–MAY After reviewing Honor Code Office practices, the office clarifies its reporting relationship with the Title IX Office and ecclesiastical leaders and its procedures for student Honor Code infractions. 

MAY Celebrating 40 years since BYU’s first performing-group tour to China, 167 student performers from eight BYU groups perform in three cities in China. 

OCT. 23 BYU opens the Milk and Cookies bar in the Wilkinson Student Center. 

NOV. 23 Men’s cross country claims its first-ever NCAA championship and BYU’s first team title in any sport in 15 years. Women’s cross country finishes second. 

BYU men's cross country team

2020

FEB. 22 Men’s basketball snaps No. 2 Gonzaga’s 39-game West Coast Conference win streak in the last home game before COVID restrictions go into effect. 

A BYU graduate in 2020 holding a roll of toilet paper.

MARCH As concerns grow over the global spread of COVID-19, BYU cancels classes and institutes remote learning for the remainder of the winter semester. Students return from study-abroad programs. The NCAA cancels all winter and spring sports. 

APRIL 24 Broadcast from a nearly empty Marriott Center, BYU graduation is held virtually

JUNE Amid nationwide upheaval concerning race and in response to President Nelson’s call to root out racism wherever it may be found, BYU institutes the Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging. Through surveys and interviews, the committee would gather data from more than 20,000 respondents and eventually make a variety of recommendations to improve the campus environment. 

AUG. 31 Fall semester begins under a hybrid learning environment and COVID-prevention guidelines. 

SEPT. 26 The football season kicks off its home season with a 48–7 Cougar victory against the Troy Trojans—in an empty LaVell Edwards Stadium. Most of the team’s 2020 schedule would be replaced due to COVID cancelations.

2021

President Worthen in front of a press banner with the Big 12 and BYU logos

AUG. 30 Fully in-person classes resume after a year of limited campus operations due to COVID-19. 

SEPT. 10–11 The Cougars accept an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference in fall 2023 and the next day claim a football victory over the University of Utah for the first time since 2009. 

SEPT. 23 Single students are no longer required to live in BYU-contracted housing after their first year. 

NOV. 27 Women’s soccer advances to the NCAA Final Four for the first time, losing in the championship game to Florida State in a penalty-kick shootout. 

Women's soccer celebrates

2022

APRIL 10 The Cougarettes claim their 21st and 22nd titles in the NDA national championship at Daytona Beach, Florida. 

JUNE 11 In a breathtaking dash to the finish, Courtney Wayment (BS ’20) beats the collegiate steeplechase record by more than eight seconds, taking her fourth national title. 

AUG. 23 President Worthen announces the BYU Office of Belonging, headed by a new vice president. 

NOV. 15 BYU researchers record sound data on the front lines of the Artemis I launch—the loudest rocket launch in history. 

Artemis 1 launch
Photo by NASA/Joel Kowsky

2023

JANUARY The new Music Building opens for classes. In February demolition of the Harris Fine Arts Building makes room for construction of the new Arts Building. 

MARCH 21 Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (BS ’65, MA ’66) announces President Kevin J Worthen’s release at a campus devotional. 

MAY 1 C. Shane Reese (BS ’94, MS ’95) becomes the 14th president of Brigham Young University. 


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