Identity Crisis

January 18, 2005

Is Baylor experiencing a religious identity crisis? Even though many other issues are getting attention -- leadership, alumni relations, faculty division, finances -- is there an "elephant in the room" that some do not want to acknowledge?
Baylor President Robert B. Sloan Jr. says there is, and that it is behind much of the controversy that besets the University today.
"The central question for Baylor, whether we're talking about academic freedom or the controversy right now over 2012 and me, is what is the character and shape of Baylor? Who are we? Are we a Christian institution or not?" Sloan says. "That is the central question that Baylor faces, and particularly faces today -- and it's in some sense the elephant in the room that people sometimes don't want to talk about." 
If anyone has felt the elephant breathing down his neck, it's Sloan. He is credited by some as the visionary leader who crafted Baylor 2012, which could make Baylor the leading Protestant institution of higher education in the nation. Others cast him as a secret fundamentalist intent on undermining Baylor's historic and religious legacy. 
That dichotomy of perception, in many ways, epitomizes the identity crisis.

Always independent

As the largest Baptist university in the nation, Baylor has been intentional about its religious identity since it was chartered in 1845. A small college founded in Independence, Texas (and later relocated to Waco), Baylor has taken the name of its birthplace to heart. It was one of the first Baptist colleges associated with a state general convention to alter its relationship with its sponsoring denomination following the 1979 takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by political fundamentalists. 
Baylor's charter change was engineered in 1990 by then-President Herbert H. Reynolds -- a move that allowed the Baptist General Convention of Texas to elect only one-quarter of the University's governing board, whereas previously, the BGCT elected all of the trustees.
Although the charter change was a move away from the fundamentalist-controlled SBC, it was not a move away from Baylor's Baptist roots. Reynolds said at the time of the charter change that he would not sit back and watch the University be taken over by ultra-conservative Baptists who are "more interested in indoctrination than education and enlightenment" (Chronicle of Higher Education, 1990, Katherine S. Mangan).
Even then, Baylor was fighting for faith and reason: its determination to uphold its religious heritage while it protected academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge. As Reynolds said in the Chronicle story: "We feel that we at Baylor need to be a leader in the struggle for religious liberty. We're trying to show that you can be an institution committed to Christ and still be an institution dedicated to the best of learning and the best of living."
Robert Baird, Master Teacher and longtime chair of the Department of Philosophy, remembers well the charter change and Reynolds' actions on campus immediately thereafter. "One of the first things he did was to initiate meetings with Baylor faculty to discuss the change and to emphasize that the move was not taken as an effort to distance ourselves from our religious heritage," he says.

A decade later

Fast-forward a decade to the launching of Baylor 2012 -- a document two years in the making that was adopted in fall 2001. Sloan was called as Baylor's 12th president in 1995, and within about two years, the Board of Regents asked him to begin the process of developing a 10-year vision for the University. The board unanimously endorsed the Vision that called for Baylor to retain and strengthen its religious distinctives while simultaneously striving to become a nationally recognized teaching and research institution.
Baylor 2012 built upon other visionary documents of the preceding years. The Sesquicentennial Council of 150, which presented a document to the Board of Regents in January 1994 with recommendations to enhance the work of the University in the coming years, and the 1994-96 University self-study were explorations of what Baylor could and should be. In 1994, the University adopted a new mission statement that called the institution to "educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community." 
But whereas the previous two documents generated discussion and philosophical rumination, Baylor 2012 generated significant action. Since fall 2001, the University began and completed the most ambitious building campaign of its history, taking on its first notable indebtedness in decades; moved from a per-credit-hour tuition base to a flat-rate tuition structure (jumping from an average of $12,300 annually in 2000 to $15,700 in fall 2002 and $16,750 in fall 2003); brought in 184 new tenure-track faculty between 2001 and 2004, many of them with active and well-funded research agendas; and added four new doctoral programs and expanded another.
Baylor University -- this once-quiet little "Baptist college" on the banks of the Brazos -- had people's attention.
In 2000, William Brackney, a noted Baptist historian and author, arrived at Baylor from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, to head Baylor's Department of Religion. A Baptist minister originally ordained in Texas, he has led theological schools in the United States and Canada. He says Baylor invited him to come and build a world-class department of religion that was essentially Baptist. "Baptists don't yet have a paradigm of what a church-related university ought to look like, so maybe Baylor could become that paradigm," he says.
"I thought Baylor had extricated itself from all of this sort of fundamentalist/moderate debacle that everybody had been involved in," Brackney says. "I was wrong about that. In fact, I came probably with still a lot of the war yet to go."

