Whoever said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity" should speak with embattled Baylor University president Robert Sloan. Never in Baylor's 158-year history have the eyes of the national media and academic community been so riveted on the world's largest Baptist university. Beleaguered by a combination of athletic scandals and academic controversy, Sloan has been targeted for criticism by numerous members of his faculty and student body. Yet Sloan passed the only test that matters for his job security when, last Friday, September 12, Baylor's Board of Regents affirmed his leadership by a vote of 31-4.
Even taking into account the recent murder of a Baylor basketball player, allegedly by his own teammate, Sloan's greatest liability appears to be his "Baylor 2012" plan. Sloan's stated vision is to transform Baylor into the "world's greatest Christian university," or at least a "Protestant Notre Dame" where research and education are imbued with the Christian worldview.
In his 2001 book Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions, Robert Benne ponders Baylor's challenge within the context of five other schools representing a continuum of Christian education. Benne doesn't venture to predict the success or failure of Sloan's vision, but his analysis gives us an opportunity to consider the history Baylor is working against.
America's leading universities, most notably Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, set a pattern, followed by other institutions, of abandoning a Christian framework for teaching and scholarship. Benne identifies a three-step process: first, these schools abandoned their theological distinctives in favor of a generic brand of Christianity; then they presented Christian faith as a sentimental alternative within a broad ideological spectrum; and finally they excluded Christianity in favor of other supposedly universal ideals.
Why this slippery slope? Benne's explanation begins with the obvious: at crucial junctures in the universities' histories, they lacked a critical mass of committed Christians. Too few faculty members, students, and administrators shared a distinct vision of Christian education. Often the universities lacked the necessary critical mass because they had been forced to seek funding, students, and faculty outside their theological boundaries. Their sponsoring denominations frequently lacked sufficient resources to fund both the schools and their own activities, and failed to direct enough students to adequately populate the schools. Only occasionally did universities declare their intent to secularize. But as institutions weakened their theological distinctives in order to attract more funding, they were "like the proverbial frog in the water slowly being brought to boil."
Without a doubt, Enlightenment education theories also turned up the heat. While secular educators boasted of the all-sufficiency of reason and science, they left little room for such "superstition" as biblical revelation. These debates were most heated within graduate programs, which were often guided by the dominant ethos of their particular fields, rather than the Christian vision of their own universities. After disconnecting their academic programs from any remaining religious ties, secular faculty members turned the tables. If anyone attempted to question this secularization process, they dismissed these concerns as the fears of socially and intellectually backward fundamentalists.
Indeed, Sloan's detractors have often characterized his ambitions as a fundamentalist takeover. By implementing a top-down, swift, and bold vision, Sloan has exposed himself to criticism from faculty members worried about their status in a changing university. Yet Benne's analysis reveals other, more pressing obstacles that Sloan must overcome.
First, Baylor's size (nearly 14,000 students) and commitment to scientific research pose problems not faced by smaller, self-consciously Christian liberal arts schools like Wheaton College in Illinois and Calvin College in Michigan. In order to compete with land-grant universities, schools like Baylor began offering professional training programs in areas such as nursing and engineering. However, this change undermined the academic cohesiveness of a curriculum restricted to the liberal arts. Without this academic cohesiveness, they struggled to maintain a unified Christian ethos across diverse research pursuits.
A second, more serious barrier, in Benne's eyes, is posed by Baylor's Baptist affiliation. Unlike the Reformed tradition that informs Calvin College, the Baptist heritage has not always placed a strong emphasis on theological education and understanding. Baptists are heirs to a devotionally focused pietism that de-emphasizes the intellectual dimension of faith. As a result, they have historically tended to remain skeptical of higher education's value for the Christian life.
This skepticism has revealed itself during past battles for the Southern Baptist Convention's theological soul. While Baylor remained in the hands of denominational centrists, other Baptist universities, including Wake Forest, balked at the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative turn and shed their church connections. Consequently, Sloan's efforts to strengthen Baylor's Christian commitment are besieged on both sides: on one side by secularists who do not value the Christian worldview, and on the other side by pietists who do not value higher education.
Throughout Baylor's history, pietism has guided extracurricular student life, while secularism has defined the classrooms. By declaring war on this two-spheres approach to education, Sloan is fighting a longstanding trend of academic secularization in America. If the recent vote is any indication, though, Sloan's grand experiment has passed a critical test.
Collin Hansen is editorial resident for Christian History magazine. More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
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Christianity Today's earlier articles on Baylor include:
2012: A School Odyssey | Baylor strives to go where no Christian university has gone before—in ten years (Nov. 22, 2002)
Weblog: Baylor Regents Overwhelming Support President | After a very bad week at Baylor, good news for Sloan's vision of Christian higher education (Sept. 12, 2003)
Weblog: Showdown at Baylor, Continued | Baylor U.'s sports troubles leak into school's religion debate (Aug. 1, 2003)
Weblog: Showdown at Baylor | Baylor's president faces off against critics this week amid multiple controversies (July 18, 2003)
Design Interference | William Dembski fired from Baylor's Intelligent Design center (Nov. 28, 2000)
Unintelligent Designs | Baylor's dismissal of Polyani Center director Dembski was not a smart move (Oct. 23, 2000)
Books & Culture Corner: Defending Faith and Learning | Baylor University's Polanyi Center comes under fire from the university's faculty (Apr. 24, 2000)
Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:
Learning From the Other 9/11 | Words kill. So teachers, watch what you say.(Sept. 11, 2003)
The Lord of the Rings: What Harvest? | A reader's guide to the best of epic fantasy (Sept. 5, 2003)`
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legend—and Truth—to modern readers (Aug. 29, 2003)
The Ten Commandments, How Deep Our Debt | The words of the Decalogue run like a river through not only the church but also English and American history. (August 22, 2003)
Muscular Christianity's Prodigal Son, College Sports | In the wake of a basketball scandal at a prominent Christian university, we take time to remember the Christian roots of college athletics. (August 15, 2003)
Palestinian Christians, Strangers in a Familiar Land | They've called the Holy Land home for centuries, but they've never actually governed themselves. (August 8, 2003)
Liberia's Troubled Past—and Present | The nation's history explains why the current conflict succumbs to, yet simultaneously transcends, the stereotype of African tribal wars. (August 1, 2003)
Medical Missions' African Legacy | For generations, missionary doctors have healed body and soul in Africa. (July 25, 2003)
European Christianity's 'Failure to Thrive' | Why Christendom, born with an imperial bang, is now fading away in an irrelevant whimper. (July 18, 2003)
Where Have All the Classics Gone? | These days it's a triumph when a movie is simply inoffensive. But we can do better than that (July 11, 2003)
From Beer to Bibles to VBS | How America got its favorite summer tradition. (July 3, 2003)
The African Lion Roars in the Western Church | Anglican liberals are fretting, conservatives rejoicing, and all are scrambling to their history books: whence this new evangelical force on the world scene? (June 27, 2003)
How John Wesley Changed America | His 300th birthday should be a red-letter day on this side of the ocean. After all, we're all Wesleyans now. (June 20, 2003)
Did Eric Rudolph Act in a "Tradition of Christian Terror"? | A historian considers the evidence of the Crusades and the Inquisition (June 13, 2003)