The man who headed the investigation that led to former President Bill Clinton's impeachment will soon move to a new role as Baylor University's president.

Kenneth Starr served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for six years, he was the solicitor general for four years, and most recently he has served as dean of Pepperdine University's law school since 2004. He will begin as president of Baylor on June 1. Starr spoke with online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey about overcoming challenges he faces and his aspirations for the university.

It seems as if you were just getting started at Pepperdine. What do you hope to accomplish at Baylor that you couldn't at Pepperdine?

I have been here for five and a half years, so I will, God-willing, accomplish a sixth academic year at Pepperdine. Baylor, of course, is a great and vast university. My current stewardship is much more limited in nature. It is very challenging to be the dean of a law school and a great honor, but the call from Baylor is a call to servant leadership at a different and certainly much more complex level.

What is Baylor's greatest strength?

It is a wonderful, deeply respected Christian university with venerable Baptist ties that has been a beloved institution for many generations. Pepperdine, in contrast, is a much newer and smaller university, but both share the same mission: to be a Christian university that seeks excellence in all things and seeks to truly integrate faith and learning.

What weaknesses do you hope to address? 

I don't think I'm going to answer any questions on weaknesses until I know the institution much, much better. All institutions can be improved. One of my goals in the early months is to listen and learn. There are so many strengths upon which to build, I feel very positive and optimistic about the call to serve.

The presidency at Baylor has been pretty rocky, with four different men serving in the past five years. What kinds of challenges do you think you will have to overcome?

I think there's an extraordinarily deep reservoir of good will and an eager desire to move forward. What has happened in the past is now in the past. My sense is that there's been an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm in the last year and a half during the stewardship of the interim president, David Garland, who is also dean of George W. Truett Theological Seminary. David is a great man; he is a great scholar and has been a truly great leader of the institution. That has been enormously helpful, opening up a new chapter that has a great deal of promise.

Article continues below

It's difficult to detach your name from the Clinton presidency. What kinds of assumptions will you have to overcome with your background in the Clinton prosecution?

It remains to be seen. That was a long time ago now. Since that time, everyone involved in that unhappy chapter in the nation's history has moved on to other things and to serve in other ways. I've been very blessed to write a book that I had longed to write on the Supreme Court of the United States, and to be engaged in teaching even before the call came to serve at Pepperdine. For the last six years, I've been blessed to live here on the West Coast, far away from the swirl of politics in Washington, D.C. President Clinton has gone on to do many and great things, as illustrated most powerfully by the work of the Clinton Foundation and his personal engagement in Haiti. Time marches on and that very unhappy chapter in American history is a thing of the past. That's where I plan to leave it.

Baylor 2012 announced the institution's intent to become a tier one institution. Do you think that goal will become a reality in the next decade?

I don't want to offer future predictive judgments. The future is unknown and unknowable. I do believe Baylor 2012 is a comprehensive plan for excellence and the expansion of learning, and the further and central integration of faith and learning is extraordinary and courageous. I embrace it wholeheartedly and enthusiastically. The grand vision of Baylor 2012 is one of the very important dimensions of Baylor life that has drawn me this great institution. The board of regents unanimously supports Baylor 2012. Here we are in 2010, so it is time thoughtfully to assess where Baylor is as an institution, and after that assessment, the process will be to prayerfully contemplate the next step.

The original plan for Baylor 2012 called for many new additions to the university, including an honors college and 10 new doctoral programs, with 200 new faculty appointments. Do you know what the state of Baylor 2012 is right now?

Many of the goals have in fact been accomplished admirably. Others remain as aspirational and noble objectives. The task now is to assess comprehensively and thoughtfully where the university is on that march toward 2012.

Do you think it'll achieve the goals it set out to accomplish?

That is part of the assessment process that I have not engaged in yet, and will be actively addressing{?} in the coming weeks and months.

Article continues below

I understand you plan to switch your membership from a Church of Christ church to a Baptist church.

We worship at University Church here, but we continue our longstanding involvement in McLean Bible Church in McLean, Virginia, so I had moved into the broader evangelical world several decades ago. So many nondenominational churches comfortably fit into the broader Baptistic traditions. I'm very comfortable with Baptist distinctives, many of which are shared in the evangelical world.

