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Outlier

Portrait of new BYU president C. Shane Reese on the steps of the Maeser Building on the campus of Brigham Young University.

Outlier

Stats nerd and social butterfly, fun-loving friend and data-driven leader—BYU’s new president isn’t your average anything. Meet C. Shane Reese.


By Peter B. Gardner (BA ’98, MA ’04, MBA ’22) in the Summer 2023 issue

Heads, we go. Tails, we stay.” Stuck at a crossroads, Shane and Wendy Reese reached for a coin.

A few weeks earlier BYU statistics professor C. Shane Reese (BS ’94, MS ’95) took a call from someone claiming to be Andy W. Reid (BS ’82, MS ’83), head coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Reese rolled his eyes and hung up, certain it was a prank. When the phone rang again, Reese realized his mistake and meekly took the call.

Reid was looking for a statistician to fill a front-office analyst position, and he hoped Reese would apply. This was a dream job for Reese, a lover of sports and human-performance statistics. A cross-country flight and several interviews later, the Reeses left Philly with an offer in hand and a decision to make—follow a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or stay in Provo.

Hearts racing, they watched the scene play out as if in slow motion.

But as they weighed pros and cons, both options seemed equally attractive. With a decision deadline looming and the Reeses feeling no closer to clarity, Shane noted one morning that an optimal way to break a statistical tie is to toss a coin. To his surprise, Wendy, exhausted from the uncertainty, grabbed a coin. Committing to whatever the coin dictated, they flipped it into the air.

Hearts racing, they watched the scene play out as if in slow motion—each turn of the coin, it clanking against the floor, rebounding off a door, and then rattling into a corner, where it came to a rest against a wall—standing perfectly vertical.

The statistician in Shane knew the probability of this outcome was approaching zero. Feeling admonished, they took it as a sign that such weighty decisions shouldn’t be left to chance. So in fasting and prayer, they took their question to the Lord. Following “an amazing experience at the temple,” Shane says they knew they “needed to stay at BYU. That was a surprising result, but it has . . . meant everything to us.”

It is just one of a series of pivotal decisions along the unlikely path that guided Shane Reese to Provo—and kept him there—where this summer he became the 14th president of Brigham Young University.

Finding His Footing

Shane Reese as a high school student.
As a high schooler in New Mexico, Shane Reese was the front man in a punk rock band and the school mascot. Photo courtesy Reese Family.

Looking back, Shane Reese can see that his Albuquerque childhood was harder than his mother let on. The only child of a hard-working single mom, he remembers drinking powdered milk and driving old used cars and watching TV on a 13-inch black-and-white set with broken rabbit ears—long after his friends were watching in color. “Now, going back, I think it was a pretty tough neighborhood, but I never felt like that as a kid,” he says. “And that’s a tribute to my mom.”

Small in stature as a teen, Reese made up for it in personality. In high school he had stints as the Manzano High School mascot—Monty the Monarch, a regal lion with crown, scepter, and cape—and as the front man of a band called Joe’s Wish that covered ’80s punk favorites. “I’m not sure musical prowess is the qualifying feature of being in a punk band,” he says, noting, “I was the lead singer—the least-talented [member].”

One of only a handful of Latter-day Saints at his high school, Reese was active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he hadn’t yet settled on mission plans. And when it came time to decide on college, he considered BYU only because a Cougar Club member had once happened to give him a BYU baseball cap.

Whatever expectations Reese brought with him to campus as a freshman in 1989, not a week into the semester, he was ready to pack up and return home. Lost among the crowds, he seemed to be referred to more by his student ID number than his name. Despite being surrounded by members of his faith, he felt strangely alone, like he just didn’t belong.

His mom was understanding when he told her he wanted to come home, but first she wanted him to talk to a faculty member, their former bishop’s brother—a young law professor named Kevin J Worthen (BA ’79, JD ’82). Reese has long since forgotten what Worthen said in that meeting, but he hasn’t forgotten how Worthen made him feel—that he was important and that he wouldn’t regret giving BYU another shot. “Just a faculty member knowing my name and spending even a short amount of time made all the difference for me,” he says. Little did either expect that this was a precursor to a mentoring relationship that would blossom decades later as Reese served under Worthen in the President’s Council and followed him in the president’s office.

