Politics & Policy

Sloan’s Struggle

What Baylor University can prove about Christian scholarship.

To say that the American university is a secular place is to misstate the reality. American universities are actually very religious. It just happens that most of us are not adroit at identifying religious orthodoxy at work. In many contemporary colleges, certain approaches are ruled out from the start and ideological diversity is eschewed in a manner that reflects power politics more than reason. The result is that the modern university has traded in an allegiance to the Christian faith for a committed relationship with garden-variety left-wing politics. Does such an exchange represent an expansion of mind? Unlikely.

One of the rare exceptions to this rule is Baylor University, the largest Baptist university in the world, which has long occupied a unique place in higher education. Baylor does much more than merely resist the fashionable and hold the line on curriculum: It has the temerity to claim that the Christian faith is actually relevant to the enterprises of research and teaching. The recent hire of NRO’s own Thomas Hibbs as the dean of the honors college is an example of the university’s commitment. Ditto the hiring of prominent pro-life philosopher Francis Beckwith and Flannery O’Connor scholar Ralph Wood. Baylor has also turned heads by constructing a $100 million science education and research building adorned with reminders from Colossians that “By him all things are made” and “In him all things are held together.”

At the center of this bold move is Robert Sloan, Baylor’s president. Observers of the academy may have known new things were ahead when Richard John Neuhaus of First Things spoke at Sloan’s inauguration. Thanks to Sloan, Baylor, perhaps like no other major institution, has sponsored the growth of ecumenical orthodoxy. The university, situated on the Brazos River (the full English name of which is the “Arms of God River”), has become a home to outstanding Christian thinkers of diverse disciplines and faith traditions. Baylor’s future plans include completing the move from a liberal-arts school to true research university and ascending to the top tier of Ph.D.-granting institutions.

The transition has not been easy. Some veteran faculty have felt devalued or insulted by the premium placed on recruiting world-class scholars. Some longtime boosters of the school have drawn the strange conclusion that Baylor’s change of direction somehow violates the much-cherished Baptist conception of the separation of church and state. Worst of all, many old Baylorites see the attention paid to new Baylor as a critical comment on Baylor’s achievements in the past.

Given the constant nursing of hurt feelings and old grudges, it should come as no surprise that Sloan’s enemies leapt at the chance to strike when Baylor became the subject of national media attention, when a basketball player murdered his teammate and the head coach’s response appeared less than admirable. The taste of blood in the water brought attacks by the dozens. The faculty senate began a series of no-confidence votes in Sloan’s leadership, while an advocacy group euphemistically calling itself the “Committee to Restore Integrity to Baylor” engaged in endless harassment of the university’s board of regents and regularly placed damaging ads in newspapers. Complaints have targeted Baylor’s increase of tuition to match peer institutions, claims of Christian “fundamentalism” on Sloan’s part, and the cost of new facilities.

The attacks have taken their toll. Sloan, the focal point of the onslaught, has so far survived a significant loss of support on the university’s board, which has only encouraged critics to continue. Media have hovered over the last several meetings of the board, waiting for the axe to fall. Speculation was so intense last July that many newspapers published predictions that Sloan’s firing was a certainty. Somehow, the relatively small chorus of carpers have managed to make a dent in what Notre Dame philosopher David Solomon has called the most exciting experiment in Christian higher education in the last quarter century.

Many observers are stunned by the persistent threat to Sloan’s tenure as president. The idea that the president could be dismissed for making Baylor one of the most important stories in higher education seems absurd. By almost any measure, he should be secure in his job. Christianity Today, World Magazine, The Christian Century, First Things, Focus on the Family, and Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint have all run favorable stories or have endorsed Sloan’s vision outright. This broad coalition of Christian media outlets has been joined by an outstanding array of academic supporters from the Right, Left, and middle, such as Princeton’s Robert George, Notre Dame’s Alasdair MacIntyre, Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon, Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas, and Yale’s Nicholas Wolterstorff. The combined gravitas of the individuals and organizations who have spoken up for Sloan’s leadership outweighs the gravitas of his detractors by any measure. Yet, the reality is that Sloan remains severely under siege.

There are some who wonder whether Baylor can continue its project of taking the Christian mind seriously in a university setting should Sloan be forced to take his leave. Given the timbre of his opponents’ attacks, a smooth continuation of his policies could prove difficult. If there are influential individuals who agree with George Marsden that the idea of Christian scholarship is not so outrageous after all, Baylor is ground zero for proving the point.

Hunter Baker is a doctoral fellow at Baylor University and works part-time for the university’s administration. He is also co-editor of The Reform Club.

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