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FIRST-PERSON: Baylor’s vision is getting clearer

EDITORS’ NOTE: Jeremiah Russell is a doctoral student at Baylor University, which recently announced that Robert B. Sloan Jr. would be leaving his role as president to become chancellor.

WACO, Texas (BP)–In a recent article in the religious journal First Things, evangelical historian Mark Noll said, “Whether Baylor will reach its ambitious goals remains uncertain, but no one should doubt that its efforts constitute … [the] most important institutional attempt … to do the proper thing for the life of the evangelical mind.”

Over the past few years, many observers have been waiting anxiously to answer that question. Although the conclusion is not yet written, the stepping-down of Robert B. Sloan Jr. from the presidency of Baylor University may not be as tragic as first thought. “Baylor 2012” may well continue as a bold attempt to transform the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher learning into a top-tier research university while maintaining a commitment to Christian orthodoxy.

Sloan ascended to the presidency of Baylor University in 1995 from his post as the inaugural dean of George W. Truett Seminary. In 2001, he initiated one of the most ambitious campaigns of higher-education in decades — Baylor 2012.

But accusations of a “fundamentalist takeover” have created controversy for Sloan and his vision. The threats cast by theological liberals concerned about the direction of Baylor help identify the root of the controversy — the integration of faith with scholarship. Internal conflicts between Sloan and his predecessor at Baylor concerning the implementation of Baylor 2012 highlight this point.

In “The Soul of the American University,” George Marsden charts the secularization of our nation’s institutions of higher education. This movement escalated to such a degree that Southern Baptists increasingly became concerned about education in our seminaries and state colleges. Baylor, like many other Baptist institutions, began drifting leftward. Moderates praised the move towards greater academic freedom; conservatives bemoaned the trend. This controversy ended with Baylor University gaining more autonomy from the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1991.
Sloan’s vision is an attempt to redeem the Christian mind and Christian scholarship and remove the threat of secularized learning. This should not be confused as an attempt to return to Southern Baptist conservatism but rather seen as a renewal of an authentic, essentialist Christian education.
The architectural embodiment of Baylor 2012 is the $103 million, 508,000-square-foot Baylor Science Building, a commitment to academic excellence and Christian faith as demonstrated by the scriptural references — claiming God as Creator — that are engraved in massive font above the Corinthian columns that buttress the structure.
Even though theology may have been the foundation of the conflict, other issues surrounding Sloan’s leadership are not to be discounted. Sloan began an aggressive building campaign, completing over ten buildings totaling more than $400 million. A drive for intense research and publication among faculty raised concern about Baylor’s future as a respected undergraduate institution.

With constant threats of Sloan’s removal being made by the anti-Sloan group — dubbed the Committee to Restore Integrity to Baylor — and ever-present anxiety on campus, those who supported the vision were growing weary of Baptist dissenters, who apparently had vowed not to stop until Sloan was removed. On Jan. 21, 2005, their wish was granted. Sloan was “promoted” to the position of chancellor, which he will assume on June 1.

Even though the figurehead of 2012 stepped down, some parts of 2012 that have been implemented cannot be disregarded; the architectural symbol of 2012, the science building, will stand as an ever-present reminder.

Sloan, remaining in the administration as chancellor, will be responsible for “fundraising, recruitment, and promoting Baylor 2012.” Will Davis, the chairman of the board of regents, publicly reiterated the board’s commitment to continue the vision. Top-notch faculty brought to Baylor under Sloan’s administration will continue to promote the integration of faith and scholarship to their students and academic peers.

Though there is disappointment that the dissenters made enough racket to pressure the regents, this clash over faith and learning is greater than one man, as Sloan admits, and even one university. Other institutions of higher education, such as Wheaton College and Union University, are demonstrating a renewed effort to cultivating the Christian mind.
The events of the last couple years in Waco have added another chapter to recent Baptist politics, but more than that perhaps they actually have given reassurance that Baylor will emerge, as World Magazine’s Gene Edward Veith has said it could, “as America’s most important university.”
Jeremiah Russell is a doctoral fellow at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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