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From the November, 2008 issue of Touchstone


University Study by Brad Green

University Study

The Baylor Project: Taking Christian Higher Education to the Next Level
edited by Barry G. Hankins and Donald D. Schmeltekopf
St. Augustine’s Press, 2007
(352 pages, $30.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Brad Green

Edited by two Baylor professors (one also an administrator), The Baylor Project was meant to be published by the university’s press as a pro-and-con look at the legacy of Robert Sloan, a New Testament scholar who served as president of Baylor University from 1995 to 2005, and of the attempt to make Baylor a “world-class” university, which began under his predecessor, Herbert Reynolds.

Reynolds fought the printing of the book, sending an odd message to the editors: “My tertiary specialty in the Air Force was psychological warfare and I was no mean student thereof.” He claimed to have an “asbestos file” that would undermine Sloan’s credibility.

Several hundred copies were printed anyway but then destroyed. The volume was then picked up by St. Augustine’s Press, but it had morphed from a pro-and-con review of Sloan’s legacy into a collection of essays generally favorable to him, with a couple of the contributors to the earlier version withdrawing their articles as controversy grew.

All the contributors have some connection to Baylor, with most being current or recent faculty, deans, or administrative officers. The pro-and-con format originally desired would likely have produced a different and stronger work, and a response from Reynolds (solicited by the editors) would have illuminated the tensions seen at Baylor.

One Sphere Too Many

Why the alarm over Sloan’s ambitions? More than one of the thirteen contributors note that he assumed the presidency when Southern Baptist conservatives were putting the final touches on their “takeover” of (or resurgence in) the Southern Baptist Convention. As Sloan was considered generally conservative, his promotion of “orthodoxy,” “Christ-centered learning,” and “the integration of faith and learning,” was interpreted by some as a high-handed, benighted, and misguided return to the theological (and educational) dark ages, if not a move toward mindless fundamentalism.

The authors describe four areas of tension or disagreement: (1) Sloan assumed a greater role in interviewing and screening prospective faculty and gave increased attention to faculty development; (2) his critics accused him of heavy-handed management (Sloan, in his response to the essays, argues that criticisms of his management style were a subterfuge, or a means of avoiding substantive theological issues at stake); (3) he was accused of extending the university too far financially; and (4) he asserted an unpopular idea of what it means to be a Christian institution of higher learning.

The last is perhaps the most important. Perhaps one of the key themes of the volume is that Baylor had been a university—a type of comfortable, “sleepy” southern university—happy to offer a good but effectively secular undergraduate education in a “Christian environment.”

Sloan insisted that, as he writes in his own chapter, “a Christian university born out of and still affiliated with Baptist traditions” must “understand, assimilate, discover, and proclaim the truth about God’s world and God’s ways in the world from points of view that are . . . faithful to and thus distinctly defined by the core convictions that shape our central canonical confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Sloan challenged Baylor’s traditional, “two-sphere” understanding of education, which separated the intellectual life from Jesus and personal faith. “The heart of the battle over Sloan’s leadership,” writes Hunter Baker, a former doctoral student at Baylor who now works for Sloan at Houston Baptist University, where Sloan is president,

had much more to do with Tertullian’s question of whether Jerusalem has anything to do with Athens. Reynolds’s answer, in the venerable tradition of pietism, was that the two capitals simply coexist. Sloan, on the other hand, insisted that the lordship of Christ brought them into direct engagement.

Baker describes Reynolds’s apparent pietism, which he implies was shared by a significant portion of the university:

His Christian faith has established the existence of God, salvation for the soul, the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, and moral precepts by which to live, but it does not necessarily have applicable intellectual content or serve as a useful guide for interpreting knowledge in an academic context.

Difficult Faithfulness

The “Baylor Project” continues under a new administration (Sloan’s successor has recently been fired), and the Board of Regents has continued to register its support for “Baylor 2012.” A number of the contributors to The Baylor Project seem to lament that Baylor’s moment may have been lost, but they offer a sort of cautious optimism that the heart of Sloan’s vision might be perpetuated in his absence.

Brad Green teaches theology at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. One of the co-founders of Augustine School, a Christian liberal arts school in Jackson (www.augustineschool.com), he is writing a book on the relationship between the Christian faith and intellectual life. He and his wife Dianne have three children, and worship at Englewood Baptist Church.

Brad Green is Associate Professor of Christian Studies at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and one of the co-founders of Augustine School, a Christian liberal arts school in Jackson (www.augustineschool.com). He and his wife Dianne have three children, and worship at Englewood Baptist Church.

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