This is the first of a six-part series examining the successes and failures of Baylor University’s 10-year growth and visioning plan known as Baylor 2012. » More about the series
Baylor 2012 means little to Conrad Williams. The senior engineering major never read the vision document Baylor leaders crafted 10 years ago and is far removed from the controversy it once stirred on and off campus.
But he is living the vision.
Williams is studying engineering in a department whose faculty roster has quadrupled in the last decade. He has been doing research on wind turbine efficiency alongside engineering graduate students, a category that didn’t exist a decade ago. He has spent four years in a “living-learning center” with 250 other students in his field, along with a live-in professor who invites students to dinner and holds informal “Christian apologetics for nerds” sessions in the lobby.
All of that is a direct result of Baylor 2012, a bold experiment in trying to reposition a sleepy regional Baptist university as a national research powerhouse that maintains a strong Christian identity.
Baylor regents in late 2001 approved the plan to remake the school by the year 2012, but within two years it appeared in danger of running aground. Squabbles over the plan and its implementation left Baylor a house divided.
It was a time of slashed tires, sports scandals, alienated alumni and no-confidence votes by faculty. Controversies related to Baylor 2012 cost two college presidents and a provost their positions.
The ambitious pace of hiring and building in those early years strained the university’s finances and led to unanticipated tuition spikes and temporary enrollment declines. As Baylor made its debut on the national stage, its wholesome image was tarnished by a murder and recruiting scandal in the basketball program in 2003.
None of that mattered to Williams, who as a Houston teenager looked Baylor over in 2008 as an afterthought to considering the big state schools. What he saw was a growing engineering program that offered something rare: a chance to be part of a learning community. The engineering and computer science living-learning center at the new North Village was part of the Baylor 2012 vision and was a selling point to Williams.
“My mom suggested I look at Baylor,” he said. “I visited and fell in love. I really liked the idea of a living-learning center. . . . There was definitely a personal relationship with having faculty-in-residence living in the same community.”
Now preparing to graduate this month and work in oil field recovery in West Texas, Williams believes he’s gotten his money’s worth from Baylor.
The reason he’s only vaguely aware of the controversies over Baylor 2012 is because, with 2012 now at hand, the controversy has largely vanished.
A sense of calm and unity has descended on Baylor, and not just because its once-dismal football team produced a Heisman winner and its Lady Bears basketball team is best in the nation.
It’s also because the direction of the university is settled: Baylor is no longer a regional denominational school catering mostly to undergraduates, but a research institution with nationally known scholars in the arts and sciences.
That identity is confirmed in the new long-range strategic plan Baylor regents will consider on Friday. Largely carrying on the unfinished work of Baylor 2012, it has met no serious resistance from faculty or other stakeholder groups.
The university by no means has met all of the ambitious goals of Baylor 2012, but administrators say it made undeniable progress.
Baylor spent more than $400 million on facilities in the past decade, including athletic facilities, parking garages, residence halls and a $103 million science building.
And regents recently approved $120 million more in facilities.
The university is the lead partner in a $45 million industrial research facility now under construction, called the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative.
Since 2002, the university’s doctoral programs have increased from 14 to 24, and faculty publications in major journals grew from 200 a year to 636 in 2011. Student scores on standardized tests improved and class sizes shrank.
On the other hand, Baylor is still far from the finish line it set for itself, and that line keeps moving as other universities zoom ahead.
Most notably, Baylor got only halfway to the goal of raising a $2 billion endowment. As a result, the university relied heavily on tuition increases and debt to meet the objectives of Baylor 2012, but it can’t increase much on either of those fronts now, Baylor administrators say.
Without major new funding, the university is finding it difficult to make the hires and build the programs to break into the ranks of “Tier One” universities, as defined by the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the top 50 national universities.
Provost Elizabeth Davis, the university’s No. 2 academic officer after the president, said Baylor needs to triple or quadruple its research spending and production to enter that elite company.
But now that Baylor has established credibility in the competitive world of research universities, she hopes donors will be inspired to open their wallets.
“There were a lot of questions about whether this could be pulled off,” Davis said. “Now we’ve shown we can. . . . After 10 years, people have seen the kind of scholarship we can do.
