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Higher Learning

July 6, 2012

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Higher Learning

By Erika Snoberger-Balm, BA '00

By any scholarly measure, the vision was mammoth. Ten years ago, Baylor tasked itself with a daunting goal -- to advance the university's already prestigious academic reputation into the highest ranks of higher learning, the kind not just mentioned in Ivy League circles, but the standard to which they aspire. // Steered by 12 bold imperatives, the Baylor 2012 vision kicked off a decade-long journey to achieve a new level of renown through the partnership of a world-class faculty and top-tier student body, new and expanded degree programs, marvelous and modern learning facilities and, finally, an academic culture in which all these could flourish within the purpose-driven, Christian mission of the university.

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At the heart of Baylor 2012 was a focus on the university's academic environment, and it was clear from the start that the only suitable place to begin constructing this enormous intellectual structure was with people. Building on the exceptional faculty already in place, more great hires fell naturally in line when preceded by Baylor's rising reputation as a research-driven, yet student-focused, higher learning workplace anchored in its Christian faith.

"Baylor continues to draw the best faculty in the world because of the notion that they can be more fully who they are here than anywhere else," says Baylor's executive vice-president and provost, Dr. Elizabeth Davis, BBA '84. "We support them in pursuing those areas in which they have deep interest -- we expect excellence in the scholarly realm, but we make no secret of the fact that we value both excellent teaching and excellent scholarship."

During the lifespan of Baylor 2012, more than 75 percent of new faculty hires carried degrees from universities characterized by "very high research activity." And the impact of the collective Baylor faculty during that time was no less impressive, perhaps most notably in the number of publications appearing annually in major journals by Baylor faculty, which has more than tripled since 2002.

"There is actually a very small pool of world-class faculty the caliber of which we are after," says Dr. Truell Hyde, MS '80, PhD '88, vice provost for research. "But if you're one of the very few places in the world that can offer extraordinary teaching and extraordinary research in a Christian atmosphere, there are plenty of people looking to get into a place like that."

"Baylor has always had a superlative faculty," says Dr. Thomas Kidd, a professor of history. "A lot of Christian schools have talked about fostering world-class research, but frankly, they have not made the kind of financial, institutional commitment to research that Baylor has made, with the enthusiastic support of the larger Baylor family. In many areas, our resources for research -- from library collections to labs -- now are the envy of many outstanding universities. From a faculty perspective, working at Baylor is not just a stellar job among Christian universities, but among all universities."

When not producing cutting-edge research in their respective fields, faculty can be found maintaining the academic bedrock of Baylor's undergraduate appeal by way of meaningful mentoring relationships with students that nurture not only their academic growth but also that of their emotional and spiritual well-being. Aided by a historically low student-faculty ratio, which today sits at less than 15:1, Baylor instructors invest themselves in developing in their students remarkable scholarship and stewardship, and the results are mutually beneficial.

"Faculty who are world leaders in research also are paying attention to the individual student," says Dr. Kevin Pinney, a professor of chemistry at Baylor since 1993. "Teaching is still recognized as a key component of a faculty member's job, and that fosters a real sense of community as an institution. Baylor's Christian foundation, both historically and in real time, also provides positive challenges in terms of advancing our institutional goals through Christ-centered lives."

Pinney, himself a prime example of Baylor 2012's collaborative subtext, said a community or team approach to research is the definition of scientific discovery. His personal assembly of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral scholars makes up The Pinney Group, a rotating, year-round research team with expertise in synthetic and medicinal chemistry.

"Students are the lifeblood of the whole research adventure," he explains. "They are the ones getting this research accomplished; in science, that's how it works. As faculty members we try to excite a passion in students, igniting them with our passions and giving them interesting ways to go. But it really becomes their mission to make the research their own and turn it into something academically meaningful."

For students across all disciplines, there is no shortage of paths to making the Baylor experience all one's own. And besides extensive access to high-profile research, Baylor's Christian approach in all things -- even those once deemed wholly secular -- is helping to chip away at the common misperception of faith-based higher education in conflict with modern science.

"Because we are a Christian university, our research routines are different," says Dr. Larry Lyon, BA '71, professor of sociology and dean of the graduate school. "Sometimes our faith influences our faculty's choice of research topic and our students' chosen field of study.  It is no accident that sociology of religion is a major part of Baylor's doctoral program in sociology, or religious literature in English, or moral philosophy in philosophy. We have an exceptionally strong set of science programs focusing on environmental stewardship. Sometimes the disciplinary field seems less directly related to faith, like math or physics. Yet even in these areas, Baylor is striving for its faculty to be among the most widely cited scientists and to enroll some of the most talented students." 

