In mid-December, I had the high privilege of participating in an international conference concerning Christianity's role in the never-ending struggle for religious liberty. The conference-entitled "Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives" and held in Rome, Italy-was organized by Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Project and co-sponsored by Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. This global conference explored Christianity's contributions to human freedom in the face of two millennia of strenuous opposition and cruel persecution.
Immediately following the conference, I was honored to have USA Today publish an opinion piece I had written on this topic. The op-ed calls attention to the here-and-now persecution globally of the Christian church, a topic of profound concern to all who lift up the ideal of religious liberty. You can access a copy of the column on the Baylor website: www.baylor.edu/president.
At Baylor, our blessings begin with our wonderful students. The 15,616 young men and women who enrolled in the fall marked Baylor's ninth consecutive year of record enrollment. Our students form the heart and soul of the Baylor community. Enlivening our beautiful campus, Baylor students bring with them great diversity of interest and perspective, a wealth of wide-ranging talents and a deeply grounded worldview. The transformational experience of a Baylor education links together generations of alumni in "that good old Baylor Line" - an unbroken chain stretching back to the University's very first graduate in 1854.
Baylor's deep commitment to fostering a dynamic on-campus community is reflected in myriad ways, but especially in our residential life facilities. This fall witnessed the opening of the $73 million East Village Residential Community, which is now the campus home to more than 700 students. And next fall, Baylor students will return to historic South Russell Hall, which is currently undergoing $12 million in renovations. In addition, the Baylor Board of Regents has approved $1.1 million to begin design and engineering work to refurbish North Russell Hall. This important effort is an integral part of our long-range campus plan to renovate=over the next decade-all existing residence halls.
In addition to improving our residential life facilities, Baylor is undergoing a significant physical transformation across campus. These exciting new facilities have been made possible by unparalleled levels of financial support from the extended Baylor family. For Baylor Nation's encouraging and inspiring this outpouring of support, Baylor's servant-leaders are immeasurably thankful.
The most visible of these projects, of course, is our new football stadium, named McLane Stadium in honor of Drayton McLane Jr. and his family's continuing generosity to the University and lengthy history of service to Baylor. Already, hundreds of thousands of I-35 travelers have been awed by the Baylor Bears' new home rising along the banks of the Brazos River. The $260 million project is a symbol of what the Baylor family-and the ever-deepening Baylor-Waco partnership-can do when we come together in unity of purpose. In addition, to the east of the new stadium, the $18.1 million track and field stadium is in the initial stages of construction. Upon these projects' completion, all of Baylor's sports champions will have a home right here on campus. This is truly historic. For this transformational blessing we are deeply grateful.
Our on-campus facilities continued to expand in December, when crews began construction on the $100 million, 275,000-square-foot Paul L. Foster Campus for Business and Innovation. Excitement about this signature project abounds. An unprecedentedly generous gift from Paul L. Foster, BBA '79, of El Paso accelerated the timetable for this project, and additional alumni and friends have stepped forward to provide Baylor with the means to make the soon-to-be Foster complex a magnificent academic addition to campus. This new venue for the University's nationally ranked Hankamer School of Business is scheduled for completion in July 2015.
As affirmed in Pro Futuris, our strategic vision adopted in 2012, Baylor's long-held dedication to encouraging the vigorous pursuit of truth is deeply rooted in our understanding of the distinct value and purpose of Christian higher education.
Across the University's academic disciplines, our faculty's ever-increasing contributions abound of fresh discovery and innovative problem solving; indeed, their pathbreaking work is making a lasting impact on a hurting world. Two recent examples have attracted international attention. Using digital cameras and smartphones, Dr. Bryan F. Shaw, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is developing techniques to improve the early diagnosis of retinoblastoma, an aggressive pediatric eye cancer. In addition, pioneering research by a Baylor team led by Dr. Sascha Usenko, assistant professor of environmental science, and Dr. Stephen Trumble, assistant professor of biology, is measuring ocean pollutants and their impact on marine mammals by studying plugs of whale earwax.
Likewise embodying Baylor's enduring mission is the Texas Hunger Initiative (THI). Working with local nonprofits, municipalities and other agencies, this program develops innovative strategies to end hunger. THI's initiatives are already resulting in improvements to the health, economic vitality and educational prospects of youth and families across our state.
Our desire to be energetically engaged in regular conversation with far-flung Baylor Nation has led us to become very active in today's digital culture, especially with social media. We are pleased that, as a result, Baylor's social media outreach was recently ranked 16th among national colleges and universities. We are delighted that so many Baylor Bears are engaging with us on Facebook (130,000-plus "likes"), Instagram (15,000-plus followers) and Pinterest (3,900-plus followers). Recent months have likewise witnessed tremendous growth in the number of folks who follow us on Twitter (@Baylor). As we labor to provide exciting University information each and every day, we invite you to access any and all of Baylor's social media platforms, including Twitter, where more than 15,000 Baylor supporters are receiving each day news both from across the campus and from our extraordinary alumni.
In closing, allow me to include a heartfelt word of personal thanks to Baylor Nation and to the Board of Regents for the unwavering support provided to me during my ongoing service to this magnificent University. Over these past three-and-a-half years, I have been blessed in countless ways. The Baylor Board's extension of my term of service means that we can continue our work together into the years ahead, as we seek to enhance Baylor'' influence and standing on the national and international stage. My service to Baylor takes place within-and is dependent upon-the spirit of our Baylor family.