Kenneth Starr

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Starr President

January 31, 2014

The past 18 months have been notable for poor president-professor relations, with faculty votes of no confidence in presidents at New York University, Saint Louis University and Cleveland State University, to name just a few institutions.

So a recent resolution from the Baylor University Faculty Senate was notable in that it was off-trend. Instead of admonishing an administration, the Baylor faculty resolved to praise its president, Kenneth Starr (who recently was given the additional title of chancellor), for his leadership style. “The Baylor Faculty Senate congratulates Judge Ken Starr on his appointment as chancellor and commends his service and leadership as Baylor’s president, especially his spirit of cooperation and shared governance,” the resolution reads.

And if the statement is rare across higher education, it’s also rare at Baylor. Starr, the former independent prosecutor who investigated President Bill Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, was named Baylor’s president in 2010, after the firing of John Lilley. Critics accused Lilley of injecting himself inappropriately into the tenure process, rejecting numerous candidates who had won their colleagues’ approval, among other perceived flaps, and Baylor’s Board of Regents said it had lost confidence in his ability to unite various campus constituencies.

Lilley eventually reversed his action on most of the tenure candidates, but it was too late. The university was still getting over the tumultuous tenure of Lilley’s predecessor, Robert B. Sloan, who stepped down as president in 2005 following what the university said was a “mutual” agreement with the board. Critics said Sloan’s plan to drive Baylor up in the national research university rankings while reinforcing its mission as a Christian institution was in effect devaluing its tradition for strong teaching and making the Baptist university too conservative.

Jim H. Patton, a professor of neuroscience, psychology and biomedical studies at Baylor and president of its Faculty Senate, said he realized that the body’s resolution was unusual, especially in light of recent events. (Patton also was Faculty Senate president in 2005 and in an email referred to the body’s actions in that “very contentious” period as “facilitating the retirement of a president.”)

But, Patton said, “It might be a much better world if all of us paused to acknowledge the collegiality of our fellow university citizens when it is deserved.”

Patton described Starr as effective, collegial and supportive of the faculty generally -- and that made the senate want to congratulate him on his appointment as chancellor. The vote was unanimous.

"He clearly values debate, lively debate doesn't put him off or change his character," Patton said of the president. "He values loyal and respectful opposition. [Starr] never misses an opportunity to thank folks for their service and even when it is necessary to be critical I have always detected a positive, redemptive, note in what he has to say. People who have principled differences in worldview from his still like him because he is unflaggingly polite and considerate."

Even those who initially were wary of Starr, both because of Baylor's recent history and because of Starr's involvement in the Clinton affair, praised him.

Lynn Tatum, a senior lecturer of religion at Baylor and treasurer of the Texas State Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said that after five years of a "revolving-door presidency" the faculty had "little trust" in the Board of Regents' ability to choose a new president. So Starr's "controversial public persona" heightened that sense and made for a "great deal of faculty skepticism," he said.

But, he said, Starr has lived up to the promises he made in his first speech as president, which included a "ringing endorsement of academic freedom and the crucial role of faculty governance." For example, he said, Starr recently told faculty members that he would honor the outcome of a faculty vote of no confidence, if the faculty ever should feel it was necessary. (Of course, at the moment, it appears that is unlikely.)

"I think it was genuine," Tatum said of the Faculty Senate's declaration. (Tatum, who was openly critical of Baylor's past two presidents, is not part of the senate.)

In an interview, Starr said he'd made the promise to honor such a vote because "a chief executive should not only serve at the pleasure of the Board of Regents but also the unalloyed support of the faculty." When he or she no longer does that, he said, "a very strong presumption arises that he CEO should no longer serve."

Starr, who previously served as dean of the law school at Pepperdine University, said that was a philosophy he's always had -- not one he had created in light of Baylor's recent history. But Baylor, in his home state and with its Evangelical Christian mission, is a particularly good fit, he said, noting two distant cousins are students there. "Baylor's a pretty easy place to be happy."

He also counts among his mentors Steve Sample, president emeritus of the University of Southern California, who stressed the role of "artful listening" in servant leadership. Other mentors have impressed on Starr the values of gratitude and appreciation, he said.

Starr's accomplishments so far include: attracting 11,000 donors (including more than 5,000 new donors) to complete a $100 million endowed scholarship initiative; drafting a 10-year strategic plan; adding more than a dozen new graduate programs to help establish Baylor as a comprehensive research institution; and weathering the recent realignment of the Big 12 Conference. (He credited his provost, Elizabeth Davis, with much of that work.)

One faculty contention with Starr's presidency so far is his handling of a rift between two different alumni groups on campus. A professor who did want to be named or quoted directly said some faculty members wished that Starr had done more to encourage conciliation among graduates affiliated with the independent Baylor Alumni Association and a newer, university-affiliated alumni group. Acrimony between the two groups reached a high this summer when the former association filed a restraining order to prevent the razing of its on-campus building as part of planned construction; the structure was demolished soon after.

Starr said he was trying to mend fences, but that much of that work had happened out of public view. "I think we've made very significant progress," he said. (Starr also attracted national headlines early on his presidency when Baylor began hearings to revoke the tenure of Marc Ellis, a prominent professor of Jewish studies, for non-academic charges that were never made public. Ellis's supporters, including Cornel West, who was then a professor of religion and African-American Studies at Princeton University, launched a petition accusing Starr of "persecution to silence a Jewish voice of dissent." But Tatum said due process was followed in that case, despite media speculation to the contrary.)

Baylor’s board named Starr chancellor in November, simultaneously charging him with increasing Baylor’s influence in the nation and around the world, including in Washington. Starr said that includes strengthening Baylor's existing partnership with Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, and otherwise representing the work of the faculty on such issues as water quality, hunger and food insecurity, and religious freedom on a national and global platform.

 

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