Waco Tribune-Herald: Building on a clear vision: An interview with Baylor Provost Elizabeth Davis

January 15, 2012

Republished with permission from the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Baylor University this week released an online draft of its 10-year strategic plan to succeed Baylor Vision 2012, labeling it a "dynamic road map for our future, providing direction without dictating specific action -- a living document that illuminates our destination but invites creativity in determining the paths by which we will arrive."

Now up for review by Baylor faculty, students and alumni, the draft lacks the major imperatives of Vision 2012 that attracted some controversy during the past decade, even as they transformed the Baylor skyline and left it poised to compete more dramatically as a research university -- something evidenced by the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative now quickly taking shape in the old General Tire building in East Waco.

The strategic plan process began in fall 2010 with town-hall-styled meetings in Texas and beyond for members of the so-called "Baylor Nation."

In an interview with the Tribune-Herald, Baylor Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Davis, appointed by Baylor President Ken Starr to lead the planning process, discusses the broad outlines of the draft; input from the Baylor Nation; and the nimble balancing act required to hold true to the university's Christian commitment while aiming for top-tier status as a nationally ranked research university.

Q. How does this new vision for Baylor University differ from Vision 2012? In some ways this plan seems broader in scope, yet far less defined.

A. Well, we used Vision 2012 as a launching pad. There are things that are articulated beautifully in 2012 that we didn't want to amend: our core convictions, foundational assumptions, unifying academic themes and then our mission statement. Our motto from way back in the 1800s,Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana -- that all stays the same. The new plan is really a way for us to articulate how we want to move forward from 2012.

Q. I got the impression it was saying the world out there is so volatile in terms of education, economics, society and resources that we're going to have to turn on a dime to make a difference.

A. That's actually a very good interpretation. We came up with six aspirational statements. You'll notice how they differ from the 12 imperatives of Baylor Vision 2012. These aspirational statements are what we would think of as ends. With these in mind, we're going to go about doing certain things -- hiring faculty of a certain sort, engaging with the community in particular ways. But you're exactly right. We're not going to say specifically what we're going to do so we can react quickly to the opportunities as they arise. We don't want to put a stake in the ground and say, "We will start this new school" or "We will build this building" because we can't possibly know in three, five or 10 years what the right thing will be to do because of the economy, the state of higher education and the resources that are available.

Q. Consider what happened with the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston two years ago, when faculty there made damning assumptions about the faculty and religion here. How does a Christian university keep its spiritual commitment while pursuing projects of the magnitude we saw, say, with the earliest known human habitation in the Americas unearthed near Salado?

A. Well, not only do we want to hire the best teachers and best scholars, but we have to hire faculty who have an active Christian or Jewish faith, where faith matters and faith informs how they go about their work every day -- not just on Saturday or Sunday. Sometimes that means we have to be patient because the best scholar we find may not fit with that mission.

Q. Are you talking about conduct?

A. Well, it doesn't necessarily mean how they comport themselves, but do they have a faith? Does that faith matter? Do they understand how their faith impacts the kind of work they do? That's not to say that, say, accounting is different at Baylor than it is at the University of Texas.How I teach my students or the scholarship that they do will be informed by this perspective I have, a Christian perspective -- something that is not weighed at most other institutions. One of the things our faith calls us to is excellence of the highest order -- that we're not going to do poor work and allow our Christian mission to say we can get away with mediocrity.

Q. Considering again what happened in Houston, some people obviously perceive Baylor University is going to skew research or teaching to fit certain overt religious dogma.

A. We have to be real careful about that because there are some people -- not Baylor faculty -- who actuallywant us to do that. But then we lose any kind of credibility that we have to inform decisions nationally. Who's going to listen to us if they can't trust the quality of what we do?

Q. In introducing this draft, Baylor President Ken Starr cited 2011 as a remarkable year for Baylor in terms of academic discoveries and the impact of students on their community.

A. Well, you have such things as scientists and students from Baylor (helping discover and analyze stone tools dating back 15,500 years near Salado, arguably making that site the oldest known human habitation in the Americas). And there's continued progress on the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative, which is associated with Texas State Technical College and the city. And we are involved in poverty and hunger initiatives locally. You'll notice that one of our aspirational statements specifically reflects the community and our impact in the community. We believe we should do this because our Christian faith calls us to do it, to care about the community we live in. We call that out more than I think we did in Vision 2012 because we need a more concerted effort at it, a more organized effort. That's not to say we haven't been working in and amongst the community for years.

Q. Is there a theme in the input gained on all this from the Baylor Nation?

A. The refreshing but not really surprising thing -- the No. 1 recurring theme -- was: Do not lose your Christian identity.

Q. Research dollars are drying up from governmental sources. Where does that leave the budding Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative?

A. When we launched the BRIC, we didn't know what the state of the economy would be today. It kind of reinforces why we don't want to put a stake in the ground of exactly what we're going to do in this plan. This just means we need to think more creatively. Industry still needs to be stimulated, and there will be a way to get that done (through the BRIC). We do have companies that are interested in being a part of the BRIC. Dr. Marlan O. Scully, best known for his work in theoretical quantum optics who has labs at A&M and Princeton, is going to move part of his research lab into the BRIC.

Q. State and federal sources of tuition assistance are also drying up. How is President Starr's $100 million scholarship initiative going? I know it was announced at his inauguration in 2010 in the thick of a recession.

A. We continue to make great progress on the President's Scholarship Initiative (now topping $41 million) and we invite anyone who wants to help to join in. We can attack this in a couple of ways. We can change Baylor as we know Baylor. We could load up class size. We could alter the undergraduate experience. But we feel like the Baylor degree and Baylor experience has a value that can't be matched. There's no other institution quite like it.

Q. When I think of Baylor Vision 2012, I think of the campus profile following a decade of construction, plus an invigorated accent on scholarly research. What big difference will I note in 2022?

A. I think nobody will be surprised that the governor of the state of Texas is a Baylor graduate or that policies in Washington are being shaped by Baylor graduates or Baylor faculty. It's not going to be a surprise. People will naturally expect these sorts of things to come out of Baylor University.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.
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