“We still have a long way to go to be considered a top research university. But one of the greatest successes of 2012 is that we didn’t have to secularize to become more intentional about research and scholarship.”
One of the most prominent critics of Baylor’s direction in the first years of the 2012 project now thinks the university is on the right track.
Former Baylor economics professor Kent Gilbreath wrote a series of widely circulated essays from 2002 to 2005 questioning the 10-year vision and objecting to its implementation under then-President Robert Sloan. Now retired from teaching, he said there’s no question Baylor is a better school than it was 10 years ago.
That’s because in recent years Baylor leaders, including President Ken Starr, have chosen to implement the vision in a less heavy-handed way, he said.
“There was an opening up of leadership from a small clique of individuals who had a messianic vision that was not open to modification,” Gilbreath said. “The shift away from that narrowing to a more reasoned approach to the academic elements of Baylor 2012 is what has made 2012 as successful as it is.”
Heart of the vision
The twin goals of Baylor 2012 — staying true to a historic Christian identity and advancing to the big leagues — were at the heart of the vision and what made it unique in American higher education, Baylor officials say.
The architects of Baylor 2012 saw other universities that climbed to national intellectual leadership — including Princeton, Duke, Emory, University of Chicago, Harvard and Yale — largely shed their historic religious identities on the way up.
One could list only a handful of exceptions: the Catholic Notre Dame and Boston College, or perhaps the Mormon Brigham Young University. But by the 1990s, Christian scholars worried that Protestants effectively lost their great universities and their intellectual relevance in modern society.
Among these was Mark Noll, then a church history scholar at Wheaton College in Illinois.
In an influential 1994 book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” Noll took aim at the “intellectual poverty” of evangelicals — whom he defined as those Protestants whose concerns include conversion, the centrality of Christ and the authority of the Bible.
He argued his fellow evangelicals had failed to establish any great universities in modern times because, as a rule, they were focused on soul-saving and missions, not on deep or rigorous intellectual inquiry. Many evangelical schools marginalized themselves by embracing fundamentalism, which he termed “an intellectual disaster.”
“The broader conservative evangelical public was not particularly receptive to patient intellectual effort and probably still isn’t,” Noll said in an interview from his office at Notre Dame, where he is now a history professor.
Baylor’s top officials were listening to Noll and other critics within evangelical intellectual circles. In 1992, Baylor President Herbert Reynolds and his provost, Don Schmeltekopf, attended a conference on Christian higher education at Samford University, where Notre Dame religion scholar (and soon-to-be provost) Nathan Hatch rang the same alarm bells as Noll.
“He said there was not a single Protestant university in the country making a real contribution to graduate education,” Schmeltekopf recalled in a recent interview. “A light bulb went off in my head: Baylor could be that institution.”
Schmeltekopf came back to Waco and, with Reynolds’ blessing, made the case to Baylor regents that their university could become the nation’s best exemplar of combining faith and high-level scholarship. That would have seemed like a long shot to some observers.
Two years later, Noll’s book listed a handful of evangelical schools where serious intellectual work happened, including his own Wheaton, but these tended to be small liberal arts colleges focused on undergraduates. The book did not even mention Baylor University as a player in the evangelical academic world.
“Southern Baptist higher education was well established and respected,” Noll said last month. “But (Baylor) was so much of the traditional Southern Protestant culture, it didn’t have much of a profile.”
Noll’s most recent book, “Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind,” shows that his assessment of Baylor has changed remarkably.
“With 2012 now at hand, it is clear that Baylor’s grandest original goals have not been fully accomplished, but it is also clear that these efforts are continuing and that they constitute the most ambitious, far-reaching and comprehensive institutional attempt in many decades to do the proper evangelical thing for the life of the mind,” he wrote.
Prior to the Baylor 2012 vision, Baylor’s self-perception tended to be as a large undergraduate college with a few professional schools in fields such as business and law. Many of the doctorate programs it listed on brochures didn’t actually graduate any doctoral students, Schmeltekopf said.
Longtime Baylor sociologist Larry Lyon conducted surveys in the 1980s that showed faculty didn’t tend to see increased research, graduate programs or a national profile as a priority. A Baylor “self-study” committee in the mid-1980s rejected Reynolds’ proposal to expand graduate education.
