Mikeal C. Parsons
Is the "New" Baylor the "True" Baylor?
In a recent essay, a Baylor colleague claims: "The way in which 'Baylor 2012' is being implemented today embodies efforts . . . to measure success at Baylor by standards that those who built and those who have sustained this great university would not recognize." This appeal to return the founders' intentions is common in intra-religious conflicts. It reflects much of what was going on in Judaism during the time in which Christianity began. Jews were engaged in intense debates over which of the many trajectories of Judaism (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.) represented the "true" Israel. Early Christians entered into this debate with passion and conviction. To take one example, Luke the Evangelist, faced with the fact that the Christian movement had removed circumcision and strict Torah observance as sine qua non for entry into the Christian faith, nonetheless claimed that the Christian movement was not only the "new" Israel; it was, by preserving the customs of Moses, the "true" Israel (see e.g., Acts 7:51-53; 21:21).
My Baylor colleague is making a similar rhetorical move. But does he understand what Luke understood? To be faithful to the customs of Moses, according to Luke, required adapting the Mosaic traditions to new challenges and, thus, to a new day. Luke truly believed that the Christian movement stands in a trajectory that is consistent with the great Jewish covenants of Abraham, Moses, and David. That this new covenant in Christ demanded new responses that exceeded what those "original covenanters" could have imagined was simply the outcome of the movement within history.
Obviously, the Baylor of 2003 is not the Baylor of 1845. There are disciplines of study that were nowhere on the horizon in the mid-nineteenth century. The School of Engineering and Computer Science, to take but one example, is a recent response to the emergence of technology with all its attendant promises and challenges. All in all, Baylor University is an institution decidedly different from the one founded in 1845, one that those who "built and sustained this great university would not recognize."
Perhaps my Baylor colleague would not necessarily disagree with this assessment. He says that institutional change is inevitable and in some senses needed:
"I will stand for a choice that preserves the great strengths of Baylor's past while constantly embracing that of the new which is good and true-a university that is always open to growth and change, one that encourages the discovery of new knowledge. . . ."
This paragraph, however, betrays a rhetorical sleight of hand, a subtle shift in argument. For here, or so it seems to me, he has disingenuously emptied his protest that Baylor 2012 "embodies efforts . . . to measure success at Baylor by standards that those who built and those who have sustained this great university would not recognize." By his own admission, his choice will preserve Baylor's strengths and remain open to change. Of course, that is what Baylor 2012 claims to do. The question is which trajectory, which "new" Baylor, is more faithful to the standards of those who founded this great university. In other words, which "new" Baylor is the "true" Baylor?
The preponderance of historical data suggests that unless a university, and especially its President and Chief Academic Officers, are not vigilant about preserving the religious identity of the institution, it will ultimately and irreversibly lose that identity. Over time, left with some vague notion of its religious identity being expressed primarily as treating each other "with kindness and tolerance" Baylor University will become one more secular regional university, historically (but not substantively) related to a religious tradition. And, given the current landscape of American higher education, do we really need another one of those, even a good one? Even more lamentably, the result would be a "new" Baylor, the likes of which its founders would never recognize.
I am convinced that the "new" Baylor of Vision 2012, with its twin emphases on academic excellence and a robust Christian identity, best captures the unique essence of the "true" Baylor. And, despite the ways in which the university has naturally changed over the past century and a half, it is a trajectory I think Baylor's founders would recognize and one of which they would be proud. At its core, the "new" Baylor of the 2012 vision is the "true" Baylor.
Mikeal C. Parsons
Department of Religion
Dr. Parsons is Professor of Religion and the Kidd L. and Buna Hitchcock Macon Chair in Religion.