Pro Futuris Q+A with President Ken Starr

July 5, 2012
Pro Futuris Q+A with Ken Starr

In May, Baylor's Board of Regents officially approved the university's new strategic vision, Pro Futuris, which will guide the university in the coming years. Baylor Magazine sat down with President Ken Starr shortly thereafter to discuss the successes of Baylor 2012, how the university settled on this new vision, and the growing importance of alumni engagement.

Q This is an exciting time at Baylor, as we anticipate the launch of a new strategic vision and look back at the last 10 years of Baylor 2012. These represent two significant planning exercises for Baylor, but as a university we have a history of leaders who have had the courage to pursue bold visions.

A I would identify at least two visionaries, one from the 19th century and one from the 20th century. Rufus Burleson had a magnificent vision for a great university at a time when Baylor had very few resources. As a serious theologian, he had this grand vision of what a great Christian university could be as a center for liberal learning. And then in the 20th century, Samuel Palmer Brooks was the first of a series of great presidents, and his 30 years of service accounted for decades of truly inspired growth. President Brooks oversaw the vast expansion of Baylor from a small liberal arts college to a true university, including the first serious movement into the sciences, with a particular focus on the healing professions. His establishment of the Baylor College of Medicine -- world-renowned to this day -- is the jewel in the Baylor crown of the 20th century.

Q What would you identify as some of the university's most significant accomplishments during the past 10 years?

A Certainly the development of a vibrant Honors College and the construction of the Baylor Sciences Building come to mind, but one of the underappreciated accomplishments was the restoration of a commitment to residential life, as opposed to one-and-done with campus living. Now there's a menu of choices, so that one can (if one wants) be on campus for the entire undergraduate experience. The Living-Learning Centers were much needed, and are now much loved. As illustrated by the unfolding of East Village, there is further affirmation of the demand on the part of Baylor undergraduates for the true university experience of living in community, as opposed to "I lived in Penland or Collins, and now I live in an apartment."

That restoration of the vision of true university community, living and learning, was accompanied by an overdue commitment to shoring up some of our traditional strengths which had eroded, especially in the sciences, and then to build on and grow our engineering and computer science programs. The 21st century thus far has seen an explosive growth in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines at Baylor University, manifested in the Baylor Sciences Building, which is already one of the crowning achievements of the 21st century, and in the BRIC [Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative]. The BRIC stands as a symbol of the renaissance of the proud partnership between Baylor, the Central Texas community and Waco.

In athletics, Baylor has overcome the appalling tragedy of the basketball program at the earliest days of the 21st century and moved into a very successful Victory with Integrity campaign that, along with the Baylor Law School and the Mayborn Museum, turned University Parks into a showcase. Now we look ahead to what is virtually underway, which is the building of an on-campus stadium. We have lost something precious in community building by having our beloved Floyd Casey situated two miles from campus. Go to Notre Dame, or to Stanford -- great private universities that have great academics, but places where on-campus athletic venues invite alumni to celebrate in community and to bring the family. The family may not come to campus for a lecture, but the family will come to campus for a great sporting event -- as we see at the Ferrell Center, as we see at Getterman Stadium, as we see at Baylor Ballpark, as we see with the Hurd Tennis Center, and as we will soon see with the Jim and Nell Hawkins Indoor Tennis Center and with an on-campus track and field facility.

Q So now we come to Pro Futuris. The new vision builds on a core set of institutional beliefs and values that underlie all that we do here at Baylor. Can you talk about that foundation?

A A university, at its best, is a conversation. It is a conversation to which all are welcome, but it is a conversation that occurs in a context, and that context includes the history, the tradition and the culture of the institution. One of Baylor's enduring strengths is that it honors that rich history; it's all around us, and we don't ignore it. It's not the empty cathedral of Europe. The history is so vibrant and living, and those voices are around us, exemplified by the words of a Samuel Palmer Brooks or the inspired example of the two founding Baptist pastors, Tryon and Huckins, and Judge Baylor. When we honor Founders Day, when we walk from Pat Neff Hall out onto Founders Mall, we touch the past.

We continually bring that past into our thinking about what we're doing today and what we can do in honoring the past by building for the future. So it is a great cloud of witnesses that is around us and that provides so much of the underpinning of what Baylor can be. The words from the founding continue to inspire us: "A university capable of development and enlargement to meet the needs of all the ages to come." That audacious, self-congratulatory, almost arrogant, and yet inspired vision asks, "Why not Baylor?" In the remote hamlet of Independence, in Washington County, Texas, more than a century and a half ago, "Why not Baylor?" And they were right.

Q With that as a starting point, walk us through the process that led us to where we are today with Pro Futuris.

A There was a fundamental decision made at the very beginning that this would be an ongoing town hall conversation, and the conversations would not be rushed. They would be deliberate and thoughtful and developed over time.

