On Tuesday, March 21, C. Shane Reese sat on the podium in the BYU Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, surrounded by roughly 19,000 students while his name was announced as the new president of Brigham Young University.
Joining the elite “cast of characters” who have led the university — including Dallin H. Oaks, Jeffrey R. Holland, Rex E. Lee, Merrill J. Bateman, Cecil O. Samuelson and Kevin J Worthen — is humbling, President Reese said. “I feel completely and totally honored. But also, at the same time, I feel very intimidated by being part of this club.”
How did a kid from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a first-generation college student raised by a single mom end up at the helm of the Church’s flagship university?
During a recent interview, President Reese — who will be inaugurated as the 14th president of BYU on Tuesday, Sept. 19 — sat down with the Church News to discuss the people, experiences and decisions that helped prepare him for this new responsibility and shared his thoughts on BYU’s divine mission, the Big 12 Conference affiliation, updates to the Honor Code and the future of BYU.
President Reese’s path to BYU
As an adult, President Reese can look back on his youth and see the challenges his mother must have faced. But from the perspective of a child, he experienced what he calls a “fairy-tale existence.”
Born in Logan, Utah, he and his mom moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a few months after he was born. His parents divorced when he was very young, and his mom “worked her tail off” to try to support the two of them without a college degree.
“I’m sure things were tight, financially and otherwise,” President Reece said, “but my mom did amazing work to help me feel like things were wonderful.”
President Reese readily admits he probably wasn’t the easiest kid to raise. “But she was loving and patient and kind and supportive and encouraging.”
Despite not graduating from college herself, his mom was a staunch supporter of her son going to college, both “in word and deed and in dollars,” President Reese noted. “I’m not sure I would have been as committed to education if it wasn’t for her support and encouragement.”
At 18 years old, President Reese moved to Provo, Utah, to begin his freshman year at BYU. Unfortunately, after his first day of classes, he was ready to pack up and go home. The campus felt big and overwhelming.
His mother reached out to their friend and former bishop, Clyde Worthen, who invited young President Reese to talk to his little brother, who was a young faculty member in BYU’s law school at the time.
Young President Reese showed up at the office of the faculty member, who patiently listened to his struggles. “He just spent time with me and reassured me that he thought if I’d give BYU a chance that I might actually find that I enjoyed the place,” President Reese recalled.
That young faculty member was Kevin J Worthen, President Reese’s predecessor. That conversation was not only the impetus of a rich mentorship and friendship between the two, but also for President Reese’s “remarkable experience” at BYU.
Another life-altering decision in President Reese’s young life was to serve a full-time mission. “My testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ grew in ways that it couldn’t have without that experience,” President Reese said.
While serving in the Taiwan Taipei Mission, he learned he could do hard things. “It was intense,” he recalled of life as a missionary, “but the joy that I felt in doing so was life changing. Every day I woke up with this sense of ‘It’s a new day, an exciting day, and I’m going to get to teach people the gospel of Jesus Christ. How could it get any better than this?’”
Not only was his mission foundational for his testimony, but “I’m not sure my wife would have married me if I had not served a mission,” President Reese said.
Marrying Wendy Wood upon his return to BYU was “the single best decision I’ve made in my life,” he declared.
This year the two will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. “I’m grateful that I met her when I did. She changed the course of my life because of the goodness of her soul.”
Together, they have three children: Madi, Brittany and Bryon. His family, President Reese said, are his biggest supporters and champions.
Another important decision in President Reese’s journey was his choice of study.
With some humor, President Reese recalled that at the time he was considering colleges, BYU’s Department of Statistics would send recruitment letters to prospective students who scored well on the ACT exam in math. When he received one, his mother said, “Whatever you do, don’t study statistics. Those people are the most boring humans on the planet.”
As a freshman, he thought he’d study engineering but then switched to business. One of the prerequisites was introductory statistics. From an academic perspective “it was love at first sight,” President Reese said of that first statistics class. “Once I took that class I was hooked.”
Not only did he earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in statistics from BYU, but he went on to earn a doctorate degree in statistics from Texas A&M University.
“It really has been something I’ve been passionate about. I love that you can apply it to a wide variety of different applications,” he said.
His friends sometimes tease him that he has intellectual ADHD because his portfolio is so diverse, President Reese quipped. Through the years he has applied his statistical tools and research to everything from sports — including providing data to the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL — to nuclear and chemical weapons to glaciers in high mountain Asia and Antartica.
Time at BYU
President Reese came up through the ranks of BYU, returning as an assistant professor in 2001 before becoming an associate professor, then a full professor of statistics. In 2017 he accepted an invitation to become the dean of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences before becoming an academic vice president in 2019.
One of his assignments as an academic vice president was to chair the BYU committee on race, equity and belonging when concerns were raised that students and faculty of color might not be having a positive experience. That committee, formed by President Worthen, included a wide variety of individuals, President Reese explained, with differing opinions.
Engaging in discussions where they could all listen to each other, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with one another, was an incredibly valuable thing, he said. From those discussions came the school’s Office of Belonging and the drafting of the university’s Statement on Belonging. That statement “focuses first and foremost on our common identity as children of God. Only at a place like BYU that is built on the restored gospel of Jesus Christ can we lead with that statement.”
As of May 1, President Reese has taken over the role of university president. Since then, the school has already experienced important changes, including the Church’s announcement of updates to the Honor Code and dress and grooming standards and BYU’s incorporation into the Big 12 Conference.
Both changes are exciting to President Reese.
The Honor Code did not have substantive changes, President Reese explained, but, following the pattern set by the new “For the Strength of Youth” guide, the dress and grooming standards for the university are now principle based. “In the past, when we were talking about standards, it felt very much like a checklist,” President Reese observed. “We can now have meaningful discussions with our students that are principle based.”
The Big 12 era at BYU is going to be an opportunity to compete and thrive on a whole new stage. “I get really excited about the competition on the pitch, in the pool, on the field. But I also get super excited about the stage that this provides for us as a university.”
BYU students shine the light of the gospel in everything they do, whether its research or athletics or dance or music, he said. “This gives us a whole different stage with new people to interact with.”
President Reese’s hopes for BYU
While President Reese admits he’s “as big a BYU fan as you’re going to find on the planet” and has exciting ideas for the future of sports at the university, those do not encapsulate his hopes for the future. “My hope for BYU is that students who walk through our doors see their divine potential,” he said.
As students complete their degrees and leave the campus, “[I hope] they have a firmer commitment to making and keeping sacred covenants, to embracing their divine identity as children of heavenly parents who love them.”
Prophets, seers and revelators have foretold that Brigham Young University can become an “educational Mount Everest.”
“My task is to figure out how to describe it and have everybody feel it within the depths of their souls, that same thing that I feel about our prophetic destiny at BYU,” President Reese said.