Brigham Young University President Kevin Worthen seats himself in front of his desk when he has visitors. His guests can see the campus through the treetops visible from his windows, while he sits across from them, with his own view of the pictures of students that line his office.
In his five years as president, it’s the stories of those students, and their desire to reach what he sees as their divine potential, that has bolstered his faith in human beings.
“When people set out to improve themselves so that they can help others, miraculous things happen,” Worthen said.
It’s a job, he said, that has strengthened his own faith.
“I see people who are struggling with things and their life improves,” Worthen said. “Sometimes it doesn’t get any easier, but it gets better for them.”
Worthen’s history with BYU predates his presidency. He’s an alumnus, former professor, previous dean of the law school and was BYU’s advancement vice president, a role he said helped him understand what the job of president would entail.
But the title of “president” isn’t one he expected to hold.
“My intent was not to become an administrator when I came here,” Worthen said.
The administrative positions in the law school rotate through the faculty, who lead for a few years before returning to teaching. Then former BYU President Cecil Samuelson asked Worthen to be a vice president, and Worthen considered his own father, a math teacher who became a principal and eventually an assistant superintendent.
While his father never said it, Worthen thinks his father believed he stepped too far up the career ladder because he was cut off from students. It took several conversations with Samuelson before Worthen agreed to the job.
“I really like teaching, I really like being a professor,” Worthen said. “It is a really good job.”
Then came another opportunity — president. The job came with the potential to magnify students, and included more interaction with them than a vice president had.
Although his father died years before he was offered the job, Worthen believes his father would have encouraged his son to take it, partly because of his faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its affiliation with BYU, and because he was a teacher at heart.
Worthen has kept that connection to the classroom by teaching a seminar about integrating values into the study and practice of law, a class he won’t be teaching this year after the J. Reuben Clark Law school changed its curriculums and eliminated the class.
“They fired me, basically,” he joked.
His five years leading BYU haven’t been quiet. The church-owned university came under national scrutiny in 2016 when students said they were investigated by the school’s Honor Code Office after reporting their sexual assaults, and more recently this year, when hundreds of students protested on campus to demand changes to the honor code and how it is enforced.
“This is a different generation, more interested in causes and activism more, and I would say more other-centered in some ways, and I think that’s a good sign,” Worthen said.
He sees a university as a place where students can seek out productive ways to use their positive energy.
“As far as the underlying sense of wanting to be involved in something bigger than themselves, I think is a good sign,” Worthen said.
BYU’s administration is more willing to have those conversations than people think, he said, and that while administration tends to be more distanced from students, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in listening to them.
After five years, he has no plans to leave, but also doesn’t anticipate being president 10 years from now. But being under the church’s Church Educational System, and being led by a board of trustees made up of the religion’s leaders, he understands that when he leaves is not always up to him.
“I think I am at least two to three years removed from where it may be hard to be university president — let me put it this way, where it would be good to have a change,” Worthen said. “You only have so many ideas and so much energy, and it is good to have somebody with fresh eyes come in and say, ‘Lets me look at things a different way.’ I think that is a good thing for most organizations, but certainly for universities.”
Moving into the next school year, which begins as students return to classes on Tuesday, Worthen wants to continue to enhance students’ educational experience, which will include expanding opportunities in experiential learning, BYU Online and making limited enrollment courses less limited. It also includes continuing to advocate for the type of education the religious university provides and its mission statement.
And while he wants his legacy to be about enhancing students, it’ll also include a new element — a new flavor from the BYU Creamery named after him. The flavor, which will be released soon, includes peanut butter ice cream with chocolate swirls and peanut brittle.
But despite his input into the new concoction, he knows it probably won’t dethrone the popular Graham Canyon.
“I don’t have any aspirations to beat that,” he said with a smile.