Is it more important to you that Baylor is in the Baptist tradition or the Christian tradition?

Both need to be honored. Baylor's mission makes it very clear that it is a Christian university, and at the same time it honors its deep and historic Baptist roots. The Baptist tradition must be lifted up and honored, but as part of a broader vision of serving the Kingdom with a capital K. The Baptist heritage is so deeply rooted in American life and culture; the stories of 17th and 18th century America are made much richer and fuller by incorporating and understanding specific Baptist traditions, particularly noble and unceasing effort to secure freedom of conscience and religious freedom. That is a noble part of the heritage that deserves to be treasured by all Americans, especially those in the broad evangelical household of faith.

You worked on the Proposition 8 case while you've been dean at Pepperdine. Will you take on extra activities while president at Baylor? 

That remains to be seen. That is an unfolding conversation. I certainly know that my immediate task is to listen and learn, and that's going to require more of my full time and energy. It remains to be seen.

Aside from Baylor, what university do you most admire, a university that you want Baylor to aspire to become?

Baylor frequently lifts up Notre Dame University in the Catholic world as a model for excellence while honoring and deepening ties to a particular community. I do hold Notre Dame up as an example here at Pepperdine as an aspirational school. Notre Dame has moved into the highest ranks of American universities in terms of the excellence of its scholarship. Certainly, it has been very intentional in honoring and deepening its historic ties to the Catholic world. In a practical sense, Baylor is very well poised to be a counterpart in the broad evangelical world of higher education.

Article continues below

CT just ran a piece by a Baylor University Press author decrying the state of sports in Christian schools of higher education. What are your thoughts on the relationship of sports and academics at Baylor?

My own goal and aspiration, which is deeply rooted in Baylor's traditions and the institutional DNA, is excellence in all things, including sports. Baylor is very honored to be the one private institution in the Big 12. Baylor has performed in the last decade or so with pride and gratitude, and has achieved wonderful results.

Women's basketball player Brittney Griner is getting some attention for punching another woman during a recent basketball game. Does Baylor have a different standard for athletics because it's a Christian college?

It seeks excellence and humanity in playing by the rules. I thought coach Kim Mulkey made a marvelous statement at the conclusion of that game, and I can't say it any better than she did. I would simply refer you to that. It's one of those, "I couldn't have said it any better."

I understand that in recent years, the university administration has become increasingly divided from the Baylor Alumni Association. Do you have specific plans to mend those ties?

It's important for the community to be of one accord and to all be moving intentionally in the same direction. I have a lot to learn, so I need to listen to a variety of members in the community and to collaboratively determine how we can best move as an extended family in the same direction.

Do you foresee any cultural challenges that Baylor will have to face in the coming years?

I'm not sure there's a single overarching challenge, I do know in all times and places, individuals must be vigilant to protect religious freedom and freedom of conscience. That issue arises in a myriad of ways. The pivotal challenge is to have a very well developed intellectual framework and worldview upon which one can measure particular policies or cultural developments. At the core, from an institutional perspective, that will be a coherent framework and worldview that will protect institutional autonomy so that institutions can reflect a loving and Christian character and not be coerced by official pressure to compromise the principles embedded in the core mission of a Christian university.

What role do you think Christian higher education plays in the global church?

It's a great center of both learning and encouragement, an institution that seeks to understand fully the history of the church and the unfolding and developing trends in the life of the Kingdom. It is supposed to discover, to learn, and to encourage its graduates—not just the ones from the seminary or department of religion—to go into the world and to be beacons of light and responsive to the Great Commission.

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today has previous coverage of Baylor University. Previous articles on education include:

Q+A: Philip Ryken, Wheaton's Next President | 'I want to cultivate a campus-wide community of grace.' (February 23, 2010)
Hard Choices For Higher Ed | In a bleak economy, Christian colleges reinvent themselves. (September 11, 2009)
Liberty Unbound | How Jerry Falwell's ambitious sons have led the Lynchburg university to financial success and a burgeoning student body. (September 10, 2009)