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Baylor Fires Its President

July 25, 2008

Baylor University's regents ended the rocky tenure of John Lilley Thursday, removing the president from his post effective immediately.

“The reality is the board lost the confidence in John’s ability to unite the various Baylor constituencies,” Howard Batson, chairman of the Board of Regents, said during a news conference

Lilley took the helm at Baylor, a Baptist university in Waco, Texas, at the start of 2006. With wounds still fresh from the troubled tenure of Baylor’s previous president, Robert B. Sloan, Lilley soon found himself embroiled in his own set of controversies. He drew critics, for instance, for injecting himself into the tenure process, rejecting several candidates who had their colleagues’ approval.

Lilley later backed off the tenure issue, however, approving seven of the 10 professors who appealed their denials.

Batson was short on specifics in discussing the regents’ decision, but he acknowledged the tenure issue had been a source of conflict. He also cited a “branding” controversy, alluding to Lilley’s push to change the Baylor Bears’ football helmets. Lilley wanted to abandon the standard logo -- an interlocking “BU” -- a proposal that drew fury from alumni steeped in tradition.

Lilley declined to expound on his reaction to the regents’ decision, but he did submit a statement via e-mail to The Baptist Standard, a weekly news journal published in Texas.

“I deeply regret the action of the board, and I do not believe that it reflects the best interests of Baylor University,” Lilley’s statement read.

Asked to elaborate, Lilley said, “I just think my love for Baylor is such that as a triple alumnus I just want to be very careful about what I say, and I fashioned that statement and that’s just really all I care to say right now.”

The regents had offered Lilley the opportunity to serve out his five-year contract as the board began a search for a new president. He rejected that offer.

The regents have named Harold Cunningham, a former board chairman, as “acting” president. Cunningham is expected to serve for a “brief” period before an interim president is chosen by the board, according to a news release about the leadership change, news of which could not be found on the home page of the university's Web site.

Lilley, 69, said he was retired “as of this morning” and returning to his home in Reno, Nev. Prior to coming to Baylor, Lilley had spent four years as president of the University of Nevada at Reno.

Wounds Still Fresh From Past President

Lilley walked into a perilous situation by any measure. Sloan, the last permanent president before Lilley, left under a cloud of controversy in the aftermath of several faculty no confidence votes. Faculty said Sloan had created a “culture of fear” on campus, and Sloan subsequently lost the regents’ support. They fired him in early 2005.

“John came at a very difficult time in the history of Baylor University,” Batson acknowledged. “There’s no doubt about that, and nobody’s saying John’s responsible for any disharmony in the Baylor family.”

Lynn Tatum, a senior lecturer in Baylor’s honors college, said faculty were “nervous” about the future given Baylor’s recent history.

“We can only hope that the Baylor Board of Regents will take this opportunity to actively engage faculty (and students, donors, alumni, and staff) in a dialogue on how we can effectively move forward,” Tatum said in an e-mail. “The silver lining in the turmoil is that Baylor’s constituents feel passionately about our university. Hopefully we can build on this passion in order to find effective leadership.”

Baylor Poised for Change

Baylor is in the midst of a transformational period. A plan known as “Baylor 2012” aims to dramatically increase the university’s emphasis on research. Lilley had embraced that vision, but was having trouble bringing together the “Baylor family,” Batson said.

“It wasn’t that John wanted the university to be this but the regents wanted it to be that,” he said. “It’s the balancing act of getting to the goal line that we all want to be at, which is a top tier university that has the unique Christian environment.”

 

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