When Robert Sloan took office as President of Baylor University almost a decade ago, Richard John Neuhaus and Gertrude Himmelfarb delivered addresses about the needed cultural impact of great Christian universities in America. Shortly thereafter, Sloan and the school’s Board of Regents hatched a plan to marry Christian identity and top tier research university status. During the last ten years, Baylor put together a string of impressive hires while embarking upon a massive building program. The effect upon many in American higher education has been electric, garnering praise from some of the best scholars in the country. A short list includes Notre Dame’s Alasdair MacIntyre and George Marsden, Princeton’s Robert George, Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon, the University of Chicago’s Jean Bethke Elshtain, N.T. Wright of the Church of England, Yale’s Nicholas Wolterstorff, Emory’s Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Pepperdine’s Douglas Kmiec.
The evident success of Sloan’s presidency renders the events of the last year puzzling. President Sloan has suffered two no-confidence votes by the faculty senate and two subsequent affirmations of his leadership by the Regents, the last one narrow. In the past week, Sloan’s critics met with every media outlet willing to lend an ear and claimed to have swung enough votes on the Board to secure the president’s dismissal. This stupendous turn of events has been achieved by an endless lobbying campaign conducted by some alumni and veteran faculty who feel the bold, new vision diminishes Baylor’s past as a medium-sized liberal arts institution. Their entire arsenal consists of a couple of homegrown websites, an annoyance campaign designed to harass the Regents into booting Sloan, and the ready cooperation of the local media which has benefited greatly from the harvest of controversy at Waco’s biggest attraction.
Many observers are dumbfounded. The idea that Sloan could be dismissed for making Baylor one of the most important stories in higher education seems absurd. By almost any measure, he should be secure in his job. Christianity Today, World Magazine, the Christian Century, Focus on the Family, Chuck Colson, and a parade of Christian voices right and left have run favorable stories or have endorsed Sloan outright. This rare coalition, coupled with an outstanding array of academic supporters, outweighs Sloan’s detractors by any measure you’d like to apply. Yet, if news stories around Texas can be believed, Sloan’s job hangs by a thread.
One imagines that few, if any, of Sloan’s critics have really thought out their strategy. If Sloan is fired, the portion of the Baylor family calling for his head will be pacified and some peace dividend will result. But what no one appears to have considered is the nuclear blast that will hit Baylor’s reputation and future prospects in the event of Sloan’s departure. Sloan has fought to keep his supporters from retaliating for his trials because he hopes for reconciliation, but if he is fired the gloves will come off and the persecutors will find themselves blamed for destroying a long-awaited legacy in the making. The vast majority of American Christendom will read stories about “the death of a dream” and “the persecution of Robert Sloan” and will direct their anger toward the institution that has lately been a repository of their hopes. Enrollment will drop precipitously. Big donors with big vision will disappear. Many of Baylor’s top faculty will express their disappointment by taking other offers.
Nevertheless, there is hope. The members of the Board of Regents are independently-minded people who may well have had enough of the carping that characterizes the critics. They may remember that they unanimously endorsed the vision for transforming Baylor and see that Sloan has exercised the kind of bold leadership that makes heroes out of corporate executives who do the same. The defining moment for American higher education in half a century is taking place in Waco, Texas. One hopes the people at the top realize it.