Two wildly successful pieces of Baylor 2012 focused on the creation of the Baylor Honors College and an expansion of the university's doctoral program offerings. The former has provided a new, collaborative home for a growing Baylor Honors Program, an enhanced University Scholars program and the historic Baylor Interdisciplinary Core program. Last fall, Baylor Honors College enrollment boasted 1,386 students with an incoming SAT average of 1338. For doctoral students at Baylor, opportunities are more diverse than ever, with 10 new Ph.D. programs made available since 2002 for a total of 24 programs in all.

And with global impact a common theme, Baylor's international recruiting efforts have matched those of its curriculum under Baylor 2012, characterized by a far-reaching but selective growth of a global student body. The 50 international programs offered at Baylor in 2002 have grown to 93, underscoring Baylor's efforts to recruit, educate and train difference-making scholars around the world.

"Not just in Texas but also beyond, Baylor has become a very desirable school, and that began well before our recent and very welcome success in athletics," says Dr. Thomas Hibbs, dean of the Baylor Honors College, where last fall 40 percent of new enrollment came from outside the state. "Our combination of well-known academic programs with affordability -- among private universities, Baylor is a remarkably good buy -- makes Baylor a very attractive option."

Baylor has steadily grown its prospective student base not only with diversity of degrees but also with financial incentives aimed at the state's, country's and world's best and brightest from all walks of life. The number of institutional scholarships accepted by Baylor undergraduate students has increased more than 50 percent during the Baylor 2012 period, and the total dollar amount awarded annually to that same student base sits at nearly $150 million, more than 3.5 times its worth in the 2002-03 academic year.

The appeal of Baylor's financial commitment to its students and overall value among Christian universities may only barely trump its beauty, where the stunning and famously New-Englandesque aesthetic has only deepened with age. In a mere 10 years, Baylor has accomplished the kind of physical growth many similar schools don't achieve in generations. The jewel in its brick-and-mortar crown is undoubtedly the Baylor Sciences Building. A true example of, "If you build it, they will come," the environmentally-conscious, 500,000-square-foot facility houses 33 classrooms, more than 160 faculty offices and 150 teaching and research labs, and is home to the Departments of Biology, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Environmental Science, Geology, Physics, and Psychology and Neuroscience.

"You can imagine how it supports interdisciplinary research, just as it was designed to do, but it also helps us recruit bright pre-med undergraduates, gifted graduate students in the sciences and some of the best science faculty in the world," Lyon says. "If we can get these prospective students and faculty to our campus and into that building, we have a very good chance of closing the deal."

New construction isn't the only place Baylor is meeting spatial demands for current and future learning. Other major campus improvements include renovations to the Sid Richardson Science Building, with the introduction of the Paul L. Foster Success Center on the first floor and basement wings, along with refurbished second and third floors to upgrade the Department of Mathematics; completion of the Harry and Anna Jeanes Discovery Center, now coupled with the Sue and Frank Mayborn Natural Science and Cultural History Museum in the 143,000-square-foot Mayborn Museum Complex; and a move by the School of Social Work into renovated downtown offices, tripling the school's former space and strengthening Baylor's commitment to the revitalization of downtown Waco.

As Baylor's literal and figurative footprint grows, there is perhaps nothing more exciting than what is yet on the horizon. The 2009 announcement formally establishing the birth of the Central Texas Technology and Research Park, featuring the development of the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC) in Waco's former General Tire facility, marked the largest and most ambitious benchmark to date in a grand-scale cooperative effort between Baylor, its community partners and the university's peers in higher education.

"With approval and completion of each phase, the BRIC gives us an opportunity not only to develop our [Departments of] Engineering and Computer Science but also to increase our capacity to create innovative solutions to some of the world's greatest needs," says Davis. "It allows us to grow across our campus and to initiate a deep engagement with our community. The BRIC offers truly one of the greatest growth opportunities we have at Baylor.

"Our next [strategic] vision that will see the BRIC to fruition in fact is a testament to Baylor 2012 and the path it set before us. What I'm most proud of is that we've been able to grow these imperatives in very literal measures and in a way that doesn't deny our Christian tradition but in fact enhances our commitment to it."

That commitment, it seems, is visible. From a prospective student's first steps on campus to the final ones across a graduation stage, Baylor delivers on its promise to nurture responsible Christian stewardship alongside exemplary scholastic performance. As one student visiting Baylor's Invitation to Excellence -- a special weekend event designed for high school National Merit semifinalists -- put it, "I have encountered wonderful schools, some with stimulating intellectual environments and others with challenging Christian missions, but almost none with both. [At Baylor] I encountered people who share my desire to integrate faith and learning along with a unique group of faculty and students committed both to intellectual challenge and Christian principles."

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