There was a time Joel Allison almost left Baylor University.
After two seasons of seeing little playing time on a lousy football team, he told his position coach he was ready to move on.
“You’re going to get a great education. Football is fleeting,” Allison remembers the coach telling him.
He later graduated in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and religion, after a winless 1969 senior football season.
Allison, who now lives in Waco at age 69, became chairman of Baylor’s board of regents June 1. The board has faced heavy criticism over its handling of a sexual assault scandal that continues to make headlines with ongoing litigation and investigations. A former leading hospital administrator of Baylor Scott & White Health and a Baylor regent since 2012, Allison is one of seven on the 43-member board affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
He now leads a board under the watchful eyes of influential alumni and donors who have publicly denounced regents as lacking in transparency and accountability. Allison said peacemaking between the groups will take healthy dialogue.
“I came here with God’s help and blessing,” Allison said. “A lot of people made it possible, most of all, my Christian mom.”
A product of Jefferson City, Missouri, Allison is the third of four children. His first education came in a farm school where two grades shared each classroom. He moved on to larger junior high and high schools, where he played football, basketball, baseball and ran track.
His high school coaches would grade each football player’s performance after every Friday night game, and a backup player could challenge the starter for position at any time, Allison said.
“The message was, never get satisfied,” he said. “You can always do better. You’re only as good as the last time you played.”
Allison’s high school career resulted in a Baylor football scholarship to play on the defensive line. That was “a few pounds ago,” he said.
Though he long considered entering ministry work, he married after his junior year and joined the Marines soon after graduating. Allison served six months of active duty and 5½ years in reserve.
Along with responsibility, loyalty and discipline, Allison said he gained appreciation of receiving communication from people in the know.
“Communication is so important because there were so many rumors when you were there,” he said. “When you’re a private, you’re shielded from a lot of communication. It’s nothing but rumors. What I learned was, as a leader, you’ve got to communicate.”
He also learned that the person next to you could be the person saving your life. This idea carried over into his more than 40-year career in hospital administration. From 2000 to 2013, Allison was president and CEO of Baylor Health Care System after seven years as a senior executive. He previously held CEO roles in Missouri, Amarillo and Corpus Christi. Baylor Health is not affiliated with Baylor University.
“You learn to appreciate that person down there in the emergency room at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Allison said. “It’s vitally important to any success you’re ever going to have.”
A high-profile deal in 2013 merged Baylor Health Care System with Scott & White Healthcare. Allison oversaw that merger and became president and CEO of the newly formed Baylor Scott & White Health.
The nonprofit health care system includes 48 hospitals and more than 1,000 patient access points, according to its website. It employs more than 44,000 people, makes 5.1 million annual patient encounters and brought in almost $11 billion in total assets in the 2016 fiscal year.
In May, the American Hospital Association honored Allison with the Award of Honor, three months after his retirement.
“Joel is a consensus builder,” said Jim Turner, chairman of the Baylor Scott & White Board of Trustees.
Turner also worked alongside Allison before and after the merger and is a former Baylor regent and chairman.
The two met at Baylor when Allison played football and Turner played basketball.
“He doesn’t get locked into one way of doing things,” Turner said. “He will listen to all sides and make a decision, based on that, on what’s best for the organization.”
Transitions, like the 2013 merger of two major health care systems, require a blend of cultures, much like the task at Baylor, he said.
Belief in the culture
“The way our alumni, our students, all the constituents look at Baylor University, they’ve got to believe in our culture,” Turner said. “That’s got to be one of integrity, honesty and transparency. I think that’s what Joel will bring to that situation, particularly in helping a new president in her transition.”
Linda Livingstone became Baylor’s president June 1 after holding high-ranking leadership roles at George Washington University, Pepperdine University and an associate deanship and professorship at Baylor from 1991 to 2002.
Livingstone said Allison’s experience on both the administration side and the oversight side of organizations will be important in his new role at Baylor University.
“Joel and I are very committed to working very closely together to make sure that we’re helping people understand those appropriate roles and really helping hold people accountable to doing that,” said Livingstone, who has researched management throughout her career.
In February, Baylor regents approved a slate of reforms recommended by a task force after an eight-week review into the board’s governance practices. The task force of three regents and three non-regents acknowledged a perception “that the board tends to micromanage the university administrative matters and that it has not been open regarding how it has made decisions, selected regents or chosen its leadership.”
“My role as chair is to keep the board open, candid, communicative and at the 50,000-foot level. . . . You can always do better, and we should,” Allison said. “Again, I want to rebuild the trust in the board of regents.”
Mark White, who served as Texas governor from 1983 to 1987, is one of many prominent Baylor alumni and donors who have said regents have failed to demonstrate leadership amid the rocky period in the school’s history.
“The board of regents, I think, needs to relinquish their position of trying to run Baylor on a daily basis,” White said. “I think their crisis management has been absolutely horrendous.”
In December, Allison, then vice chairman of Baylor’s board, organized a meeting with White and his allies, along with two other regents, to discuss the scandal and resulting frustration. In a press conference after the meeting, the donor group dubbed Bears for Leadership Reform said it was “stonewalled” by the regents and demanded an investigation into the board’s activities.
Still, the group released a statement of optimism after Allison’s election as chairman in May.
“I think Joel is a man of great experience,” White said. “His judgment has been tested over time. I know he’s got a deep love for Baylor. . . . I think he’ll do better than we’ve seen in the past.”
Allison said Baylor has the most capable faculty and students, and the school’s mission statement should be a measure of unity between university officials and unsettled alumni.
“We need to hear all those voices,” he said. “What’s important to understand is, they love Baylor. We’re bound by this common mission, and what we need to do is make sure we are as a family. . . . (Livingstone) says this: Families have disagreements and argue, and that’s OK.”
Allison has established four “non-negotiable” considerations for any decision made by the board: Baylor’s role as a Christian university, commitment to its mission, truth to core convictions and whether the decision is “the right thing to do for the right reason.”
“Baylor was founded in 1845,” he said. “It’s a resilient university. There’s a reason it’s still here. . . . We hurt because of what happened to our survivors. We need to be sure that doesn’t happen again. That’s a responsibility we have.”