Lyon led another self-study committee in the mid-1990s that did endorse the goal of beefing up graduate education and research, even if it meant raising tuition. But when Lyon presented the plan to regents, they balked at the cost, and some chided him for suggesting that Baylor wasn’t already “world-class,” he recalls.
Lyon said he understands why Baylor faculty, regents and alumni were satisfied with the status quo: delivering an affordably priced undergraduate education, along with turning out preachers and lawyers.
“We were good at that,” Lyon said. “Baylor was a fine university and enjoyed a good reputation. That’s why it was difficult to conceive of a major change. And this change we made to research was 40 years after most schools had done so. The question was, can you wait that long and catch up?”
Lyon, a contributor to Baylor 2012 and now dean of the graduate school, said it was Reynolds who kept the vision of a research university kindled through the 1990s. Reynolds pushed for membership in the elite American Association of Universities, which even today would seem like a moonshot.
Lyon finds an unfortunate irony in the fact that Reynolds became identified with the opposition to Sloan and Baylor 2012 in the years before his death in 2007.
“Herb Reynolds was my hero,” Lyon said. “He was articulate, brilliant and much more progressive than most of the faculty.”
It was Reynolds who in 1990 drew headlines for engineering a clandestine charter change that effectively secured the university’s independence from Baptist denominational control. That struggle laid the groundwork for turning Baylor into a research university. It also created fault lines of suspicion that would later threaten to undermine Baylor 2012.
Through the 1980s, fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention consolidated power and threatened to investigate Baylor for its teaching of evolution and religion classes that questioned the inerrancy of the Bible.
Though Baylor was affiliated with the more moderate Baptist General Convention of Texas, Reynolds persuaded regents to limit the state organization’s appointments to the board, ending its controlling interest in Baylor.
No longer a church school, Baylor had to decide what it was, said Schmeltekopf, whom Reynolds appointed provost in 1990.
Some faculty, embarrassed by the fundamentalist reputation of Baptists, wanted to downplay Baylor’s religious roots, he said. Schmeltekopf feared a slide into secularism and wanted to keep Baylor’s religious identity at the forefront. In the early 1990s, he began questioning faculty candidates in-depth about their faith, seeking evidence that they were active in a church, regardless of whether they were Baptist.
Reynolds retired in 1995, passing the torch to his then-ally, Robert Sloan. Sloan had been dean of Baylor’s George Truett Seminary, which had positioned itself as a moderate Baptist seminary, and he was not a high-profile figure on campus.
It was not immediately apparent that Sloan shared Reynolds’ dream of a Christian research university.
“As a matter of fact, it appeared he wanted to put the brakes on new programs and graduate research, and focus on being an undergraduate institution with some professional programs like the law school,” Schmeltekopf said.
Lyon recalls that Sloan told him flat-out he saw no need for a major expansion of graduate programs or the accompanying tuition increases that likely would be needed.
“When Robert Sloan first became president, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re taking a step back,’ ” Lyon said.
Sloan’s sudden pivot to embrace a grand vision of a research institution was one of the most astonishing plot twists of the 2012 saga. Sloan, now president of Houston Baptist University, declined an interview for this story, saying he still loves Baylor but preferred to keep out of its debates.
Lyon and Schmeltekopf said Sloan’s conversion might have begun with Baylor’s entry into the Big 12 sports conference in 1996. Suddenly, Baylor was playing in a league with giants, not just in the sports stadiums but in the arenas of research.
“When other Big 12 presidents started talking about their research, I think he realized how other college presidents keep score,” Lyon said. “The Big 12 was a crash course for Robert Sloan in learning how big-time public research universities work.”
Schmeltekopf agreed: “We were so far down the totem pole. All the other Big 12 schools had tons of research, funding and visibility. We weren’t a player. It was embarrassing to go to these conferences and have nothing to contribute.”
The university moved in a research direction in the late 1990s, especially after Sloan put Lyon in charge of the graduate school, replacing Sloan critic Henry Walbesser. Sloan supported the expansion of graduate programs and recruited noted scholars to be distinguished professors, such as Ralph Wood and David Lyle Jeffrey in literature, Thomas Hibbs in philosophy and Walter Bradley in engineering.