For freshman Reese a light flipped on. “Almost overnight it turned into this remarkable experience,” he recalls. BYU became a place “where I could really feel at home and feel a sense of belonging,” he says. There were marshmallow roasts up the canyon, dances at the Wilk, bonding with his dormmates. And with religion classes and mentoring by a bishop and stake president, the spark of the Spirit he had long felt finally caught hold in his heart. “My testimony grew by leaps and bounds,” he says.

He left his freshman year, mission call in hand, transformed from the uncertain student who had stepped onto campus eight months earlier.

Love Language

Reese remembers the first time he saw her. Two months back from his mission to Taipei, Taiwan, he was doing dishes at his Liberty Square apartment when he noticed two young women from the complex walking across the courtyard. One would be joining him and his roommate later that day for a trip to the Manti Pageant. He didn’t know the other, but he thought she was cute.

Wendy Wood, from tiny Holden in central Utah, agreed to join. It wasn’t a date. And, besides, she wasn’t particularly impressed by these guys. On the drive to Manti, Shane sat in front of her with the window down, messing up the hair she’d labored over. He and his roommate spent the whole ride belting out Michael Jackson tunes.

But her heart softened a bit at the pageant, where she sat next to Shane and discovered that this returned missionary was kind and spiritual and had a knack for making her laugh. The outing hadn’t started as a date, but it ended as one, and the two saw each other every day thereafter, marrying in December 1993.

Wendy and Shane Reese dressed in wedding gown and tuxedo.
Raised in a “BYU family,” Wendy Reese is still an avid fan—of the university’s athletic teams and its distinctive mission. Photo courtesy Reese Family.

Unlike Shane, Wendy Wood Reese (BS ’95) had long set her sights on BYU. Coming from a “BYU family,” Wendy remembers her dad driving the crew up to Provo on football game days, buying nosebleed tickets from the kid on the street corner, going to the Bookstore to buy giant jawbreakers, riding the tram at Bridal Veil Falls.

And now, nearly three decades after earning her degree in elementary education, she still hasn’t gotten over BYU: “It’s not just about academics, and it’s not just about the social, and it’s not just about the spiritual. It’s a combination of all those things. . . . It’s pretty special.”

Calling her “unfailingly supportive,” Shane says Wendy is up to this new task in every way.

Shane says he was then and remains drawn to Wendy’s kindness, how she “emulates the Savior’s Christlike characteristics.” Their children—Madison E. (BS ’20), Brittany Reese Harrison (’24), and Bryon C. (’26)—say their mother is constantly serving in quiet ways, and food is nearly always involved.

“Treats are her love language,” says Brittany, like her mother an elementary-education major. She recalls one December when her mom delivered homemade baked goods to neighbors each of the 25 days leading up to Christmas—mostly reaching out to widows and others in need of a holiday pick-me-up visit.

Wendy’s baking skills translated into a wedding-cake side hustle that continues today. When her husband was named the new president, she was already cooking up plans for Brittany’s wedding cake.

Not one to seek the spotlight, Wendy isn’t sure what to make of her newfound local fame—at the grocery store or at campus devotionals, where a couple of students recently begged for her autograph. “Why?” she wondered.

Calling her “unfailingly supportive,” Shane says she is up to this new task in every way. “I can’t imagine doing it without her.”

Stats Man

“I have a weird—that’s the only way to explain it—a weird passion for statistics,” says Reese, who fell in love with the discipline as a freshman. He calls statistics “decision making in the presence of uncertainty.” And “the presence of uncertainty,” he says, roughly translates to life.

Stats are on his mind seemingly 24/7. He’s been known to stay up all night working on a statistical model. And when he does turn in, Wendy says he talks stats in his sleep. “I’m like, ‘Go to bed, put your mind at rest,’” she says. “I don’t know anyone who loves statistics like he does.”

When offering fatherly advice, Shane finds ways to slip in statistical principles.

“It always goes over my head—always,” says daughter Madison, a recent BYU finance grad. Sometimes she’ll try to bolster a point by throwing in an “I can say with 95 percent confidence that . . .” to which he’ll counter, “Okay, but what’s your sample size?”

Reese family, from left: Bryon, Brittany, Wendy, Shane, and Madison.
The Reese family (from left): Bryon, Brittany, Wendy, Shane, and Madison. Photo courtesy Reese Family.

