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Education | Is Baylor on a path to becoming a formerly Christian school?

Issue: "Bob Geldof: Whose jubilee?," June 25, 2005

In January, Robert Sloan, the president of Baylor University, agreed to step down at the end of the spring semester, for the ceremonial position of chancellor. But he did so only on the assurance from the Board of Regents that his vision to make Baylor a world-class, distinctly Christian university-as expressed in the document "Baylor 2012"-would remain in force.

"It has been my privilege to launch Baylor upon this exciting journey of Baylor 2012 and lead the university beyond the inertia of the status quo," he said in his farewell address. "Now that the voyage is well underway, it is time for someone new to navigate these sometimes choppy waters, while continuing to aim for the carefully charted destination ahead."

President Sloan had been under fire from some long-time Baylor insiders and faculty members who resented his plans to integrate the Christian worldview throughout the curriculum, claiming that this amounted to "fundamentalism." But Mr. Sloan's own management style and miscues were an issue as well. (See "Bear of a battle," Sept. 4, 2004.) Many supporters of Baylor 2012 thought that new leadership might clear away obstacles to its implementation.

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On April 29, the Board selected law professor William Underwood as interim president. On the day he took office, June 1, his first official act was to fire the chief implementer of Baylor 2012, provost David Lyle Jeffrey, who had brought into the faculty a whole cohort of accomplished Christian scholars committed to the integration of faith and learning.

A year earlier, Mr. Jeffrey had spoken at Wheaton College, arguing that in a Christian institution of higher education the Bible must be authoritative. A tape of his remarks got back to Baylor, whereupon opponents of Mr. Sloan made 4,000 copies and circulated them as evidence of "fundamentalism." A formal debate was staged between Mr. Jeffrey and, for the opposition, Mr. Underwood.

Firing the provost-who refused to resign as requested-is an unusual step for an interim president, who usually functions as a caretaker for the upcoming administration. Besides, according to a Board resolution, the interim president was not to remove any senior administrators without consulting the chair and vice-chair. Mr. Underwood said that he did consult with them, which was not the same as obtaining their agreement.

So now Baylor is in turmoil again. Evangelical graduate students who came to Baylor because of its growing reputation as a Christian university tell of being harassed by liberal professors now exulting in their victory. Evangelical faculty members supportive of Dr. Jeffrey are up in arms. The Board of Regents is now torn with new controversy, with some members angry at the apparent coup by the opponents of Baylor 2012.

"Why oust people and try to implant some committed to the 'old days,' when a new regime is about to begin?" asks Baylor professor Rodney Stark. "And why all the subtle attacks on faith?" Mr. Stark, a renowned sociologist of religion who came to the university because of Baylor 2012, believes that the vision is still alive, thanks to the nucleus of Christian scholars already assembled.

But, he warns, "It won't do to just continue to refer to Baylor as a Christian school. If, as Underwood seems to want, Baylor ceases to ask candidates for faculty appointments to make a confession of Christian faith, in very short order Baylor will be a formerly Christian school, just like hundreds of others-a place where students will soon encounter faculty who make fun of faith, or worse." But, he said, any new president who is willing to continue to require a confession of faith from new faculty members "will preside over the Baylor envisioned in 2012."

In July, the Board will choose that new president. The choice will determine whether Baylor will continue its quest to become, in Mr. Stark's words, "the only great Christian research university in the world."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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