Can Baylor Heal?

December 9, 2003
As a long-time faculty member and sociologist with more than 20 years in organization study and research, I followed closely the events that unfolded at Baylor this past summer. I wondered how other institutions responded in similar crises and if we could identify processes that would benefit Baylor University and bring healing to its larger community. Research shows that organizations that successfully deal with conflicts and crises have three characteristics: They respond quickly to the crisis, they communicate openly with stakeholders and the public, and they provide opportunities where critics can have their concerns addressed seriously.
Most organizations periodically face external threats as well as internal conflicts, situations that can develop into crises that have the potential to weaken the organization's viability and strength. Research, though, indicates that the speed and manner in which institutions respond to such situations can determine the degree of damage incurred and the ability to recover from that damage. The literature reveals three major sources for organizational conflict: external crises or threats, changes in organization goals and identity, and leadership decisions and problems. For instance, in 1991, Luby's Cafeterias was faced with an external crisis when George Hennard drove his truck into the Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and massacred 23 people. Likewise, in 1982, Johnson and Johnson Corp. had to deal with a crisis that resulted when one of its major products, Tylenol, was tampered with and seven people died. The University of Florida twice had to deal with serial killings on its campus. More recently, two students at New York University jumped to their deaths from the 12th story of their college's library. Other organizations have been disrupted by internally generated conflicts. Adelphi University and Brandeis University saw conflicts arise due to changes in organization vision and goals. American University and Hillsdale College confronted leadership controversies. Although it is not unusual for an institution to experience external or internal crises at some point, seldom does it face both simultaneously. The situation at Baylor last summer, however, appears to have included all three sources of organizational conflict at once.

External threats

Activities and events external to the organization can become a source of conflict and, if unaddressed, produce a decline in resources. It is generally agreed that the best course of action is to go public with any problem and communicate efforts to deal with the matter. The Tylenol case is a classic example of correct organization response. Upon realization of what had happened, the parent company acted quickly by alerting consumers not to take the product and recalling some 31 million bottles.[1] The timely introduction of new, triple-seal, tamper-resistant packaging and a marketing strategy of offering discount coupons led to a recovery of 70 percent of market share within five months of the disaster.[2] The company's willingness to alert the public to the crisis and to assume the short-term costs of the recall helped to re-establish consumer trust.
In looking at Baylor's response to the external crises of Dennehy's murder and the men's basketball program scandal, the University also moved quickly and with candor. The existing crisis management team regularly provided information to the Baylor community and the media as the administration moved decisively to re-establish trust in the athletic program. Once an organization takes responsibility to provide assurances that external threats will be minimized, the crisis usually is resolved. Scott Moore, associate professor of philosophy at Baylor, summed up the University's efforts in a Sept. 19, 2003, article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: "We've got to clean up our house and accept responsibility for what happened here, and that's just what the president is doing."[3] Baylor appears to have taken the right steps to address this external crisis.

Goals and identity conflicts

When organizations change goals or attempt to establish a new identity, internal conflicts can develop -- a situation especially likely for institutions that occupy a recognized niche. Conflicts arise over the changes that are required to advance the desired outcome; stakeholders who were comfortable with the organization's identity and established place in the market often question its ability to achieve new ends. Brandeis University presents a good example. In fall 1990, an intense debate arose over a controversial plan to change the college's identity. Founded as a nonsectarian Jewish institution at a time when quotas excluded many Jewish students from prestigious colleges and universities, Brandeis quickly attracted Jewish intellectuals and Jewish financial support. But changing demographics, economic resources and the growing acceptance of Jewish students at major educational institutions prompted the university to develop a new vision, known as the "Blueprint for Renewal."[4] The plan called for the university to grow in size and to diversify its student body and donor base. Opponents of the plan wanted Brandeis to emphasize its Jewish heritage and retain its traditional identity, and they carried the day. The Brandeis president subsequently resigned, and supporters of the vision suggested the trustees forced her out.
One of the areas of tension at Baylor concerns the 2012 Vision, released in fall 2001, which calls for Baylor to become a top-tier university academically while maintaining and strengthening its Baptist Christian heritage. Numerous supporters of 2012 exist among all constituency groups -- faculty, students, alumni and donors; but critics of the proposal also exist, and during the past several months, they have expressed their concerns repeatedly and publicly. Any time an organization proposes a major change in direction such as outlined in Baylor 2012, the proposal will generate feelings of alienation and dislocation for some stakeholders who have solidly identified with its established role. Dislocated stakeholders need to be provided opportunities to question and discuss proposed changes and have their reservations taken seriously.
Upon being charged by the Board of Regents early in his tenure as president to develop a strategic plan for the University's future, President Robert B. Sloan Jr. began a two-year process of addressing all of Baylor's stakeholders. Small group meetings were held with faculty, staff, students and alumni. Once drafted, the 2012 document was sent back through the various groups for additional review. Since the Vision's release, the administration has held a series of alumni forums across the nation, a Q&A session with students last fall and participated in a Family Dialogue with alumni last summer hosted by the Baylor Alumni Association. In their September 2003 meeting, the regents established three committees to continue to address concerns. If Baylor continues to provide good communication and opportunities for serious dialogue with its various constituencies, the process of resolution and healing should continue.

