BYU Pres. Rex E. Lee Granted release after six ‘glorious years’

Rex E. Lee, president of Brigham Young University for the past six years, announced June 16 that he had asked to be released from his post.

At an assembly in the deJong Concert Hall he told BYU faculty, students, staff and friends that he had asked President Gordon B. Hinckley to release him because his "circumstances no longer mesh with the inflexible and unpredictable demands of the office of BYU president." He said the Church leader, "with characteristic graciousness and compassion," had granted his request, which has also been approved by the BYU Board of Trustees.Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve and Church commissioner of education, on behalf of the BYU Board of Trustees, said, "We are grateful for his faithful service. He has our love and our deep appreciation."

Pres. Lee was diagnosed about 51/2 years ago as having an indolent form of T-cell lymphoma, which cannot be cured but can be controlled. He said it has been under control over that entire period of time. Also, for several years he has had what is called peripheral neuropathy, a damage to the nerves in his arms and legs. He said that while the neuropathy has been both progressive and irritating, neither it nor the cancer has had any discernible impact on his ability to perform as president of BYU, a job that he has loved so much.

During the previous five weeks, he was hospitalized for about 21/2 weeks, experiencing rather serious infections and undergoing surgery. The totality of those experiences, he said, left him weak and lacking in energy. He said, "Over the intervening three weeks since I left the hospital, my strength has been returning, but the increments of that return have been aggravatingly slow. . . . While my work and I have been able to accommodate the cancer and the neuropathy by themselves, their presence apparently compounds the general weakness and lack of energy that I have been experiencing. When I asked my doctors what kinds of things to avoid, their answer sounds like my job description.

"For these reasons, and after careful and prayerful consideration and consultation with a few people whose views on these matters have been very helpful, I have reluctantly, though quite clearly, come to the conclusion that while my present level of energy and physical resources will sustain personal and professional activities that are useful and productive, my circumstances no longer mesh with the inflexible and unpredictable demands of the office of BYU president."

Pres. Lee said that requesting the release was one of the most difficult things he has ever done. He referred to his six years as the university's president as "glorious years" for him, his wife, Janet, and their family.

He said he there are still some seven months or so remaining on his tenure as president, that there are important things that need to be continued and completed during that time.He mentioned specfically that this is the year of BYU's 10-year accrediation, with its accompanying self-study. He also spoke of BYU's long-range planning and its captial campaign.

Pres. Lee invited those associated with BYU "to approach the coming months with a mindset not of winding down, but rather of finishing strong." He ended his statement by expressing appreciation for "all you have done and are now doing."

After he concluded his remarks, the capacity crowd of students, faculty, staff and friends of the university gave Pres. Lee a prolonged standing ovation, prompting tears from him and his wife.

Pres. Lee, 60, was named the 10th president of BYU on May 12, 1989, effective July 1, 1989.

Before being named president, he was a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Sidley & Austin. He joined the firm June 1, 1985, after having served for four years as Solicitor General of the United States.

He was the founding dean of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School from 1971-1981. During a leave of absence from the law school, he served from 1975 to 1977 as assistant attorney general in the Civil Division of the United Sates Department of Justice. He has held the George Sutherland Chair of Law at BYU since returning to the J. Reuben Clark Law School in 1985. From that time, he taught constitutional law and maintained a private appellate practice, which has been almost exclusively before the United States Supreme Court. He has argued a total of 59 cases in the Supreme Court.

He grew up in St. John's, Ariz. He received his bachelor's degree in 1960 from BYU, serving his senior year as student body president. He earned his juris doctorate from the University of Chicago Law School in 1963, graduating first in his class. He holds five honorary doctor of law degrees.

During the 1963 term of the U.S. Supreme Court, he served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White.

Pres. Lee served a mission in Mexico from 1955-1958. He and his wife, Janet Griffin Lee, are parents of seven children and have 10 grandchildren.

Pres. Lee points to five areas that he considers highlights of his tenure as president of BYU:

  • The regularizing of procedures that had been long understood but never formalized, specifically academic freedom and requirements for employment.
  • Timely graduation. This is an effort to streamline a BYU education while maintaining its quality in order to help students graduate sooner and thereby allow more students to enroll.
  • Long-range planning. Pres. Lee's administration has been active in identifying and tackling strategic issues that will affect the university well into the 21st century. BYU is still conducting an extensive self-study.
  • A capital campaign. The university is engaged in the silent phase of a major fund-raising effort and will announce the public phase before he leaves office.
  • Construction on campus. BYU is in the midst of its most intense building period since the era of BYU Pres. Ernest L. Wilkinson, 1951-1971. Projects completed, begun or planned during his administration include the Museum of Art, the Howard W. Hunter Law Library, renovation on the Carl F. Eyring Science Center, rebuilding of the Ernest L. Wilkinson Center and renovation and expansion of student housing.