Increasing discord

With all this activity and with the influx of additional faculty members (67 in fall 2002 alone), people began to take note -- and concerns mounted. Some academic department heads objected to what they claimed was more intentional questioning of faculty candidates about their religious affiliation and integration of faith and learning in the classroom. Others said more of their recommendations for hires were being rejected at the top administrative levels -- usually for failing this new "religious litmus test," as some called it.
Donald D. Schmeltekopf came to Baylor in 1990 and was provost from 1991 until his retirement from that position in 2003. He was the only vice president to stay on with Sloan, and he made the transition from one style of faculty candidate questioning to another.
In his first year at Baylor, when he shadowed then-provost John Belew, Schmeltekopf says the faculty interview form had a check-box item about denominational affiliation. "Dr. Belew would tell the candidates that Baylor is a Baptist university and ask if they had any questions about that," he recalls. "And that was it. I thought, this just doesn't seem to be adequate to me."
Schmeltekopf and Baird were selected by Reynolds in 1991 to be Baylor's representatives to the Lilly Network of National Church-Related Colleges and Universities, a conference they attended together annually for six or seven years, Schmeltekopf says. "Both of us were exhilarated by what we heard," he recalls.
For at least the last few years, however, Baird has been concerned about safeguarding the religious identity of Baylor as he has known it as student or professor since the mid-1950s.
"The issue is how one goes about preserving Baylor's religious identity," Baird says. "Much of the faculty concern [today] has to do with the procedures that have been used in recent years to preserve the religious identity of the University." 
The procedures he refers to deal with faculty hiring practices. "Many members of the faculty believe that the religious inquiries of prospective faculty have changed significantly since the days of the McCall and Reynolds administrations," he says. The result, Baird fears, is that Baylor "will hire many faculty members with a narrower understanding of what it means to be spiritual, to be Christian, to be Baptist and will not hire those who have a broader view."
Of the 184 new faculty hires in the last three years, slightly more than one-third were net new positions. "Religious diversity among faculty is greater now than in the past," says Provost David Lyle Jeffrey. "The growth in diversity of denominations represented has been gradual but persistent over the last decade." 
Between 1999 and 2004, denominational representation among faculty showing the largest increases includes Catholic (45 to 78), Lutheran (38 to 46), Methodist (70 to 79) and Presbyterian (36 to 51). Baptist faculty members jumped from 315 to 390, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Testing.
Sloan contends that Baylor has not changed as much in that regard as some people think. No doubt the questioning varied from administration to administration, he says, but "it would be a mistake now to act as if there was one monolithic pattern in the past. That is, I'm quite sure, a myth. Of course Baylor questioned people about their religious identity in the past."
Baird, however, believes that the nature of the conversation with prospective faculty is different, and markedly so. In an e-mail exchange with another faculty member that Baird shared with Baylor Magazine, he wrote, "Nothing has become clearer in the last few years than that prospective faculty are having their religious lives and thoughts scrutinized in a way that most in this basically Baptist community find objectionable, and this examination certainly departs from the traditions of Baylor." 
Baird further stated in the e-mail: "To begin to scrutinize the religious credentials of prospective faculty beyond what Baylor has always done is to move in a creedal direction. Indeed, an unwritten creed (having to meet the religious expectations of one person or a small group of people) can be more dangerous than a written creed."
Jeffrey refutes the claim that faculty candidates are subjected to religious scrutiny in the interview process. "We do, in some but not all administrative interviews, offer candidates an opportunity to reflect on the possible connections or overlap between their own sense of calling and Baylor's Baptist/Christian mission but this hardly seems to me objectionable," he says. "We absolutely do not press them for theological or doctrinal statements."
Sloan likewise rejects Baird's implications. "The better question is not whether our procedures for hiring have changed, but should they change?" Sloan says. "Of course we ask faith-related questions in our interviews, just as we ask questions about teaching, or research or the candidates' willingness to serve students and mentor them. It is Baylor's responsibility to our past and to our future to do so. As faculty and administrators, we would be irresponsible not to, given the traditions and character of Baylor as a Christian institution."
Furthermore, Sloan says the reasons for doing so should be obvious. "Unless we want Baylor to go the way of nearly every other major church-related university in America, all of us involved in the hiring process have to pay attention to rigorous standards of academic excellence and to the qualities of heart and mind that are consistent with Christian confession," he says. "Just because it is difficult to do, or must be more intentionally pursued than Baylor has had to do in the past, does not mean it is unimportant or inappropriate. The world has changed, and Baylor needs to pay attention."

