“Welcome to campus!” was the message from a cheery, passer-by student to Linda Livingstone, days after Livingstone was named Baylor University’s 15th president — and the first female president in the school’s 172-year history — amid a time of turmoil for the world’s largest Baptist university.
In a subsequent interview with the Tribune-Herald, Livingstone acknowledged the difficult task ahead and said her first task is listening to various Baylor constituencies, including faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors.
“Sometimes you have really difficult times as families,” she said. “Sometimes as families, you disagree, and you disagree really strongly about things, and you make mistakes as families. But you also, in the context of that, learn from those mistakes. You work on, ‘How do we, together, get through those?’ ”
Livingstone starts her presidency June 1, taking the reins of a university dealing with fallout from a sexual assault scandal: lawsuits, investigations, Baylor-inspired state legislation and a divided constituency. David Garland, a former professor, dean and interim provost, is in the waning weeks of his second stint as Baylor’s interim president.
“I am excited about Linda’s appointment,” Garland said. “The search committee is to be thanked for doing such a great job in bringing her to Baylor. I am sure she will be well received and do well as our next president.”
Garland has overseen a push by Baylor brass to improve institutional responses to sexual violence during the past year.
Title IX is one of many compliance aspects for which a university’s president holds ultimate responsibility, Livingstone said. She said universities should work together reviewing best practices in responding to reports of sexual violence, and said Baylor will go beyond state and federal laws and guidelines to ensure student safety.
“We need to be doing everything we can to lower and eliminate the incidence of sexual assault on our campus because we’ve got to create healthier and safer environments for our students,” she said.
Livingstone said her own personal experience meeting with sexual assault victims has helped shape her understanding of the issue.
‘Hear those stories’
“You hear their story, and it makes you much, much more attuned and sensitive to the importance of the issue and how we have to, at the core, find ways to address that on college campuses, because no young woman, or young man for that matter, should have to experience a sexual assault,” she said. “You need to hear those stories, and you need to know what those students are experiencing.”
Related to the scandal is ongoing tension between regents and a group of high-profile, big-money donors dubbed “Bears for Leadership Reform.” The Baylor Line Foundation, formerly the Baylor Alumni Association, is also a year removed from a settlement with the university after a bitter, yearslong legal battle unrelated to the sexual assault scandal.
Both groups of donors and alumni have criticized regents’ handling of the scandal, often calling for increased transparency and accountability from the board.
Livingstone, who holds a doctorate in management and organizational behavior, plans to listen to Baylor’s constituent groups, identify the key questions and concerns, consider how best to address the issues and recognize the proper mechanism to do so. Strong reactions about relevant issues are a result of the deep care people hold for Baylor, Livingstone said.
“I actually sometimes see those times, as difficult as they are, as times where there’s opportunity for learning and growth and development that actually makes us a better, stronger place,” she said.
Included in listening sessions are meetings with the outgoing and incoming student body presidents and the outgoing and incoming faculty senate chairs.
“I thought our conversation was very positive, and I came away quite optimistic about her leadership of the university,” Faculty Senate Chairman Byron Newberry said. “She appears committed to a shared governance model and to working collaboratively with faculty. She asked a lot of good questions about the faculty overall, the Faculty Senate in particular, and about our perspectives on this past year’s crisis.”
Management of the university has shifted in the past year, with new hires in the key roles of provost, vice president of marketing and communications, Title IX coordinator, athletics director and head football coach.
Livingstone, a former Baylor faculty member and dean, said her leadership style is based on collaboration.
“One of the most important things for me in leading any organization — whether it’s now in my role as a dean (of the George Washington University School of Business) or when I become president — is building a really strong leadership team that works well together, that’s committed to the mission of the institution, we work well and we trust each other,” she said.
She also said the relationship between a university president and board chair is critical. Board Chairman Ron Murff’s replacement will be announced after the May 12 board meeting, and that person will start in the role June 1.
The board is implementing a slate of reforms based on a report from a six-member task force that investigated Baylor’s governance practices. In its report, the task force acknowledged the perception that the board has micromanaged the university and has been secretive in its decisions and policies.
“It has to be a close, trusting relationship, a very honest relationship,” Livingstone said. “And we have to hold our folks accountable, and we have to hold each other accountable that we’ve set the appropriate expectations for what interactions are appropriate and which ones aren’t. When we see people maybe overstepping that, oftentimes not for bad reasons or intent, then we have conversations with them and say, ‘Let’s talk a little bit about how we’re doing this and how we want to do it going forward,’ so that we make sure that everybody’s maintaining the appropriate role in the process of the university being governed appropriately.”
Her marching orders from regents include not only propelling Baylor to “tier one” status but also maintaining its Christian mission. From 2002 to 2012, Livingstone was dean of the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University, which is affiliated with Church of Christ.
“There is a lot of pressure in higher education and outside to try to draw you away from the integrity and core of your Christian mission,” she said. “Seeing Pepperdine’s ability to do that helps inform how we at Baylor ensure that we continue to maintain that integrity, even as there are pressures to pull us away from that.”
After her arrival from leading the business school at George Washington University, Livingstone looks to preserve that Christian mission as the school presses on after 172 years.
“I think (Baylor) is a voice and a perspective that’s important in higher education, and I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to come back and do that at a place that I know and love,’ ” she said.