As Reese finished his bachelor’s in statistics, a faculty mentor encouraged him to consider graduate work. As a first-generation college student, he says he hadn’t considered getting more education. It was a defining moment, and he tacked on a master’s at BYU before going to Texas A&M for his PhD. Upon graduating he landed a position at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on the team tasked with determining the reliability and readiness of the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

From his perspective, he had arrived. He was using his skills to address a big, highly consequential problem. He’d moved his family into a beautiful new home in scenic Santa Fe. It was “the perfect little existence,” he recalls. Why would they ever leave? 

So when a recruiting call came from BYU, he agreed to fly up with Wendy for a campus visit—just as a courtesy. 

Yet something about being on campus again turned their hearts. “We were struck by . . . the feeling that it would be an incredible blessing to not only me and my career, but to our family, to be part of the BYU community,” he says. And it would be a chance “to be part of the life, the excitement, the goodness of [BYU] students.” 

By the time they were flying home, they knew they’d be returning to Provo. 

Soon after joining BYU’s faculty in 2001, Reese discovered he had a passion for teaching. He found himself at home again on the stage—this time in the Joseph Smith Building auditorium, teaching stats 121 to some of BYU’s largest classes (one had 986 students). Part front man, part comedian, part stats evangelist, Reese made it his personal mission to warm students up to statistics. 

“He would convert everyone . . . if he could,” says Wendy. If Reese hasn’t succeeded in persuading all his students to embrace statistics, online student ratings suggest near-universal love of Reese’s class— his humor, his passion, and his ability to explain complicated principles and apply them everywhere. 

Reese sees statistical implications in everything—nowhere more than in sports, which he loves to watch and play. He’s especially active in faculty basketball—which he calls “church ball on steroids.” 

Watching sports is no simple relaxing pastime for Reese—it’s a chance to use statistical models to predict the outcomes and scores and rank teams. His favorite is when a commentator makes a claim about why a team or player succeeds or struggles—something Reese thinks he can prove or disprove with stats. “That’s like, I’m pouncing,” he says. “Game on.” 

Young at Heart 

Shane Reese isn’t your average statistician, says colleague Gilbert W. Fellingham (MS ’77, MS ’78), who helped recruit Reese to BYU and has since collaborated with him on research. “Statisticians tend to be introverted, a little more focused on the problem,” says Fellingham. But Reese? “He’s got this charisma, this ability to meet people.” 

Known as the professor with music flowing from his office and for wearing shorts to work, Reese “has got a little bit of kid in him,” says Fellingham. 

BYU president Shane Reese greets students at the BYU library to celebrate the start of spring term.
President Reese celebrates the start of spring term 2023 by handing out Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and donuts to students at the Harold B. Lee Library. Those who know him best say the former stats professor just has a way with young people. Photo by Nate Edwards.

Before Reese was pulled away for administrative work, Fellingham says his younger colleague would poke his head into Fellingham’s office most days to ask if he wanted to have a catch. They’d toss a Nerf football in the hall for 15 minutes before turning back to number crunching. 

“He’s just so friendly,” says BYU physicist Gus L. Hart (BS, BA ’94), who served as an associate dean when Reese was named dean of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences (CPMS) in 2017. “When he shakes your hand, . . . he comes in and just like, bam! It knocks you off your feet.” One of Reese’s first actions as dean was to have the dean’s council visit individually with the CPMS faculty—all 200 of them—in one summer. 

Bryon Reese, son and current BYU student, says others often comment about interactions with his dad, how “he makes them feel like a million bucks,” he says. “He makes you feel like you really matter, like you’re really important to him.” 

That gregariousness is all well and good, says Madison, unless you need to get somewhere. “I mean, you don’t want to go to the grocery store with him. You end up making a 5-minute trip a 30-minute trip.” 

Having a young-at-heart dad has its perks, the kids say. He’d get down with them during kitchen dance parties and was eager to coach their teams. And he always has them laughing with his endless antics and dad jokes (“Brutal,” says Madison). Sometimes he’ll start giving odd advice, says Brittany, when they realize he’s just quoting pop-song lyrics in a serious voice (“Shine bright like a diamond . . .”). 

Shane Reese keeps his kids laughing with his endless antics and dad jokes (“Brutal,” says daughter Madison).

As Reese’s prominence has grown on campus—rising from faculty member to college dean to academic vice president and now to president—he’s had to trade shorts for suits, but he still has that puckish streak. 

Amid weighty deliberations with the President’s Council as a vice president, he still found opportunities for friendship and fun, inside jokes, and good-natured competitions—like challenging student-life vice president Julie L. Franklin (BA ’89, MBA ’94) to see who could spend less time after hours at the office. 

