A Call To ServeMarch 18, 2010
The most striking thing about Pepperdine Law School Dean Ken Starr's office in Malibu--other than the spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean out the window--is the number of picture frames that line every available bookshelf and lamp table. Of course, one would expect that the office of a celebrated lawyer who has argued 36 cases before the United States Supreme Court would proudly display photos of nationally renowned figures with whom he has maintained professional associations, such as Supreme Court Justices or Presidents of the United States.
But that's not the case. In Starr's office, you'll find photo after photo of his three children--Randy, Cynthia and Carolyn--and his four grandchildren. Tucked among those photos are pages torn from coloring books, lovingly colored by those same grandchildren for their Grandpa.
This man--the man whom numerous Pepperdine faculty laud as a servant leader, the man whom students praise for his open door policy, the man who is consistently described by professional colleagues of every stripe as "a superb leader" and "a prince of a man"-is the man who has answered the call to serve as Baylor University's 14th president.
What first attracted Starr to Baylor is "very basic," he says. "It's the mission, the university's commitment to creating and nurturing a caring community, but at the same time seeking academic excellence and then being very deeply intentional about matters of faith."
Starr was similarly attracted to Pepperdine Law six years ago, as he found an institution with a mission he believed in.
"The more he heard about Baylor, he realized that the university's mission was very consistent with the mission that had drawn him here, yet broader in scale."
"He's always been a person who has responded to a calling," notes third-year student Matt Williams, editor-in-chief of the Pepperdine Law Review. "He gave up life tenure as a circuit judge on the Washington, D.C., circuit to become Solicitor General of the United States. That's a big deal. Then he responded to a calling in the Independent Counsel's office when he was asked to do that. I can't imagine that being a pleasant calling.
"But wherever he's feeling God has called him, he's gone, and he's given it a strength that could only come from a deep faith," Williams continues. "I think Baylor's just a natural fit with his call to service. He never ceases to amaze me with his sensitivity to God's call and the way he responds."
That calling applies not only to his work, but also to other means of service. In addition to terms on the board of regents at American University in Washington, D.C., and Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., Starr also has made time to serve through his church and other charitable organizations.
Though his professional life and related travels keep him from teaching Sunday School these days, as he did for years, Starr has spent the last 10 years as chair of the advisory board for The House, an inner-city Washington, D.C., youth center that provides tutoring, mentoring, and a safe place for high school students after school. He and Alice are also co-chairs of the capital campaign for Jill's House, a ministry for children with special needs and their families started by McLean Bible Church, the Starrs' congregation in Virginia.
"You can't walk away from something that important," says Alice Starr. "Ken's going to be the speaker this year at The House's banquet in May. I help raise money and assist with the marketing. We do these things not to bring glory here, but for the glory of God."
That desire--to serve others and God--stems from Starr's deeply held Christian beliefs.
"I was baptized as a believer who, as John Newton put it so beautifully, is a great sinner who needs a great Savior," Starr says. "I have remained very actively involved in church and mission work, at the neighborhood level and at the global level. Alice and I are energetically involved in the ministries of the church and are very eager to continue that in a local church home in Waco."
Starr grew up in a Church of Christ household but found his church home at McLean Bible Church in Virginia, where the Starrs were members for years.
"I moved from the Churches of Christ tradition into the broader evangelical world many years ago," he says. "I have the deepest respect for the Churches of Christ tradition, but I began having questions about the Biblical basis for certain traditions, such as compulsory a cappella music. Alice and I consider McLean Bible Church our home church now, and we've been blessed to be a very small part of the growth of that community over the last couple of decades.
"As I travel around, I find myself frequently worshipping in Baptist churches. Without a license, I hesitate to delve too deeply into theological comparisons, but I find many similarities between my core beliefs and the tenets of the Baptist faith. There is a strong dedication to congregational governance and a great tradition of sensing the need for a Savior, of loving Scripture, and valuing the ability of each individual to interpret the text.
"I'm going to--with gladness of heart and with gratitude--become part of the Baptist fellowship. I've been involved in the evangelical Christian community for decades, and the Baptist tradition is a very important part of this broader evangelical world. I'm very comfortable in the Baptist life and with the distinctives of the great Baptist tradition, and I welcome the opportunity to become a member of a Baptist church."
Those around Starr see his faith playing out daily in the way he lives life.
"Pepperdine is unapologetically Christian, and he is very open about his faith," says Carol Chase, associate dean for academics at Pepperdine Law. "You can walk into his office with a concern, and he will pray with you. He is a man whose faith is a part of his fiber."