Leadership problems

Administrative decisions and leadership problems can create additional sources of conflict for organizations. When Peter Likins became president of the University of Arizona in October 1997, he was heralded for his candid, open style of leadership, and for quickly admitting to making a wrong decision in the first few months of his presidency. Although this quieted a growing protest in the faculty senate, some evaluated Likins' strong leadership style as unyielding. He fired a tenured faculty member for alleged falsification of research findings and was criticized as being close-minded. The director of the Tucson Civil Rights Association charged that Likins attempted to squash those who disagreed with him.[5]
Likewise, one theme of Baylor critics focuses on President Sloan's leadership ability and style. Those concerned cite his lack of managerial experience before becoming president and what they perceive as his autocratic approach since. Regent John Wilkerson, one of the five regents who sent a letter requesting that the Board of Regents remove Sloan, said in a Waco newspaper article: "It's not about Bliss or Dennehy, and it's not about (Baylor) 2012, it's about leadership and the lack thereof of our president."[6] Leadership style in organizations varies from autocratic to democratic, and although strong and decisive leaders usually engender loyalty and admiration, they also have their critics, regardless of style. Larry Lyon, dean of Baylor Graduate Studies, made this point when he was quoted in a Texas Monthly article last fall: "I would not, in all candor, see Robert Sloan as having a more vindictive personality ... or a stronger ego than most of the other leaders I've worked with ... . They do have a personality type that helps them be good leaders."[7] Many of the faculty and student body would agree, viewing Sloan's leadership decisions and style as bold and innovative.
Strong leaders also are likely, though, to experience personality conflicts with those who question their leadership and decisions. Such conflicts often go far beyond the issues and manifest themselves in personal attacks on the character of the officeholder. This appears to be the case at Baylor. Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hall told a Waco newspaper he was surprised at the depth of dissent and emotion that questions about Sloan sometimes elicited: "They really, really dislike him. They hate him."[8] This level of dissent -- at least among these relatively few critics -- shows the conflict for them has moved beyond relevant issues to personal attacks. Again, the research shows that conflicts of this type are difficult to resolve because the focus has moved beyond civility.

Future considerations

Will Baylor be able to heal from these superimposed conflicts or will it suffer short-term and even long-term decline? The University's Board of Regents took a positive step to ease the rising controversy by expressing, in a 31-4 vote, strong support of Sloan's leadership. Further, they and Sloan have expressed their desire to openly communicate with any and all groups of stakeholders. In the weeks since that regents' meeting, the president has met with groups of faculty to listen and open additional channels for dialogue. The regents' appointment of three review committees is another indication they are taking concerns seriously. This willingness to increase communication and seriously consider alternative viewpoints is an important step toward reconciliation.
In reviewing the three areas of conflict that can beset an organization and in studying Baylor's response thus far, there is reason to be encouraged. Although the immediate crisis appears to be behind us, there still is much work to be done. The ultimate resolution of the crisis depends on the desire and ability of all parties to act upon their Christian values and engage in a serious dialogue, to listen to each other and make the type of changes that promote cooperation and healing.

[1.] Tamara Kaplan, "The Tylenol Crisis: How Effective Public Relations Saved Johnson and Johnson,", accessed 8/29/03
[2.] Mallen Baker, "Companies in Crisis: What to do when it all goes wrong; Johnson and Johnson and Tylenol,", accessed 9/29/03
[3.] Katherine S. Mangan, "Baylor President Faces The Test of His Tenure," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 19, 2003, Vol. L, No. 4, A28
[4.] Courtney Leatherman, "At Brandeis University, An Intense Debate Over How To Keep Its Traditional Identity," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 24, 1990, Vol. 37, No. 8, A1, A13
[5.] Joyce Mercer, "A 'Very Candid' President Keeps His Door Open at U. of Arizona," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 4, 1998, Vol. 45, No. 2, A61
[6.] Brian Gaar and Cindy V. Culp, "5 BU Regents Want Sloan Out," Waco Tribune-Herald, Sept. 9, 2003, 1A
[7.] Michael Hall, "God and Man at Baylor," Texas Monthly, October 2003, 133
[8.] Cindy V. Culp, "Texas Monthly Dives into Baylor Controversy," Waco Tribune-Herald, Sept. 24, 2003, 1B

Felice, AB '58 (Washington University), BD '61 (Eden Theological Seminary), MA '68 (State University of New York) and PhD '71 (Cornell University), is a professor of sociology.

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