It was also decided that the conversation would not simply involve those on campus -- faculty, staff and students. Those voices were certainly included, but we also went beyond the campus, most immediately to the community. We also engaged in a nationwide conversation. Folks from Waco would go out from campus and would participate, facilitate those conversations in cities across the nation, and listen.

In a conversation, especially with a large conversation, more people are rightly listening than are talking. All the voices were listened to, and the points being made were harvested and captured in an old-fashioned way: Post-its, easels, the way we would have had in a 20th-century planning session or brainstorming session. But then we entered the 21st century, and we entered all those electronically so that all the comments in those numerous conversations were gathered in a database that then led to a process of careful assessing and evaluation by a magnificent group of men and women, the Strategic Themes Committee, appointed from across campus. The result of all this was the production almost exactly a year ago, in the early summer of 2011, of the Strategic Themes Report.

That 110-page document was, and is, extraordinary. It was not only a summary of all those myriad conversations; it also harvested some of the voices themselves so that the report was lavish with quotations that, in the view of the committee, were viewed as representative of the voices that had come together. Members of the Executive Council then took that 110-page document and went into retreat nearby for two full days, and we were together in our round-table conversations meditating on and discussing the report.

Out of that came the actual drafting of what would eventually become Pro Futuris, which in itself was a collaborative product that continued to involve the Strategic Themes Committee. The draft was then put before the community for comment over a several-month period, and there was a very lively set of renewed conversations about the draft. After further discussion and refining, what you now have as Pro Futuris was laid before the Board of Regents at its meeting in May, and happily the Board of Regents, which had been actively following the process throughout, unanimously approved it, and here we are.

Q Are there particular individuals who should be recognized for their roles in this year-and-a-half process?

A I would single out in the administration Elizabeth Davis, our executive vice president and provost. Elizabeth was our leader, and we looked to her to oversee the process. She gets the gold medal. But if we can give more than one gold medal, I would give the second to Professor Mitch Neubert, the leader of the Strategic Themes Committee, enormously thoughtful and wise. And then I would also give a medal for his wisdom, guidance and very active involvement to Regent Ron Murff, who remained in thoughtful communication with all of the 22 other Regents, keeping them fully informed of the process, getting their input and helping us understand their perspectives. Those would be my three gold medalists.

Q You, Dr. Davis and others have been very specific that Pro Futuris is a vision, rather than a plan. What is the primary difference there?

A A vision sets forth our constitution for going forward, but it does not then provide an entire set of laws. It's our framework, our guidepost, to which we are to be true. We are to be faithful in our allegiance to the vision, which has been through this elaborate, egalitarian and open-ended process.

Now we decide, out of that framework, what are the specific actions we will take? We call them Acts of Determination, which sounds very forceful, but the simple point is, "What do we do now specifically in light of the five aspirational statements?"

The obvious advantage is that it invites the continuing conversation. It can be said, "Well, it provides for flexibility." A constitution should provide for flexibility, but it is more than just an opportunity for flexibility. It's an opportunity for continuing this dialogue within the Baylor family.

Q Playing a little bit of a devil's advocate here... The university already had a motto, already had a mission statement. Why did it need something else?

A You can get along without it, but it's more helpful if you have, as the chair of a department or as the dean of a school, a more detailed and yet open-ended set of aspirational statements. So, for instance, one can then ask, "What am I doing now to contribute to transformational educational experiences?" We don't have that specific goal in the mission statement.

We have taken the mission statement, which is very sacred to us, and we have now reflected on "How do we achieve that?" The aspirational statements give us guideposts that we can then use to determine our specific actions -- our Acts of Determination.

Q What do you find most inspiring about the five aspirational statements that define our new vision?

A The idea of a transformational educational experience. If Baylor stands for anything as a Christian university that honors its Baptist heritage, it is that this experience will be transformational. Experiences inside and outside our classrooms will help young men and women come to a very deep sense of calling and vocation in life. "What are the talents and gifts that God has given me, and how can I use those to become not simply a leader, but a true servant-leader?" That's the purpose of a transformational experience of self-discovery and of preparation for a very powerful life of real impact.

Q Still, there are specifics to be worked out. When and how does the university begin to move into the specific ideas that will advance our aspirations?

A Every day. I think you will see an enormous outpouring of thoughtful conversations around campus, even in the quieter summer months, building to the arrival in the fall. We are literally engaged in these conversations every day; I had a conversation this very morning on the global dimension of Pro Futuris.

Q As you know, Baylor Magazine is read by about 120,000 alumni worldwide. What about Baylor alumni -- how do they fit into this vision? How can they contribute to Baylor's success going forward?

A We have invited all alumni to participate in the conversations heretofore, and we continue to covet and welcome their engagement in going forward. In fact, one of the aspirational statements is Committed Constituents, "where the dedication of alumni and friends advances Baylor through sustained involvement in philanthropy." We want our alumni to be involved in a sustained way. There are many Acts of Determination on their part individually: supporting our athletic programs, all 19 of them; supporting Baylor theater; supporting Baylor music; supporting perhaps their college or school through their own philanthropy, or by helping us identify those who can assist through philanthropy.

