A Life's Calling

February 12, 2003

At the fall 2002 faculty meeting, Dr. Donald D. Schmeltekopf announced his retirement this May as provost and vice president for academic affairs. It was a poignant moment for the man who has led the University's academic community during a period when Baylor crystallized its goal of becoming a top-ranked Christian university. Baylor Magazine asked Dr. Schmeltekopf to share his thoughts about his 12 years at Baylor and why he considers this experience his "life's work."

Q: Why did you choose to invest the last 12 years of your life at Baylor?

A: When I came to Baylor, I understood that it was about more than just personal goals. It was the Christian identity that was the difference. I really was convinced that higher education, in its best sense, ought to be about the transformation of students -- transformation of their minds and their lives. I had no idea when I came to Baylor what sort of impact I might be able to make.
There's no way I could possibly have imagined then how significant the next 12 years would be. The trajectory of the University took on its dimensions and character over time, and you couldn't have predicted ahead of time exactly what would be done. 
I really saw this as God's calling for my life. Christian higher education was my life's work and it remains so to this day. The one thing that seemed to me to be the starting point was for Baylor to sort out what it means to be a Christian university.

Q: How has Baylor's understanding of that evolved?

A: I like to think there are three concerns of the Christian university in terms of what you study: God, nature and human life. That's the big picture. One way I think of Baylor is that it is a manifestation of the church thinking through these concerns.
Every year it got to be more exciting. The dream of a serious Christian university really began to take shape. We were creating new programs, and we were recruiting new faculty who wanted to be at a place like Baylor. They've got to be within programs in which their work can flourish and students can be invited into the intellectual center of the University. That is really very significant -- the wide number of academic and research programs that we have now that relate to this Christian identity. It's embedded into the institution. 
A university that is really alive is going to be about something within itself. It's not just that we come to campus, teach our classes, go to lunch, go to meetings and go home. There is something going on here that captures people's imagination. It's awfully gratifying to be a part of that. All along, this is what I felt was my place within the kingdom of God -- at this institution.

Q: What were some of the highlights during the years for you?

A: I remember being absolutely exuberant when Baylor Interdisciplinary Core was approved because I thought it was going to make a difference in the education of students. And it has. I hear testimonies all the time from students in BIC about what that program does for them. There have been new PhD programs, like in philosophy. It's a dream come true for me because that's my home department. There is the explosion of international education that's occurred; students now have experiences from all over the world in growing numbers.
I have a strong sense of satisfaction that Baylor faculty members are taking on a greater responsibility in research and what I call intellectual leadership in their disciplines. Baylor has always placed the highest premium on teaching, and we will continue that. But Baylor faculty also ought to be heard for their ideas, not just with students but with the wider academy and culture. Baylor needs to have an impact on the culture and what the culture is concerned about -- whether it's in economics, politics, medicine, law or the controversial issues of the day such as abortion or homosexuality.

Q: What specific strengths do you feel you've brought to the office?

A: I love working with other people to solve problems, which often have to do with policies. In my position, policies matter. The rules by which you govern yourself as an organization are terribly important. Few things made me happier than the day we published our faculty handbook in 1997. I like that kind of challenge, to help people manage their work and know what's expected of them. 
One of the things I like doing, and I think I'm good at it, is getting people together in a room, tackling a problem, coming to good conclusions and not taking all day to do it. I think people generally would recognize that I run a good meeting.
Another strength is my ability to keep the big picture in mind. I remember talking to (former Baylor president) Abner McCall before I became the chief academic officer, and I asked him what he thought my job was. He said, "It's planning and it's encouragement." And that's very much part of it.

Q: Tell us about your relationship with Baylor's academic administrators.

A: I've been blessed to work with good deans. The fellowship that we have is terrific. From the first summer I started, we had a deans' retreat -- the first time it had ever been done. I knew I had to figure out a way to get close to them ... for us to like each other. So what I decided on was volleyball. Well, I want you to know that every deans' retreat we play volleyball, every summer in August in over 100 degree weather. Every dean plays, regardless of how uncoordinated he or she is. I'll say this, I've never lost a match in 12 years. The deans work together; we just don't have problems. And, they kid me unmercifully about this volleyball stuff.

