Although Kevin J Worthen’s commute to work did not change much on May 1, his title and responsibilities grew as he transferred to his new role as 13th president of Brigham Young University. Announced in March as the successor to President Cecil O. Samuelson, President Worthen spent his first day on the job greeting more than 11,000 visitors to campus during this year’s Women’s Conference.
Dubbing himself as a “BYU guy,” President Worthen has been cheering for the Cougars since he was a boy and, before becoming president of the university, had been at BYU in various positions for the past 27 years — a total of 31 years if you count his time as a student.
“Being at BYU is not a surprise to me,” he told the Church News during an interview in his new office. “Being in administration and certainly being the president is.”
Calling his visits to campus as a young boy “sort of magical,” President Worthen said BYU is a place in which he has always felt a connection.
“For some reason, and I suppose it is the same thing other people feel when they come here, [visiting the campus] was just like being at Disneyland. … It didn’t matter whether it was to watch a basketball game, … or to watch a state [high school] tournament when I was in junior high, or for a language fair here on campus. Any time I could be on campus was just magical to me.”
Remembering a time when the BYU freshman basketball team went to his hometown of Price, Utah, to play against the College of Eastern Utah basketball team, President Worthen said that although BYU was playing his local team — a team he would later play on — he was cheering for BYU.
“I remember a lady in our neighborhood [noticed] … I was rooting for BYU,” he said. “She just thought that was the strangest thing in the world. Why would I, being from Price, the local team playing somebody else, root for the other team? But it just seemed natural to me.”
That natural inclination to BYU has only increased over the years. After earning both his bachelor and juris doctor degrees from BYU, he knew he wanted to return.
“University administration was not a career path I had in mind at really any stage of my career, but being a faculty member at BYU is something that was a career-path goal.”
Born in Dragerton, Utah, President Worthen is the youngest of four children. When he was 5, his family moved 20 miles to Price. His father was a math teacher and, later, his principal at the junior high school he attended. Growing up, President Worthen and his siblings were very close.
Although he is quieter by nature, President Worthen loved playing sports and spent much of his time at football practice, on a baseball diamond or at the tennis court.
“Sports were my life,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school I realized I wasn’t going to play in the NBA. I still had illusions of playing college basketball but, up until then, that’s just what I assumed I would do.”
After high school, he and a group of his childhood friends went to the College of Eastern Utah where they played on the basketball team. After one year at the college, he turned in his mission papers and was called to serve in the Mexico Monterrey Mission. While on his mission, he began to grow and develop spiritually, setting a solid foundation for the rest of his life.
“I remember distinctly when I was a senior in high school I was on the seminary council and we would occasionally go to sacrament meetings to speak,” he said.
“In speaking about Joseph Smith, and I think I chose the subject myself, … I remember just having this overwhelming feeling as I read it that this is true. And that’s the first time, consciously, I think, that I thought, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to [know] this is really true.’ … And I had that kind of experience quite often in the mission field.”
His time as a missionary was a transformative experience, one that taught him the importance of relying on the Lord. It was in the times on his mission that he didn’t know what else to do when he would trust in the Lord and then watch as things worked out.
“It just builds on itself from there in a lot of ways,” he said. “Experiences where you see the Lord’s hand in things in retrospect — as long as we are trying as hard as we can — teach us that, as we come to trust in the Lord, things really will work out for our good.”
After returning from his mission, he again attended the College of Eastern Utah where he met Peggy Sealey at a Church dance.
“She grew up about three blocks from me, but she is three years younger than I am and high school at Carbon at the time started with 10th grade, which meant that when I was a senior in high school she was still in junior high,” he said. “She wasn’t LDS so she wasn’t going to Church activities that I had been going to, although she would occasionally go to things. I sort of knew the family but didn’t really know her very well.”
It wasn’t too long after they were dating that President Worthen found out she was meeting with the missionaries; within a short time, she decided to be baptized. President Worthen was able to baptize her.
“We had been dating about six months when we got engaged,” he said. “She then had to wait to go to the temple because she hadn’t been a member for a year, so we waited for that to happen and then got married in the Provo [Utah] Temple.”
President and Sister Worthen are the parents of three children and have one grandchild. President Worthen earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and then later his juris doctorate from BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.
After law school, he clerked for Judge Malcom R. Wilkey of the U.S. Court of Appeals, as well as for Associate Supreme Court Justice Bryon R. Whilte from 1983-84. After he was done clerking, he started working at the law firm Jennigs, Strouss & Salmon in Arizona and worked there until he headed back to Provo where he joined the faculty of the J. Reuben Clark Law School.
President Worthen said that by the end of law school — possibly even before — he knew he wanted to return as faculty. He knew he loved learning and loved spending time with the students — the university’s “best asset.” In 2004, he became the dean of the law school; in 2008, he became the advancement vice president of BYU where he focused his efforts on athletics, BYUtv, alumni and fundraising. He serves as an Area Seventy.
Although his new assignment as president of the university is something he didn’t expect in his career path, President Worthen said that he welcomes the assignment and is energized at the thought of working with such wonderful students, faculty, staff and alumni and, just as he did as a missionary, he takes comfort in knowing that as long as he is doing his best, “the Lord will take care of the rest.”
“It is a school that has a wonderful trajectory and, I think, destiny. Being involved is really exhilarating, and as I said, I’ll do my best and trust that’s going to be enough.”