Raising the bar?

Education | Stories of an anti-Christian purge at Baylor may not explain the Baptist university's sudden spike in tenure denials

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

News from Baylor University this spring that 12 of 30 candidates fell short of receiving tenure has sparked outrage and accusations of impropriety. Some observers of the Baptist school believe President John Lilley is out to purge the campus of professors committed to the Christian identity aspect of Vision 2012, an ambitious initiative started by Lilley's predecessor to grow Baylor into a top-tier research institution without sliding toward secularism.

But administrators at the Waco, Texas, school defend this year's 40 percent tenure denial rate as entirely aboveboard, simply the necessary albeit painful result of rising academic standards. In a form letter to denied faculty seeking explanation, Provost Randall O'Brien wrote, "Given your reduced teaching responsibilities, you have not conclusively demonstrated, in the area of research, that tenure should be awarded by Baylor University."

Former Baylor professor William Dembski, a philosophy and mathematics scholar who left the university after a scuffle with anti-intelligent design forces several years ago, cries foul over O'Brien's explanation. He says use of the word awarded represents the capricious nature of a process in which junior faculty should be allowed to earn tenure by some objective standard. He further challenges the contention that the research records of those denied tenure are any less impressive than the records of those receiving it.

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Dembski believes the common denominator among the denied dozen is an association with more conservative aspects of Christianity: "I have the inside track on some of the people who were refused, and it causes me worry. There's something fishy going on here."

Just how fishy is difficult to ascertain, given the university's policy of not commenting on personnel matters and broader academia's practice of maintaining strict confidentiality in tenure proceedings. Administrators have grown especially tight-lipped in this case as some faculty members undertake the tenure appeals process. Even Dembski admits that specific information is too scarce for any certain judgments.

But using Provost O'Brien's explanation as a guide, WORLD conducted an independent analysis of faculty research records to determine if any disparity emerged between the 12 professors denied tenure and the 18 awarded it. The results, though far from conclusive, render the university's explanation tenable and cast doubt on speculation of an anti-Christian purge.

Employing Google's scholar-specific search engine, which limits results to academic journals, WORLD performed controlled searches for the names of each of this year's 30 tenure candidates. In general, those faculty members receiving tenure have published with greater frequency since arriving at Baylor in 2002. And specific comparisons between individuals in particular fields reveal similar disparities.

For example, a Google scholar search for mathematics professor David Ryden produces just three published research articles over the last six years, while searches for his mathematics department colleagues Qin Sheng and Brian Raines produce nine and six articles, respectively. Accordingly, Sheng and Raines received tenure while Ryden did not.

Among great texts professors, for whom research articles are less common, Michael Foley and Phillip Donnelly each had at least one published credit to their name and received tenure. But a search for Amy Vail, who did not receive tenure, yielded no published results.

Among those in the electrical and computer engineering department, Russ Duren published three research articles and Randall Jean two. Both were denied tenure while their colleague Ian Gravagne advanced through the tenure process with 10 publications to his name.

Mitigating circumstances, such as disciplinary focus or access to graduate level labs, might well explain some of these gaps in research credentials. But the overall picture suggests Baylor is simply raising its research bar, however clumsily, rather than removing committed Christians.

Business professor Brett Wilkinson, who maintains a strong publishing record and received tenure this spring, bristles at the notion that the university is exercising bias against conservative Christian scholars. Wilkinson attends First Baptist Church Woodway, a conservative evangelical congregation, and holds to a literal six-day creation.

"Many of us who were successful in getting tenure do strongly support the Christian mission and believe Baylor should be an intentionally Christian school," he told WORLD. "What matters to me most at the end of the day is that Baylor becomes increasingly focused on glorifying God. I wouldn't want to be in the school if we lose that."

Wilkinson pleaded ignorance as to whether the 12 professors denied tenure were treated fairly and admitted that the campus climate for more conservative Christian ideology could vary widely from one department to the next: "I don't want to create an us-versus-them atmosphere between those of us who did get tenure and those who didn't. To the extent that they were unjustly done by, I want them to get it reversed. I feel genuinely sorry for the people who didn't get it."


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