March 27, 2006
Down in Waco, Texas, there is a Baptist school called Baylor University. It was never a major player in American academics, and with the strained situation in which American colleges found themselves at the end of the baby boom, Baylor had problems figuring out what it should do.
Certainly, the school played a regional role there in central Texas, but it lacked much national appeal. Its relations with the Baptist Christianity of its founding were strained, and the intellectual resources of its faculty and programs appeared thin. In the tight market of America academia, what reason had parents to send their children to a place like Baylor? The school seemed in flight from its niche market as a full-fledged Baptist institution, and for a purely secular educationÃ¢â‚¬â€well, surely one can do better than Waco.
In the mid-1990s, however, the school decided to do something about its problems. It began by hiring a dynamo of a new president named Robert Sloan. (First Things later published the talks given at his installation by Gertrude Himmelfarb and Richard John Neuhaus). It adopted a plan to achieve a new identity by 2012, and it went out actively seeking high-profile facultyÃ¢â‚¬â€high-profile religious faculty, that is, for the plan involved positioning Baylor as a national center for religiously informed education.
The idea was that the school would simultaneously redefine its niche market and build a nationwide reputation. Philosophers, literary critics, legal scholars, sociologists: On and on the list went, a parade of new faculty members and new programs that suggested Baylor University was serious about trying to become the premier Christian research university in America.
Today, the plan is in tatters, and Baylor has apparently decided to sink back into its diminished role as a not terribly distinguished regional school. President Sloan is gone, the new high-profile faculty are demoralized and sniffing around for positions at better-known schools, energetic programs like the Intelligent Design Institute have been chased away [i.e., the Michael Polanyi Center — go here], and the bright young professors are having their academic careers ruined by a school that lured them to campus with the promises of the 2012 plan and now is simply embarrassed by them.
A case in point is Francis J. Beckwith, who was denied tenure by Baylor last week. Author of several books, including a new volume forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, he was associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, associate professor of Church-State Studies, and associate editor of the Journal of Church & State. You can find his accomplishments listed in more detail here and here. None of this, of course, proves that he deserves tenure, but it looks awfully impressive when compared with the publication records of other faculty members.
Of course, in any tenure battle, there is more going on than any outsider can know. Was it Pat Moynihan who said that academic fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small? Anyway, on the blog of reporters for the Dallas Morning News, Rod Dreher ascribed the whole thing to BeckwithÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s conservative politicsÃ¢â‚¬â€a claim denied by some commentators at the website Right Reason and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, according to one faculty member, the reason was a faculty clique led by a professor who had publicly vowed to prevent the young professorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s tenure because of BeckwithÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pro-life views. And then, to top it all off, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported on Sunday that Derek Davis, an open opponent of BeckwithÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s and the chair of his department, had resigned as a Ã¢â‚¬Å“personnel matterÃ¢â‚¬ÂÃ¢â‚¬â€apparently because of some other scandal involving Davis, the details of which remain unclear.
In the end, an appeals process exists, and Beckwith may end up getting tenure at Baylor. But either way, his career is badly damaged. If he manages to stay in Waco, he remains at a place that has very clearly informed him it doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like him, and if he leaves, he will have real trouble landing any respectable position. If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re one of those senior professors brought to Baylor to jazz the place upÃ¢â‚¬â€if you are, say, someone like Rodney StarkÃ¢â‚¬â€ how can you recruit young faculty to carry forward the 2012 plan?
If I were one of these professors, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be forced to advise my protÃƒÂ©gÃƒÂ©s to take other offers and pass on Baylor. Academic careers are fragile things: They donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t easily survive a firing, for whatever reason, and young professors shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t take the chance that the mess of an institutional meltdown will ruin their professional life.
In certain ways, the case of Francis Beckwith is merely one example of a general trend worth noticing. In his fascinating book The Dying of the Light, James Burtchaell laid out the pattern by which AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s religious colleges changed their spots, but there are some new elements in the latest episodes.
It works this way: Take an old-fashioned religiously affiliated school. Baylor will do, but Notre Dame and Wheaton and Davidson and the University of Dallas are just as handy.
In each case, the college has an old faculty generally contented with the schoolÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s regional and religious standing. And for some years it has been hiring new faculty who, if not opposed outright to the schoolÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s affiliation, are at least embarrassed by it. These newer teachers came with impressive credentials out of premier graduate programsÃ¢â‚¬â€but the tightening of the academic job market forced them into positions at lower-tier colleges, and they always believed, in one way or another, that their new schools should take places like Yale and Harvard as their models.
