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William Underwood — The New Baylor President


Ordinarily, I confine my comments on this blog to topics related to ID and evolution. This post is somewhat peripheral, though not entirely since Baylor was the first major university to set up an ID research center/think-tank (the now defunct Michael Polanyi Center). Robert Sloan, the Baylor president at whose instance I was hired to set up this center, resigned his presidency a few months ago, the resignation to take effect June 1 — he assumes the position of chancellor (which is a fundraising/public relations — not an administrative — position). Coincidentally, I move on to Southern Seminary June 1 to direct its newly formed Center for Science and Theology.

When Robert Sloan resigned his presidency, the Baylor Board of Regents agreed to appoint an interim president and then conduct a national search for a permanent president. The formal announcement of the new interim president was made April 29th — Baylor law professor William Underwood. The Waco Tribune reported his appointment on April 30th (go here). A follow-up article appeared May 1st in the Waco Tribune (go here). At the end of the follow-up article, the possibility of Underwood becoming the permanent Baylor president was raised. Here is how the article ends:

As for whether Underwood will consider making the move from professor to president permanent, he said he hasn’t thought about it yet. It was only a couple of weeks ago when he was notified about being considered for the interim job, he said.

The choice would be a difficult one, Underwood said, because he loves being a law professor. He has often remarked that his is the best job on campus, he said, and is already looking forward to a return to teaching.

But at the same time, Underwood said he has always loved a good challenge, and helping move Baylor forward is one of the worthiest he can imagine.

“This particular point in time is one of the most important in Baylor’s history,” he said.

Underwood is therefore not only the new interim president but also someone with (apparently) a good shot at becoming its next permanent president.

What does this portend for the future of Baylor University and its 2012 Vision? The key to the 2012 Vision has been to reclaim Baylor’s Christian identity by hiring faculty who are committed to Christian orthodoxy broadly conceived and who are intentional about integrating their faith with their discipline (hence Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning, begun at Robert Sloan’s urging).

Although William Underwood is committed to Baylor’s 2012 Vision, his vision of that vision seems quite different from that of the current administration. Provost David Lyle Jeffrey and University Professor Stephen Evans have been two of the most articulate spokespersons for that vision on behalf of Robert Sloan and his administration.

Last fall Underwood arranged for himself to debate David Jeffrey publicly concerning what academic freedom means at Baylor in light of the 2012 Vision. The impetus for this debate was a talk Jeffrey had given at Wheaton College in the spring of 2004. The text of that talk had circulated on campus and created an uproar among faculty who rejected any limitation on academic freedom as a consequence of Baylor’s Christian identity. Thereupon Jeffrey distributed the text of his Wheaton talk to all Baylor faculty via email (for Jeffrey’s email and the text of his Wheaton talk, go here).

An account of that debate between Jeffrey and Underwood subsequently appeared in the Baylor Magazine (go here). The article summarized the debate as follows: “Jeffrey cautioned against individualism over and beyond community consensus; Underwood gave examples of the danger of subjugating individual rights. Jeffrey raised the specter of ‘radical subjectivity’ while Underwood outlined the evils of ‘autocratic dictates.'”

Soon after that debate, Underwood had an exchange with Stephen Evans. This exchange was made public at www.baylorfans.com — for the thread on which this exchange was made public, go here; for the actual exchange, go here.

Given these exchanges with Jeffrey and Evans, Underwood seems unlikely during his presidency to make assent to any tenets of the Christian faith mandatory for newly hired faculty. Yet without confessional or doctrinal standards (even if tacit, as has been the case with the Sloan administration), it is hard to see how Baylor’s Christian identity will in the end be anything more than a cultural veneer. And if that is the case, it is hard to see how intelligent design will find a better home at Baylor than at any purely secular campus.

What was the Baylor Board of Regents thinking when it chose Underwood as interim president?

  • Placate Sloan’s opponents for the time being and then choose a permanent president to continue in his train.
  • Mark a decisive shift away from Sloan’s vision for Baylor.
  • Or perhaps some third option. Time will tell.


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