Q: How have you related to Baylor's faculty?

A: I hope the faculty understand that I really do like faculty. I find them interesting people, and I like to be around them. I care about them personally and about what they're doing here at the University. And I support them. There are those times in which there will be disagreement and conflict. I don't know of anybody who believes that he or she could not come and talk to me, either in their office or my office, if they wished to do that. The chief academic office has to keep lines of communication open. 
There are 750 faculty members at Baylor right now, and with that many people, some things are going to go wrong. We're human beings, we make missteps. It sort of comes with the territory.

Q: And yet you've said some of your most rewarding experiences have come from working with people.

A: What's very satisfying about this job carries with it what makes it difficult. Fortunately, there's much less of the difficult part.

Q: What has been a challenge for you?

A: There is a tension within myself about the degree to which you really assert and press the agenda of the University -- being serious as a Christian university, increasing the expectations for research and scholarship, higher standards for tenure and hiring. On the one hand, there is a tension among all of that, which I believe in and as chief academic officer lead the effort in, and on the other hand of not wanting to ignore or leave anybody out of the life of the University. But the fact is, at a university of this complexity and magnitude, if you're really going to move forward, inevitably -- and this might be overstating it -- some people might be hurt. They're not going to be as happy in their work as I wish they could be and I'm sure as they wish they were themselves.

Q: How have you been able to reconcile that tension?

A: I remain their friend. If I know people are unhappy with me, I don't stop talking to them or try to avoid them. And I've tried to support them in any way I could. It seems to me that is not only the Christian thing to do, to put it bluntly, but it just makes good, practical sense from the point of view of management of the University. You don't want to have people within your organization who are angry and resentful.

Q: What sorts of things do you share with potential faculty members when they are interviewing?

A: That Baylor is the kind of place where you will feel complete and where your work can be understood as a ministry. Actually, we want to find out if they are capable of thinking of it that way. The truth of the matter is, for most academics, there is pretty much a separation of their Christian beliefs -- if they have any at all -- and their academic work. They don't think about how they can be connected, but what I've always challenged people to do is to at least think about it. They will have to come to some sort of understanding themselves.
We're more intentional than we've ever been about hiring people who can contribute in a certain way. Obviously, they've got to be serious scholars and excellent academics, but we also want to know how they can contribute to Baylor's distinctive mission as a Christian university. More and more, we are getting people here as candidates for whom this is exactly what they want to do. They see this as their vocation, their calling. The ownership of Baylor as a Christian university needs to filter more into the faculty at large, so they can provide more leadership.

Q: With the release of Baylor 2012, the 10-year Vision, people have voiced concerns about the direction of the University. Is that to be expected?

A: That is a pattern of human organizations, but it's particularly a pattern of academic institutions. Faculty members have a high degree of autonomy within the organization, so when it comes to change, people speak up and you hear about it. You want their comments to be responsible and informed, but speak out they will. That's part of what happens at a university, whether state, private, church-affiliated, large or small. It becomes even more the case when you're mission-driven to the degree that we are and that mission is our Christian identity.

Q: In your speech at last fall's faculty meeting -- where you announced your retirement -- you said, "When you're the chief academic officer ... you can never stop worrying about these things, especially when one is a natural-born worrier anyway." What are some of the things that kept you awake at night as provost?

A: I always worried about the possibility that things could come unraveled. It's amazing how many times I got good ideas in the middle of the night, and often I would get up and write them down to be sure I didn't forget them. Equally often, I wouldn't go back to sleep again at all, so I didn't have to worry about writing them down after all. 
The enhancement of graduate work at Baylor is a big issue. I have worried about that a long time. I tried to get some sense when I came into the job of how important graduate work was to Baylor. The best I could tell, it wasn't very important. We had to convince people that you don't have to diminish the undergraduate experience as you increase the graduate program. It's not a zero-sum game. Our models here are schools like Vanderbilt and Notre Dame, which have strong graduate programs but in no way shortchange their undergraduate students.

