Ken Starr at Baylor and Baylor’s vision of becoming a world-class Christian university


Burleson Quadrangle, Baylor University, Texas

Burleson Quadrangle, Baylor University, Texas

Over at the Dallas Star, an interesting article profiles Ken Starr, new president of Baylor University, and retells the story of the school’s recent history and its attempt to become a world-class Christian university, something that no Protestant university has sustained in the 21st century.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the article:

[Starr’s] larger mission is to fulfill one of the most breathtaking visions in American higher education. Baylor wants nothing less than to transform itself from its traditional role as a somewhat sleepy, second-rate, predominantly regional Baptist school to a world-class research university with highly ranked graduate programs.

And it wants to accomplish all that while asserting itself as a fully Christian, evangelical university with avowedly Christian professors. No Protestant university has ever done this before or even tried. Old-line schools founded on Christian principles like Harvard, Princeton and Yale historically bowed before a relentless secularism and are now places where religion is relegated to extracurricular status. Notre Dame is the only remotely comparable model. It is very definitely a world-class research institution, but not absolute in requiring its faculty to be Catholic or Christian.

Dismay and joy

When Starr’s appointment was announced in February, the news was greeted in the extended Baylor community with a mixture of shock, surprise, dismay and joy. Starr has at least as many fans as he has detractors, and at least half the country (and probably much more than half of Baylor’s alumni body) believes that Bill Clinton’s behavior deserved to be investigated.

Still, many of the comments on the Baylor Alumni Association website and by Baylorites in the press were sharply negative. And even conservative evangelicals who had no political agenda with Starr wondered: Why, at a school whose civil wars of the early and mid-2000s became front-page news, would it possibly be a good idea to hire a non-Baptist with such partisan baggage? (Starr was raised in the Church of Christ, in which his father was a preacher.)

But the Baylor regents had reasons for their seemingly odd choice, arrived at after an intensive two-year search. And it has resulted in a sort of brilliant honeymoon that many would not have predicted.

Starr’s success in winning the Baylor community over is at least partly due to his upbeat, disarming personality and his deep religious convictions that are in tune with those generally held at Baylor.

But he is also the possessor of a legal résumé that few contemporaries can match, as well as a striking record of success as dean of Pepperdine University’s law school.

. . .

Baylor is a private Baptist institution – the largest Baptist university in the country – and has been since its founding in 1845. In 1990, after a decadelong fight between fundamentalists and moderates in the Southern Baptist church, Baylor’s charter was changed to restrict the Baptist General Convention of Texas‘ board representation to 25 percent, effectively taking Baylor out of the strict control of the Baptists. This meant the end of any talk of teaching courses based on the Bible as the inerrant word of God.

Christian at core

Many faculty members and alumni also believed that this event would mark the beginning of secularization, a process that had transformed other once-prominent Baptist institutions, including Brown University, the University of Chicago and, most recently, Wake Forest.

In fact, the reverse happened. The charter change – which blocked a fundamentalist takeover of the school – actually freed Baylor to reassert its Christian identity. In 2002, it embarked on an ambitious plan, known as Baylor 2012, whose goal was to completely alter the character of the university. Baylor had long been content to be primarily a low-tuition teaching university for children of Texas Baptists. Professors did not publish much and were generally not leaders in their fields.

Under Baylor 2012, all that would change. Faculty would teach less and publish more, and their tenure would depend on it. The university would also greatly expand its graduate schools. The largest building campaign in the university’s history would add whole colleges and academic buildings. Students would come with improved boards and grades. The idea was to move the university’s ranking from the mid to high 70s in the U.S. News and World Report list into the top 50, the cutoff for “Tier One” status.

The university’s second and far more controversial goal was to reaffirm its Christian mission, which meant hiring only faculty members who were not only Christians, but also deeply committed to their faith. (Roughly one-third of Baylor’s faculty and students are Baptist these days.) Though Baylor’s Christianity is visible in many ways, from mandatory chapel attendance to the abundant school-sponsored mission programs in the U.S. and abroad, the school’s religious character resides primarily in its faculty.

. . .

Sloan was soon at war with both his faculty and his alumni association; he received two votes of “no confidence” and resigned under fire in 2005.

For a while, it seemed that what the many skeptics had said was true: Baylor could never be both Christian and a great academic institution.

Then something interesting happened.

Slowly, quietly, the main precepts of the 2012 plan began to take hold. The number of faculty with degrees from top-flight research institutions rose substantially, as did their rate of publication. In departments like sociology, Baylor managed to land world-class faculty members who were also Christians.

In 2002, the number of faculty articles in major publications was 202; by 2008 that number had risen to 496. Scholarly citations soared, too, as did external grants for research, the number of doctoral programs (rising from 14 to 20) and enrollment in those programs (up 32 percent). Student SAT scores have risen 50 points in the last 10 years, while undergraduate applications rose stunningly from 7,431 in 2002 to 34,224 in 2010.

Baylor’s biggest challenge is finding talented Christian faculty members. For many academics, the prospect of being asked about their religion in interviews is not an appealing one.

“It’s difficult, and you have to work very hard at recruiting,” says Kevin Pinney, associate professor of chemistry and a leading cancer researcher. “It is not always easy to find people without offending them. They can even have strong Christianity and still not want to be asked about it.”

“We are learning patience,” says the school’s provost, Elizabeth Davis. “We require faith commitment, research excellence and teaching excellence. The pool gets smaller when you put ‘excellent’ in front of each of those words.” Still, Davis, Starr and other leaders are convinced that Baylor can attract the faculty it needs.

You can read the full article here.

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