That's for every single member of the Baylor community, including parents who were not themselves the beneficiaries of a Baylor education, but who see the transformative nature of the educational experience and say, "That has been so good for my child that, if I am able, I want to do something in addition to facilitating and encouraging their passage through their years as an undergraduate."

I believe that through the growing work of the Baylor Alumni Network, we are truly reaching, at least potentially, every single member of the Baylor alumni family in a very powerful way. For us to have had during this just-completed fiscal year 829 events nationally, even globally, under the auspices of the Baylor Alumni Network suggests a powerful interest in community building and community sharing within the Baylor family.

It doesn't hurt that we have had an unprecedentedly successful year in athletics, but the Baylor Alumni Network was already quite vibrant prior to this "unbelievably believable" year, and I believe 829 events is an inspiring harbinger of great things to come.

And those events have not come off through central command out of Robinson Tower. With all due respect to Tommye Lou Davis and her wonderful staff, 829 events could not occur if it were not for the wonderful alumni and parent volunteers of Baylor Nation.

Q Are there other ways for alumni to support the university in addition to financial gifts?

A Come home. Try to get back to the Baylor campus. But if you live far, far away and it is too expensive or inconvenient, then really connect with the Baylor alumni family. Show up at events in your city; be engaged and involved. Networks are powerful engines of good, and the Baylor Alumni Network in that 21st-century sense has such wonderful potential for connecting individuals back to the Baylor family, because one cannot predict what will come out of that engagement. It might very well be that an alum could help us mentor a Baylor student who recently arrived in their city for the summer, or could help a recent graduate identify job openings. We simply cannot predict, and that's part of the beauty of the dynamism of the Baylor Alumni Network as we inclusively say to everyone, "We want you to come and be engaged to the full extent possible." We understand that you have busy lives and profound priorities of family, career and church, but carve out a little bit of time and space for Baylor.

Q In the past, Baylor has funded the rising costs of operation in large part through tuition dollars. What is the long-term strategy for managing costs while continuing to move Baylor forward?

A Access to higher education is one of the compelling moral and practical issues of 21st-century America, and virtually every day brings news of an issue, a debate, a controversy. Are we too expensive? Is our tuition out of the range of families who so dearly want their child or children to have the benefits of the Baylor education? We have taken bold steps to increase scholarship and financial assistance to students; in fact, today more than 90 percent of students receive some form of financial assistance. And so while we're thankful for the comparative accessibility of a Baylor education, as attested to by Kiplinger's and Fiske's "best buy" ratings, we are still mindful that -- and I hear it up close and personal -- some families can't afford it.

As an institution, we should be deeply vexed by the growing specter of indebtedness. We see that nationwide, student debt has surpassed credit card debt, with over $1 trillion in student loans. There has to be a new way. I think we now need to see that families alone can't make it, and as helpful as the government has been in the 20th century, there are limits in the 21st century to what government will be able to do. And so what's the alternative? The alternative really is the cultivation of a greater sense of "I will give what I can" to build my university's endowment, so that much more generous financial support can come to our students from the entire Baylor family.

I love to think of the amazing things that would happen if all of our alumni had the sense of "I will give what I can to support scholarships. It may not be much, but I will give what I can." It's very biblical that people give according to their means, which is all anyone can reasonably ask. For those who have been blessed mightily to say, "I want to honor my parents, or my child, or a teacher or professor who came alongside me in a great powerful way, by contributing to or creating, perhaps with others, a scholarship fund for students," would bless the university and generations of students to come. To those who can only afford smaller gifts that can be joined with others, I would say that the benefits to our students will be equally meaningful.

Here on campus, we need to be mindful of creative ways to encourage that spirit of generosity, so that 10 years from now that $1 billion endowment is far greater and the amount of scholarships available through endowment, through the generosity of our family and friends, is much greater than it is today.

Q You frequently invoke Baylor's motto -- "Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana" -- in your public comments and presentations. How does Pro Futuris connect the history embodied in our motto to the future that is collectively envisioned for Baylor?

A I do love our motto and am proud of the fact that it is so much more than an inscription on a cornerstone or a relic of our past. Our motto is a vibrant part of our present and a guiding voice for our future.

Pro Futuris honors that motto and encapsulates the original vision of the university "capable of enlargement to meet the needs of all the ages to come." In that context, our motto of "Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana" -- for the church and for Texas, which we now view as a metaphor for the world -- was intended for its day and for the future. So Pro Futuris brings to mind that founding vision that we are to be developing and enlarging the university now to meet the needs not just of the current age, of the church now, of Texas and the world now, but for the ages to come. That's a tall order, but a very exciting goal for us to pursue together.