Following years of bitter fighting between the administration and faculty members, which led to the resignation of the president, Baylor University appears to be much more peaceful of late. The university has taken steps to assure faculty members that their views matter, while also restating its religious mission.
Faculty members, many of whom voted "no confidence" in Robert B. Sloan Jr., the president who quit, feared that the administration was inching Baptist Baylor toward religious fundamentalism. On Friday, the Board of Regents passed a resolution pledging Baylor’s commitment to hiring Christian faculty members, and becoming a premier Christian research institution. “We expect every faculty member to examine and consider how his or her faith impacts his or her professional life,” the resolution read.
But administrators also stressed -- in a way that they haven't before -- that the rights of individual professors mattered too. Randall O’Brien, the interim provost, who was at the regents' meeting, said the resolution “is definitely talking about voluntary inclusion” of faith in learning.
Professors praise statements like that, and more generally the way William Underwood, a law professor who is serving as interim president, is managing the university.
“I think just his presence is having that calming effect,” said Robert Piziak, chair of the mathematics department. Shortly after taking over in June, Underwood noted in his first speech that there are many ways, besides course material, to bring Christian values to Baylor. “It’s the fact that people know where he stands, and he has a broad interpretation of how you can use religion in the classroom,” Piziak noted.
Particularly, many faculty members in the sciences have been put at ease by what they see as Underwood’s more flexible approach to the Christian mission. “Being in forensic science, I did not feel comfortable talking about my faith to my students,” said Susan Wallace, associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology. “But I feel comfortable teaching them how we interact with grieving families in a Christian manner. It’s what I’ve done all along, but I feel validated in that by the new president.”
Some faculty members said that the resolution itself was of little consequence, but see the fact that the regents, who heard from faculty members, are talking about the place of religion in the university as a positive development. “The waters are a bit calmer,” said Walter Wilcox, a physics professor. “It isn’t so much the resolution, but that they’re all together talking about it.”
Wilcox said he feels like he could participate in the discussion with the administration now if he wanted, whereas before many professors viewed the administration as too controlling. “There are still curmudgeons around, but it’s an order of magnitude better,” he said. “The administration is going out of their way to appear as little backdoorish as possible.” Wilcox added that he was never forced to change his classes, but that memos often encouraged professors to “express a Christian viewpoint,” he said. “I don’t think it was really heavy handed. It was more selection of faculty and research.”
Many other faculty members said that they liked the symbolism of the resolution more than the substance. “I think the resolution is staying true to the course of what Baylor was founded to do,” said Jeter Basden, a religion professor. “It says a change of leadership doesn’t change who we are.” As a religion professor, Basden said he talks faith in the classroom anyway, so he was never really concerned. Like many professors, the whole eruption about Sloan’s tack on classroom religion remains an enigma. “I’m not really sure exactly what caused the furor,” he said. “But there was some. Each professor knows their own faith and discipline. The only thing I can figure out is that there may have been a narrow approach about how those should be included.”
Ralph C. Wood, professor of theology and literature, said of the resolution: “They’re calling for integration of faith and learning. The freedom of how to go about that has never been denied. There’s no such thing as a Christian quadratic equation.”
Rita S. Purdy, chair of the department of family and consumer sciences , echoed the sentiments of many professors when she said she grew concerned about teaching religion in the classroom, even while she felt it has a definite place at Baylor. “We were already [teaching religious values] by the way we treated our students and lived our lives,” said Purdy, a member of the Faculty Senate. “We’re always talking about ethical business dealings,” she said, recalling a student who excelled in an internship with a national fashion company, but said she would not work for the company because of its ethics. “I think there is a value based education that is going on here. I think the former president was trying to take that to the next level, but to some of us it seemed like fundamentalism.”
Purdy said morale has skyrocketed, because Underwood talks regularly with faculty members about the direction of the university, and for one other key reason: He gave full-time faculty members a $1,000 bonus.
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