President Sloan Addresses Spring Faculty Meeting

Jan. 16, 2003

by Dr. Robert B. Sloan Jr., President

The following are the remarks of Baylor President Robert B. Sloan Jr., as he addressed the spring faculty meeting on Jan. 14. Other articles, columns and speeches by President Sloan are available on the Office of the President website.

"Change and Collegiality in the Community of Scholars"

Remarks of Robert B. Sloan, Jr.

President, Baylor University

Spring Faculty Meeting

January 14, 2003

I want to take a moment to acknowledge Don Schmeltekopf. This is Don's last faculty meeting as Provost. While there will be many opportunities this semester for us to express our appreciation to him, I want to thank Don in front of the faculty for his years of insightful leadership and wonderful colleagueship.

C.S. Lewis once argued, "All that is not eternal is eternally out of date." Over the last year we have, in many ways, followed Lewis's dictum. We have aimed at more clearly articulating--and more consistently acting on--our abiding priorities. Those priorities are: our distinctive Christian commitment, our pursuit of excellence in teaching and research, and our commitment to a robust campus experience for all of our students. At the same time, though, we have tried to change those things that can drive us to a higher level of excellence and faithfulness: our methods, our means, and our metrics. We have developed a whole new lexicon: "A/B," "Tier One," and "2012."

We are, in fact, traversing un-trodden ground in developing a "Third Way" for the professoriate--one that assumes excellence in both teaching and research while maintaining a serious commitment to service. Clearly, we have heightened our aspirations as a university, a process which invites change and the concurrent challenge of faithfulness to our historic qualities. I am persuaded that all progress begins with a certain dissatisfaction with the status quo. We must be willing to change if we are to continue to grow, to develop, and to meet the challenges of our own generation. Indeed, our very chartering documents say we must be "a Christian university fully susceptible of enlargement and development to meet the needs of all ages to come." Faithfulness to these historic touchstones demands adaptability and change.

The economy is tough right now, but we are making remarkable progress as an institution, so I want to take this opportunity simply to say "thanks" to you--as faculty colleagues--for your patience, perseverance, and support as we have made the changes attending Baylor 2012.

Today I want to do two things. One, state again, for the record, my own views of "Tier I" status, and two, make some observations about community.

Tier I status is not an end in itself. If it comes as a by-product of our pursuit of our own aspirations, well and good. "Tier I" is the US News and World Report's ranking system, which is explicitly presented as an undergraduate ranking system--though certainly the subjective evaluation of an institution's academic reputation, done by Presidents and Provosts, is no doubt influenced by the strength and reputation of that institution's graduate and professional programs. We have chosen this ranking system because it is student and faculty oriented in most of its criteria: student/faculty ratios, class sizes less than 20, budget per student, endowment per student, graduation rates, and persistence/perseverance rates.

Several disclaimers, reminders, and observations: Tier I for some seems to carry a residue of meaning from the old Carnegie class system (Ph.D.s and research money), but the explicit criteria do not reference those elements. It is obviously not a rejection of our undergraduate mission. We have chosen this ranking system because it currently resonates with our values as an institution. If the criteria of US News's system dramatically change over the next 18 months to 3 years (as some say will happen), we will drop all reference to it without a moment's hesitation

Why? Because again, Tier I status is not our primary objective. I feel like I am being repetitive, but recent "grapevine" questions press upon me the need to say this again--our objective is to be faithful to our calling and identity as an institution. We will not be ratings-driven in our decision making. Baylor's ten year vision, Baylor 2012, is not grounded in or even formatted by the Tier I system. Again, US News's Tier I ranking, as currently calibrated, is a useful metric to us both as an external checkpoint and as a public relations handle for displaying our institutional wares. But if it changes, we will drop it faster than a Dallas Cowboys head coach.

Are we willing to stand and be judged by external metrics of excellence? You bet. But there is nothing in our ten year vision that depends upon the criteria of the Tier I system for its presence and/or status in Baylor 2012. Certainly not our extensive building programs, our student life and other community programming efforts, nor our commitment to the beauty of our campus. To be sure, these items will contribute positively to some of the metrics in the Tier I system, but the percentages are very small compared to the financial magnitude and moral compulsion of our efforts.

Certainly improved student/faculty ratios, graduation rates, class sizes, and an improved research component in our graduate programs will help both the explicit and the more subjective reputational component of the US News ranking system. But our reasons for these pursuits are spiritually and theologically grounded in ways that relate much more to our moral obligations both to our students as their covenanted mentors and to the world as God's stewards of it. These latter commitments (and predicates) abide irrespective of the status of the US News ranking system.

Furthermore, to ensure a better perspective on our Tier I aspirations on the part of us and our external constituents, we are going to make an effort this year in our public relations pieces to talk more about the underlying and qualitative character of the appropriate domains of Tier I status (as previously conceived) without invoking as often the ranking system itself.

In addition, we will talk more about the spiritual values and commitments which drive all of our targeted aspirations, whether success in these goals produce positive Tier I metrics or not. So, we march on this year with lots going on in fulfillment of our ten year vision.

