On a Wednesday afternoon in late June, more than two hundred members of the largest incoming freshman class in the history of Baylor University boarded a convoy of chartered buses and headed from the school’s campus, in Waco, to the tiny town of Independence, two hours south on Texas Highway 6. It was in Independence, they would learn, that Robert Emmett Bledsoe Baylor—a Kentucky native who found God during a revival meeting at the advanced age of 46—helped establish the university, in 1845. The trip was the centerpiece of Baylor Line Camp, a five-day orientation held each summer designed to familiarize the newest Baylor Bears with one another and their school and, not incidentally, to further sell them on the Baylor brand.
Once the students arrived, they were herded into Independence Baptist Church, the oldest continuously operating Baptist church in Texas, where they were regaled by staffers and alumni with a history lesson about the university’s origins—in those early years, extracurricular activities included “dewberrying” and “spirited horse races”—and stories of past Baylor leaders who had “paved the way so that we all could contribute to the narrative of our great university,” as one speaker put it.
The heavily scripted visit came to a climax just before sunset, when the students were presented with their Baylor Line jerseys—the yellow shirts they’d wear to football games—and encouraged to walk through the stone archway and around the columns on Academy Hill, the only physical remnants of the former campus. They hugged and held hands, more solemn than celebratory; a few of them wept. These are “students for whom coming to Baylor has been a lifelong dream,” Elisa Dunman, the director of the university’s new-student programs, told me later. “The moment is now, and it just kind of overtakes them.”
Among those overtaken was Nick Adams, a lanky premed major from Cedar Park with neatly trimmed brown hair and a wide grin who had been drawn to Baylor, in large measure, for its Christian mission. As he slipped the yellow jersey over his white T-shirt, making his induction into the Baylor family official, he was more moved than he’d anticipated. “It was an eye-opening experience—really emotional,” he told me. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is pretty deep.’ ” Adams had wavered a bit on his college choice, and Independence sealed the deal. “We’re the ones taking this tradition now,” he said. “We have to live up to the expectations that Baylor has of us—and that the country has of us.”
His sense of awe would only deepen a couple of months later, when he and fellow freshman Raul Aguilar—both wearing their Line jerseys, of course—arrived early for their first football game at McLane Stadium, the recently built 45,000-seat, $266 million edifice situated next to campus on the banks of the Brazos River. A testament in steel and concrete to the school’s newfound status as an athletics powerhouse rather than an overlooked also-ran, the gleaming arena had replaced the outdated Floyd Casey Stadium, which was inconveniently located across town and lacked the ancillary attractions that now come standard with big-time college football, such as the new stadium’s 42 luxury suites, its recruiting lounge boasting a video wall and turf-level view of the field, and its 7,500-square-foot locker room with an enormous Baylor logo glowing from the ceiling like the viridescent eye of God.
A few hours before kickoff, in front of an exuberant audience that included the yellow-clad freshmen, a nine-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of an amiable 24-year-old named Robert Griffin III was unveiled in the middle of the vast plaza on the stadium’s south side. Beside the statue, a rendition of the former Baylor quarterback in mid-throw, stood the flesh-and-blood Griffin, smiling next to his massive likeness in a sport coat, jeans, and tennis shoes. When Griffin, who won Baylor’s first-ever Heisman Trophy, in 2011, and is now a quarterback for the Washington Redskins, addressed the crowd, he spoke of the trophy as a joint achievement. “I always say we won the trophy,” he proclaimed, to chants of “RG3!”
The same school year that Griffin won the Heisman, the women’s basketball team went undefeated, and its star, Brittney Griner, was named Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year; the men’s basketball team made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament; and the baseball team won the Big 12 championship. In fact, Baylor’s 129 wins in four major programs had been the highest single-season total in NCAA history, an accomplishment that Baylor fans dubbed the Year of the Bear. Now, three years later, the scene in Waco—the sea of yellow jerseys, the impressive stadium, the charismatic football star—was, to anyone paying attention, undeniable evidence of a new chapter being written in Baylor history.
Even the skeptics (and universities breed them like lab mice) had to admit, perhaps grudgingly, that not only has Baylor emerged as an athletics heavyweight but its winning reputation is spurring a surge in donations and attracting more students than ever before. The university has raised more than $400 million since 2012 and embarked on a daring improvement plan. The incoming freshman class is, at 3,625 students, so large that the administration has had to convert common areas to living spaces and pay upperclassmen to move off campus to free up dorm rooms.
