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“If you do this, Baylor will be on the same road as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale,” explained Baylor University trustee Hal Boone.
His statement was not aspirational but cautionary. While those schools enjoyed stellar academic reputations, they also began as Christian institutions that had long ago shed their confessional stances. Boone’s rather unsubtle warning was clear: The decision before the trustees was about Baylor’s Baptist identity.
That debate unfolded in the fall of 1990. Fearful that Baylor would be overtaken by the fundamentalist wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, the board preemptively sought its freedom from the Baptist General Convention of Texas (the only state SBC convention at the time). Going forward the denomination would only appoint 25% of Baylor’s board, an arrangement that remains in place today. That move protected Baylor as other Southern Baptist schools in Texas and across the country saw new convention-elected trustee boards fire professors and create new creedal requirements for faculty to sign.
While procedurally settled, the debate over Baylor’s self-understanding raged on. It re-emerged a decade later amid athletic scandal and new accusations of doctrinal tests. As one chronicler aptly described the controversy, “It’s the difference between being a good school in a Christian environment and a good Christian school. And it’s a big difference.”
Another decade brought another round of the debate, as former Bill Clinton prosecutor (and future Donald Trump defender) Ken Starr was removed as president for overlooking and mishandling claims of sexual harassment and assault, especially those involving football players. Yes, the man who wrote in graphic detail about presidential “encounters” lost his job for not investigating sexual misconduct.
While the hiring of Starr had prompted questions about his engagement in partisan politics and his non-Baptist background, his firing sparked an even stronger debate about the school’s identity. As Washington Post reporter Michelle Boorstein wrote at the time, it raised the question of “is there a conflict between being a religious school and trying to be a major athletic powerhouse?” Baylor’s own goal from its Starr wasn’t the last time this conversation erupted.
The debate about institutional identity arose again earlier this month when Baylor achieved a long sought goal: being classified as a “Research I” university, an exclusive status shared by fewer than 150 other schools based on the resources devoted to research activity.
“As a Christian university, there are not a lot of those among the R1 universities that are not only doing the highest level of research in the country but also maintaining the integrity of their Christian mission and really thinking about how our faith community, our faith perspective informs the research we’re doing and informs how we solve problems,” announced Baylor University President Linda Livingstone in a celebratory statement.
In this edition of A Public Witness, we study the newest debate over the supposed tension between Baylor’s Christian commitments and a research emphasis. We also quiz what this false dichotomy teaches us more broadly about Christian integration of the head and the heart.
Old School Rules, New School Directions
“Baylor’s Christian commitment has actually stagnated with regard to faculty,” Perry Glanzer, an education foundations professor at Baylor, wrote earlier this month for the opinion pages of the Waco Tribune-Herald, the hometown paper of his school.
“The reality is, when it comes to faculty formation, the Christian mission is not a high priority at Baylor University, compared to other goals like becoming an elite ‘R1’ research institution,” he added. “Thus, although millions have been poured into helping Baylor become R1, there are no specific financial incentives to help faculty do Christian scholarship, learn more about Christian teaching (versus teaching and learning in general) or to encourage Christian service. Moreover, there is no clarity about what ‘Christian’ even means at Baylor, despite the administration’s constant insistence that our school is ‘unambiguously Christian.’”
While raining on the university’s R1 parade, Glanzer’s comments sparked something highly unusual in our culture (and churches) today: a civil, substantive, and sustained discussion about an issue of pressing interest. A newspaper even lent its print and virtual space to foster respectful debate among Baylor colleagues.
Glanzer’s words provoked a response from Mary Landon Darden, a former adjunct professor at Baylor who has a doctorate in higher education administration. Darden, who has been affiliated with Baylor for three decades, particularly disagreed with Glanzer’s attack on hiring adjunct faculty to pick up the teaching load left by research demands.
“One of the reasons I chose to teach at Baylor was because of my faith. When I taught at a public institution, we could not discuss faith or Christianity in the classroom,” she wrote. “My two graduate degrees are from Baylor. I have consistently and continuously experienced exemplary Christian teaching, leadership, role models, and mentorship from my professors at Baylor.”
Emeritus professor of philosophy Robert Baird also pushed back on Glanzer’s criticisms. After noting that becoming a R1 institution presents some trade-offs in terms of incentivizing faculty to research more that, perhaps, comes at the expense of teaching and the cultivation of its Christian identity, Baird raised the concern that an alternative agenda existed underneath Glanzer’s critique.
“How might one go about ensuring that everyone at Baylor agreed on precisely what ‘Christian’ means?” Baird asked. “One solution (and maybe this gets at Glanzer’s elusive agenda) would be for a select group to decide (define) precisely what ‘Christian’ means, develop a creedal statement reflecting that definition, and require all faculty members to adhere.”
