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Past presidents and principals of Brigham Young University, through 2023

Brigham Young University presidents and principals, 1876 through 2023

  • Warren N. Dusenberry  (January 1876 to April 1876) — This is one place where the University of Utah and BYU merge in history.  With his brother, Dusenberry founded the Timpanogos Branch of the University of Deseret, which later became the University of Utah.  The Dusenberrys sold the financially ailing branch in 1875 to Brigham Young, who made Dusenberry, then 39 years old, the first principal of the new Brigham Young Academy that would become BYU.  There were 70 students.
  • Karl G. Maeser  (August 1876 to January 1892) — Maeser, a German, taught Brigham Young’s children after he arrived in Salt Lake City.  He also served as the Salt Lake Tabernacle organist.  Maeser was 48 when he took over at BYA.  The school suffered serious financial issues during much of his tenure, which included the Panic of 1891.  At one point, he told his family he would accept a position at the University of Deseret in Salt Lake City.  They packed their things. Then he told them he had changed his mid because of a dream that became famous in BYU lore.  “I have seen Temple Hill filled with buildings, great temples of learning, and I have decided to remain and do my part in contributing to the fulfillment of that dream.”
  • Benjamin Cluff  (January 1892 to December 1903) — Cluff was Karl Maeser’s assistant when he became the school’s youngest leader at age 34.  He inherited a financial crisis in the middle of a depression.  One day, while walking back to the school from downtown Provo, he said a thought hit him like inspiration: “Give the school to the church.”  The board of trustees took over sponsorship of the school in 1896.  Cluff was in his final months as principal when he became president.  In October of 1903, with 64 students, the school officially became a university.  A member of the First Presidency confided in his journal, “I hope their head will grow big enough to fill their hat.”  Cluff later moved his family to Mexico and managed a rubber plantation.
  • George H. Brimhall  (April 1904 to July 1921) — BYU expanded to more tan 660 students during Brimhall’s tenure, which he began at age 51.  Brimhall sported a bushy, walrus mustache and affable personality.  He enhance the credentials of the BYU faculty, hiring the university’s first three professors with doctoral degrees and many with master’s degrees.
  • Franklin S. Harris  (July 1921 to June 1945) — At 37, Harris was the first BYU leader with a PH.D. of his own, in agriculture.  Every subsequent president has held a PH.D, a juris doctorate, or a doctor of medicine degree.  Harris pushed teachers to more intellectual curiosity, sharing, “…first of all we want to establish preeminent scholarship.”  One professor said that Harris turned the school into a university.  Harris was also BYU’s first non-polygamous president.
  • Howard S. McDonald  (July 1945 to October 1949) — McDonald, 51 years old, had a Ph.D. in education and was a World War I veteran.  The board selected him to bring a stronger religious emphasis to BYU but also asked him early on to prepare to close the university.  McDonald convinced the board that the church needed BYU.  Near the end of his tenure, the board set the university’s future course by approving a master’s degree program in theology, and encouraged students to study elsewhere for their doctorates.  The student body doubled after World War II to more than 4,000 students.
  • Ernest L. Wilkinson  (February 1951 to July 1971) — After McDonald resigned, Wilkinson, then 51 years old, was given the job.  He was an attorney who had won a $32,000,000 settlement from the federal government on behalf of the Ute Indian tribes.  Wilkinson led an energetic building boom and, as enrollment quintupled to more that 25,000, said 80 major buildings were full and there was enough demand from potential students for more.
  • Dallin Harris Oaks  (August 1971 to August 1980) — President Oaks, just 38 years old at the beginning of his tenure, was an attorney who had been a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.  President Oaks shaped much of what BYU is today, introducing a three semester plan with full fall and winter semesters and split spring and summer terms.  He also oversaw the start up of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, the launch of the Marriott School of Business, and the hiring of LaVell Edwards as head football coach.  Elder Oaks was appointed to the Utah Supreme Court three months after stepping down as BYU president.  The school then had more than 27,000 students.  Elder Oaks was called to serve as an apostle of the Lord in 1984.  Today, President Oaks serves as First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • Jeffrey R. Holland  (September 1980 to April 1989) — Elder Holland, a 39 year old with a doctorate in American Studies, replaced President oaks.  Today, he is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  One of his crowning achievements at the school, in addition to the football team winning the 1984 national championship. was the founding of the BYU Jerusalem Center in 1988.  At the end of his presidency, BYU had 30,348 students.
  • Rex E. Lee  (July 1989 to December 1995) — Brother Lee was 54 years of age and an accomplished attorney when he took over for Elder Holland.  He had been a recent Solicitor General of the United States, who in his lifetime argued 59 cases before the United States Supreme Court, nine while serving as BYU’s president.  He streamlined BYU graduation requirements to help students graduate faster and make room for more students.  Lee added the requirement of regular church attendance for enrollment.  President Lee oversaw the “Lighting the Way Capital Campaign” with a goal to raise $250 million dollars for BYU and BYU-Hawaii.  The campaign earned over $400 million by the time it ended in the next administration.  President Lee resigned due to health problems and died two months later.
  • Merrill J. Bateman  (January 1996 to April 2003) — Elder Bateman, 59 years old, was the Presiding Bishop of the church when he became the first serving general authority of the church to lead the school.. He had earned a doctorate in economics from MIT and had been an executive with Mars, Inc., and the dean of the BYU business school.  Elder Bateman said at the end of his presidency that he was most proud and excited about BYU’s mentored-learning program.  The new emphasis provided many BYU juniors and seniors with the kind of professor-student research partnerships usually reserved for graduate school.
  • Cecil O. Samuelson, Jr.  (May 2003 to April 2014) — Elder Samuelson, also a general authority, was 61 years old when the medical doctor, who trained at the University of Utah, became BYU’s leader.  “We would like you to put on a blue coat,” President Gordon B. Hinckley told him.  BYU students began to yell, “Whoosh, Cecil,” after every made free throw by BYU basketball players.  The tradition continued with “Whoosh, Kevin”, for his successor, Kevin Worthen.  Elder Samuelson steered BYU through an odd moment.  Enrollment actually fell for once, by about 3,000 students, when the church unexpectedly reduced the age requirements for missionaries.
  • Kevin J. Worthen  (May 2014 to April 2023) — Elder Worthen was 58 years old and one of Elder Samuelson’s vice presidents when he was chosen to replace him.  He was an accomplished legal scholar who had clerked for the U. S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White and had been a Fulbright Scholar.  He was so bright that the students in his class at BYU’s law school nicknamed him Zeus, the smartest and strongest of them all.  He finished first in his class.  Worthen built on Elder Bateman’s mentored learning program, which now is called experiential learning, or in Elder Worthen’s term, ‘inspiring learning’.

(This information was published by the Deseret News in March 2023.)

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