And in the midst of this boom, Baylor is taking on the most ambitious plan in its 169-year history: to transform a somewhat self-satisfied, middle-of-the-road academic institution into an elite university, a school whose scholarly status rivals its reputation on the field—like Notre Dame with a Baptist bent. Yet achieving those aspirations means thinking hard about the university’s identity, and right now conservative Baylor finds itself engaged in a high-wire act as it navigates a changing culture. What does it mean to evolve while holding tight to your Christian roots?
I attended Baylor in the mid-nineties, right after David Koresh and his fellow Branch Davidians squared off against the federal government, a fiery tragedy that put Waco on the map in the worst way. At the time, Baylor was not exactly a sleepy backwater—it was, and remains, the largest Baptist university in the country—but its reputation didn’t extend much beyond the borders of Texas. Sure, we had a few famous alums, like former governor Ann Richards and best-selling author Robert Fulghum (whose All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, come to think of it, may not have been much of an endorsement for the university). Academically, Baylor was respectable but not remarkable, and athletics was mostly an afterthought: during its first decade in the Big 12, Baylor’s football team won just 8 conference games and lost 72, the sort of numbers that tend to put a damper on school spirit.
I enrolled, in part, because of a family connection: my great-grandfather studied geology at Baylor back when the football team wore leather helmets and scrimmaged on the quad. My great-uncle and great-aunt, John and Patricia Wood, attended in the fifties. (I should mention that the statue of RG3 was donated by them.) Also, like the vast majority of Baylor students, I was a churchgoing, verse-quoting Christian who had heard about the infidels at state schools who mocked you for loving Jesus. I was determined to emerge from my four years of higher education with my religious beliefs intact, and Baylor seemed like the ideal bulwark. (As it happens, it was at Baylor that my convictions began to unravel, which goes to show that no place is completely safe from doubt.) The campus was lovely, with the spires of its red-brick buildings rising high above the live oaks, a well-tended oasis among Waco’s poorest neighborhoods. Like the buildings, the school’s traditions—such as the free Dr Pepper floats served once a week in the student union, a ritual since 1953, or the supervised dorm visits for members of the opposite sex—felt like holdovers from a more innocent era. It was either sweet or stultifying, depending on your inclinations.
The president then was Herbert H. Reynolds, a gentlemanly executive who, in 1990, had wrested control of the university away from the dogmatic Baptist General Convention of Texas in a sly bureaucratic maneuver that involved quietly changing the school’s charter and then unplugging all fax machines to prevent the leaders of the BGCT from serving a restraining order. The break was a victory for religious moderates on campus, and they loved Reynolds for it. Five years later, partway through my time at Baylor, Robert Sloan, a Baptist minister and the founding dean of the university’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, took the administrative reins with the promise of building on Reynolds’s legacy and leading Baylor to great new heights.
Yet Sloan quickly began to alienate wide swaths of the campus community, from high-profile donors to longtime faculty members. A few years into his tenure, he stunned science professors by creating a center for intelligent design, to be headed up by William Dembski, a scholar who scoffed at Darwinian evolution, the underpinning of modern biology. Baylor had long since abandoned teaching creationism, but the topic remained a sensitive one. (Today a notice on the biology department’s home page informs parents and students that the university teaches evolution, meaning that if students wish to hear only the literal Genesis account of creation, they will need to pursue their education elsewhere.) “When Dembski was announced, many in the faculty were shocked and dismayed,” recalled Robert Darden, an associate professor of journalism, public relations, and new media, this fall. “This was somebody on the far fringe, and I did not—still do not—personally know a single member who supported the hire.” Following an outcry, Dembski was removed as director, though he remained on the Baylor payroll for years, even after the center was dissolved.
Along with trying to legitimize intelligent design, Sloan seemed intent on instituting his own personal religious litmus test for professors. Since its founding, Baylor has required its professors to be Christian (or Jewish, though Jewish professors are rare enough that officials pause when asked to name one). Professors do not, however, have to sign a creedal statement affirming that they believe in particular doctrines of traditional Christianity, like, say, the virgin birth of Jesus. Jim Patton, a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and biomedical studies and former chairman of his department, remembers sitting in on an interview with Sloan and a candidate for a psychology position. The young scholar was asked whether he went to church and read the Bible. When he answered yes, he was then asked the topic of that week’s Sunday school lesson and which theology texts he was currently reading. “If precise answers weren’t acceptable,” Patton told me, “folks weren’t allowed to work here.” Many professors came to feel that Sloan was filtering out everyone but the fundamentalists.
