HOUSTON (BP) — For seminary student Samantha Williams, the “B” in HBU means more than “Baptist.” It represents a time and a place where she came to know Christ and His will for her life.
Because Houston Baptist University’s Christian identity is so central to Williams’ transformation during her time as a student, she opposes recently announced plans to take the denominational identifier out of the school’s name. Like other alumni opposed to the change, Williams sees no need for her alma mater to take on a new identity.
But school officials say the term “Baptist” limits the school’s potential student pool to people who grew up in the denomination’s Southern network of churches. Students who did not grow up going to a Baptist church might not feel welcome at the school, officials say. And as HBU prepares to return to NCAA Division I athletic competition and reintroduce a core liberal arts program, trustees hope to expand its appeal outside the south and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Former Houston Baptist University Provost Paul Bonicelli supports the proposal. He believes denominational monikers can hinder a school’s growth and, consequently, the reach of the Gospel.
“It’s about time,” Bonicelli said in response to news that HBU trustees are exploring the possibility of a name change for the 51-year-old university. “I was always an advocate of that.”
If Houston Baptist changes its name, it would not be the only one without that descriptor among Baptist-affiliated colleges and universities. Among the 54 Baptist-affiliated schools listed on the Southern Baptist Convention’s website, only 15 have the word “Baptist” in their name. Among them that don’t: Union University, the University of Mobile and Louisiana College.
Even as one “raised at the knee” of notable pastor and three-time Southern Baptist Convention President Adrian Rogers, Bonicelli said denominational affiliations in the names of institutes of higher education can prove to be more of a hindrance than a draw.
As part of its efforts to expand the school’s reach, the 36-member HBU Board of Trustees commissioned a study to determine the school’s name recognition. Spokesman R. Kimberly Gaynor, vice president for university communications, said the results of the survey were telling.
“Disturbingly, we got back, at significant levels, a clear impression that our name presents some confusion,” he said.
Respondents readily identified the university among Houston’s other four-year institutions, most notably Rice University and the University of Houston, but beyond name recognition, respondents knew little of substance about the school. Some even said they weren’t sure about the meaning of Baptist in the school’s name, Gaynor said.
The anticipated elevation in the school’s profile will demand clarification, Gaynor said.
Beginning next year, the university will return to NCAA Division 1 athletic competition, and in 2014, the school’s first football team will take the field. The university has moved to the Southland Conference, pitting it against neighboring Texas schools, including Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, and Lamar University in Beaumont. Gaynor said 100,000 alumni of Southland Conference schools live in the Greater Houston area, a large source of potential attention for the campus.
In the academic arena, HBU has reintroduced a core liberal arts program and hopes soon to establish a doctoral program.
Even with an elevated profile, Gaynor cited anecdotal evidence indicating prospective students will balk at the school’s name, presuming they cannot be admitted because they are not Baptist.
But HBU’s student population does not substantiate that perception, as the majority do not have a Baptist background.
“What we don’t know is what we’re not getting,” Gaynor said. He asked: How many students do not even consider attending HBU because of misconceptions about who’s allowed to attend?
Williams does not buy that argument.
“Obviously the name ‘Baptist’ is not even limiting,” said Williams, who was raised Seventh Day Adventist. “I don’t want them to hide who they are.”
The school’s name offers truth in advertising, she argued. The school should be up front about its affiliation, heritage and funding. HBU continues to receive financial support from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which helped establish the campus. Also, in 2003, the school began a fraternal ministry relationship with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Williams thinks keeping the school’s name but adding a motto or slogan would go further in promoting its true nature. She pointed to other schools, like Texas A&M, that have kept their names, or at least the initials representing their names, long after they expanded past their original educational emphasis.
Williams, 23, credits the school’s environment and Christian student body with her salvation. Raised in a “legalistic” religious environment, Williams said it was the witness of other students who lived their Christian faith in a manner she had rarely seen growing up that gave her an understanding of Scripture. She has since joined First Baptist Church in Houston and is a master of divinity student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Havard campus in Houston. She hopes to work with student life ministries on a college campus.
That makes this disagreement personal for Williams, and she said other alumni share her view. Former HBU students voiced their concern during two town hall style forums hosted by trustees. Williams attended both meetings. She said current and former students urged the committee formed by trustees not to recommend a change.
But Bonicelli said during his tenure at HBU, alumni and trustees always responded positively during discussions about a potential name change.
“Those who had reservations said, ‘That’s my school. It’s personal,'” he recalled.
If a name change will draw more students to HBU and make them a part of God’s work, then the name change needs to happen, Bonicelli said.
Expunging “Baptist” from the school’s keystone would not “water down” the very foundations of the school, as some fear, Bonicelli said.
“We aren’t just a name,” Gaynor said. “Jesus is Lord, and that’s what we’re about.”
The preamble to the university’s bylaws declares the Lordship of Christ and the Kingdom work of HBU. Each of the 36 trustees must sign a document affirming the preamble and a unanimous vote is required to change even one word of it, Gaynor said: “That transcends the name. It gets to the DNA of the university. We’re never going to change that document.”
Bonnie Pritchett writes for World News Service, where this story first appeared. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).