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.
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."
The presence of Wilkinson and others like him among the tenured throws a wrench into Dembski's hypothesis of simple anti-conservative bias. The reasons for tenure denial appear more complex.
Indeed, biology professor Rene Massengale, who was denied tenure despite securing about $1 million in research funding, explicitly rejects Dembski's view: "I do not feel that I was denied tenure because of anything to do with my faith. The large number of faculty denied tenure this year was the result of other reasons, some of which we don't yet completely understand. In my opinion, there have been other issues more relevant to the tenure denials than religious beliefs."
With an appeal underway, Massengale made no further comment. But in a previous interview with the Waco Tribune-Herald, she alluded to the university altering tenure requirements without warning to prospective candidates: "What President Lilley has done in the last month is to say: 'I'm holding you to a different standard. I'm not telling you what that standard is, and I'm not giving you prior notice of what it's going to be.'"
Other professors, who did not wish to comment publically, confirmed to WORLD that their qualms with Lilley's tenure decisions center more on such shifting requirements than any religious bias. In nine of the 12 cases, Lilley overruled recommendations for tenure approval at the departmental and committee levels, unilaterally applying stricter research standards than ever before.
In 2007, 19 of 22 candidates received tenure at Baylor and 25 of 28 were successful in 2006. This year's three recommendations for rejection at the lower levels offered consistency with past outcomes until Lilley intervened.
That sudden change correlates with the first year that Vision 2012 hires have become eligible for tenure, a suspicious coincidence no matter the evidence against religious bias. In 2002, former Baylor president Robert Sloan and then-provost David Jeffrey launched Vision 2012 and began recruiting high-level Christian scholars from around the world into six-year tenure track positions. Jeffrey, the man primarily responsible for those hires, declined WORLD's request for comment on just why so many are now deemed below university standards.
So what's changed? Speaking for the business school, Wilkinson attests that "research expectations have increased over the last six years," which could account for some of the tenure denials but seems insufficient for such a dramatic spike. Dembski's admittedly speculative alternative explanation stems from the burgeoning schism over just how Christian the campus should be, a rift evidenced in numerous public clashes over the past six years.
In 2006, the university denied tenure to religion scholar Francis Beckwith, then a fellow at the intelligent design--advancing Discovery Institute. Beckwith succeeded in appealing that decision when his leading opponent bowed out of the controversy amid unrelated charges of academic fraud.
Last summer, Baylor administrators ordered that engineering professor Robert Marks shut down his evolutionary informatics lab, which researched the shortcomings of Darwinism. And earlier this year, the school's dean of libraries elected not to renew the contract of world-renowned scholar Stephen Prickett, a strong advocate for the Christian identity piece of Vision 2012.
These incidents leave many students and faculty at Baylor convinced that an ideological battle for the university's soul is underway. Undergraduate Sam Chen, a philosophy and political science major heavily involved in student government, says the division is undeniable. He told WORLD that students on campus who read Dembski's books "are afraid to let people know or let the book even leave their room" for fear of how those antagonistic to Dembski might react.
But Chen is hopeful that the climate can change. In private meetings with administrators, including Provost O'Brien, his concerns are met with respect and understanding. "I think that with a lot of encouragement and prayer for the university and the administration past mistakes can be corrected," he said. "As a whole, we are moving in the right direction toward 2012."
Time and the appeals process may yet reveal whether the current rash of tenure denials fits inside or outside that optimistic vision.
An epistemological disagreement over the nature of certainty and the truth of Christian scripture bubbled over into personnel casualties at Cedarville University last year. Professors David Mappes and David Hoffeditz, both unyielding advocates for biblical certainty, lost their jobs despite tenure and past promotions.
Defenders of the two terminated Bible teachers contend that the dismissals stemmed from shifting commitments in theology among the Baptist school's administration. But voices emanating from the Dayton, Ohio, campus claim Mappes and Hoffeditz deserved removal for contemptuous treatment of fellow faculty with whom they disagreed. Cedarville spokesman John Davis told WORLD the firings had nothing to do with theology.
Whatever the motivation behind the administration's decision, Cedarville president Bill Brown and the school's board of trustees stuck to their guns last month, ignoring the recommendation of a grievance committee that Hoffeditz be reinstated. "We're a bit shocked at the final verdict," Hoffeditz said. "I've had a lot vested in the school and loved the Cedarville that I knew very much."
Hoffeditz, whose wife works as a counselor for the university, still harbors slim hopes of returning to teach at his alma mater. He has not ruled out litigation.
Mappes has chosen a different route, signing a contract to begin teaching next year at Baptist Bible Seminary in Pennsylania: "We just felt that if there were a possibility for a more amicable parting of the ways, that would be better than to try and fight it out. We thought that would best serve the Lord and our family."
He says the negative publicity generated from the matter grieves him, but he is convinced that the heart of the conflict is no theological trifle.
Neither Hoffeditz nor Mappes would explicitly charge Cedarville with giving in to the kind of loose theology espoused by authors like Brian McLaren. But both men declined to comment when asked if they would or could commend Cedarville to prospective students or parents.