On a Wednesday afternoon I made my way from my office on the Baylor University campus over to the central administration building to begin the process of reviewing candidate files for the next president of Baylor. I had no idea what I would find. As a member of the advisory committee, I had been involved in initial conversations with the regent search committee about the desired qualifications of the new president and in a listening session with the group I represented, the Council of Deans. That was months ago. The regent committee had held its silence. There had been no leaks. Rumors, mostly from those mistrustful of the board, had circulated. There were no good candidates; the board was not doing a serious search, certainly not a national search; the board wanted a toady; the board was planning to appoint one of its own.
I began to look through the files and was pleased both by how many there were and by some of the high profile names. One in particular jumped out, Ken Starr. Yes, that Ken Starr.
Now, the members of our advisory committee did not have a vote. Yet, on what was certain to be, initially at least, a controversial selection, the board would not, I think, have acted without our support. Much to our surprise, the members of the advisory committee, with representatives of groups (faculty senate and alumni) that had been at odds with recent administrations, ended up unified in support of the candidacy of Ken Starr. What made us overcome whatever initial reluctance any of us might have had?
Certainly folks felt good about the process itself, but beyond that Ken Starr himself emerged as a compelling candidate. He is at once a commanding and a genial presence who combines intelligence and humility. He never seems to forget a name or to miss a chance to take a conversation back, often in a humorous way, to comments made earlier by others. He is also a gifted orator, as was clear in his first public speech at Baylor. On Tuesday afternoon, before a large and enthusiastic crowd, he spoke eloquently of Baylor’s origins, its traditions, and its role in and beyond Texas.
As John Garvey, Dean of the Law School at Boston College and recent president of the American Association of Law Schools said, “Ken is a well known public figure, and people form ideas about such celebrities from what little they read in the media. There are sides of him that are less well known. One example is his representation of Robin Lovitt, a death row inmate whose sentence was ultimately commuted to life in prison. Another is his serious commitment to his faith.”
Pepperdine President Andrew Benton observed, “Ken has had a tremendous impact on our students, the law school, and the Pepperdine community at large. His leadership, his love of scholarship and his devotion to our students helped raise the national stature of our school, and we will benefit from the good he accomplished here for many years to come.” This might seem a pro forma statement from the president’s office but it is echoed by numerous Pepperdine faculty members, including those who identify themselves as politically liberal, and by students.
Defying expectations about what the search committee was up to, this election of Judge Starr as Baylor’s next president was a surprising choice. As a colleague said when the news broke, “I could not have been more surprised if you told me it was SpongeBob.” Initial press reporting has been, as expected, mixed, but even the Houston Chronicle, which has hardly been friendly to Baylor’s leadership in recent years, delivered a quite positive article about the appointment.
Altering and shaping the conversation about higher education is something Ken Starr will, as president of Baylor, be in a position to do. He said as much about what he hoped to do at Baylor in a response to a question from George Stephanapoulos in an interview on Good Morning America. Noting that Baylor has been making significant strides in faculty scholarship even as it remains focused on the integration of faith and learning, he noted that Baylor is in a position to be an important voice in higher education.
In a landscape that is becoming increasingly homogeneous, the world of American higher education needs institutional diversity; it especially needs the distinctive contributions of its religious colleges and universities. On that score, recent history is not comforting. What seems to be an inertial slide toward secularization has plagued many once great religious institutions of higher learning. According to studies by Jim Burtchaell and George Marsden, secularization has not been a plot perpetrated by malicious university leaders. Instead, it typically occurs under capable and personally pious presidents, who seem to suffer from a certain naivete. One might, for example, hear a president at a Catholic university say something like, “Secularization will not affect Catholic schools the way it has affected Protestant schools because of the distinctively Catholic understanding of faith and reason.” The problem of course is that if very few members of the faculty can articulate with any clarity or sympathy that distinctive understanding, it is hard to see how it will forestall secularization.
The vision under which Baylor University now operates (Baylor 2012), articulated during the presidency of Robert Sloan, is designed to counter the inertial slide even as it aims to make Baylor more of a national university. Disputes over the implementation of that vision were the occasion for much publicized divisions at Baylor during the presidency of Sloan, now president at Houston Baptist University.
The goals and “Guiding Convictions” of that document remain. They were part of our committee conversations in this presidential search. These are noble goals for Christian higher education. Much is at stake in their prudent and vibrant realization. Because we have a history of division, tempered certainly in recent years, combined with great aspirations for the future, Baylor desperately needs a president who can hear all voices, someone who will listen, not passively but with intelligence, discretion, and judgment. One thing is clear about a selection that surprised nearly everyone. With the election of Ken Starr, Baylor has entered a period of presidential leadership that is in many respects unprecedented in its entire history.
Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University.