Please read again the Foundational Assumptions and Core Convictions in the opening pages of Baylor 2012. The vision presupposes that at the heart of this university is a community of scholars. Again, we are making tremendous progress on our building program, on recruiting an increasingly accomplished student body and on our various student life initiatives. We have even seen strong success in fund-raising in what has been perhaps the worst philanthropic climate in decades. By all accounts, Baylor 2012 is experiencing strong success. But all of our vision effort is for naught if we do not establish, nurture and sustain a community of Christian scholars who believe in Baylor's distinctive mission, take seriously their individual roles within it and pursue faithfulness and excellence through superior teaching, research and service. Here I pause to reiterate: what we aspire to is not a collection of scholars, but a community of scholars.

By invoking the language of community, what am I implying? University life is interesting for all of us. One wag has said that one reason academics fight so fiercely about everything is that the stakes are so low! Well, certainly there is a petty side to so much of academic squabbling, but I am also inclined to think we are argumentative because we are devoted to the life of the mind. Our natural bent as well as our training teach us to be precise, nuanced, careful, and critical. Even the less honorable fights over curricular turf, office space, titles and promotions occur perhaps because these are the perks that reflect our status in the intellectual courts of academe, the halls where ideas count the most. I have seen otherwise sane parents at the Little League field go berserk at the umpire's call in an under-eight t-ball game. The game involving their kids is the thing, not the size of the stakes. And even in faculty fights over low stakes issues, the game--the battle--is in the words and wits of the combatants. It is a test of mind and will.

But, with all of these battles of and for the mind, we can and must be a community of scholars. Community truly is important because we need the testing, the honing, the sharpening of iron against iron that by definition only a community can give, and, we need the nurturing and support to risk, to dare, to think, and thus, the freedom to fail and be wrong that likewise only community can give.

The inevitable stresses of engagement in response to the clash of fiercely held ideas and the freedom of unfettered conversation in pursuit of the truth presuppose a community of trust and mutual respect as the indispensable environment where such encounters may productively take place. As a Christian institution, we unapologetically adopt a frame of reference, even a set of intellectual traditions, which we call our own. Above all, we take seriously the gospel center of our faith, seeking to understand the cross of Jesus, his resurrection, and our confession that He is Lord within the framework of our particular calling and context as an institution of higher learning. But, precisely because we confess that he is Lord over all things visible and invisible, we are called to engage and understand the world, its peoples and its ways. Our stewardship is to bring "every thought captive to Christ." But because we are called to live by faith and with humility we cannot know ahead of time where these battles of the mind and heart will lead. We will not always agree about what we see and how we interpret it. Indeed, oftentimes our disagreements are what animate our intellectual lives and inform our scholarship. We will disagree--even as we seek the same truth. We will debate the facts--even as we confront the same realities. We will certainly differ in working out the implications of the one confession "Jesus Christ is Lord." But, we must do so as a community of scholars: a place where trust, integrity, humility, and mutual respect abound.

Collegiality in our setting is more than a quaint and comfortable notion - it is our duty. In John 18: 19-23, the high priest questioned Jesus about His disciples, and about His teaching. Jesus answered him, "I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues, and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret. "Why do you question Me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; behold, these know what I said." And when He had said this, one of the officers standing by gave Jesus a blow, saying, "Is that the way You answer the high priest?" Jesus answered him, "If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?"

In the stress of impending death Christ answers his interrogators lucidly, even argumentatively, about his teachings and in defense of his friends. He challenges his adversaries with evidence, logic, and a personal appeal to his own integrity. In return, he is physically slapped as if he were at best out of order, at worse insufficiently deferential to religious authority. But his retort is a stunning reply delivered in a tone of stunned incredulity (v. 23--"If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?").

Jesus' rejoinder to his assailant speaks volumes about the need for lively conversational engagement about ideas and truths that really matter. Dialogue, even heated dialogue if necessary, but a clash of ideas competing for the truth that must never be silenced by weapons of a lesser order: corrupt power, force, and outbursts of mere intimidation. All of these will destroy the human communion of respect in which our disagreements may be engaged with integrity. Jesus' answer assumes the moral rightness of his now forcibly denied expectation of the opportunity to answer his interrogators. "Why do you strike Me?" is the question that now cannot be answered, not only because his testimony is true, but also because his adversary's blow had already signaled the end of all conversation. "Bear witness of the wrong" was the challenge that could have been answered, even if answered wrongly, because it was an invitation to do battle with the heart and the mind.

Let us engage freely, even vigorously, but always with civility, those with whom we disagree. Building a community of scholars, a fellowship marked by charity, respect and mutual encouragement, courtesy, humility, and, yes, love, is a task of no small significance for Baylor. Such are the virtues of the intellectual life that allow for a true community of Christian scholars. We need this community for the sake of our work, for the sake of our students and their need for role models, for the sake of our alumni and their need to love, respect, and enjoy their alma mater, and for the sake of our world, which needs a university like Baylor.

God bless you in the start of this new semester.

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