“This possible Glanzer agenda (and something like it must have given birth to his strong critique of Baylor) or one like it will gain only minority support as long as Baylor cherishes its Baptist heritage, as long as Baylor is committed to the value of individual freedom and perspectives,” Baird added.
Of course, the valuing of individual freedom is what has some of Baylor’s present-day detractors so alarmed about the university’s recent past and future directions. While the discussion among the Baylor community seems civil and largely supportive of the school’s direction, the rhetoric off campus is sometimes more vitriolic.
A Fundamental Difference
“I don’t think any true Christian parent who wants their kids to have a Christian education would allow their child anywhere near Baylor University,” Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, declared on the Todd Starnes Radio Show back in May.
Jeffress, who you might recall as the pastor who feted Donald Trump during Sunday “worship” this month and as one who has criticized the teaching of Jesus about turning the other cheek, had the gumption to argue Baylor’s problem is it isn’t Christian enough.
“What they teach and the underlying philosophy is anti-Christian,” Jeffress claimed. “Our church has sent students down there for years who have their faith completely torn apart by infidels in the religion department.”
“Being filled with Christians doesn’t make you a Christian university,” he added. “It is your viewpoint and what you teach. I say either go to a distinctively Christian university or go to a completely secular university and get a better rate for doing it.”
Yes, Jeffress argued that going to a secular school would be better than going to Baylor. But this is what we expect from fundamentalists. The greatest threat to their authority isn’t the secular organization that doesn’t care about doctrinal arguments but the Christian group with a competing definition of what it means to be faithful.
This phenomenon is what sociologist Lester R. Kurtz labeled “the politics of heresy.” As he explained, a “heretic” is by definition someone who is both near and remote. They are part of the faith (near) but also divergent from the “orthodox” leadership in some way (remote). And it is precisely that combination that makes them dangerous to the leadership. True outsiders (like a “completely secular university”) are less likely to shift the definitions of Christian identity.
Thus, Kurtz explained, heresy remains “essentially a problem of political authority.” That’s why would-be definers of Christian “orthodoxy” (such as fundamentalists like Jeffress) often invest more energy in attacking other Christians than secular groups. That Jeffress would encourage people to go to a secular school more than a Christian one he disagrees with proves what Kurtz noted.
So, what does Jeffress want? Although a Baylor graduate himself, we suspect he would’ve chosen a different route if he came of age in recent decades. After all, he grew up at First Baptist under the influence of one of his pastoral predecessors, W.A. Criswell. One of the most significant fundamentalist Christian leaders in the 1960s-1980s, Criswell started a Bible institute at the church that later became Criswell College.
The president of the school when it started a bachelor’s program and gained accreditation was Paige Patterson. As Criswell College President, Patterson co-launched the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. He left the school to serve as president of two SBC seminaries after the takeover changed the institutions. However, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees fired him after he mishandled allegations of student rapes. But today Patterson teaches a Sunday School class at First Baptist and sometimes fills the pulpit for Jeffress.
When Patterson preached at First Baptist in May just after Jeffress attacked Baylor, Jeffress praised the fired seminary head for “spearheading” the effort to move the SBC from “the same liberal rot that had infected Baptist universities and continues to infect Baptists universities” that was “spreading like gangrene throughout our entire Southern Baptist Convention.”
Under Patterson’s leadership as SBC president, Southern Baptists adopted a new confessional statement — the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 — that is increasingly used at Baptist schools as a litmus test for professors. Criswell, in good fundamentalist fashion, goes one step further: their faculty must annually reaffirm their commitment to the school’s own statement of faith, which is the BF&M 2000 with additional, italicized edits (wait, does that make the SBC too liberal?).
Today, Criswell College joins Baylor in seeking the enrollment of Texas Baptist students. Criswell is aligned with the new Texas Baptist convention that fundamentalists started as a breakaway competitor to the convention with which Baylor is affiliated. Criswell’s identity is in several ways threatened by the fact that the largest Christian and, more specifically, the largest Baptist institution of higher education in Texas is Baylor. When people think of a Christian school in Texas, most say Baylor. So, if you can’t beat them, then Plan B is to redefine them as heretics.
Of course, battles over control of colleges and universities extend beyond Lone Star Baptists. Various factors often arise in these conflicts, including three we’ve noted at Baylor and other schools.
Individual Freedom versus Doctrinal Conformity. Historically, the fundamentalist versus moderate divide that defines a good chunk of Baylor’s history is the question of how much freedom to afford the conscience of each professor vis-a-vis the core teachings of Baptist life (made more complicated since the priesthood of believers, including the ability to interpret scripture for one’s self, is one of those core doctrines).
“If you disagree with [the fundamentalists], then you’re a liberal,” exclaimed Harold Reynolds, Baylor’s president at the time when denominational oversight over the school was weakened. “We can’t run a university like that. If you submit to that kind of tyranny, then one day you look up and you’ve lost the right to think at all.”