Mired in controversy
But even before the Baylor 2012 project was born, Sloan’s efforts to lift Baylor’s profile ran into controversy. In 1999, he created the first center at a major university to study intelligent design, the proposition that the complexity of life could only be explained as the work of a creator.
Faculty complained the center was created without their input, and the controversy drew national headlines. The fledgling center soon was demoted to a minor program within Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning before being dismantled in 2003.
Lyon said creating the center was a misstep. He said intelligent design may be an interesting philosophical discussion but hasn’t generated a hypothesis that can be tested scientifically. The attempted introduction of an intelligent design program alienated Baylor scientists who for decades taught evolution as a foundation of modern biology and were still sensitive about the fundamentalist attempts to censor them, Lyon said.
When Sloan spoke of “integrating faith and learning” through the 2012 plan, some at Baylor feared fundamentalism was making a backdoor entrance.
“Coming out of those battles, we had developed a very sensitive sniff test for any movement to move us in that direction in subtle ways,” said Gilbreath, the economics professor and Faculty Senate leader who helped lead the opposition.
Those whispers about a fundamentalist direction became a roar when Sloan personally began turning down some faculty applicants who were recommended by department heads, on grounds that the applicants weren’t sufficiently religious. Schmeltekopf said that during his four years under Reynolds, one candidate was turned down for religious reasons. In the early 2000s under Sloan, it seemed like one a week, he said.
A backlash followed, with the Faculty Senate taking no-confidence votes against Sloan twice in 2003, followed by a university-wide faculty vote in 2004 that found 85 percent of voters wanted Sloan gone.
Some faculty were worried the new emphasis on research would devalue the undergraduate experience and the professors who had been hired primarily as teachers. Some feared the university was taking on too much debt and pricing middle-class students out of the market with tuition increases. Others were more concerned about academic freedom and the idea that administrators were overriding the departmental recommendation of faculty candidates.
“The big issue had to do with faculty governance issues,” said Bob Baird, a philosophy professor who was involved in the Faculty Senate at the time. “I don’t think the concern was about having a research university. I think most faculty were happy with the thought of reduced teaching loads. . . . But it looked like the administration was pursuing a narrow orthodoxy.”
The lightning rod
The controversy escalated when Sloan appointed David Lyle Jeffrey as provost in 2003. Jeffrey was a marquee hire for the English department only three years earlier. As a professor at the University of Ottawa and a visiting professor at Peking University, he was internationally respected for his work on medieval and biblical literature and art.
But he had almost no experience at administration and “resisted mightily” before agreeing to become Sloan’s provost, Jeffrey said.
As a Canadian, he felt like a fish out of water in Texas, and he still struggles to understand its religion and culture. Upon coming to Baylor, he didn’t know what a college fraternity was. He didn’t know how the Southern phrase, “bless his heart,” could conceal a barbed meaning. He was bemused when opponents called him a “carpetbagger,” a “Yankee” and an “outside agitator” — all loaded terms in the South.
“I’ve lived in Italy and China, but I had far more culture shock coming to Baylor,” he said.
An imposing man, 6 1/2 feet tall, with a Scottish-Canadian accent, he became a spokesman and lightning rod for the view that faith should be integrated with learning, not set aside in a private, separate sphere.
Jeffrey made waves when he attempted unsuccessfully to amend the school’s academic freedom policy to say the university would not support research that advocated “practices that are inconsistent with Baptist faith or practice.”
At the peak of the controversy, Jeffrey’s tires were slashed in the university parking lot, he said, and the provost suspected it was the work of his opponents.
He declined then-Waco Police Chief Alberto Melis’ suggestion that he carry a gun, he said.
In a high-profile debate in October 2004 with Baylor law professor Bill Underwood, Jeffrey argued a Christian university should balance academic freedom with “communal standards” or it would eventually splinter into radical individualism and lose its identity. Underwood fought back, saying Jeffrey was threatening to undermine the historic Baptist respect for the individual conscience.
Jeffrey remembers the debate as a kangaroo court that mainly served to confirm audience members’ prior beliefs.
He believes his views were caricatured during that time. Jeffrey said he was not pushing for a creed, and he would not have signed one himself. Though he came from a Scottish Baptist background, he doesn’t necessarily consider himself an evangelical, and his beliefs diverged somewhat from Sloan’s.
He said what he had in mind was a kind of “big tent orthodoxy” or “mere Christianity,” to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, open to many theological viewpoints.
Of the faculty interviewing process, Jeffrey allowed “there were some moments where things were so ham-fisted that a person would wince.” But he said the university was looking for scholars who could help flesh out the idea of integrating faith and learning.
“The principle was that it was not just our Christian identity at stake,” Jeffrey said. “It was getting the best candidate fit for Baylor.”
He said it has taken Baylor years to begin to define what Christian scholarship means across the universities’ disciplines.
“If you had to do it over again, knowing that Baylor 2012 is largely realized, one of the first things you’d do is to first, slow this down,” he said. “And second, make sure people inside the scientific disciplines are engaged in the conversation of how you could enrich the curriculum with perspectives from theology and philosophy.”
In early 2005, after only a slim majority of regents voted to keep Sloan on as president, he stepped down from the position, saying controversy over his leadership had become a distraction. Sloan took the position as Baylor’s chancellor.
Bill Underwood took his place as interim president that May. The day after Underwood took office, he fired Jeffrey as provost. Jeffrey, now in Baylor’s Honors College, said he happily returned to teaching and researching.
“I don’t have the slightest flicker of resentment toward anyone,” he said. “I say, blessed be the Lord and his servant, Bill Underwood.”
Underwood, now president of Mercer University in Georgia, declined to comment for this story.
In the five years after Sloan’s departure, the university went through two interim presidents and one president, John Lilley, who was fired in 2008 after conflicts erupted again over faculty governance and the Baylor Alumni Association.
Truett Seminary Dean David Garland served as interim president until regents finally decided on Pepperdine Law School Dean Ken Starr as president. Despite some initial consternation from those who remembered Starr’s role as special prosecutor in the Whitewater presidential scandal, Starr has won widespread acclaim for his unifying leadership style, even from former faculty critics such as Baird and Gilbreath.
Gilbreath said the biggest obstruction to Baylor’s progress remains the unresolved tensions between the Baylor Alumni Association and the university’s administration and regents.
“That needs to pass, and the administration needs to figure out a way to allow the BAA to have independence but be on the same page with the university in moving forward,” Gilbreath said.
Asked to comment for this story, the Baylor Alumni Association issued a conciliatory statement from its president-elect, Elizabeth Coker.
“We look forward to maintaining and enhancing our relationship with the university, serving as a partner in growth and unity during the next 10 years,” Coker said.
Meanwhile, Baird said he still would like to see the university ease its insistence that all candidates have to be practicing Christians or Jews. He said a few Muslims, Buddhists or nonbelievers could enhance Baylor’s intellectual diversity.
“We should have enough confidence in our identity that we can be willing to hire some individuals who are outside of our tradition,” he said.
Davis, the provost, said she doesn’t see that happening “at this point in our history,” because Baylor is still in the process of defining its identity as a Christian university.
Meanwhile, fears that Baylor’s undergraduate programs would suffer as the university pursued graduate research have faded.
The university now hires more graduate students, lecturers and adjunct professors, but class sizes have shrunk, and the university has beefed up teacher training.
The expansion of graduate programs also has opened doors for undergraduates to participate in research instead of just learning through a textbook, said engineering professor Ian Gravagne, faculty-in-residence at the living-learning center where engineering senior Conrad Williams lives.
“My observation is that they are keenly aware of the opportunity that’s presented to them to be part of the inquiry and discovery process,” Gravagne said. “It has also provoked students to pursue graduate education.”
At his office at the living-learning center on a spring afternoon, he introduced several undergraduates as examples.
Williams worked on improving the aerodynamics of wind turbine blades. Maggie Benge, a senior, researched carbon fibers and oilfield pipe failures. Sophomore Paul Hodge is working on microwave research.
Gravagne, a Rice University graduate, came here from Clemson University in 2002, when the engineering program was still tiny, because he was excited by the 2012 vision.
He said Baylor has proved during that time that it is possible for a university to move in a research direction and still provide personal attention to undergraduates.
“If there was any doubt about being able to do both 10 years ago,” he said, “we have put that to rest.”
Baylor 2012 — A decade of change
This is the first of a six-part series examining the successes and failures of Baylor University’s 10-year growth and visioning plan known as Baylor 2012.
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