Now, along comes somebody with a vision for the school: a realization that the religious identity is necessary to ensure a steady supply of students and that the nation actually has a set of distinguished senior faculty who want to teach a religiously serious place and want to build up a genuine Christian university. So the school starts to make its move, and the faculty (and often the schoolÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s board of directors) rebels.
The weird partÃ¢â‚¬â€the new pattern worth noticingÃ¢â‚¬â€is the common cause made by the secularists and the old religious believers to fight the collegeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s transformation. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d think theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be natural enemies, but it turns out that they both have something at stake in preventing the school from becoming known as a first-rate research university for religiously motivated scholars.
Liberal-vs.-conservative politics does, in fact, form part of the struggle. The old faculty members often poised themselves as liberals (over against what they thought of as the troglodyte, non-Ph.D. members of their own denominations), while the newer, secular-trained faculty usually held the default leftist politics of the American academy. Is it a surprise that none of them much liked the religious faculty suddenly appearing on campusÃ¢â‚¬â€all of whom, given the play of religion in national politics these days, look like conservatives?
Another part of the problem, as Richard John Neuhaus has noted, has to do with a shared notion of the separation of belief and knowledge. The newer secularized faculty, naturally, wantedÃ¢â‚¬â€as James Burtchaell might put itÃ¢â‚¬â€to see the schoolÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s old Christian light do even more dying. And though the older religious faculty wanted to keep the religious tone of the school, they also held the idea that this should somehow continue without a whole lot of explicit intellectual commitment. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Under the old regime,Ã¢â‚¬Â Neuhaus observed, Ã¢â‚¬Å“devout Bible-believing Christians operated with a Ã¢â‚¬Ëœtwo spheresÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ approach to education. Science and reason were in one sphere, faith and piety in another, and there was an agreement that neither sphere would be allowed to interfere with the other.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Other factors could be mentioned. From John SilberÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s experiences at B.U. to Lawrence SummerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s at Harvard, the Boston area alone has provided reason to think the American university is at the moment nearly ungovernable: An air of resentment for authority pervades the place, and a university president is the handiest local authority figure on whom to take out that resentment.
And then there are the ecumenical troubles. The religiously informed figures brought to campus are scattered across AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s denominational divisions. Some of them, like the philosopher Thomas Hibbs (dean of BaylorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s honors college), are Catholics. Others are northern evangelicals (like the literary scholar David Lyle Jeffrey, provost of Baylor until fired by the new administration after Robert Sloan was forced out as president). All of them are participants in a new style of intellectual ecumenism, in which serious Catholics and serious Protestants join in the work of unfolding a Christian understanding of academic disciplines. But modern radicalism and old-fashioned Protestantism share a distaste both for Catholicism andÃ¢â‚¬â€interestinglyÃ¢â‚¬â€for evangelicalism, since the old denominational Baptists always thought of the Southern Baptist Convention as distant from the northern evangelical churches.
The combination of all this is deadly. Many thoughtful observers of American academics have been uncomfortable with the attemptÃ¢â‚¬â€at Ave Maria University, for instanceÃ¢â‚¬â€to build new religious schools: WouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the money be better spent financing scholars at established universities than starting up new, uncredentialed institutions? Of course, the pattern Burtchaell noted in The Dying of the Light is proof that American colleges are masters at taking donations for one purpose and converting them to another. But the new development of semi-associated institutes like Robert GeorgeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s James Madison Program at Princeton University suggests that there may be genuine ways to influence the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s premier colleges.
As it happens, these new, semi-affiliated institutes have their own problems, one of which is their submission to the idea that the university is an inherently politicized place. This is what an undergraduate education is supposed to teach?
To watch Baylor UniversityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s apparent collapse, however, is to think that the American college is not, in its present form, capable of being saved. For all their problems, the new, uncredentialed but genuinely religious schools might be the superior option. For all their awkwardness, more prestigious colleges with a religiously serious institute nearby might be the better choice.
Think about it: If you were a young, high-powered academic with ambitions for a Christian school that matched the new intellectual excitement of the American ecumenical endeavor, why would you risk your career at a place like Baylor? You can buy the same kind of trouble at a better price by taking whatever offer you get from an openly secular college.
For that matter, if you were a parent interested in your childrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s obtaining intellectually rigorous Christian education, why would you pay the tuition at Baylor University? Indeed, if you were one of those bright, young Christian students, why would you want to go to Baylor in the first place?