Starr's approach to leadership--playing the role of "a Barnabas, an encourager," as he puts it--stems directly from his faith.
"Our Lord said, 'I have come to serve and not to be served,'" he explains. In working with faculty, that plays out in the form of a "Round Table"--a literary reference Starr often uses to describe how equals work together to reach wise and just outcomes.
"Ken is a collaborative decision maker. He really is a great listener and believes in conversation," says Pepperdine Law Vice Dean Tim Perrin. "He did a great job here of engaging the faculty in 'who do we want to be' and 'how do we get to where we want to go,' and the faculty played a very active role--at his urging--in everything that has happened here."
Having played nearly every role at a university, from student to professor to dean to regent to parent of a student, Starr has learned firsthand the importance of listening to the entire university community before making any moves.
"A university needs a vision, and that vision must be richly informed by the collaborative deliberation of the community--of the Baylor family. Not only those there at the university now, but also the friends of the university, the alumni of the university--the entire university community. The Baptist General Convention of Texas is another very important constituency, and I've already had wonderful conversations with some of its leaders.
"I use the Round Table as a metaphor, but I was happy to learn that the president's conference room in Pat Neff Hall actually has a round table. I couldn't have asked for more. I will listen, gather data and perspectives as fully as possible, and then when it's time for us to decide, we will prayerfully and collaboratively move to a decision that seems to be the best course of action."
Pepperdine leaders note that Starr followed that same path when he was introduced as dean of the law school in 2004.
"He was very deliberate in saying he wasn't going to do much that first year until he knew the culture, he knew what was going on," remembers law professor Shelley Saxer. "The first year, he did a lot of listening and learning. There were even times where certain of us would try pushing, and he'd say, 'No, not yet.'"
"He wants to make a difference, and he wants to make a difference through institutions. If those institutions aren't changing and enhancing and improving, I think he's not satisfied," adds Ed Larson, Pepperdine's Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law and winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in history. "I've been at places where professors just want to keep things the way they are, because they're comfortable the way they are. I don't think Dean Starr is ever comfortable with the way things are, ever. He always thinks any place can be improved and enhanced."
"He has been someone who has encouraged people to stretch themselves," says Jim Gash, the law school's associate dean for student life. "And so we've got a faculty and a staff and an administration that is doing more than it's ever done in every aspect. Our publications are up. Our fundraising is up. Our predictors of student quality are up. The quality of incoming faculty, in terms of credentials, is up. The excitement level of 'We're going somewhere' is just palpable, among students, faculty, staff and alumni."
"He was not favorably portrayed by the press during Whitewater, so initially, I almost couldn't believe I was meeting the same man," says Chase, who served on the dean search committee when Starr was hired at Pepperdine. "He is such a gentleman, such a kind person. And I must say, part of me held back judgment; I thought, well of course he's going to be nice--he's interviewing for a job. What has really stunned me was the discovery that he is even nicer now that I know him than he was in the interview process. He's very, very bright, very capable, and has been an excellent leader for the law school. But he's also just a wonderful person."
Starr's desire to serve and encourage doesn't stop with faculty and staff, either; it extends to students through an open-door policy in which Starr not only invites but welcomes student interaction.
"When I interviewed with him to be a research assistant last spring, I was sitting out in the Deans' Suite, kind of nervous," remembers second-year law student David Rowe. "I had no idea what to expect from this guy. I get in there, and he just kind of leans back on the couch a little bit, puts his feet up, and says, 'David, tell Uncle Ken how your experience has been here at Pepperdine.' Right there, that kind of summed him up. He's just nothing like you'd expect--in a very good way."
"His priority really is the students," says Williams, "and that speaks volumes to his leadership at this school. I don't know a time where a student has requested a meeting with Dean Starr and been told 'no.' I'm sure there hasn't been one, because his priority has always been meeting with students and giving advice."
Playing so many roles--dean, legal scholar, guest speaker, mentor, etc.--would be enough to overwhelm most any man, but Starr makes it work.
"He loves a challenge where he can help and be of service," says Alice Starr. "He works extremely hard. He's always had two or three jobs at once, and he gets them all done somehow. He's very dedicated to what he does."
"He's brought a leadership by example," says Gash. "Nobody can complain that they're working too hard if they compare themselves to him. There will be weeks where he takes a red eye to D.C. and a red eye back just so he doesn't miss work."
