I joined Baylor University’s faculty in July 2003 after a brief stint as a Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton. What drew me to Baylor is what has attracted, and continues to attract, hundreds of other prospective faculty members: the ideals and goals of the school’s ambitious strategic vision, Baylor 2012, and its successor, Pro Futuris.
Baylor 2012, adopted by the Baylor board of regents in September 2001, was audacious in its imperatives and goals. Although it included the usual calls for improved athletic teams, facilities, residential buildings, etc., it was its theological and academic aspirations that drew the most sustained attention and provoked the most controversy in and outside the Baylor community: “Within the course of a decade, Baylor intends to enter the top tier of American universities while reaffirming and deepening its distinctive Christian mission.”
In order to accomplish both, the university would have to be more intentional in its hiring for both mission and research, strategically develop quality doctoral programs, and become more highly selective in its undergraduate and graduate admissions. To clarify the mission element with greater specificity, Baylor 2012 rejected the conventional wisdom in the religious academy that faith-based mission and academic excellence were two non-overlapping spheres of the university’s social life:
Accepting the same premise of the divided way, many Christian colleges have chosen insularity and self-protective intellectual mediocrity as the way to preserve their Christian vitality. But the idea that faith and learning are mutually exclusive has a weaker grip today than it had during most of the last century, and Baylor believes that that fork in the path is indeed a figment of the modern imagination.
Separating itself from the conventional wisdom of the secular academy, Baylor 2012 affirmed the complementarity of faith and reason:
We believe that the highest intellectual excellence is fully compatible with orthodox Christian devotion. Indeed, the two are not only compatible, but mutually reinforcing. Christian faith, at its best, motivates a love of all truth; and true knowledge supports and deepens our love of God in Jesus Christ. This is the undivided way and ancient premise on which Baylor ventures into the next 10 years of our exciting history.
As strange it may seem coming from a document composed by Baptists in the American South, the terms “orthodox Christian,” “undivided way,” and “ancient premise” represent the ideas that inspired the architects of Baylor 2012.
Many Christian colleagues at other institutions often ask me, with a bit of envy in their voices, what it is about Baylor, its history, constituencies, etc. that led the university to propose Baylor 2012 (and its successor Pro Futuris). As someone who arrived at Baylor years after all the important thinking and planning of 2012 had been done and its implementation already set in motion, I often find myself providing an answer that I know is incomplete and overly influenced by my own experiences as a Northern Evangelical (who in 2007 returned to the Catholic Church of his youth). The Baylor story, as I have come to better appreciate, cannot really be understood in the culture war categories by which the tales of American Christian conflict are often told.
For this reason, the new book by Donald D. Schmeltekopf, Baylor At The Crossroads: Memoirs of a Provost (Cascade Books, 2015) is a must read for anyone interested in knowing the history of what Schmeltekopf calls the Baylor Project. From 1991 through 2003, he served as Baylor’s Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs under the presidencies of two academic giants, Herbert H. Reynolds (1981-1995) and Robert B. Sloan (1995-2005). In this brief, though rich, account of his time in academic leadership at Baylor, Schmeltekopf tells the story of a school that went from being a very good regional Baptist university with well-respected professional schools to a major player in the inter-Christian conversation on the relationship between faith, learning, and higher education.
In the 1970s through 1990s Southern Baptist fundamentalists and moderates were not only battling over issues having to do with the nature of Scripture but also over the composition of the boards of the denomination’s seminaries and colleges. The reason for this was simple: whatever faction can take over the boards can choose the presidents who have the power to hire and fire faculty members, and thus over time alter or stay the denomination’s theological and cultural commitments. In this internecine battle, Baylor was the ultimate prize. Not because Baylor was a Southern Baptist school. It was not. Rather, it was because the body that had the power to appoint all of Baylor’s trustees (now called regents), the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), was (until 1998) within the Southern Baptist Convention. The fear (or the hope) was that if the fundamentalists could take over the BGCT, then it would only be a matter of time before Baylor’s board would consist almost entirely of trustees who could use their power to change the character of the university from a place that reflected the full spectrum of Baptist life to one that unequivocally took the fundamentalist’s side in the denomination’s wars.
In September 1990, President Reynolds, in one of the shrewdest moves in the history of academic administrations, was able to convince Baylor’s board to change the university’s charter in order to pre-empt such a scenario. (The Jan. 6, 1991 Newsweek story on the move was entitled, “How To Steal a University”). Limiting the BGCT regent appointments to 25 percent of the board, the charter change helped the university avert a fundamentalist takeover. However, the school now had to deal with another problem: how does Baylor avoid the secularization that other institutions have undergone after denominational oversight was removed or significantly limited?