Ideological Motivation. In other moments, the issue is less about commitment to existing dogma. Rather, the conflict is about redefining a school’s institutional life according to ideological positions sharply at odds with its history and/or articulated positions. Usually, of course, significant financial dollars are at play.
Consider the dissonance at the Catholic University of America, which awards degrees under the auspices of the Holy See. In recent years, significant gifts from libertarian donors prompted notable shifts in faculty and teaching at odds with the official positions of the Catholic hierarchy. While Pope Francis pricks the world’s moral conscience with calls to address climate change, CUA business faculty openly deny a problem exists.
Donations from the same funders (Tim Busch and Charles Koch) are roiling Notre Dame. As John Gehring detailed for the National Catholic Reporter earlier this month, professors are speaking out against the university’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies because of funding and partnerships they claim “contradict the institute's core values of democracy, inclusion, and human dignity.”
Academic Prestige and Religious Pluralism. As evangelical historian George Marsden described in his The Soul of the American University (recently updated), trends of increased pluralism and secularization also influenced the development of American higher education. Protestant schools that defined themselves as explicitly seeking objective truth — and implicitly against a Catholicism they perceived incapable of allowing free inquiry because of Church controls — adapted to cultural patterns by increasingly downplaying religious motivations. Ultimately, as Marsden wrote, “the result was an ‘inclusive’ higher education that resolved the problems of pluralism by virtually excluding all religious perspectives from the nation’s highest academic life.” Thus, fulfilling the university’s true calling requires abandoning sectarian foundations.
These tensions still exist today. Myles Werntz, an associate professor of theology and director of the Baptist Studies Center at Abilene Christian University, is a two-time alumnus of Baylor and deeply engaged in Christian higher education today. He told us the desire for academic prestige is a real threat for Christian schools.
“Having worked at a number of faith-based universities now, one danger I see is the temptation of prestige, which usually is accompanied by the temptation of wealth,” he explained. “Once a certain status is achieved, the temptation to maintain that status is perennial, whether you’re talking universities, churches, or individuals.”
But he doesn’t think it’s correct to view rigorous research and Christian identity as mutually exclusive because “maintaining a substantial commitment to theological education as a university doesn’t have to be competitive with being an excellent university.” He noted his current institution, Abilene Christian University, has “just been named an R3 university, and bright things are in the future.” And about Baylor, he offered: “I’m proud of them aspiring to being distinctively Christian while striving for a world-class education”
But the temptation to cut corners on Christian formation remains, especially in times of tight institutional budgets.
“With so many pressures facing universities in terms of their budgets, I think this is a real danger for Christian universities to watch for, the temptation to reduce their investment in substantive formation in order to either meet financial goals or to maintain a certain kind of peer status,” Werntz explained. “My hope is that my alma mater will rise to the challenge, having achieved the R1 status they have been striving for for over two decades.”
All Your Mind
Adrian Rogers, the first SBC president from the Patterson-led fundamentalist takeover, famously declared that SBC seminary professors must teach “whatever they are told to teach.” Thus, he added, “if we tell them to teach that pickles have souls, then they must teach that pickles have souls.” The worldview behind his tongue-in-cheek example gets to the heart of the debate between education and indoctrination.
Others, however, believe Christian universities should seek truth, not blind submission to denominational dogmas. Bill Underwood (no relation to Beau — or Brian), then-interim president at Baylor University, articulated that vision during a 2005 graduation ceremony after quoting Rogers on pickles.
“Under this idea, we would have spiritual masters to tell us what to teach, what to learn, and what to believe,” Underwood declared. “Christian universities must also equip our students with the critical thinking skills needed for a lifelong pursuit of truth. This requires encouraging our students to think for themselves and then to test their ideas in free and open discourse with others, even ideas that are controversial — even ideas that challenge prevailing viewpoints.”
“This free exchange of ideas is most likely to lead to the discovery of truth. That’s the idea behind the First Amendment,” added Underwood, who is now president of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. “If we are to be a great Christian university, we cannot be afraid to pursue the course of truth, wherever that course might lead. Indeed, if our pursuit of truth leads us to question our existing view of God, it may just be that God is trying to tell us something.”
As Christian pastors with our own extensive and varied experiences in higher education, we agree. And we’re skeptical of the pickled philosophy of those arguing robust intellectual investigation and steadfast Christian faith are inherently at odds.
Some academically-acclaimed institutions — like Baylor and Notre Dame — are clear about what animates their pursuits. As Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas who formerly taught at Baylor, wrote about Baylor’s new R1 designation, “Baylor is no less Christian because it is a place where challenging views are expressed, heard, and debated. At the same time, it is no less a university because it is Christian.”
While the pursuit of truth might worry a fundamentalist, we happen to think it’s quite Christian to love the Lord your God with all your mind.
As a public witness,
Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood