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Baylor interim president fires provost who held opposing view

WACO, Texas (BP)–In his first day on the job as Baylor University’s interim president, Bill Underwood replaced two members of the senior administration, including Provost David Jeffrey, who Underwood once challenged to a public debate over academic freedom.

Underwood, who assumed presidential responsibilities June 1, named religion department Chairman Randall O’Brien as interim provost, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald.

“I appreciate Dr. Jeffrey’s contributions to Baylor but at this particular point in our history, I thought what the university needed was a person with Dr. O’Brien’s unique ability to bring people together,” Underwood said. “He has shown his abilities to do that again and again. I thought his particular talents fit Baylor’s needs at this critical point in its history.”

Underwood succeeds outgoing President Robert B. Sloan Jr., who has taken the role of chancellor after a long battle with opposing factions over the future of the university, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In addition to O’Brien, Underwood tapped Baylor law professor and former Waco Mayor Michael Morrison to replace Tommye Lou Davis as his chief of staff. Davis will continue to serve as Sloan’s chief of staff in the chancellor’s office.

Baylor’s vice president for student life, Eileen Hulme, announced May 31 she would resign her post, and Underwood said he will soon name her successor.

Will Davis, chairman of the Baylor regents, told the Tribune-Herald that Jeffrey’s termination likely took many of the regents by surprise when Underwood informed them via e-mail.

“I think there were regents who were very supportive for Dr. Jeffrey and the job he did as [provost],” Davis said, noting that such action should be done with the consultation of regents. “It’s hard to see this as a healing event.”

Last October, Underwood — then serving as a Baylor law school professor — initiated a public debate with Jeffrey over whether academic and religious freedom could coexist at Baylor. Sloan and President Emeritus Herbert Reynolds were in the capacity crowd at the campus event.

“Jeffrey cautioned against individualism over and beyond community consensus; Underwood gave examples of the danger of subjugating individual rights. Jeffrey raised the specter of ‘radical subjectivity’ while Underwood outlined the evils of ‘autocratic dictates,'” Vicki Marsh Kabat wrote in the February issue of Baylor Magazine recounting the debate.

Underwood’s motivation for the debate stemmed from Jeffrey’s proposed revision of Baylor’s academic freedom statement and from a speech the provost gave at Wheaton College the previous spring.

The proposed amendment, which was rejected by the faculty senate, contained statements that research and/or teaching that advocated “practices that are inconsistent with Baptist faith and practice” would not be supported by the university and must be avoided, according to the alumni publication. The revision also said the provost would develop a process to determine which research projects would be approved.

During the Wheaton speech, Jeffrey stated that such doctrines as priesthood of the believer too often are used as license to interpret the Bible, as he quoted one Baylor regent as saying, “in any way I choose.”

“This kind of statement apparently thrills the soul of some Texans,” Jeffrey said, “but mine is not one of them.

“As a radical extension of the doctrines of ‘soul competency’ and ‘priesthood of the believer’ -– not of ‘believers’ –- it is a full logical equivalent of the postmodernist stance in literary and legal theory.” Such “triumphant subjectivism,” he said, “quite naturally leads to, in practice … neglect of the Bible altogether.”

Jeffrey advocated communal freedom, which would give the university the right to set group standards over the individual freedom of professors.

But Underwood, who was questioned over his admitted connection to Planned Parenthood immediately following his election as interim president, has contended that community freedom must not trump individual freedom because every Christian has the right to read the Scriptures and be led by the Holy Spirit to make his or her own conclusions about what it means.

“Some people describe it as ‘priesthood of the believer,’ and that’s part of it,” he said. “But I tend to think of it more as individual freedom of conscience [which is] one of the foundations of the Baptist faith. To me, that’s what we Texas Baptists have fought for against Southern Baptist Convention politicians for decades, and it’s something very important.”

Underwood said June 1 his decision to replace Jeffrey was not brought on by the academic freedom debate, according to the Tribune-Herald, and he added that the debate was “one of the most positive moments” of Jeffrey’s term.

Jeffrey, whose time as provost ended two years to the day after it began, will return to his position as distinguished professor of literature and humanities at Baylor.

“I do share some apprehension for Baylor,” he told the Tribune-Herald. “This could be a time of perceived contradiction. And I am particularly concerned that the process of bringing Baylor together not be derailed, that we do anything to minimize divisions here.”

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