Only For Baylor

December 15, 2005
John Lilley

On Jan. 2, John M. Lilley became the 13th president of Baylor University. He ushered in a new year -- and many hope a new era of peace and progress -- for a university that has been wearied by faculty and alumni dissension in recent years.

"I think there's a yearning for Baylor to prosper and for Baylor to be at peace, and yet, Baylor must move forward," Lilley said. "We've got to have peace on the Brazos here. And not a false peace, not a papered-over peace."

Lilley, 66, the son of a Louisiana Baptist minister and a schoolteacher, succeeds William D. Underwood, interim president since June, and Robert B. Sloan Jr., who presided for 10 years and is now chancellor.

To be president of his alma mater, where he received three music degrees, is a privilege and a thrill for Lilley. "Baylor faculty enlarged my vision and transformed my life," he said, "and that's what I hope faculty will always do for Baylor students."

Although he celebrates what Baylor meant to him and to others throughout the decades, he won't be content to rest on that, he said. "One of the things everybody needs to know is that I am very respectful and joyful about what Baylor is," he said, "but Baylor must be determined every day to ask itself, 'How today can we do better?' There's no final answer to being the best."

President of the University of Nevada, Reno, since 2001, Lilley was unanimously approved by the 36-member Board of Regents at a specially called meeting Nov. 4.

Named a Distinguished Alumnus by the Baylor Alumni Association last winter, he brings more than 26 years of experience leading higher education institutions. He previously was head of Penn State Erie for 21 years and an assistant dean of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State University. He was a faculty member at Claremont Colleges in California earlier in his career.

"I'm thrilled that the regents have made a great statement of unity in approving me unanimously, the search committee and then the regents," Lilley said. "I'm just immensely grateful for that show of support."

Regents Chair Will Davis applauded Lilley's record of consensus-building and administrative experience. "We wanted to make sure we had a person with successful experience in higher education management dealing with faculty, alumni, curricular issues and so forth, and he seemed to satisfy those issues," Davis said. Lilley also understands Baylor's culture and its commitment to the 2012 Vision. He said the two key components of 2012 that have widespread affirmation are the desire to become a top-tier institution while safeguarding Baylor's Christian mission and Baptist tradition. "My sense is that when it comes to the primary direction of the University, I hear complete agreement about that," he said. "There is a lot of listening and talking that needs to happen on the implementation."

In the first few days after the announcement of his presidency Nov. 4, Lilley met with about 20 representatives of the Faculty Senate and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) leadership and a group of students organized by Student Body President Mark Laymon. He had dinner with Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) representatives and worked the crowd at Floyd Casey Stadium during the Baylor-Texas game.

The following week, he was off to Austin for the annual BGCT meeting and back on campus to meet with the Faculty Senate, hold a universitywide faculty meeting and then meet with another small group of faculty from the Senate and AAUP.

Despite the hectic pace, Lilley was clear about his priorities as president of Baylor. Initially, he plans to spend time on campus, primarily communicating with faculty leadership and members. "The faculty and I have to be on the same page," he said (see 'A familiar refrain,' page 9). He wants to learn the structure and organization of the University and encourage the administrative interims to "hang in there" with him. And he wants to listen. "I've got a lot of listening to do," he says. "We're going to have those conversations. We need as much consensus as we can possibly build, and we're going to go forward and make sure that our Christian heritage and our Baptist tradition are maintained."

A longer-term priority for Lilley will be strengthening Baylor's endowment. At Nevada, Lilley rebuilt the development and alumni relations team, raising record amounts. During his four years there, he also saw a record in competitive external funding brought in by the faculty - more than $128 million in 2005. "He recognizes the fact that the president of the university is, and probably should be, the major development officer for the university," Regent Chair Davis said. "He likes that type of activity. He seems to enjoy it, and he's been very successful at it. He will be doing a great deal of that at Baylor." Implementing the imperatives of the Baylor 2012 Vision always has been dependent upon increasing the University's endowment. It's a reality Lilley knows as well. "We must do some further financial modeling about the cost of 2012. With the help of our friends, we must raise a lot more money," he said. "I have experience in that, and I'm sure that's one of the reasons the regents were interested in my candidacy."

Lilley also spoke early on with Baylor Alumni Association President David Malone. Baylor has two groups serving its alumni base of more than 100,000 -- the independent BAA and the Baylor Network, an in-house unit formed in summer 2002 by Sloan. Lilley said he assured Malone of his desire to work in close collaboration with the association. Barbara "Babs" Baugh, a fellow undergraduate music major with Lilley, assumes the association's yearlong presidency in January.

"One of the things I learned at the Harvard Business School was to be respectful of history and tradition, but I'm not a slave to them," Lilley said. "There are great lessons to be learned from Baylor's history and tradition."

John Frederick, provost at Nevada, has worked with Lilley closely during the past four years and speaks highly of his "personal values, his honesty and his integrity. When he says something," Frederick said, "you can take it to the bank."

Frederick expects Lilley and Baylor to be a good fit. "I don't think John would have left the University of Nevada for any other school except for Baylor," he said. "That speaks very highly of Baylor and speaks volumes about the affection and dedication that he has to his alma mater. Given that combination, and his real strengths as a leader of a university, I expect it's going to work out very well for Baylor."