Thanksgiving Blessings from Baylor

November 20, 2013

As we approach Thanksgiving week and eagerly look forward to the joys of Christmas, it is a great blessing to bring greetings from Baylor’s beautiful campus at this wonderful time of year. The act of gathering together as a family to give thanks represents a hallowed tradition in America. It is also a welcome ritual we in Baylor Nation enthusiastically embrace.

The Thanksgiving table reminds us of the early 17th-century Pilgrims. Those hearty souls famously gave thanks following an extraordinarily harsh winter that gave way to springtime and the bountiful harvest of fall. The early English settlers in the New World included Roger Williams. Founder of the State of Rhode Island and co-founder of the first Baptist church in America, Williams stood as a bold early champion of religious freedom. As tirelessly advocated by that great Christian leader and patriot, the principles of “soul liberty” and freedom of conscience have for centuries served as bedrock tenets of Baptist thought. These foundational principles deeply inform Baylor’s rich history and mission. Today, nearly 375 years after Roger Williams founded that congregation in New England, religious freedom remains an essential attribute of personal liberty and human dignity. At Baylor, we are fully committed to maintaining and deepening the culture of freedom. Tragically, that culture is in danger around the world.

Next month, I will have 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” - will be held in Rome. Organized by Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project and co-sponsored by Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, the global conference will explore Christianity’s contributions to human freedom in the face of two millennia of strenuous opposition and cruel persecution. As we look ahead to this internationally significant conference, I was honored to have the opportunity recently to author an opinion piece on this very topic, published in the Dallas Morning News. The op-ed addresses the upcoming conference, the cause of religious freedom more generally, and the here-and-now persecution globally of the Christian church. This is a topic of profound importance to our hurting world and to all who lift up the ideal of religious liberty. In the spirit of Roger Williams, let us rededicate ourselves to these noble, deeply Biblical principles.

Student Life

At Baylor, our blessings - at Thanksgiving and throughout the year - begin with our wonderful students. The 15,616 young men and women enrolled this fall marked Baylor’s ninth consecutive year of record enrollment - and our third straight year of welcoming more than 15,000 students. 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.

Next fall, Baylor students will return to historic South Russell Hall, which is currently undergoing $12 million in renovations. This refurbishing project includes new study, social and spiritual-life spaces. In addition, last month, the Baylor Board of Regents 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.

The Blessing of Growth and Momentum

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.

Needless to say, the most visible of these projects is our new football stadium. 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. Even during its unfolding construction, Baylor Stadium has already become a Waco landmark. 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 in fall 2014, 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 will continue to expand in December, when crews are scheduled to begin 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. Alumni and friends continue to step 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.

An Agent of Discovery and Change

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 path-breaking work is making a lasting impact on a hurting world. Two recent examples have attracted international attention. Using digital cameras and smart phones, 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). I cordially invite you to learn more about this innovative research: Baylor University and Harvard Medical School Researchers Help Make Pediatric Eye Cancer Easier to Detect and Baylor Professors Use Whale Earwax to Develop New Method of Determining Lifetime Contaminant Exposure in Whales.

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. A key initiative in working toward this ambitious goal is THI’s annual “Together at the Table - Hunger Summit,” recently held on the Baylor campus. (The keynote speaker was Baylor alumna Melissa Rogers, BA ’88, special assistant to President Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.) The measurable results of THI’s work will culminate in highly practical research, as summer meal and school breakfast programs continue in Texas and around the nation.

Our Baylor Family

In today’s digital culture, most of us access numerous communications platforms that permit us to interact easily with the larger world around us and, close to home, with those we hold dear. Here on campus, our desire to be energetically engaged in regular conversation with far-flung Baylor Nation has led us to become very active in 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 - multiple times every day - news both from across 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 recent extension of my term of service means that we can continue our work together into the years ahead, as we seek to enhance Baylor’s 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.

Because we know that your commitment to Baylor University will last “as long as stars shall shine,” your servant-leaders at Baylor are truly humbled - and deeply grateful - during this Thanksgiving season.

Abundant blessings,

Ken Starr

Ken Starr
President and Chancellor

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