Q: Why is it important for Baylor faculty to do more research and publication?

A: Soon after coming here, I began to understand why Baylor is so well known. The reason is our graduates. That's how Baylor's reputation has been gained. Our graduates have been very successful, whether in law, politics, business, ministry, medicine or leadership roles. One of the things I felt was necessary was for our faculty to be more visible as intellectual leaders in their disciplines and in the wider culture. In academic terms, this is referred to as the creation of new knowledge -- that there is a purpose underneath. In order to do that, you have to give the professors much more time and reduce their teaching responsibility somewhat ... if (they) are going to be visible leaders in the academy. 
There is no longer this time constraint on our faculty. They now can do both excellent teaching and excellent scholarship. The outcome is that when students are asked to read for a class, it's more likely they will read things written by Baylor faculty, and professors will read things done by other Baylor faculty. People at other universities are going to read work done by Baylor faculty.

Q: Yet, you cautioned the faculty to not sacrifice service -- what you described as the "mentoring of students outside of the classroom" -- because of an increased emphasis on research. Why is that so important?

A: Service is important because it flows from our conviction and identity as a Christian university. We're not only providing a good education, we're also providing a host of other opportunities for students to grow -- in their faith, their leadership capacities, their ability to interact with other people successfully. At most large universities, this is not a priority. You're expected to teach and do research, but not to spend time with students outside of class.

Q: What can Baylor do to ensure that this service component isn't diminished?

A: One, we have to hire additional faculty. In 2002, we hired an unbelievable number. That will continue until we get that student/faculty ratio where we want it -- about 13 to 1. When you've got that kind of student/faculty ratio, you can really have important interaction going on for every student with faculty members. There's time enough to have those relationships. Secondly, faculty have to know that service is part of what is expected of them, that they are evaluated in terms of this activity and that they will be rewarded for it. Teaching is an ongoing mentoring relationship with students that takes place both inside and outside the classroom. If we get a culture here at Baylor that accepts the distancing of students from faculty, we've made a mistake in the direction that we've headed. We just cannot do that.

Q: After you retire as provost, you'll be spearheading Baylor's efforts to establish a national leadership program for Christian colleges and universities. What are you envisioning?

A: A Baylor leadership institute is not going to be just another leadership program where you learn management techniques and the latest social theories and do more Myers-Briggs testing. It's with a vision in mind about certain elements that are informed by our Christian convictions and Christian faith that bear on leadership. I would like to have the first of these programs running in summer 2004.

Q: What else do you plan on doing after you "retire?"

A: There's a new course that has been developed in the Great Texts Program called "Great Texts in Leadership." That would be terrific to teach. There also are some folks in the academic administration department of the School of Education who have talked to me about a graduate seminar they have for aspiring administrators. I also would like to do some writing in this area. 
My wife and I would like to do some traveling that would be educational and edifying. And, of course, I love to golf, so that's definitely on my mind. And I want to have time for my grandchildren. 
I get a lot of satisfaction out of yard work and being close to the land. I grew up on a farm. I want to be familiar with every inch of where we live and improve it. My wife is a very serious gardener. We live on a bluff, and the bluff is my project. It has caused me a lot of backaches. Manual labor -- working the land -- is very fulfilling to me. People my age are trying to get rid of yard work; I've accumulated more.

Q: Tell me about the emotion you felt when you gave your speech. Did anything surprise you?

A: I knew it was going to be difficult to get through, so I had a safety pin in my hand. No one could see it, but anytime I felt like I was getting emotional, I would stick the palm of my hand with the safety pin. 
The whole thing has meant so much to me. My work here is a calling to me. I have viewed this as part of my life's work. The emotional part of it is not borne out of any regret at all. It's just when you talk about these years and the relationships that have been formed, the work we've done together and what it all means for Baylor, it's pretty special. 
The response of the faculty was extremely positive. They were reminded, I hope, of what kind of individual I am -- that I've cared about them and about Baylor.