With the resignation of Robert Sloan from the presidency at Baylor, some observers of Christian higher education bemoan that all hopes of a major research university maintaining and providing a distinctively Christian education are lost.
While this view is a tempting observation, it is an incomplete one at best. The recent happenings at Baylor form a complex case study, where some lessons are transferable across Christian higher education and others are unique to the players and situation at hand.
George Marsden's Soul of the American University and James Burtchaell's Dying of the Light have shaped the foundation of the recent thinking and understanding of the historical trajectory of American higher education founded from a Christian perspective.
These authors and others have demonstrated, quite convincingly, that as institutions move into the mainstream of higher learning, a predictable course of secularization is likely to occur. The factors for this decline in commitment to a Christian mission are the subject of much dialogue and debate, but the end result is nearly always the same: an institution where faith is marginalized at best and disdained at worst.
But the lessons to come from what has happened at Baylor do not fall so clearly along the lines suggested by historians of higher education. They are as much about managing change, the dynamics of relationships, and the importance of theology as they are about the secularization of the academy.
It would certainly be premature to conclude from these recent happenings in Waco that Baylor's attempt to stem the steady march toward secularization has been overcome by the inevitable forces that have pulled other institutions away from their moorings.
Baylor provides a critical contemporary case study for re-examining the key principles put forth by Marsden, Burtchaell, and others. It also provides important lessons for those seeking to advance the work of Christian higher education. While a much more extensive examination is warranted, a few early observations are worth noting.
Sucked into the Baptist wars of Texas
For example, much of the Baylor conflict centers itself in the Baptist wars of Texas, battles fought around personalities, power, politics, and occasionally, theology. When it does come to theology, as Baylor professor Ralph Wood has pointed out, many Texas Baptists have been co-opted by expressions of the Christian faith that are more influenced by the Enlightenment than they often realize. Wood suggests that those sometimes characterized as "liberal" or "moderate" often defend a faith whose main tenets are a self-referential individualism, coercive tolerance, and atmospheric religiosity. Others ascribe to a version of faith that has bought into a rigid fundamentalism preoccupied with doctrinal purity defined more by the religious culture than by the Bible. Parties on both sides often "miss" each other in any attempts at dialogue because of the camps associated with these positions.
The result is that rather than engaging in serious theological and philosophical conversation about the nature of truth, the substance of the teaching/learning enterprise, and the role of faith engaging the culture, the institutional debate around Baylor often got reduced to attacks on persons, manipulation of constituency groups, and public relations campaigns.
2012: Too soon?
The complexity of Texas Baptist politics aside, there is much to be learned from what has transpired at Baylor. The "Baylor 2012" vision document has gradually worked its way into the ongoing priorities and plans of the institution. This vision statement provides a compelling model for addressing systemically the formative factors that can help move an institution to new levels of effectiveness in fulfilling its mission while also raising its "status" in categories that get reflected in national rating guides. For example, the document sets goals for promoting faculty scholarship, providing outstanding facilities for teaching and research, and enriching the educational experience inside and outside the classroom.
Unfortunately, there has been and will likely continue to be considerable debate around the document for at least a couple of reasons.
First, the planning process and the implementation plan were often perceived to be carried forward too fast and without the full "counting the costs" in terms of actual dollars as well as human resources. While one of the frustrations of any leader in higher education is the slow pace of change, at Baylor this seemed to be compounded by an impatience with the complex process the situation dictated. Ronald Heifetz, the author of Leadership Without Easy Answers and Leadership on the Line, recently said, "Part of the job of a leader is to hold people together as they go through the turbulence of change. It is emotional, relational work, not just cognitive. If it is done right, people come out stronger than before and the faster one goes, the more human casualties one makes."
The second reason for debate was the perceived unwillingness, at times, for refinement and focusing of the vision to come through dialogue and debate. Parties sometimes felt as if implementation was unnecessarily "heavy handed." Somewhere between "change on the fast track" and "the full-court stall" appeared to be an inability to get to a plan for process that kept things moving ahead within a reasonable pace while still providing opportunity for substantive input. What leader does not know the challenge of finding that balance?
Divisions beyond vision
But it wasn't just planning and process that caused the problems at Baylor. While often well intended, the board of regents was frequently divided and could never seem to insure confidentiality in the sensitive and long-term task of caring for people and the institution. The faculty were divided and without a course for managing their own debate. The alumni were divided and often unclear how to make their voice known. The desire and pursuit of being competitive in Division I athletics presented its own set of complex questions still to be answered. And in the midst of all the turmoil, a team cheating scandal and the tragic death of a student-athlete only further complicated an already difficult ethos.
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, David Nadler offered the definition of culture as "a system of informal, unwritten, yet powerful norms derived from the shared values that influence behavior." From the turmoil within the various constituency groups, the culture, which had long been believed to be one of Baylor's strengths, seemed to gradually unravel. Rather than being a place to which the campus could turn for strength, the conflictual culture became one of the greatest challenges to be overcome.
Anyone who knows Baylor in a more intimate way than 24-hour media cycles can ever allow also knows that there are good people on all sides of the conflict there. There are plenty of ways God has used Baylor in fruitful ways, as is evidenced, in part, by its many outstanding graduates. Though things seem pretty dark at the current time with leadership in question, a campus divided, and no way forward emerging, just such a time is when God works in special ways. What others intend for evil, God works for good, the Bible reminds us. That is as much true for individuals as it is for institutions. Baylor has been an example for Christian higher education in some ways they had planned and in many ways they hadn't. We would all do well to take notice and learn and, as Warren Bryan Martin once remarked, "Let those who must, despair; let all who will, begin again." May Baylor's tribe increase in wisdom as it learns to "begin again" with a vision for going forward that serves it and all of Christian higher learning well into the future.
Steve Moore is currently on sabbatical as senior vice president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He previously served under Sloan as vice president for student life at Baylor University.
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Vision Minus the Visionary | Why all Christians have a stake in the recent resignation of Baylor's president.
The Burden of 2012 | The real issue at Baylor is the relationship between faith and learning.
Christianity Today's original coverage and analysis of Baylor's change in president:
Baylor's Sloan: 'It's Time for Someone New' | Controversial president to become university chancellor in June. (Jan. 21, 2005)
Springtime for Baylor Still Lies Ahead | Sloan's move out of the presidency isn't bad news. A view from inside Baylor. (Jan. 21, 2005)
More about Baylor 2012, including the full document and other resources, is available from the university's website.
Past Christianity Today coverage of the Battle for Baylor includes:
2012: A School Odyssey | Baylor strives to go where no Christian university has gone beforein ten years (Nov. 22, 2002)
Nothing Personal | The dustup at Baylor is not about its president. It's about change. (July 26, 2004)
God and Man at Baylor | Even if Robert Sloan fails, what he has set in motion is irreversible. (June 24, 2004)
Christian History Corner: Breaking Down the Faith/Learning Wall | How the history of Christians in higher education has stacked the deck against Robert Sloan's "new Baylor" (Sept. 19, 2003)
More articles are available at our Battle for Baylor page.