President Oaks asks BYU: ‘How are we measuring up’ to President Kimball’s 1975 call to be ‘unique,’ ‘special’?

‘Dare to be different,’ First Presidency counselor challenges students, faculty in BYU devotional

PROVO, Utah — As Brigham Young University celebrated its centennial in 1975, Church President Spencer W. Kimball gave his “Second Century Address,” calling on BYU and its students to be unique.

With a front-row seat for the landmark address, BYU’s president — then in his early 40s and about halfway through his eventual nine-year leadership tenure — had been working to avoid extreme federal Title IX regulations. He had testified before a congressional subcommittee earlier in 1975, explaining how the private, Church-sponsored university and its Honor Code and commitment to gospel tenets differed from most institutions of higher education.

That BYU president still has “President” as a title today. President Dallin H. Oaks — first counselor in the First Presidency — returned Tuesday, Sept. 13, to the same BYU Marriott Center nearly a half-century later to revisit President Kimball’s address. In remarks titled “Going Forward in the Second Century,” the 90-year-old President Oaks called on BYU faculty and students to continue to be unique and to dare to be different.

Acknowledging that most of the current students and many of the current faculty were born after 1975, BYU’s events of that year may seem as “ancient history, yes — but important history to remember when current worldly pressures are focused on our differences.”

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency and president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during his campus devotional address at Brigham Young University’s Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

‘Second Century Address’ revisited

President Oaks said President Kimball noted, in his address 47 years ago, BYU’s “double heritage,” with concerns and opportunities both secular and spiritual. President Kimball said the university must not be shackled by “worldly ideologies and concepts” and not allow itself to “be made over in the image of the world.” 

President Kimball added: “We expect — we do not simply hope — that Brigham Young University will become … a unique university in all of the world.”

For BYU to secure and magnify its second-century uniqueness, President Kimball highlighted three key areas:

  1. To not desert or dilute existing truth, to “resist false fashions in education” and to stay with basic, proven principles.
  2. To focus on undergraduate education, with an emphasis on the quality of both teaching and faculty-student relationships.
  3. To concentrate on personal and institutional relationships with God, “the added dimension which the Lord can provide when we are qualified to receive and He chooses to speak.”

President Kimball also noted BYU’s relationships with other universities. At times, BYU and other universities are in harmony, he said. But in other instances, BYU must be “willing to break with the educational establishment — not foolishly or cavalierly, but thoughtfully and for good reason — in order to find gospel ways to help mankind. Gospel methodology, concepts and insights can help us to do what the world cannot do in its own frame of reference.”

President Dallin H. Oaks speaks during a BYU devotional in the Marriott Center.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, quotes President Russell M. Nelson during the campus devotional address at Brigham Young University’s Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

‘How are we measuring up?’

President Oaks noted that Church leaders have not asked BYU to be a unique university just by being different. “Our uniqueness will always be rooted in our following the inspiration we prayerfully seek in our personal work and we receive from the university administration and our prophetic leaders.”

Directing his first question to BYU’s faculty and leadership, he asked: “How are we measuring up after almost a half-century since a Prophet spoke these fundamental changes?” 

He cited Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who, in a university address a year ago, noted President Kimball used the words “unique” and “special” eight times each. “It seems clear to me …” Elder Holland added, “that BYU will become an ‘educational Mt. Everest’ only to the degree it embraces its uniqueness, its singularity.”

President Oaks also quoted President Russell M. Nelson explaining the difference between his responsibilities as the senior Apostle on earth versus those of secular educators, to prepare others for their mortal experience and success in life’s work. “My responsibility is to educate and prepare you also for your immortal experience — meaning how to gain eternal life,” President Nelson said.

Added President Oaks: “The uniqueness of our Church education has the same purpose: education for eternity as well as education for our mortal experience. We go forward with that goal.”

Sister Kristen Oaks and President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, sit in the Marriott Center prior to his offering the BYU devotional address at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU’s Title IX episode in the ‘70s 

President Oaks used as an example his involvement when BYU was challenged by other educators and government regulators in a Title IX matter. A 1972 act of Congress forbade discrimination on the basis of gender “under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Concerned federal control could extend over all institutional decisions specifying differences between men and women — even possibly forbid separate dormitories for the two genders — BYU challenged the breadth of the proposed regulations which reached all activities of institutions.

President Oaks testified before a congressional subcommittee in 1975, expressing support for Title IX’s overall nondiscrimination objectives, but protesting that proposed regulations could lead to impermissible conflicts with the independence of private colleges and the religious freedom of Church-related institutions.

BYU’s focused objections soon prevailed. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare recognized that the university’s Code of Honor — based on Church tenets — provides for evenhanded treatment of the sexes. HEW also granted BYU exception from Title IX requirements that conflicted with Church beliefs and practices.

“Where would BYU and other Church-related colleges and universities be today if BYU had not dared to resist the government’s 1974 proposal to significantly expand its control over private higher education?” President Oaks asked.

He added: “Those who deviate from a majority are often made to feel like ignorant holdouts on subjects where everyone else is more enlightened. When higher education or the world in general call upon faculty to vary from gospel standards, do we ‘dare to be different’?”

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, quotes Church President Russell M. Nelson, during the campus devotional address at Brigham Young University’s Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

‘Dare to be different’

President Oaks then turned to the “students in the second century of this university,” asking them where they are regarding the differences that make BYU unique and if they “dare to be different” — crediting the phrase to Elder Clark G. Gilbert and the Church Educational System commissioner’s recent Deseret Magazine article on preserving religious identity in higher education.

“More important than what you do as a student,” President Oaks said, “are the choices you are making in your personal life — the priorities you are adopting consciously or subconsciously. Are you going forward against the world’s opposition?”

He used Christ’s teachings to underscore such opposition — “forsake the world and save your souls” (Matthew 16:26), “go ye into the world, and care not for the world” (Matthew 6:25) and “seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Luke 12:31).

And he added the Savior’s contrasting teaching about the other extreme: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

President Oaks offered his devotional listeners counsel to consider as they make choices.

“When we dare to be different, we choose to engage fully in the restored Church,” he said. “We keep our covenants. We have the courage to follow all the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. We stand up personally for those who are marginalized.”

He decried those who take what they call “a vacation from Church service.”

“If temped to take such a vacation, you should remember that this soon leads to forgetting gospel truths like the first commandment to love God, and it also leads to forgetting gospel covenants. Do not risk that.”

Persisting in Church activity and service leads to an increased influence and example for good with family and others.

President Dallin H. Oaks first counselor in the First Presidency, quotes his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, as he offers the campus devotional address at Brigham Young University’s Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

He told a story about the brother-in-law of his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, who in a Utah junior high school some 50 years ago noticed a boy different in dress and demeanor and sometimes in word and action. Easily ridiculed, the boy became the frequent target of belittling and beating by a large bully.

In the gym on the last day of school, the bully saw the boy playing a game of chess with himself and rushed over to knock over the game, sending chess pieces flying everywhere. Deciding he had seen enough, President Oaks’ brother-in-law walked over, picked up scattered pieces and returned them to the boy — with many others following, uniting to protect the victim, he said.

Three decades later, the brother-in-law saw a well-dressed executive boarding a plane — it was the boy who had been taunted. As the two recognized each other, the executive told the brother-in-law, “Thanks for being a friend.”

In a recent talk, Sister Oaks related the anecdote and called on her listeners to make a difference in the lives of others — giving attention, standing up, bearing testimony or following promptings to make a visit or a phone call. “I promise if you stand up and serve,” she said, “it will touch lives in an eternal way that you can only begin to comprehend now.”

Audience members laugh as they watch a humorous video presented by President Dallin H. Oaks during his campus devotional address at Brigham Young University’s Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

‘Be different from the world’

President Oaks cited President Nelson’s challenge from the June 2018 Worldwide Devotional for Youth to “stand out, be different from the world.”

The Prophet continued: “You and I know that you are to be a light to the world. Therefore, the Lord needs you to look like, sound like, act like and dress like a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Yes, you are living in the world, but you have very different standards from the world to help you avoid the stain of the world. …

“And if you are sometimes called ‘weird,’ wear that distinction as a badge of honor and be happy that your light is shining brightly in this ever-darkening world! ... Set a standard for the rest of the world! Embrace being different!”

President Oaks reminded his listeners the order of the first two great commandments. “The love of neighbor — however important — does not come ahead of love of God and obedience to His commandments. If we truly love God and serve Him as He has taught us, we will love our neighbor as God loves him or her and as He would have us love and serve them.”

God’s incomprehensible love for His children does not excuse one from accountability when His commandments are broken, and Christ in mortality showed that He was both ever-loving but invariably direct in His commandments and expectations. Latter-day Saints should follow the Savior without being compromised by worldly values and behavior, President Oaks said.

“Keeping gospel standards does not make you second class or condemn your example to obscurity. All of us know of persons whose performance is enhanced in quality and visibility by being different from the crowd.”

A choir performs prior to President Dallin H. Oaks speaks at the campus devotional address at Brigham Young University’s Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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