At Baylor University, a Struggle Over Mind and Soul

By NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
New York Times
September 8, 2004

WACO, Tex. - Jenny Ebbeling, who graduated from Baylor University in May, jokes that so many changes had occurred on campus since her father dropped her off four years ago, she was worried that he would not recognize the place when he returned for commencement.

Two years ago, this "fine Texas school," as the provost, David L. Jeffrey, calls it, set out to remake itself into a national Christian university on the model of Notre Dame. And that effort has led to more than just new dorms and an honors college. It has also meant adding faculty, expanding graduate programs and rethinking Baylor's religious identity.

Founded in Waco in 1845 as a Christian school in the Baptist tradition, Baylor's religious identity has been the subject of controversy in recent decades. In the 1980's, the university found itself under pressure from its sponsoring group, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, to make faculty members sign a statement of faith and to adopt fundamentalist positions on issues like creationism, homosexuality and the ordination of women.

In an effort to avoid this fight, which has divided other schools, Baylor amended its charter in 1990 to give the Baptist General Convention significantly less control over the school. Randall H. Fields, who was then president of the Baylor Alumni Association, said at the time that "as far as this institution goes, we want no part of factionalism. We are removing ourselves from the argument. We can now devote 100 percent of our efforts to making Baylor again the greatest Christian institution on the face of the earth."

But other schools that have loosened ties with their state Baptist conventions, like Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Furman University in South Carolina, have become largely secular. So when Robert B. Sloan Jr. took over the Baylor presidency in 1995, he asked the faculty and administrators to revisit the issue to make sure they did not head down the same path. By 2002, a 10-year plan, Baylor 2012, had been developed with the intention of strengthening the school's academic and religious commitments.

Baylor is trying to buck the conventional wisdom, which states that when a religious college tries to raise its academic standing, its religious mission inevitably takes a backseat to other concerns, like recruiting big-name professors or adding to its endowment.

Financed by endowment growth and a tuition increase of 36 percent, Baylor 2012 commits $80 million to student scholarships, $77 million to faculty hiring, $51 million for staff and $40 million for capital projects. The undergraduate population of 12,000 will be decreased slightly and the graduate population of 2,000 will be increased slightly to encourage more research on campus.

The faculty hiring - 230 new positions, of which 75 have already been filled - is likely to have the biggest impact. And Baylor's approach is unusual. Prospective professors are asked how their faith affects the way they practice their particular discipline. This is in contrast with many nominally religious colleges, which ask for a faculty member's religious affiliation and leave it at that.

Dr. Jeffrey's belief, however, is that "faith should not be compartmentalized or just a social part of their life." Indeed, among Protestant schools that are serious about their religious identity, Baylor is rare in its willingness to hire Catholics and Jews - as long as they, too, can explain how their faiths impact their teaching and research.

Whether Baylor's effort to become the next Notre Dame will succeed is still an open question. Alvin Plantinga, who holds the John O'Brien chair of philosophy at Notre Dame and supports Baylor's efforts, says the school has a "tough row to hoe" partly because "there has been a lot of anti-intellectualism that goes with the Southern Baptist tradition."

Gaylen Byker, president of the evangelical Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., predicts that Baylor "cannot succeed as a generically Christian university." Citing the history of mainline Protestant universities that hired people outside the faith only for the schools to lose their institutional identities, he notes, "Christianity in general is a way-station on the road to secularity."

Even members of Baylor's faculty are skeptical. Last year, the faculty senate passed a vote of no confidence in the president, 26 to 6. The majority was made of two groups. The first argued that the president's attempts to strengthen the school's Christian identity would result in less academic freedom. And the second worried that making Baylor a top-tier university would take away from its focus on teaching and would make it too expensive for many students.

In March, 350 of the country's most prominent religious professors traveled to Waco for a conference on "Christianity and the soul of the university." If the conversations before and after the panels were any indication, many of the participants attended out of curiosity about Baylor's plans.

Thomas Hibbs, who left his position as chairman of Boston College's philosophy department in 2002 to head Baylor's new honors college, explains what some see as a curious move. Aside from considerations like a lower cost of living in Waco, he thinks the "ecumenical seriousness at Baylor, where you don't demand people put aside religious disagreements, where certain things are held in common, but the differences are considered important and instructive - is a stroke of genius."

As Baylor has undertaken recruiting efforts at home-schooling groups and top Christian prep schools, the average SAT score for incoming freshmen has climbed to 1189, and the number of applications has gone up to almost 9,000. Students like Ms. Ebbeling, a National Merit Scholar, are encouraged to pursue academic careers through programs like the Crane Scholars, which meets weekly to discuss literature, movies and other topics from a religious perspective.

Of the most recent graduating class of 15 Crane Scholars, four are attending graduate school: two at Villanova, one at Oxford and one at Baylor. Ms. Ebbeling hopes to attend Duke's divinity school after taking a couple of years to work in television.

Of course, all of this is still a long way from becoming the "greatest Christian institution on the face of the earth." Even sympathizers like Dr. Plantinga of Notre Dame put Baylor's chances of success at "less than half." But he thinks the quest should continue. "If it were to succeed, it would be a great thing to have."