More than one civic leader has touted Baylor University as the best thing to happen to Waco. The point is open to spirited debate, but it’s abundantly clear that, without Baylor, Waco would not be what it is today, a fact that understandably colors the views of this ambitious university’s friends and neighbors in our community.
When city leaders approved a whopping $35 million public contribution to Baylor stadium construction in 2012, surprisingly few in this rigidly conservative region objected. And when more recently Baylor dropped Dr Pepper, the beloved hometown soft drink, as the university’s chief beverage, some protested but not to the point of insurrection.
So when Baylor leadership and its resolutely independent alumni organization are caught in endless turmoil that raises questions about the university’s declared Christian identity, those of us who cherish Baylor’s presence and recognize its many contributions feel that turmoil deeply, even as we raise legitimate questions.
Why should we not raise questions? Baylor is, after all, a pivotal part of our community. It in large part defines Waco. Yes, its board of regents meetings are closed to us. Had they not been closed, we likely wouldn’t now be witnessing the quagmire in which Baylor higher-ups find themselves.
No one should take joy in the embarrassing emails that last week surfaced in a bitter, ongoing trademark infringement lawsuit Baylor University filed against the Baylor Alumni Association. These emails are the culmination of battles rooted in the BAA’s fierce bid to maintain independence beyond the sphere of BU regents, some of whom unfortunately continued fighting former Baylor President Robert Sloan’s battles with the BAA long after Sloan was gone.
Email exchanges from recent years suggest a juvenile, seemingly vindictive, decidedly unChristian mean-spiritedness as Baylor administrators and regents sought to undermine the BAA in ways ranging from banishing the alumni group’s tailgating tent to a location far from the hub of homecoming activities to the controversial razing of the BAA’s campus headquarters in summer 2013 on the pretense of needing that space for stadium construction, specifically construction of a plaza.
“Can’t wait to tear that building DOWN!!!! If it is tied to the stadium, few will complain! :-) How sweet it will be!” Baylor Vice President for Constituent Engagement Tommye Lou Davis wrote in an April 4, 2012, email to then-Regent Chairman Buddy Jones concerning the destruction of the Hughes-Dillard Alumni Center, the BAA’s campus home.
This is part of a longer chain of exchanges disparaging the BAA. In the exchange leading up to that email, Chairman Jones wrote, “I hate them,” to which Davis replied, “That makes two of us. Irrelevant twurps (sic).” In another exchange of emails involving different regents, the BAA is described as “a pox on our beloved Baylor.”
Whether such comments reflect actual reasoning behind the bulldozing of Hughes-Dillard Alumni Center — or are, instead, one administrator’s nervous, inarticulate effort to placate the boss’ own micromanaging, BAA-obsessed boss (then-Chairman Jones) — remains to be established. But the issue rates thoughtful scrutiny.
Yet there’s a larger story in all this, one far more tragic. This tortuous saga involves an alumni association whose unrelenting fight for autonomy has seen it degenerate into little more than a thorn in the side of the institution that it is supposed to support and champion. This saga also involves a university board of regents whose leadership — at least a few years ago — became more and more obsessed with crushing and humiliating a rebellious alumni association already clearly marginalized.
As Dr. James Nelson correctly commented on the BAA website upon the latter’s release of much of this damning discovery evidence for the upcoming trial, the litigation is “to the dismay of me (simply an alumnus) and a discredit to both university and BAA. The parties should be locked into a room until the conflicts are settled. The conflict is juvenile, disgusting and I suspect .. . expensive.”
Worst of all, a full reading of the emails shows Baylor President Ken Starr and his administrative team constantly seeking high ground, trying to put Baylor on sure footing in terms of growth, academic research and funding, only to repeatedly be dragged away from those goals so that, at certain regents’ urging, they can further pulverize a group that, if some claims are correct, wasn’t worth the battle anymore.
“We need to be building Baylor University, and not devoting so much energy to managing internal strife that leaves everyone in a state of unhappiness,” Starr wrote to then-Chief of Staff Karla Leeper on Dec. 8, 2010, six months into his tenure at Baylor. Later in the same email, Starr added: “I will not be able, in conscience, to carry on a policy of in effect waging war within the Baylor family. We have to find a better way. We need Baylor to come together, not to be driven apart.”
In another email Starr laments — quite accurately — that “too many regents are behaving very badly” and that “everybody just wants to fight, fight, fight . . . .”
Today’s board of regents is said to be far different in focus. In fact, an Aug. 23, 2012, email from Jones, his tenure as chairman done, strongly suggests that the new chair, Richard S. Willis, and Starr are not similarly disposed to battling the BAA. But whatever the outcome of the current legal showdown involving Baylor and the BAA, today’s regents must regularly re-examine their purpose. Besides reflecting on Baylor’s mission as a Christian university, they need to aggressively question any among them — regent or administrator — who pushes punitive gestures requiring administrative energy that could instead be directed into ensuring Baylor’s financial and academic stability.
As for the Baylor Alumni Association, we watched it fragment on Sept. 7, 2013, when a majority of well-intentioned members seeking compromise with the university and an end to all the fighting were themselves marginalized and lambasted by a minority who, using BAA bylaws, effectively shut down any peacemaking. Given that Baylor now handles alumni services in-house through its Baylor Alumni Network, BAA leaders need to seriously ask themselves three questions: Just what does the BAA contribute to Baylor anymore? Is this need to fight Baylor leadership its primary purpose nowadays? Does it even care about Baylor anymore?
Some of us have been here long enough to know at least some elements of the original war between Robert Sloan — a visionary who nonetheless could have used a year or two in charm school — and BAA leadership. Those issues involve such matters as religious fundamentalism, rising tuition costs and a style of governance that wasn’t always inclusive. An embattled Sloan left Baylor’s presidency in 2005. But the fight has endured, devolving into a do-or-die struggle that leaves more and more in this community dumbfounded.
What we’ve seen transpire at Baylor the past 13 years reminds us of that section of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” concerning the feuding Grangerfords and Shepherdsons. One character, when pressed, acknowledges that it’s been going on for so long that even older participants “don’t know now what the row was about in the first place.”
That could reflect the sentiments of many Baylor students — yes, we’ve talked with some — who don’t understand why those claiming to champion Christian ethics in recent times have continued fighting tooth and nail. And in this latest chapter involving humiliating (if telling) discovery evidence, they’re likely to be dismayed at not only the childishness of some Baylor higher-ups but also the behavior of BAA officials in publicizing these exchanges.
Baylor students seek a solid foundation and upstanding examples of leadership, collaboration and responsibility — and in that all-too-important context, the endless fight between regents and BAA members serves them ill. It also does little to bolster the confidence of the Baylor Nation and this community, which looks to Baylor and its alumni for wisdom as well as insight.