Changing demographics

Given today's increasingly pluralistic society, many say it is imperative that Baylor be more diligent about faculty selections to ensure its Christian heritage into the future. Jeffrey notes the decreasing Baptist population in Texas, and the greater denominational diversity of faculty and students in recent years. "Baptists in Texas are a shrinking percentage of the totality of Texas, down to 25 percent, and our kind of Baptists, moderate Baptists, are a smaller percentage of that year by year," he says. "The students coming to Baylor are more and more likely to come from other denominations and backgrounds and experiences." 
Demographics also show that the percentage of Catholics in Texas will rise dramatically in future years, and yet, just observing these things causes consternation, he says. "It produces high levels of anxiety and resistance, but it seems to me that we need to take account of those realities and create a kind of conversation in which it's possible for us to be what I like to call a self-correcting community in conversation around those things that still can center us. That conversation, in my view, needs to be around Scripture -- that's what all Christians can point to."
Sloan references these societal changes as reasons Baylor must be "more particular and more careful today than ever before" about whom it hires. Credentialing procedures for faculty candidates also have changed vastly, he says -- from requiring a bachelor's or master's degree to terminal degrees, most of them obtained from public institutions -- and so there is less uniformity in background. "We want that diversity, but do we at Baylor need to be questioning our candidates carefully? Absolutely, yes. If we're going to preserve and maintain our historic identity, we have to be more particular about it. At this moment in history, the momentum is moving away from a Christian consensus."
Questioning candidates about their faith has never been a concern for Barry Hankins, associate professor of history and church-state studies, who has been at Baylor for nine years. "I not only think it's legitimate, I think it's necessary," he says. "There's no way that Baylor or any other university will maintain a Christian identity without some interview process that includes discussion of one's faith commitments. I think there has to be a kind of gatekeeper, and I think the provost is the natural person to do that. It's needed now in a way that was not the case a generation or two ago."
The societal and credentialing environment from which today's faculty candidates come are factors that cannot be ignored, Schmeltekopf says, and are markedly different from the past. "Twenty or 30 years ago when we were hiring people, it was assumed we were hiring people out of a Baptist-formed culture. You didn't have to pursue this discussion seriously. By the 1980s, you couldn't take that for granted anymore."
Others at the University, though, rankle at this philosophy. Baird says he believes there is "absolutely" an agenda on the part of the administration to "change the religious culture of this university from a more open, expansive understanding of the religious experience to a narrower understanding of what counts as acceptable at Baylor. This is a conflict of values, of vision, and value conflicts are notoriously difficult to resolve."
This debate about the questioning of faculty candidates is important, Schmeltekopf says, and "will make the difference down the road as to Baylor's future." If the University does not question candidates vigorously, he says, "Baylor will not long be a Christian university; it will become secular. There's no way to overcome it."