That didn’t go over well, nor did Sloan’s “Baylor 2012,” a vision plan he unveiled in 2002 with the goal of bringing the school “into the top tier of American universities while reaffirming and deepening its distinctive Christian mission.” The plan called for making Baylor athletics nationally competitive and for professors to be judged not just on their teaching abilities but also on their publication record, all in the name of turning Baylor into the country’s only elite Protestant research university. The plan also called for huge investments in new building projects, which would require the university to go into debt and significantly raise tuition, two things that the fiscally conservative school had consciously avoided. In response, professors did everything except take up torches and pitchforks to storm the president’s office.
It was sports, which Sloan hoped would raise the school’s standing, that brought about Baylor’s darkest moment. In 2003 the body of a Baylor junior and power forward on the basketball team, Patrick Dennehy, was discovered near a gravel pit southeast of Waco. An autopsy revealed that Dennehy had been shot twice in the head; his friend and Baylor teammate Carlton Dotson pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. An investigation also found that Dave Bliss, the head basketball coach, had been paying a portion of Dennehy’s tuition out of his own pocket—a blatant violation of NCAA rules—and had threatened to fire an assistant coach if he revealed the truth. Bliss resigned, as did Baylor’s athletics director, and the team was put on probation by the NCAA for five years. Such an implosion would have been a blow to any university—the Kansas City Star ranked it the third-worst sports scandal in college history—but it was particularly embarrassing for a Christian institution. Was this really what went on at holier-than-thou Baylor?
By this time, Baylor professors were staging a slow-motion revolt. The faculty senate twice voted no confidence in Sloan’s leadership; the board of regents voted three times on whether to remove him before Sloan finally stepped down in 2005, announcing at a press conference that his “role as president has become a distraction from the main goal of fulfilling the [Baylor 2012] vision.” For many, it was as if they’d been waging a battle for the soul of the place to which they had committed their careers. “It was the most depressing time of my life,” Randy Wood, a professor of education, told me. Even now he doesn’t like to broach the subject. “Those were very dark years.” The school’s leadership was in shambles, and its athletics program, with the exception of the women’s basketball team, wasn’t faring much better. “At that point, people wondered whether Baylor belonged in the Big Twelve,” said Ian McCaw, who took over as athletics director. “We had not had success in football. Coupled with the basketball scandal, some wondered whether we should lower our expectations.”
The university’s next president, John Lilley, who came from the top job at the University of Nevada at Reno, was, like Sloan, an ordained Baptist minister. Also like Sloan, he upset faculty members by micromanaging tenure and hiring decisions. Lilley’s most notorious misstep, however, was attempting to discard Baylor’s beloved interlocking “BU” logo, a move that bewildered and infuriated alumni. The regents didn’t hesitate this time, sacking Lilley after two turbulent years.
What Baylor desperately needed was a leader who could tread softly on still-tender feelings, an executive with universal appeal who could remind Baylor what it was and what it could be in the future. Someone who could inspire, soothe, and unite. Which meant that no one was quite prepared when, in 2010, the regents announced that they’d chosen one of the most divisive political figures of the nineties, an attorney whose enemies have called him both “bland” and “incarnate evil,” a man best-known for chronicling, in novelistic detail, the sexual dalliances of a president of the United States and a White House intern: Kenneth Starr.
On a Friday night before the official start of the semester, thousands of freshmen streamed into the Ferrell Center, Baylor’s basketball arena, for a spirit rally—a master class of sorts in how to be a rabid college sports fan. As smoke machines filled the air with a white haze, green and gold balloons bounced around the students filing to their seats. At center court, cheerleaders in sparkling outfits danced to sanitized snippets of Kanye West songs. Then, as the vibe grew more electric, Kenneth Starr appeared, to ecstatic cheers. The 68-year-old college president, dressed in a yellow Baylor ball cap, a yellow Line jersey, and cargo shorts, dashed across the stage, accompanied by Bruiser, Baylor’s costumed mascot. “You belong at Baylor! I belong at Baylor! We love Baylor!” Starr shouted into the mike. Then he leaped into the air.
