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President Worthen: In the midst of a pandemic, “act while being acted upon”

The changes around Brigham Young University in the past five months have been so monumental it’s easy to divide the 2019–2020 academic year into time periods of B.C. (before COVID) and A.C. (after COVID). But to view the world solely through a BC/AC lens would be a mistake, said BYU President Kevin J Worthen during his University Conference address to faculty and staff.

President Worthen

Overemphasizing the divide between the pre- and post-pandemic world may cause people to feel like there are only two options – hunker down and pick up the pieces when it ends or jettison all prior plans and accept a new normal.

“I hope we don’t just survive this unusual experience but that we lean into it in a way that both reconfirms the essential components of our prior core goals and also accelerates our progress toward them,” Worthen said. “That is admittedly a very ambitious, audacious, and some would say unrealistic aspiration, but I believe that we are better positioned that any other university to do this – that we were built for this.”

BYU Strategic Plan

The theme of BYU’s 2020 University Conference comes from Doctrine and Covenants 64:33, “Be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work.” Following the admonition in the verse, Worthen pointed to BYU’s Strategic Plan for the next five years.

The strategic plan, developed by the BYU President’s Council, includes three main strategic objectives that come from the university’s Mission Statement and Aims of a BYU Education.

Even though the objectives were developed before the pandemic, Worthen said those goals remain just as important in the current circumstances, and the pandemic provides an opportunity to enhance the way the university approaches those goals.   

“This COVID experience, like all our mortal experiences, can and should help us improve,” Worthen said. “If we emerge from the pandemic unscathed but unchanged, we will have missed out on the full benefit of this unique experience.”

Worthen cited several examples of how the pandemic has been beneficial to the university. The pandemic positioned BYU to enhance its online learning models and improve in-person classroom teaching. The pandemic fostered a better appreciation for gathering and community building.

“I hope we will all be quicker to look for, and reach out to, those who experience loneliness even when they are surrounded by people. I also hope that the less frequent interaction we have experienced since March 12 will cause us to be more kind, more patient, and less quick to judge.”

The pandemic also provides an opportunity to better learn to deal with uncertainty. Using an example from Church history, Worthen explained how the crisis of Johnston’s army marching through the Salt Lake Valley ultimately helped the early Latter-day Saints enhance the foundation of the Salt Lake Temple.

The saints buried the foundation to hide it from the army, and when they later uncovered the foundation, they noticed large cracks that would not have supported the weight of the temple. Although it’s unclear whether the saints would have discovered the cracks in the foundation without the interruption from the army, Worthen pointed to the saints’ example of perseverance.

“I do know that they emerged from a crisis with a better foundation because they did not abandon the project. They learned that they could act even while being acted upon, and that because of Christ’s atoning power, the impact of their actions could overcome all things that acted upon them.”

President Worthen's full address will be available at a later date on BYU Speeches.

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