After cleaning house on Wednesday of this week by firing David Jeffrey as provost, Baylor’s interim president Bill Underwood called a pep rally of all Baylor faculty and staff on Thursday (see the story below). There he remarked: “Baylor University can be the most exciting university to study at, to teach at, to conduct research at, to work with students…. This can be the greatest of all universities. We can make that happen. All of us in this room today have the ability to make that happen. I challenge you to join together.” The response to this rousing appeal was a standing ovation.
Let me suggest a more realistic assessment. Baylor has traditionally been a teaching institution, which started to take research seriously only about five years ago. It is a school riven by factions with very different visions of what this university should be. Under Underwood’s predecessor, Robert Sloan, some outstanding faculty were hired, but many are now worried whether the vision that attracted them to Baylor (i.e., Sloan’s vision) will continue. They could have done better, going to more prestigious institutions, but they came to Baylor because of that vision.
By contrast, much of the old guard at Baylor remains in place, hardly publishes at all, and is firmly opposed to that vision. If we think of schools such as Berkeley, Stanford, UofChicago, MIT, and Princeton as first-rank universities, large Big Ten state schools as second-rank universities, Baylor would have to be assigned to a still lower rank: it lacks many graduate programs, the graduate programs it has are of inconsistent quality, and the amount of research funding coming in is quite limited.
When does hyperbole become flatulence and outright misrepresentation? In my view, Underwood stepped over the line. The truth is that Baylor is a troubled institution whose future is very much in the balance and which to date has not been able to solve its problems internally. Instead of talk about becoming the greatest university in the world, I would much rather have heard something like the following: “Let’s lay aside our ambitions and preconceptions, and determine how we can faithfully fulfill this university’s high calling to follow Christ.”
If the new president, the permanent president who wil succeed Underwood, would do this, Baylor might not be “the greatest of all universities” and it might not enter the top tier of research universities, but it would be great in the only way that ultimately matters.
New Baylor president, provost urge faculty unity
By Mike Anderson Tribune-Herald staff writer
Friday, June 03, 2005
Baylor University interim president Bill Underwood received a standing ovation from about 1,200 faculty and staff members Thursday as he urged them to overcome their differences for the sake of the school’s future.
Underwood and interim provost Randall O’Brien addressed Baylor employees gathered in the campus’ Waco Hall with a message of hope that the Baylor family can bridge the divide that has spread over the last two years.
The pep talk came a day after Underwood took the reins from outgoing president Robert B. Sloan Jr., who became university chancellor Wednesday. In April, Baylor regents elected Underwood to serve as interim president while a search is conducted for a permanent replacement.
On Wednesday, Underwood replaced provost David Jeffrey with O’Brien. The move apparently took some of the Baylor community by surprise, including some regents. Board chairman Will Davis said some regents might find it hard to see the sudden change in provosts as a “healing event.”
But Thursday’s speeches were all about healing. Underwood acknowledged the last two years had been difficult at Baylor, alluding to financial problems, a scandal in the athletic program and disagreements within the Baylor community. Despite these challenges, Underwood said he was optimistic for the university’s future.
“Baylor University can be the most exciting university to study at, to teach at, to conduct research at, to work with students,” Underwood said. “This can be the greatest of all universities. We can make that happen. All of us in this room today have the ability to make that happen. I challenge you to join together.”
Underwood urged the audience to seek out and greet those with whom they have squabbled in recent months.
He added, “The symbolism today of seeing all of you walking from various places across our campus, to come together as a community here in this one place reflects my ambition for our community.”
O’Brien, who was head of the religion department before being named interim provost, harkened back to his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, parachuting from a helicopter into loading zones under enemy fire.
“I volunteered for Vietnam, not because I wasn’t scared. I was, but I wanted to serve our country at a time of need,” he said. “I must confess that today I feel a little like I am jumping into hot (loading zones) again.”
After the audience’s laughter subsided, he added somberly: “Except this time we are in an army shooting at each other. When will this madness end? When will peace begin? If ever we are to cease being a war zone, we must move beyond the battle grounds to common ground.”
Underwood referred to two issues that were controversial during the Sloan administration: the role of faith in learning, and the relative importance of teaching and research. Both policies were part of Baylor 2012, the plan for Baylor to rise to the top tier of American universities.
The interim president said while faith plays an important role at Baylor, giving it a unique character, working faith into teaching is not the only way it can be passed on to students. Underwood said students can also learn of faith by observing how faculty members live and interact with each other.
Underwood acknowledged divisions had risen from the Sloan administration policy requiring new faculty hires to conduct research. Some older faculty said they felt they were given heavier teaching loads to accommodate the research-oriented newer faculty members.
Underwood urged newer faculty to appreciate the added workloads of their older colleagues. He added senior faculty should not be envious, but proud that their efforts allow newer hires to do the research that was not possible in years past.
After the 30-minute presentation, several faculty members spoke positively about the new administrators’ comments.
“They were both very positive, optimistic and have expectations for healing among faculty and staff,” said Eric Robinson, incoming chairman of the faculty senate. “They spoke very directly to the issues, the situation we’ve been in and how we got there. I think the honesty in recognizing our position is very powerful.”
Physics professor Don Hardcastle complemented both men for their pleas for faculty and staff to pull together.
“I thought Randall O’Brien said as well as anyone could say what needed to be said to bring unity to the faculty,” he said.
Hardcastle added: “Professor Underwood put things in their proper perspective, both on our differences and our unity.”
Acknowledgment: The reference to Underwood’s remarks as “flatulent” in my comments above is from my wife. In fact, she prompted this blog entry. Jana, who has been a psychiatric nurse for two decades, tends to be less delicate than I do in these matters, reacting to Underwood’s remarks by calling them “grandiose bullshit.”