Denominational labels

Those who lived through the Texas denominational wars of the 1980s and '90s emerged with a strong propensity for advocating and protecting "freedom" -- a word that, at the least, took on new significance after the rift in the SBC.
Schmeltekopf understands that mind-set, but has little patience for it. "Coming out of the fundamentalist controversy, this notion of what a Baptist is centers on freedom -- freedom of an individual Baptist to come down wherever he or she sees fit, wherever that is," he says. "Well, you have to stand someplace in this world. If you stand no place, that leaves complete chaos. It's untenable. You can't form any kind of community around shared beliefs that way, and that's what the modern secular university is."
Evangelicals, fundamentalists, moderates, conservatives, liberals -- among Baptists in the South, these are labels that carry heavy baggage. And they still carry the power to stir emotions.
"Given that Southern Baptists have been in an identity crisis for the last quarter of a century, which is what all the fighting was about in the Southern Baptist Convention, it's not surprising that Baylor would be getting it from all sides," says Hankins, who researches evangelical church history. "If Baptists don't know quite who they are, then how do they know what a Baptist university is supposed to look like?"
When asked what he thinks faculty fear most at Baylor, Provost Jeffrey says "fundamentalism." But he admits that it's very hard to get an accurate read on what the word means. "For some, it's just someone who believes, or someone who cares a lot about the Bible. For others, it's just someone who's part of the old Southern Baptist world," he says, adding that often it's used as a "hate term."
"By fundamentalism, most who use the term don't mean any one thing. Most of them mean, however, that which takes the University back toward Christianity and away from the secular enlightenment model for higher learning," he says.
Christianity, as Hankins points out, has become a fairly well-defined theological movement over the course of two millennia. "Baptists have always believed predominantly that Scripture defines what Baptists are or what Christianity is."
In the past century, though, that's become problematic. "I think it's something that has to be defined because you now have so many voices saying being a Christian is what anyone decides it is. That's not been Baylor's historic way."
In a paper he presented at a colloquy at Baylor in April 2003 on "The Baptist and Christian Character of Baylor," Baird refers to an "alternative vision" for Baylor. He writes, "[M]y vision of Baylor is a vision of an institution proud of its Christian heritage and deeply committed to sustaining its Christian tradition. But my dream is also of a Baylor so secure in its identity that it willingly embraces some faculty who are not full embodiments of that heritage and tradition" (p.105-6, The Baptist & Christian Character of Baylor, 2003).
Sloan, however, says Baylor should be so secure that it doesn't have to apologize for having faculty who are fully committed to the University's heritage and traditions. "It's not only Baylor policy, but it is crucial to our present and our future that our faculty and staff unapologetically embrace the Christian character of Baylor," he says.

The 'Baptist scholar'

Another problem for Baptists is overcoming the name's association with anti-intellectualism -- a stereotype that makes the challenges of achieving 2012 even more daunting. 
"Evangelical Protestants -- of which Baptists are part -- since about the mid-19th century, have not done a very good job of engaging the mind," says Hankins, adding that the 20th century "has been a disaster for evangelical thinking." 
The very strengths Baptists tout -- individualism, missionary zeal, emphasis on religious liberty -- do little to support intellectualism, Hankins says. "None of those strengths is the kind that translates well into deep, reflective thinking about culture and ideas and so forth," he says.
President Sloan says the Baptist name has suffered and drawn to itself a lot of "negative associations -- being seen, in some instances, as combative, narrow or anti-intellectual," he says. "But Baptists have changed and are continuing to change," he notes.
Sloan points to the achievements of Baptists as they have moved from a largely agrarian, lower-income economic status of several decades ago to one of educational, professional and economic aspirations today. "It's not true to say, it seems to me, that Baptists today are anti-intellectual," he says. "I think it is absolutely false as a statement about our present-day reality. Baylor people mirror this. As Baptists have had greater and greater aspirations, so the University has had to move forward to meet the aspirations of our people."
Brackney also expounds the potential of the Baptist scholar. He says he had hoped, and still believes it is possible, that Baylor would be the kind of university where faculty "could pursue those ideals of what it means to be Baptist to their most obvious extent and our whole denominational tradition would shine because of what was going on at our research and development center called Baylor University."
Hankins says there is a tendency among evangelicals "to be very activist, to intuitively move from the Bible to what you ought to do in life, and that militates against ... being reflective and thinking very carefully." Still, he isn't discouraged about what that means for Baylor. "I don't think that's a reason to say we can't do it. It's a reason for saying it is the next step. It needs to happen. And in terms of a real university that's Protestant and takes its Christian mission seriously, Baylor's the only chance that I see in America for this happening."