It cannot be overstated, as Schmeltekopf makes clear in his book, that the board’s charter change was not about moving Baylor in the direction of secularization, as it has been at so many other institutions where those calling for change were in fact trying to gradually untether the school from its religious roots. Rather, the charter change was about freeing Baylor from the constraints of a particular strain of conservative American Protestantism that had staked out positions—on biblical inerrancy, the value of biblical criticism, creationism, the relationship between natural reason and theology, women in ministry, etc.—that many non-liberal, though non-fundamentalist, Christian believers did not think were issues over which the Gospel’s message depends. To be sure, some at Baylor did support the move to secularization, as Schmeltekopf admits. But that’s not what the critical mass at Baylor was seeking. They wanted to move the university to higher ground, to fashion an institution that, while remaining ecumenically Baptist, could find its moorings by identifying more closely with established and oftentimes ancient Christian practices and beliefs about the life of faith and its relationship to the exercise of reason. For this reason, the Baylor that emerged out of the Southern Baptist wars was, to coin a phrase, a stumbling block to the fundamentalists and foolishness to the secularists. This is why I sometimes refer to President Reynolds as the Gorbachev of Baylor. He thought his perastroika of the charter would merely prevent a fundamentalist takeover, and it most certainly did achieve that end. However, what he did not anticipate was that it could result in a glasnost at Baylor, allowing the institution to freely appropriate ideas from Christian traditions outside of the Baptist orbit.
Within two years after the charter change, Schmeltekopf, Reynold’s provost, concluded that no Protestant model exists that would provide him with the conceptual framework by which he could cast a vision for Baylor that would help protect the institution from drifting into secularization. He first found inspiration from the University of Notre Dame’s Colloquy of the Year 2000, and later from John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University. During the presidency of Reynold’s successor, Robert Sloan, Schmeltekopf began putting together the vision that would eventually become 2012. Although many on campus assisted him, including President Sloan and philosopher Michael Beaty, it cannot be overemphasized that Schmeltekopf was 2012’s chief architect. But that by itself was not enough. Because he possessed the right cluster of personal virtues, including modesty, humility, charity, and courage, that made it possible for him to build key alliances among administrators, faculty, and regents, he had more than a fighting chance of pulling it off. A rarity these days, Schmeltekopf was a visionary with a considerable set of practical skills absent an ego.
During his years as provost, and mostly under Sloan’s presidency, Schmeltekopf was able to put in place policies that made 2012’s goals achievable. These policies included decreased course load for faculty, greater research expectations for tenure assessment, increase in the number and quality of doctoral programs (including competitive graduate fellowships), a more intentional emphasis on Christian mission in hiring, and the targeted recruitment of university and distinguished professors. Hired under the latter policy were some of the most recognizable names in Christian thought, such as Ralph Wood, David Lyle Jeffrey (Schmeltekopf’s successor as provost), Thomas S. Hibbs (dean of Baylor’s honors college), C. Stephen Evans, Martin J. Medhurst, Walter L. Bradley, and Robert C. Roberts. If not for Schmeltkopf’s visionary leadership and its influence on the development of Baylor’s self-identity and academic culture, it is difficult to imagine recent distinguished professor hires Phillip Jenkins (from Penn State), Alan Jacobs (from Wheaton), and John Haldane (from St. Andrews) ever considering a move to Baylor.
Given the current climate in the wider academic culture, is it possible for Baylor to remain faithful to its Christian mission while continuing to raise its academic profile as a university? This is largely going to depend on the willingness of those in leadership to practice what the school preaches in Baylor 2012 and Pro Futuris. This most certainly means intentional institutional resistance to many (though not all) trends in the contemporary secular academy by which elites identify an institution as enlightened and progressive. But the resistance cannot be merely reactionary and defensive, for that would imply that the secular academy is the lodestar against which even dissenters measure their journey. Such a strategy, in a world that assesses its progress by the efficient, the practical, and the desired, cannot transport you to the good, the true, and the beautiful. Baylor must lead. This means directly addressing in its policies and practices—with intelligence, charity, conviction, and rhetorical artfulness—so-called settled issues in the secular academy that are by their nature intrinsically hostile to Christian faith and thus to the mission of a serious Christian university. It is on this point that the wisdom of one of Schmeltekopf’s favorite authors, John Henry Cardinal Newman, is most apt: “Religious Truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unraveling the web of University Teaching. It is, according to the Greek proverb, to take the Spring from out of the year; it is to imitate the preposterous proceeding of those tragedians who represented a drama with the omission of its principal part.”
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, and Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Philosophy, Baylor University. His most recent book is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015)