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Bear of a battle

Education | As students return to campuses across the country, professors debate Baylor University's ambitious plans to be 'the Protestant Notre Dame,' and the ambitious president driving charge

Issue: "Passing the Olympic torch," Sept. 4, 2004

Hundreds of Christian colleges, most of them small liberal arts institutions, salt the United States. Few have graduate schools, much less comprehensive Ph.D. programs. Few Christian colleges have the resources to sponsor research that would allow Christian scholars to have a greater voice in the marketplace of ideas.

Christian colleges that want their professors to hold the union card-a Ph.D.-recruit their faculty from secular Ph.D.-granting universities. This ensures that Christian faculty members are tested on intellectual battlegrounds, but it can also mean that they are educated only in secular modes of analysis and socialized to pursue conventional academic glory.

What if there could be a distinctly Christian university, one known for academic excellence but unapologetic about its reason for being? Professors would educate students and also build on biblical insights that illuminate their disciplines, contributing to the growth of knowledge as Christians used to while creating intellectually rigorous alternatives to secularist scholarship.

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That is the new goal of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, a Division I school with some 14,000 students and 770 faculty members. Two years ago the university's Board of Regents adopted a vision statement and set of strategic goals called Baylor 2012, an ambitious 10-year plan to build up Baylor's academic quality and Christian profession. Baylor President Robert Sloan summarizes the vision this way: "Baylor University has the opportunity to become the only major university in America, clearly centered in Protestant traditions, to embrace the full range of academic pursuits."

Mr. Sloan brought in Canadian literary scholar David Jeffrey as Provost, and Mr. Jeffrey began asking prospective new faculty members searching questions about their faith. He also started recruiting well-known scholars such as sociologist Rodney Stark, philosopher Stephen Ward, classicist John Nordling, and engineering prof Walter Bradley. William Dembski, whose "intelligent design" arguments are mounting a serious challenge to Darwinism, is also at Baylor, although the administration has at times left him twisting in the wind.

Since Baylor 2012 was adopted, the university has added 120 new faculty members, brought down teacher-student ratios, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new buildings and research facilities, and increased incoming SAT scores. President Sloan's administration has also increased tuition (a 56 percent jump over the last three years) and engendered hostility from the faculty senate, which has twice passed a no-confidence motion concerning the Sloan administration.

Last May the Board of Regents fell one vote short of asking for President Sloan's resignation. Organizations of alumni and donors are calling for his removal and for the cancellation of Baylor 2012. But in July, despite rumors that President Sloan would be ousted, the Board of Regents took no action on the matter and voted unanimously to reaffirm the goals of Baylor 2012.

Some criticism of Mr. Sloan, who has been president of Baylor for 10 years, concerns administrative issues. The big building program has greatly increased Baylor's debt. Tuition increases have burdened parents and students. A new university-run alumni association has alienated some alumni. Mr. Sloan's top-down management style transgressed on departmental turf and violated established patterns of faculty governance.

Furthermore, some faculty members complain about favoritism, disparities in pay and promotion, and the cultivation of a spirit of "publish or perish." Unethical conduct in Baylor's basketball program and a tragedy-last year's murder of basketball star Patrick Dennehy by a teammate-also figure in.

The administrative and ethical controversies, though, are intertwined with theological issues. In 1999, Mr. Sloan established the Michael Polanyi Center for the study of Intelligent Design, bringing on Mr. Dembski as its director. Many on the faculty resented a research center opening without their input. Some objected to the whole project of Intelligent Design, maintaining that its rejection of Darwinian evolution was unscientific and would harm Baylor's academic reputation. Eventually Baylor dismantled the Polanyi Center, though Mr. Dembski remains on the faculty.

Evolutionists on the faculty insist that they must rigorously exclude from their work religious considerations, including the investigation of the evidence that nature is not random but shows features of a created design. Many argue that science and faith must be separated, that science accounts for objective reality, while religion has to do with internal meaning. Mr. Sloan's predecessor, Herbert Reynolds, sought to bolster Baylor's academic standing by championing the "two spheres" approach, arguing that faith is a matter of inward piety: The "two spheres" of knowledge and faith must be kept completely distinct.

Mr. Reynolds, who still maintains an office in Waco and is a leader in the opposition against Mr. Sloan, made Baylor officially independent from the Southern Baptist General Convention in 1991. His position is that a Christian university should offer the same education as a secular school, while also giving opportunities for personal spiritual growth. A student could be taught evolution in a science class and creation in a religion class, since the two kinds of truth occupy different "spheres." This approach alludes to Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms but misses its point, that while there is a spiritual and an earthly realm, God is king of them both.

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