Trying to Calm the Storm
Months of rancor and conflict at Baylor University came to a head Friday, as the university's Board of Regents and President Robert B. Sloan Jr. announced that they had "mutually" agreed that Sloan would step aside and take the largely ceremonial post of chancellor.
Sloan, who has presided over the Baptist institution in Waco, Tex., since 1995, had insisted as recently as last month that he would not resign despite an increasingly intense battering by critics. A series of no-confidence votes culminated in a December faculty referendum in which 85 percent of those who voted said No to this question: "Do you want Robert B. Sloan to remain as President of Baylor University?" About 60 percent of the Baylor's 800-plus faculty members cast ballots.
The president's critics have focused on a mix of issues related to strategy and personal style. They have accused Sloan of intimidating his opponents and chilling academic freedom. But it was the president's ambitious plan to drive Baylor up the national ranks of research universities, while reinforcing its mission as a Christian institution, that spurred much of the fighting. Critics accused Sloan both of devaluing teaching at an institution long dedicated to it and of edging the institution toward religious fundamentalism.
At the hastily called news conference (streaming video available here) Friday, Sloan said he had reluctantly concluded that he had become a " distraction" to his own ambitions for the institution and, combative to the last, suggested that he had been done in by critics afraid of change.
"The natural side effect of change is conflict," he said. "We moved quickly and boldly to implement the vision and found that Baylor is not immune to the discomfort and insecurity generated by change. My leadership has often been a lightning rod for that discomfort." He added: "The vision is more important than any one person. No one is indispensable. Changing situations often require new leaders with different gifts and the benefit of a clean slate."
The chairman of Baylor's Board of Regents, Will Davis, said that as chancellor, Sloan will focus on fund raising and "will not have any executive line or administrative responsibility."
Davis said he hoped the "rancor" that has enveloped Baylor in the last two years would "evaporate," and that the university "should be able to go forward in a healing fashion from the divisions that we've had."
Early signs were hopeful. Even as it pushed for Sloan's ouster, the Faculty Senate approved a resolution last month that endorsed the general direction of Baylor 2012. And having gotten what they wanted Friday, faculty leaders sought reconciliation, thanking Sloan for his contributions and leadership. "An objective look at his enumerated accomplishments leaves no doubt of his commitment to Baylor University and his effectiveness in leading us into this new century in pursuit of a new vision of excellence," said Jim Patton, chairman of the Faculty Senate and a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and biological studies.
But other faculty leaders urged the board and administration to change the way they've done business. "Many faculty were understandably frustrated at the slow pace of change," Lynn Tatum, a senior lecturer in religion at Baylor and a leader of the Texas branch of the American Association of University Professors. "However, I believe that if the board welcomes the legitimate input of the faculty, then the regents, faculty, and the interim administration can move forward. All the faculty ask is that principles of sound university governance be followed."