Perrin gives a specific example of Starr's schedule, citing the week he was introduced as Baylor's president in February.
"That weekend, we were hosting the National Conference of Jewish Law Students here in Malibu. Dean Starr was to be on a panel and to do a welcome for the conference. So he was in Waco on a Saturday, flew back to Pepperdine on a red eye Saturday night, was at the conference Sunday, flew back to Waco Sunday night and was in Waco on Monday and Tuesday for the announcement. That's one example of hundreds I could give of the way he's willing to make personal sacrifices to support what he believes in.
"He's found the balance even though he travels a lot and does so many great things. Wherever he is, he is fully present. That's a real gift that he offers."
That goes double for his role as husband, father and grandfather.
"We're busy, but we like being busy, and we take time obviously to be with one another when we're both in town," says Alice, an incredibly busy professional in her own right. "We especially enjoy our family. Ken is an incredible dad and grandpa. He can be so busy, with meeting after meeting, but when he's there with the kids, he is 100 percent there as dad and grandpa. They adore him, and there's nothing he loves more."
"Being a grandfather is about as good as it gets on this earth," he says, laughing. "The delight of the little children, but without the pivotal front-line responsibility."
The photos of Starr's family cover not only his office, but his home as well, including a poster-sized snapshot hanging in the living room of his entire family, kids and grandkids included, that was taken the last time the entire Starr clan got together. He beams showing off his pictures, especially of the little ones, like the shot of his and Alice's two youngest granddaughters in their Baylor cheerleading outfits from their visit in February.
"We are very blessed," he says. "Alice is a wonderful mother and grandmother, and just an extraordinarily accomplished, supreme organizer in her own right."
Ken and Alice met in the summer of 1968 while taking summer school Spanish at Harvard. Ken was completing a degree requirement overlooked by his advisor at George Washington University, and Alice was hoping to become fluent by focusing on the language without the distraction of other subjects she usually faced at Skidmore College in New York.
"Well of course, I met Ken the first day of class and I never became fluent in Spanish," she remembers. "But we had a great summer; we went to concerts, and learned a little bit of Spanish."
The couple was married two years later, a week before Ken began law school at Duke University. Alice earned a "Ph.T degree--Putting Husband Through law school," she jokes, before earning her master's degree in education from the University of Miami while Ken was a law clerk in Florida. She worked in financial aid offices at Miami-Dade Community College, the University of Southern California and Georgetown University until the couple's first child was born.
"I enjoyed that work, and then we started a family and I began just working part-time after that," she says. "I never worked full-time again. To me it was very important to be home so I never missed any of the children's activities. Now our children are all grown--our baby is 25 years old--but we have four grandchildren; it's like starting over but even more fun."
Today, Alice heads up Starr Strategies, a marketing and public relations consulting firm that helps nonprofit and start-up companies reach their goals. She also serves on the boards of countless charities and companies, from the President's Campaign Cabinet at Pepperdine, to the Fairfax County Public Library Foundation, to Cardinal Bank in Virginia.
"She's very energetic and very engaged in the non-profit world and has really made a difference in the communities where we've lived, from Access Ministry Programs for the disability community around Washington to the Union Rescue Mission for the homeless in Los Angeles," says Ken. "She will be a very vibrant member of the entire Baylor community, in Waco and beyond."
"It's amazing how Ken grew up in Texas and I grew up in New York with nothing in common, and yet we have a lot of the same goals," Alice says. "We both love people, we both have worked very, very hard, and we both want to be of service. We're both optimists, and we have each other for support.
"Ken's always been very supportive of whatever I do. He liked that I was working part-time, so that I could be fulfilled, yet on the other hand he always knew my first priority was him and the children. It's worked out, and it's flown by. I can't believe we've been married 40 years. It has been a wild ride--a wild ride."
"She's very patient with me," adds Ken. "We are very energetically and actively engaged."
The Starrs' love of family extends not only to their biological relatives, but to everyone within their sphere of influence. Faculty and students find their way into the Starr family through events like "Sunday Night at the Starrs," in which between 50 and 70 students descend on the couple's home two or three times a semester to share a meal and hear a guest speaker, or perhaps to discuss a movie, book or hot topic of the day.
"He makes everybody feel welcome," says Pepperdine Law student Jonathon Cherne. "You can watch him when people come to the school to talk, then afterwards they'll have a gathering in the lobby. He'll just go around and make everybody feel welcomed, just to let you know that you're important and he's glad you're here."
