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From My Perspective: A Daunting yet Exciting Challenge

By President Kevin J Worthen

morning sunrise over BYU campusThe Carillon Tower was dedicated by President Spencer W. Kimball on October 10, 1975, as part of the university’s centennial cele-bration. That same day, President Kimball shared his prophetic vision of BYU in its second century. As the university’s sesquicenten-nial approaches, BYU and Church leaders are assessing BYU’s progress and plans.

It has been, to say the least, a most unusual academic year. Unfortunately, the ongoing pandemic continues to affect Brigham Young University’s planning and efforts. The good news is that during the past year we showed that we can not only survive but also thrive in an uncertain and quickly changing environment. I’m impressed with how the entire campus community has shown flexibility and determination in pursuing the university’s mission.

A Prophet’s Words, 46 Years Later

I want to frame my vision for the coming year by turning to the past. On October 10, 1975, President Spencer W. Kimball was on campus to dedicate the Carillon Tower and Bells, which had been constructed to commemorate the university’s centennial. He spoke before offering the dedicatory prayer. His speech is now known as the “second century address” because it outlines President Kimball’s prophetic vision of what could happen at BYU in the next 100 years.

BYU President Kevin J Worthen

I was not in Provo at the time. I was, on that day, in Monclova, Coahuila, Mexico, serving in the first area of my mission. Even though I was completely unaware of what was happening in Provo on that day, the proceedings greatly shaped my future.

Three and a half years later, I had finished my mission, transferred to BYU, and was about to graduate. I knew I wanted to go to law school, but I was not sure which law school I should attend. In the Harold B. Lee Library, I came across a copy of President Kimball’s speech. As I read the talk, I knew I wanted to be part of what President Kimball described.

President Kimball said that BYU would become an “educational Everest,” a place where things would be done in a way and at a level unlike anywhere else in the world, a place that would provide an “education for eternity,” and a place where faculty and students would help roll “back the frontiers of knowledge” while still being grounded in “the vital and revealed truths that have been sent to us from heaven.”

He repeatedly emphasized that this higher view would require that we deviate from established norms or patterns in some respects. But he also made it clear that this did not give us an excuse for being mediocre or second-rate.

Where We Are and Our Next Steps

Large room with many rows of stacked chairsThe fall 2020 semester was held in person with pandemic precautions in place. To make this possible, changes were made to cours-es and classrooms—including storing thousands of chairs to allow for social distancing.

Over the years, the impact from reading that speech and my appreciation for the motivating power of President Kimball’s vision have only increased. I find myself going back to it—and the mission statement that largely grew out of it—repeatedly discovering that, like scripture, it contains new insights with each reading, despite my previous familiarity with it.

My most recent experience in that regard was prompted by an address given by Elder David A. Bednar at a leadership meeting held this past April at BYU. Elder Bednar shared his memory of hearing President Kimball’s address. Unlike me, Elder Bednar was at the devotional that day as a recently married senior. He described President Kimball’s talk as “inspiring, edifying, and prophetic.” Elder Bednar noted that “we are approaching the halfway mark of the second century of BYU” and said that this would be a good “time to consider where we are and what may be coming next.”

Elder Bednar quoted from President Kimball’s address several times. He shared this:

Gospel methodology, concepts, and insights can help us to do what the world cannot do in its own frame of reference. In some ways the Church Educational System, in order to be unique in the years that lie ahead, may have to break with certain patterns of the educational establishment. When the world has lost its way on matters of principle, we have an obligation to point the way.

Two things from this quotation struck me when Elder Bednar shared it. First, we have “an obligation” to share our own unique insights with the world, because we have something unique to offer the world. Second, we can best meet that obligation by introducing “gospel methodology, concepts, and insights.” That is a daunting yet exciting challenge.

Purposefully Unique for the World

What does this unique and excellent model look like in practice? In response to the joint call of President Russell M. Nelson and leaders of the NAACP for “educational leaders . . . to review processes . . . and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all,” we appointed a committee, which after extensive work produced a report and recommendations of steps to be taken at BYU.

As we carefully considered the committee’s report, we determined that a necessary first step was to establish a framework for evaluating the recommendations. The framework needed to give a vision of our end goal—what we hoped our campus community would become because of this effort.

The resulting statement is in substance, source, and tone different from the typical kinds of diversity statements one might find on most campuses. It begins: “We are united by our common primary identity as children of God . . . and our commitment to the truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Our statement opens with what unites us, not what divides us, and with a fundamental gospel truth about who we are. This unique approach to addressing this timely issue is, for me, an example—and possible fulfillment—of President Kimball’s prophetic declaration that “gospel methodology, concepts, and insights can help us to do what the world cannot do in its own frame of reference.”

BYU’s Prophetically Declared Future

Even though most of us were not present when President Kimball gave that stirring address nearly 50 years ago, we can consider how his vision has been and is being fulfilled around us every day and what must happen in the next 50 years.

President Kimball concluded:

As previous First Presidencies have said, and we say again to you, we expect (we do not simply hope) that Brigham Young University will “become a leader among the great universities of the world.” To that expectation I would add, “Become a unique university in all of the world!”

Those stirring concluding words about prophetic expectations have become emblazoned on my soul these past few years.

Five years after President Kimball’s remarks, he reiterated some of what he said at the inauguration of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland as president of BYU. Interestingly, in that setting, President Kimball changed one word and added one significant sentence. He said: “‘Remain a unique university in all the world!’ Then, in the process of time, this truly will become the fully recognized university of the Lord about which so much has been spoken in the past.”

I do not know what happened in the interval between his second century address and President Holland’s inauguration that led President Kimball to change the focus of his charge from “become” to “remain” a unique university. But I am certain that he saw that remaining a unique university would be the key to realizing our ultimate destiny as “the fully recognized university of the Lord about which so much has been spoken.”

That is our prophetically declared future. I am grateful for you and know that the future outlined by our prophet-leaders is possible—indeed, inevitable. Thank you for your part in this soul-stretching, soul-stirring endeavor.

By the Numbers: Thriving in Uncertain and Quickly Changing Times

student sitting at computer412 family, home, and social sciences students presented at the virtual Mary Lou Fulton Research Conference. Photo courtesy Tyler Richardson / BYU
students dancing More than 200 students performed in the virtual tour presented by the College of Fine Arts and Communications. Photo courtesy BYU Performers, Rebecca Fuentes / BYU
students working in a science lab537 life science students participated in mentored research that resulted in peer-reviewed journal publications. Photo courtesy Nate Edwards / BYU
nursing student checking patientNursing students collectively spent 25,982 hours in the Mary Jane Rawlinson Geertsen Nursing Learning Center. Photo courtesy Aaron Cornia / BYU
two men standing in front of many computersMore than 1,000 physical and mathematical sciences students collaborated on research projects. Photo courtesy Jaren Wilkey / BYU

READ OR WATCH President Kevin J Worthen’s related August 23, 2021, university conference address, “An Obligation to the World”.

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