Franklin says Reese’s personality is full of seeming contradictions “where opposites meet—fun loving and yet very serious, compassionate and yet firm.” 

Those who know him best say that combination of characteristics may be just what connects him with students as president. It has blessed him as a professor and in church callings with the youth, including serving as a bishop, says Wendy. “He just has a way with [young people].” 

“He’s a certified ‘cool dad,’” says Brittany. “Growing up—and still now—all my friends loved my dad.”

Fellingham attributes Reese’s off-the-charts student ratings to “that love of life and because everybody to him is a friend.”

Driven by Data

“Geeking out” over data, as Reese calls it, has become a trademark in his administrative roles. He has always preached that good information leads to good decisions, and his practice has been to gather as much data as possible before acting.

“Nobody outworks Shane,” says BYU advancement vice president Keith P. Vorkink (BS ’94). When the President’s Council needs to make a decision, “he’ll turn over stones and stones and stones just to make sure that he understands.” If doing so gives him the confidence to act, it also reassures those he leads, says Hart: “If he tells me something I don’t want to hear, I’m confident that he did his due diligence.”

During his time as academic vice president, Reese’s data-driven approach became a great asset amid two major efforts. The first was BYU’s all-hands-on-deck response to the COVID-19 virus in March 2020. As campus administrators determined how best to deliver instruction remotely, care for students, and transform campus events and services, Reese devoured the emerging literature to parse fact from fiction.

“Nobody outworks Shane. He’ll turn over stones and stones and stones just to make sure that he understands.”

—Keith Vorkink

Although he was not solely responsible for any decision, “he ended up being the mouthpiece for the university on some of these harder, more emotionally packed issues,” says Franklin. She notes that he had the strength to share hard news—like the decision to cancel graduation ceremonies, which affected his own oldest daughter—with compassion and resolve.

That fall, as racial tension spread across the nation, Reese was tapped to chair BYU’s Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging. True to form, he launched a wide-ranging effort to gather insights from the campus community, and especially from people of color, around the topic of race. The committee’s extensive data gathering ultimately led to recommendations to help increase feelings of belonging on campus. Many have already been implemented.

Calling Reese bright, energetic, and innovative, President Worthen says he could always count on Reese’s expansive thinking. “He’s got a wide breadth of knowledge about things.”

Pedal to the Metal

Completely, totally blindsided.” That’s how Reese describes his and Wendy’s reaction when they were called in to meet with members of the BYU Board of Trustees in February. “We had no idea why they would be calling.”

On the very same day as their meeting, the Reeses were scheduled to leave for a trip to visit BYU’s Jerusalem Center. They’d hoped they’d be able to catch up on sleep during their travel. After getting the news of Shane’s appointment as president, they nearly missed their flight. And there would be no sleeping.

If the Reeses hadn’t seen it coming, others had. Fellingham remembers nominating Reese to be a dean even though he had not yet been a department chair. “It’s not going to matter,” he told himself. “He’s got a vision; he’s got this ability to do things.”

BYU president Shane Reese.
With vision and drive, Reese has quickly risen in BYU administration— from dean to vice president to president. Photo by Jaren Wilkey.

In describing his vision as his presidency begins, Reese is focused on expanding opportunities for students by building on President Worthen’s Inspiring Learning Initiative, which created a major endowment that supports meaningful student-learning experiences—from internships to research positions to study abroad.

“The only regret I have with Inspiring Learning is that every single student, every single semester can’t yet have access to it,” says Reese. “There’s just so much opportunity. And we have faculty who want to be involved in this. . . . Everyone sees the meaningful opportunity that this can be for our students.”

So Reese says to expect not a change in course so much as an acceleration. “We’re going to push on the gas pedal.”

And amid increasing pressure to conform to secular approaches to higher education, he says he is committed to maintaining and deepening the unique educational environment that transformed his life as an uncertain freshman. “There are those who would have us believe that [spirituality and academic excellence] are mutually exclusive and we’ve got to pick one path. I don’t believe that’s true. I believe there’s space in higher education for us to be deeply anchored in our spiritual mission and to be academically excellent.”

For his part, Worthen has no concerns about handing the wheel to Reese. “He loves the university, understands its mission,” he says. “He loves and is loyal to the Lord. This is the most important thing—he’s a disciple of Christ.”


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