Sloan deserves plaudits for prodding Baylor down bold path
By William Murchison
For The Dallas Morning News' Texan of the Year, who else but – my boss? ---I insist on plainly advertising that relationship. That's for the sake both of intellectual honesty and of any reputation I enjoy for deadlier accuracy with a brickbat than a bouquet. I offer here a sizable bouquet – but let's not get carried away about it.
At my age, I can think of no self-serving requests to beg of my boss, Dr. Robert B. Sloan Jr., save one: his promise to persevere as president of Baylor University, where with grace and valor he worketh mighty works.
What a guy! Let me tell you how I know.
A few years ago, that notable Baptist institution on the Brazos invited me to become Distinguished Professor of Journalism. Me – a Texas U. and Stanford man. Worse, perhaps, a high-church Episcopalian whose idea of a good hymn-sing is Byrd overlaid with Bach.
Why the invitation? It was explained to me that Baylor, under Dr. Sloan, had just undertaken an ambitious 10-year program. The goal: Move Baylor into the top tier of American universities, strengthening, rather than diluting, the school's historic Christian commitment. Yes, and to this purpose I might have something to contribute.
Here was something to shock even an Episcopalian awake. Churches or religious folk founded some of the great American universities: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, et cetera. In time these schools shed their Christian identities like molted feathers. They made themselves over as secular universities, dedicated to secular truth, howsoever defined. That which the West long had acknowledged and reveled in – the intimacy of the connection between religious and worldly knowledge – got rudely shoved aside.
As Baylor's president since 1995, Dr. Sloan, a rangy West Texas Baptist who took his theological doctorate in Switzerland, presided over an extraordinary reassessment of Baylor's mission, one involving the whole Baylor community.
Yes, it was a wonderful university with wonderful traditions, the community agreed; but there were fresh wonders worth performing. The community could generally raise academic standards; recruit top students; emphasize civilization's classic texts; dramatically improve the physical plant (the new science building looks larger than some Texas counties); and with it all, "achieve a robust integration of Christian faith and the intellectual life." All this, and a lot more, by 2012.
The effort Dr. Sloan leads – well, nothing like it goes on anywhere else. If you take Christianity – or just the religious view of life – at all seriously, you have to be pulling for this amazing endeavor. A couple of months ago, most of the country's orthodox big-league Christian scholars, in a letter to Baylor regents, rejoiced at the university's opportunity "to become the only major university in America, clearly centered in the Protestant tradition, to embrace the full range of academic pursuits."
True, it is inscribed on tablets of stone that any reformer or project of reform will soon enough offend a number of the intended beneficiaries. Without even trying. It is so with Dr. Sloan and the 2012 project. At the thought of either, certain Baylor Bears go: Grrrrrrrr.
A goodly number, blaming their president for incurring debt, hiring too many explicit Christians or both, would like his head served up on a platter and say so – often, I'm sorry to report, in tones unlikely to be described as dulcet or even Christian.
---William Murchison is a contributing columnist to Viewpoints. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.