Interview by Todd C. Ream
Baylor Going Forward
Neither Baylor University nor its new president is a stranger to controversy. In this capacity, some would argue, Baylor is as much Texan as it is Baptist. Baylor not only sits in the geographic center of the state (or the Republic, as some might prefer in those parts), but is also the state's oldest institution of higher learning. Adding to this heritage is Baylor's place as the crown jewel in the Southern Baptist Convention's previously assembled system of colleges and universities. If being a proud citizen of the Lone Star State is not enough to inspire a fighting spirit, try also being Southern Baptist.
More recent expressions of this fighting spirit date back to 1979, and the debates that emerged between fundamentalist and moderate segments in Southern Baptist life. About 20 years later President Robert Sloan announced Vision 2012, an ambitious plan to transform Baylor into "one of the top [research] universities in the United States (and the world)." Some faculty aggressively resisted the plan's emphasis on the integration of faith and learning. Others resisted the plan's emphasis on the increased expectations for research productivity. After Sloan resigned in 2005, William Underwood (now president of Mercer University) served as interim until John Lilley was installed as president in 2006. Unable to mend these divisions, Lilley was fired in 2008, with David Garland then agreeing to serve as interim. As the search process for a new president began, members of Baylor's Board of Regents knew the stakes were high.
The board announced the results of their efforts on February 6, 2010, with the unanimous election of Judge Kenneth Winston Starr. Formerly the Dean of the Law School at Pepperdine University, Starr's legal résumé includes serving six years as a United States Circuit Court of Appeals Judge for the District of Columbia and four years as Solicitor General of the United States. Although Starr argued more than 25 cases before the United States Supreme Court during his time as Solicitor General, he is most widely known for the time he spent as Independent Counsel assigned to the Whitewater investigation.
In the early days of his administration at Baylor, Starr has been a bridging figure. Faculty members on both sides of the previously identified divide have embraced him. Todd Ream talked with Starr in the McMullen-Connally Faculty Center on the Baylor campus shortly before Starr's 100th day in office.
A number of recent books on higher education have framed the subject in apocalyptic terms. What do you think of such assessments? And from your vantage point, what are the most critical issues facing higher education as a whole today?
Higher education is under very exacting scrutiny. The critiques continue to flow both from within the educational community and from the people it serves. There are deep concerns about the cost of higher education, and some widely circulated characterizations of higher education are very unflattering. I am not in a position to judge the merit of those criticisms because I'm so new to higher education. My limited experience at a professional school at Pepperdine does not qualify me to be a commentator on the general state of higher education, but I'm keenly aware of, and sensitive to, the profound and serious criticisms. I do think that this particular moment provides a golden opportunity for Christian higher education, because we know who we are; we have within our diverse communities of Christian higher ed a coherent vision of what it is we are about. That, I believe, is one of the foundational challenges for American higher education generally. Who are we? What is it that we're seeking to achieve?
Here at Baylor there have been literally years of conversation about those fundamental questions, and the upshot is we are moving into a period of strategic planning. Of course, there's always strategic planning under way. But what we're doing is stepping back as a university as a whole and reflecting on who we are and what we then aspire to be. We appear to have—this may be risky to say!—a consensus on what we call foundational assumptions, core convictions (those are all out there on the website), and around unifying academic themes. We have six unifying academic themes, and so when the provost and I are meeting with the council deans, when we were both speaking at the fall faculty convocation, when the provost spoke at length at the convocation of students, we were able to draw from that rich reservoir of foundational assumptions, core convictions, and unifying academic themes. And the unifying academic themes start with the assumption that man has a purpose. We believe that nature is God's creation, and this recognition leads to unity at a deep level, even with all the diverse opinions on various and sundry issues that you will find in a very robust academic community.