Which direction?

So, is 2012 and the current administration's leadership pulling Baylor away from its traditional Baptist roots and heritage, or reaffirming them? Is Baylor heading toward secularism or some imposed form of religious conformity? 
"We have been shaped by our founders and our founding documents, which explicitly relate the character and shape of Baylor to the Christian faith. It's not even a question," Sloan says. "Why does it appear so odd that a university should affirm and attempt to retain and enrich its character as a Christian institution tied to rather broad historic Christian convictions?" he asks. "Why should that elicit such a hue and cry, such a fear of fundamentalism, or anxiety on the part of some? Perhaps because it is a voice that now sounds strange in our culture. Such reactions probably say as much about the aggressive secularism of our culture as they reflect also the need for a university with precisely the traditions and aspirations of Baylor."
But for Baird and some other faculty members, the concern is strong. He asserts that the University's current direction will "destroy Baylor's identity as a Baptist University." He says the issue is not whether to hire "committed Christians," but whether to allow one individual or a small group to "define 'committed Christian' and then judge whether candidates for positions at Baylor meet that definition."
In his e-mail exchange, Baird wrote: "The religious culture that you and others envision for Baylor is not the Baylor I have virtually grown up with, devoted my life to and have held and continue to hold as one of my dearest values."

What's at stake?

The turmoil and discord in the Baylor family in recent years has been difficult for everyone, Sloan says, but it also has provided the opportunity "to ask the vital question of, 'Can a university conceived as a Christian institution persevere and make significant contributions as an academic institution to our society?'
"I believe that's worth the world to the parents of our students. I believe that's worth everything to our students. And it has immeasurable worth for our world and the witness that our world needs," Sloan says. 
The challenge for Baylor is to think beyond its denominational roots while still honoring them, Hankins says. "I don't think Baylor wants to be a leading Baptist university; I think Baylor wants to be a leading Christian university, and probably will be the leading Christian university, as opposed to liberal arts college. To do that, Baylor is going to have to leave some of that Baptist infighting alone ... not get too sucked into the Baptist identity crisis."
Schmeltekopf calls for those involved in the dialogue to move beyond the context that emerged from the fundamentalist wars of the past. "We're not fighting fundamentalists here," he says. "We haven't been for a long time. We're trying to establish an orthodox, ecumenical tent, and it's a large tent, in which we affirm historic Christianity."
Jeffrey, who affirms Schmeltekopf's notion of a large, orthodox ecumenical tent, believes the University is in the midst of a struggle that may well determine its future. "Baylor is experiencing a profound crisis over the way it both articulates and experiences its religious identity. We are in a deep and difficult conversation about how to define in a generous, yet common and sharable way what it is that we most love."
And for President Sloan, Baylor's current path sits squarely upon the truth of Scripture, historic Christianity and Christians' responsibility to the world. "We must bring the distinctiveness and truthfulness of the Christian faith to bear in the world of higher education," he says. "Shouldn't Christians care about that? I think they should. I think they do. And I think Baylor can and should rise to meet that challenge."