My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m coming to realize how much has been written about the nature, state, and ultimate fate of Christian higher education. Universities and colleges– my own included– seem to be at a kind of crossroads, with several tensions at play. Some of these are financial pressures, the forces that compel a university to take a hard look at its bottom line and dig into best practices from business and administration (often to faculty dismay). But there’s also the related tension between the liberal arts approach and professional training, as well as the tension between teaching and research, and between a school’s historic religious or denominational affiliation and a slide toward secularism.
Things are messy and complicated in the academy.
In other words, business as usual.
Against this background, the few Christians schools that have successfully navigated a transition from traditional undergraduate college to thriving research university while remaining true to their Christian identity markedly stand out. Chief among these in evangelical circles is Baylor University.
Baylor at the Crossroads: Memoirs of a Provost is a slender volume written by Donald D. Schmeltekopf, Baylor’s provost for more than a decade during the key period in the school’s transformation. His readable, straightforward recollection outlines his role in the transition of Baylor from a traditional undergraduate university with strong professional programs and a few graduate degrees to the premier research university in the evangelical tradition. Central to this though, as Schmeltekopf is anxious to make very clear, is a consciously maintained commitment to Baylor’s Baptist and Christian identity.
In some ways, this book provides a good counterpoint to Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty, which I reviewed several weeks ago. In that book, the author rails against administrative bloat and the growing power of bureaucratic administrators interested in little beyond the pursuit of their own agendas. Schemltekopf’s account is certainly one of a dizzying array of meetings, provosts, vice provosts, assistant vice provosts, committees, centers, and campus initiatives, but it offers an example (at least through Schmeltekopf’s eyes) of how this administrative arsenal can be arrayed to effectively lead a university, catalyze research, and set a guiding course for the integration of scholarship and faith.
This doesn’t take place without bumps in the road, of course. Schmeltekopf is honest in his retrospective in examining the resistance among the faculty to some of the changes he helmed and in particular administrative endeavors such as the Polyani Center, created for foster scholarship on the relationship between science and Christianity and but becoming quickly embroiled in controversy related to exploring questions of intelligent design. In many of these cases, he admits that problems arose when administration didn’t get enough “buy-in” from faculty or were too top-down in their practices.
Some of the details in this book will be tedious to those unfamiliar with either the ins and outs of life on in university in general or with Baylor in particular. Schmeltekopf goes into detail on many of his initiatives, to the degree of what was discussed at specific faculty retreats and who the speakers were. At the same time, it’s interesting to see the curtain drawn back on the nuts and bolts of what from most external signs looks like a very successful provostship.
It’s also interesting to hear Schmeltekopf’s clear appeal that the missional emphasis of Baylor’s Baptist heritage not be lost. This is a primary theme in the work and throughout Schmeltekopf’s career: finding the balance between academic rigor and success in the academy without the drift into secularism that often accompanies. For Baylor, this meant an awareness of the difficulty in walking this line, campus and faculty dialogue on these issues, and a careful hiring practice in which provost and president played a close role in the hiring of faculty and were not hesitant to block hires they did not feel were missional fits.
There’s not a lot of Schmeltekopf’s philosophy of education in here; rather, it comes across in the account of his praxis. He writes on his initiatives to promote the liberal arts at Baylor, resulting in the formation of an Honors College and great books major, but here the book is most helpful in offering reading suggestions that shaped the thinking of someone who put these things into practice in his own institution.
For me, this book was also helpful in formulating my own vision and wish list for my own institution, a place in a situation somewhat similar to where Baylor found itself a few decades ago: a teaching university with some strong professional programs, a few graduate programs, and a proud denominational heritage.
But where to go from here?
Like Schmeltekopf’s Baylor, I feel we’re at a crossroads. Will we go on to be the “Baylor” of our own denominational affiliation? Or the University of Phoenix of the evangelical world? Or maybe something more like a tiny, Christian MIT– focused on producing engineers and scientists of excellence? None of these would necessarily be a wrong choice, but we can’t become all three.
Luckily for me, that decision and casting of that kind of vision are well above my pay grade. But I still look at Schmeltekopf’s account for ideas I think would benefit my own context, recognizing the important difference between us, a difference that remained a block box in Schmeltekopf’s account: money. Whatever else can be said about Baylor’s transition to a world-class institution, it certainly seemed to have all the money necessary to make this possible (or at least connections to that money).
Whether or not these can be instituted in my own particular setting, at least according to Schmeltekopf’s work the following seem things necessary in the transition from denominational college to world-class institution:
1. external advisory committee – One of the things Schmeltekopf talked about was the importance of having a large group of external but invested individuals help provide guidance in steering Baylor toward the future. This is different than hiring consultants; these seemed to be primarily well-placed, influential alumni who had important connections and experience but who also a genuine interest in seeing the university succeed. Involving this large group and giving them an official capacity as an advisory board not only generated good external insights, but it also made this group even more invested in Baylor’s future, something I imagine had monetary pay-offs eventually as well.
2. internal faculty panel – In addition to this large external group of advisors tapped to help plot Baylor’s course and review its priorities at its 150th year, Schmeltekopf talked about less official faculty advisory groups that met regularly throughout his tenure with no specific goal or objective but to dialogue about the relationship between faith and scholarship and how that played out on Baylor’s campus. This was a rotating group that met for breakfast regularly with the provost, and by the time it was done it had allowed the majority of faculty-members on campus a chance to dialogue closely and informally with their administrators. An institution will not move toward being a world-class university without enthusiastic participation of the faculty, and keeping a wide variety of avenues of communication open and consistent seems essential.
3. fund-raising for academic positions (attracting quality professors) – Baylor under Schmeltekopf moved from fund-raising focused on building projects alone to securing funds to attract and maintain the best qualified professors, primarily through the funding of endowed chairs. Besides the resources to attract quality candidates in academia though, Baylor also had to have the confidence in its own identity and mission to maintain its missional standards while doing this. It didn’t feel it had to hire faculty only through prior connections to Baylor or Baptist contacts. It did what it needed to attract the best faculty out there, and then it maintained its standards in who it hired. This is a tough stance, and it can’t happen at all without financial resources invested in drawing and retaining the best teachers and researchers.
Again, these aren’t necessities everywhere, and they might not even be necessities where I am. There’s no clear consensus that we want to follow in Baylor’s footsteps. But if we decide that we do, Schmeltekopf’s account is a good place to being looking for ideas of how to craft an outstanding research university that keeps faith with its Christian heritage.