God and Man at Baylor

This summer, the talk on campus was about a murdered basketball player and a corrupt coach. This fall, it's about a controversial preacher-president who rules with an iron hand, puts religion at the head of the class, and is bent on changing—some say destroying—the culture of the world's largest Baptist university. And UT thinks it has problems.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ROBERT B. SLOAN, JR: Baylor's president photographed in his office on August 29, 2003.
Photograph by Kenny Braun

BAYLOR, THE OLDEST UNIVERSITY in Texas, has added considerably to its number of spires in the past couple of years. The latest reach up to heaven from a parking garage that opened in August. The Dutton Avenue Office and Parking Facility is a massive structure—students call it the Garage Mahal—and holds 1,200 cars as well as a Chili’s Too and a Starbucks. The corner spires weigh seven thousand pounds each. There are two more next door at the magnificent new George W. Truett Theological Seminary building, which opened in January 2002, and another one at the new baseball stadium.

This is not to say that Baylor, whose 14,000 students make it the largest Baptist university in the world, is crazy about Christian symbols or iconography. In fact, one of the hallmarks of Baylor has always been that it has never physically broadcast its heritage, unlike, say, Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic school where crucifixes fortify the classroom walls. There are no crosses or statues of Jesus at Baylor, but there are plenty of bricks—”Baylor red” and set in absolutely straight lines, on perfectly laid mortar. There are also old limestone Georgian-style buildings, sprawling oaks, and meadows of lush green grass.

It’s the bricks that catch your eye, though—a lot of new ones in a lot of new buildings. You can’t walk very far across the clean, orderly campus, especially near the north end, without having to detour around a construction site. On the first day of school this year, students shielded their eyes from the dust rising at the site of the massive half-million-square-foot sciences building, set to open next summer. They took the long way around the huge new dorm complex, which will be ready for sleeping next fall. They stood and stared at the large domed museum, which will be completed next spring. Other structures have been open only for a few years—the giant student center, the law school, and the expansive sports park, with its baseball stadium, softball stadium, soccer field, and tennis center. The 158-year-old university looks like it just came out of the catalog.

Baylor, the pride of Waco, is changing. But these days, when people say they don’t recognize it anymore, they’re not talking about just the buildings. Baylor is only now emerging from its darkest summer ever. To outsiders—that is, people who don’t live in or obsess about the Baylor Bubble—the trouble began when a basketball player named Patrick Dennehy failed to call his mother and stepfather on Father’s Day and was pronounced missing. As a nationwide search began, his friend and fellow teammate Carlton Dotson was said to have shot him. Then a babbling Dotson was arrested in Maryland. Then the police found Dennehy’s body in a field outside Waco. Then, after allegations of improper payments to Dennehy and drug use on the team, coach Dave Bliss and athletic director Tom Stanton resigned. Then Bliss was heard on tape trying to get other players to lie and say that Dennehy had gotten the money from being a drug dealer. Then Dotson was indicted.

Poor Baylor. The truth is, even before Dennehy disappeared, the school was struggling with a crisis, a spiritual and cultural war that is threatening to rip the campus in half. On one side are the moderates and liberals—that is, Baptists who don’t go to church every Sunday—who like Baylor just as it has always been, a place where you could get a good, strong undergraduate education while the bells in the McLane Carillon played “Amazing Grace.” On the other side are conservatives who clamor for change—for progress, new programs, new buildings, and deeply religious professors who will bring back the faith they say has been diminished at Baylor. It’s the difference between being a good school in a Christian environment and a good Christian school. And it’s a big difference.

At the center of the war is Baylor president Robert B. Sloan, Jr., an ordained Baptist preacher and a son of small-town Texas, whose vision and personality are driving every single issue and building project there. The fact is, if the topic is Baylor these days, the talk inevitably turns to 54-year-old Sloan. To some, he’s a visionary, rescuing the school from secularism while bringing it into the modern world with a growth and research agenda that would put Baylor in the same league as Duke and New York University. He is a moral man, a man of the cloth, and he has ambition—just what this sleepy little place needs. To others, he’s a closet fundamentalist and a control freak who does not abide criticism. They speak of an atmosphere of fear and retaliation. And they aren’t just a random bunch of malcontents; their ranks include prominent alumni, faculty, regents, former regents, and the children of past presidents. Their cause was bolstered in August when the Houston Chronicle, until recently run by so many loyal Baylor alumni that the paper’s office amounted to a satellite campus, called for Sloan to resign. On September 2, three former chairmen of the board of regents also called for his resignation. A few days later, five current regents did the same.

Baylor is special, a place where generations of family members have ritually enrolled, a place graduates feel connected to by blood. They think with their hearts. They take sides. This struggle has destroyed friendships, alienated the faithful, and cast adrift die-hard Baylor supporters. It is not an arcane argument about academic freedom. It’s about the very identity of the university and the people who love it.

“Change is hard, hard on all of us,” Sloan told me on the second day of school. “We’ll either change, or we will die.” If Baylor isn’t careful, it could do both.

DO I LOOK LIKE A FUNDAMENTALIST to you?” Sloan asks, smiling affably. He is sitting in his cozy offce in Pat Neff Hall. He is a six-foot-four-inch charismatic man with a big smile and big ears. In his elegant black pin-striped suit he has the well-groomed mien of a corporate

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