BYU President's Report
BYU: Excellent and Unique
By President Kevin J Worthen
This past April, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who is not only a former president of the university but currently the chair of the Executive Committee of the BYU Board of Trustees, addressed the leadership of the university. He began his remarks by repeating what he had said to a similar group of leaders in August 2014, shortly after I became president. I have learned to pay particular attention when prophets, seers, and revelators repeat a message. I have thought much about the following statement that Elder Oaks made on both occasions:
[I] firmly believe that it is the destiny of Brigham Young University to become what those prophetic statements predicted it would become. But inherent in being the University of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the reality that this great goal will not be attained in exactly the same way that other universities have achieved their greatness. With your help, it will become the great university of the Lord—not in the world’s way but in the Lord’s way.
I have spent considerable time thinking about how we are and how we should be unique. The latter is more important than the former. There is little point in being different for difference’s sake; that will not help us achieve our prophetically declared destiny. We must be unique in the way the Lord wants us to be unique, in ways that are consistent with our board-approved—which means prophetically approved—mission.
There are at least two key ways in which we are already distinctive from most other universities. And when you put these two features together, I believe they make us truly unique in ways that are consistent with our prophetically approved mission.
First, unlike most major private universities that started off as faith-based institutions, BYU and its sister institutions of the Church Educational System have remained closely aligned with and are closely directed by our sponsoring church.
The second way in which we are distinct from some other universities also differentiates us to a degree from the other CES institutions. While all the CES institutions of higher education share the deep common commitment to the reality of the connection between faith and education, we are the only one of the CES schools that requires, as a fundamental part of our mission, that faculty members excel not only in the classroom but also in the research arena. Thus, while we are first and foremost committed to our students—and to teaching them in the Lord’s way—we also ask faculty members to reinforce and enhance that primary teaching mission with world-class research.
I believe that when viewed in the light of gospel truths, the compatibility of faith and learning and the compatibility of teaching and research are not irreconcilable dichotomies but mutually reinforcing convergences that produce a truly unique kind of education that is part of our prophetically declared destiny.
First-class research can enhance rather than detract from student learning and development. The primary aim for research at BYU is student development—a distinctive, if not unique, aim for universities that highly value research.
This type of refining learning and development can best occur when the research is cutting-edge, at the frontiers of knowledge. There is a difference between being in a lab conducting routine experiments with predictable results designed to help students see in action principles they have learned in the classroom—something which many of us experienced in high school—and being part of a team that is seeking a hitherto unknown solution to a pressing problem with real-life implications, such as the discovery of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease or the development of origami-inspired solar arrays for NASA and bulletproof shields for law-enforcement agencies.
As enlightening and instructive as it is to be in a chemistry lab recreating experiments that have already been done, it pales in comparison to the intellectually stimulating, sweat-¬inducing, spiritually stretching experience of being involved in making a truly new discovery—a discovery that may require and produce revelation about both the matter being studied and the individuals performing the study.
This uniquely student-focused approach to world-class research is at the heart of our current emphasis on inspiring learning. Faculty-mentored student research on cutting-edge topics is one of the primary focuses of that initiative—an initiative whose aim is clearly and exclusively on student learning. It produces a unique kind of student learning that in some instances can happen only at a place like BYU, where the most important end result is not the discovery of new knowledge or faculty development but student revelation through research.
This past year has been a success on many fronts. We have seen the completion of several construction projects, including the Marriott Center Annex, another residence hall, a new central building at the Heritage Halls complex, and the multiyear Campus Drive redesign project. We saw more than 12,000 of our students participate in Y-Serve projects during the year. And BYU Athletics finished just outside the top 10 percent in the Learfield Directors’ Cup, which measures the overall performance of the nearly three hundred Division I NCAA schools.
We also made important strides on key academic initiatives. The BYU Online program is on pace. Its goal is to expand the number of online offerings available to our matriculated students so that by 2020, each BYU student will be able to take at least 15 hours of credit online before graduation. This fall semester BYU Online will be offering 109 sections of 54 courses, with a current enrollment of more than 5,500 students.
We made similar progress on our Inspiring Learning Initiative. Its purpose is to help our students have experiences that motivate them to learn in ways that lead to revelation, thus promoting learning that is inspiring in both senses of that word.
Funds from two different sources were provided this year to allow more students to have that kind of experience. More than $1 million was made available to the colleges and departments for inspiring learning projects as a result of a reallocation of funds from the university’s operating budget.
In addition, generous donors like you have contributed $6 million for this initiative so far this year, with $1.2 million being made available for immediate student use and the rest going toward our goal of creating a $120 million endowment by the end of 2021.
In recent years, thousands of students have participated in the kinds of experiences that are part of our Inspiring Learning Initiative. A few of their stories are included in this issue of President’s Report, and across campus there are thousands of equally powerful stories.
Elder Oaks also told us, “To accomplish its mission, BYU must have all parts of its community united in pursuing it.”
Prophets have set forth an ambitious agenda for this university and for those involved in it. It is not an easy agenda, and it will require all of us to change and to work together—not just in one department or in one ¬college and not just among the faculty. We will need everyone on this ¬¬campus and every one of our supporters to be committed to the task.
None of this will be easy, but it will be enlivening, exhilarating, and, yes, ethereal. At times we will need to forge new paths. That is what uniqueness is all about. But the impact will be larger than we may think.
READ: President Worthen’s related address to faculty and staff, “BYU: A Unique Kind of Education,” is available at speeches.byu.edu.
WATCH: President Worthen’s video introduction of the Inspiring Learning Initiative can be viewed here.