"He puts effort into getting to know the students. Not just 'I'm here if you want to talk to me,' but actually reaching out," agrees Kelsey Stapler, a second-year law student from Atlanta. "I hope Baylor students appreciate him as much as we have, because [his departure] is a loss to us."
Pepperdine's loss is not only Baylor's gain, but also to Texas' benefit. In part, that same love of family is what brought Starr to Baylor. A proud fifth-generation Texan, Starr's ancestors came south from Illinois in 1848, settling in east Texas. The Starr Family Cemetery near Elkhart bears markers honoring many of Ken's ancestors, and he still has siblings, nephews, nieces and cousins "abundantly" scattered around the state--"as countless as the sands of the sea," he laughs.
"We get to Texas regularly to visit family, and then I've also made it back frequently for programs and visits with the extended Pepperdine family," Starr says. "We've owned property in the Hill Country for almost 10 years, and we had intended to build a home just outside Johnson City. But then the Pepperdine call came, and so that's been on hold for awhile."
Born in Vernon, near the Oklahoma border, Starr's parents settled in San Antonio when he was in third grade.
"We lived in different parts of the state, but San Antonio is home. I was very blessed to have a wonderful high school home at Sam Houston High School on the east side of San Antonio, and to have great teacher mentors who really encouraged my interest in public service, in teaching, and in professional life generally. They also challenged me to look beyond my own neighborhood and to branch out and even go all the way to Washington, D.C., for college."
Even Alice, a native New Yorker, has seen this move coming.
"I'm an adopted Texan, so I always knew one day we'd probably go back to Texas," she says with a laugh. "Ken has a very strong tie there and relatives around the state. He loves Texas, and so even though we've loved Pepperdine tremendously, I think this is going to be a perfect, perfect fit for Ken and Baylor."
Starr comes to Waco with a strong appreciation for Baylor's mission and a desire to learn more about how that mission is fulfilled.
"I know that in contrast with a school of law, a university--especially with Baylor's vision of combining academic excellence with integrating faith and learning--is so richly complex that I've got a whole ton of learning to do," he says.
As he did at Pepperdine, Starr hopes to help draw attention to the many great things already happening at Baylor while also leading the university to take steps that improve on that foundation. Internally, he is the Barnabas, the lead encourager; externally, he serves as the university's chief representative--to prospective students, to alumni, to the Waco community, to Texas Baptists, and to citizens of Texas, the nation and the world--tasked with not only fundraising, but also friend-raising.
"For a long time, we felt like Pepperdine was undervalued in the market--what we were doing, what we had to offer," says Gash. "Ken coming here not only helped improve what we were offering, but allowed the spotlight to shine on what was already happening here.
"I don't want to say he's put us on the map, because I felt like we were on the map already. But perhaps now we're in bold on the map. ... We've had repeat visits from some of the top scholars in the country because they love the community here, and Ken has introduced them to that community."
"A lot of times he is able to invite distinguished speakers here, the types of people whom many people can't even get to return their phone calls," says Larson. "He can get right through to them."
Such contacts brought five current and former Supreme Court Justices to Pepperdine in a two-year period, followed this spring by Lord Nicholas Phillips, president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
"He'll know everybody in Texas," predicts Larson. "If he doesn't know them already, he'll know them soon. And they'll all be on speed dial."
As the university's ambitious Baylor 2012 vision nears its completion, Starr will also be asked to assess Baylor's current standing and plan the next steps for the university.
"I thought Baylor 2012 was a magnificent, wide-ranging and comprehensive vision," he says. "It seems to me that nothing was left out--that we wanted to continue to honor undergraduate education and our faith tradition, and at the same time--and this is no small challenge--to expand the graduate programs and to increase the level of research and scholarship at the university.
"I admire the vision, as long as we don't compromise--and I don't think we have--the assiduous care about undergraduates and undergraduate education. You've got to keep that and the relationship between faculty and students extremely strong, or else something is really lost in the soul of the university.
"Now it's time for assessment. Where are we? I know the assessment process is underway, and I need to plug into that process and then determine, after we've been thoughtful about this, what lies ahead.
"In accepting this position, I naturally did my own due diligence. One of the things I kept finding was that people just love Baylor. They may disagree over some issue, but even in the midst of that, there was this passionate love for the institution. I really came to appreciate the depth of that passion. So, let's adore Baylor and build it together, and if we have different opinions, that's fine. As long as we continue to love Baylor."
For audio, video and more from Ken Starr's public introduction at Baylor, visit www.baylor.edu/president/search.