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Baylor regents select law professor as interim president

WACO, Texas (BP)–Baylor University’s board of regents unanimously chose William D. Underwood, one of the school’s law professors, to serve as interim president, effective June 1.

Underwood, 48, will succeed outgoing President Robert B. Sloan Jr., who announced in January his intentions to become chancellor after a long battle with opposing factions over the future of the university, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Sloan has been Baylor’s president since 1995.

Will Davis, chairman of the board of regents, told the Waco Tribune-Herald that Underwood was one of 20 candidates for interim president the board considered when it met April 29, and after paring the list down to five, the regents selected Underwood on the first ballot.

Also during the session, regents added one of Billy Graham’s daughters, author and speaker Anne Graham Lotz, to the board.

Underwood joined the faculty in 1990 and serves as the Leon Jaworski Chair in Practice and Procedure at Baylor Law School. Beginning in 1997 he took a two-year leave to serve as the university’s general counsel. Following the murder of Baylor men’s basketball player Patrick Dennehy in 2003, he represented the university before the NCAA Committee on Infractions and was a member of the Baylor committee that conducted an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct within the basketball program.

“Bill is a superb lawyer and he’s been at Baylor University a long time,” Davis told the Tribune-Herald. “He served as general counsel seven years ago. He knows this university backwards and forwards, and he brings a lot of talent and a lot of skill to the role.”

The son of a Baptist minister, Underwood is a member of Seventh and James Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a breakaway organization from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Underwood also was among the 2004 underwriters of a Planned Parenthood conference for youth entering the fifth through ninth grades. The half-day “Nobody’s Fool” summertime session, begun in Waco 15 years ago, has been opposed by local conservative groups. Seventh and James Baptist Church was among several co-sponsoring churches in 2004.

Before teaching at Baylor, Underwood practiced civil trial law with a litigation firm based in Dallas. After earning his undergraduate degree from Oklahoma Baptist University, he earned his law degree at the University of Illinois College of Law. Underwood is an elected member of the American Law Institute, the American Bar Association and the Texas Bar Foundation, and he has published extensively in the field of civil practice and procedure, according to a news release by Baylor University.

The most obvious challenge he will face as interim president is to “bring the Baylor family back together,” Underwood told the Tribune-Herald.

“Baylor people that I’ve known have one thing in common that’s very important — they care a great deal about this university,” he said. “That’s a great building block for us all to get moving in the same direction. I’m looking forward to that.”

Toward that end, Underwood received the support of two groups that were at odds over Sloan’s administration. The pro-Sloan “Friends of Baylor” organization and the anti-Sloan “Committee to Restore Integrity to Baylor” both praised Underwood’s credentials and said they were pleased at his selection, the Tribune-Herald reported.

Sloan told the Waco newspaper that Underwood “has my support, and he will do an outstanding job.” Sloan said he had brought Underwood into the university’s executive cabinet and described the law professor as “a very trusted friend. He loves Baylor and he has an unusually strong common sense.”

Underwood called Baylor’s Christian identity its single most important characteristic and said being able to examine issues from an overtly Christian perspective is part of what makes an education at Baylor a fuller experience than at a state university, according to the Tribune-Herald.

Underwood will assume the full duties of president until a long-term successor is selected, and the newspaper reported that regents left open the possibility he could be chosen for that position.

The interim president acknowledged that possibility to the paper. He said he loves being a law professor, but also that, “This particular point in time is one of the most important in Baylor’s history.”

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