When Starr was first hired, few could have imagined what a cheerleader for Baylor he’d become. The media coverage of the announcement naturally focused on his time as a special prosecutor and the infamous report that had led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, a televised morality play in which Starr was cast as the perverse prude. The non-Whitewater, non-Lewinsky bits of Starr’s bio tended to get overshadowed. Born near Vernon, the son of a Church of Christ minister, the Texas native had sold Bibles door-to-door as a young man during the summers. At 37 he’d been the youngest person ever to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. As solicitor general under President George H. W. Bush, he argued 25 cases in front of the Supreme Court, and there had been whispers that Starr might himself become one of the robed nine. Immediately before coming to Baylor, he had served as dean of Pepperdine University’s law school.
It wasn’t a weak résumé. Plus, he wasn’t a Baptist minister, which, given Baylor’s recent experience, seemed like a positive. Still, there was skepticism. “The immediate reaction was that the board was trying to carry on the culture wars,” said one longtime professor. Quickly, though, Starr quashed those concerns with his personal warmth and boyish enthusiasm for the job—and indeed, the school’s turnaround cannot be understood apart from Starr’s intense optimism.
“You’re a Baylor Bear!” he exclaimed one recent afternoon when we shook hands in his office. “I’m just an adopted one.” The walls were lined with rather glum paintings by the post-Impressionist Édouard Leon Cortès, and an acoustic guitar, a gift from some alumni in Nashville, stood in a corner. (He plays, though not well, he insists.) His shelves were lined with a mix of religion, history, and politics titles; one that jumped out was Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture War. Also impossible to miss was My Life, by Bill Clinton. On a side table, a framed photo from a student was signed in cutesy handwriting. “Judge Starr, You’re the Greatest!” it read. When I noted that the campus had obviously embraced him, Starr replied, “Well, it’s a hospitable place.”
Bespectacled, genial, and grandfatherly, Starr is a fan of the fist bump, which he doles out to students and staff alike. He likes for students to think of him as Uncle Ken. “The ‘Judge’ routine is a little formal, and ‘Mister’ seems without character or warmth,” he told me. “If the choice is between avuncular and curmudgeonly, I’d prefer to be known as avuncular.” When I asked whether he was aware, when he took office, of how previous presidents had bruised feelings on campus, Starr was tactful. “I certainly inferred that an attitude of genuine respect was important,” he replied. “I would hope that I would have brought that attitude regardless of the history of the university.”
In fact, behind his pleasant demeanor lies a knack for shrewd diplomacy. One week into the job, Starr was faced with the possible dissolution of the Big 12 athletics conference. Another conference, the Pac-10, was looking to poach members of the Big 12, putting in jeopardy millions of dollars in television revenue and raising the prospect that Baylor might get left behind while rivals such as Texas Tech University and the University of Texas flourished under a new arrangement elsewhere. Starr wasted no time—working the phones, reaching out to other college presidents and NCAA officials, writing op-eds, declaring Baylor’s right to litigate—and the crisis was averted in the short term; though there has been one major defection since then, Texas A&M University’s departure for the SEC, the Big 12 conference has remained viable and Baylor has thrived. It was an early victory for Starr, or at least not a defeat.
Starr’s focus since then has been on raising money and casting long-term vision, often leaving the details of day-to-day administration to his deputies so he can travel around the country and boost the university’s profile. He has been successful—his initial goal of raising $100 million for student scholarships was met handily—but he believes that there’s a lot more to do. Under Sloan’s Baylor 2012, the school’s endowment was supposed to reach $2 billion; it is currently hovering around $1.1 billion. The university went into debt for some of its building projects, to the tune of $625 million, and it now relies heavily on tuition, which has gone up by a third since 2010, to $34,480 a year. If Baylor once prided itself on being a steal, those days are over.
“Our challenge is to become less tuition-dependent. If I could make one change overnight, it would be to have a substantially larger endowment, both with respect to scholarships and faculty positions,” said Starr. “The good news is that we’re working hard on that.” This past summer, the university launched partnerships with Tyler Junior College and Blinn College, in Brenham, to make it easier for students to spend their first two years at a much cheaper community college and then finish at Baylor, for essentially a half-priced diploma.
In May 2012 Starr and the board of regents adopted a new strategic vision, dubbed “Pro Futuris,” which openly built on Baylor 2012 and articulated the ongoing goal of becoming “a Carnegie Research University with Very High Research Activity that resolutely embraces its Christian identity.” The most recent U.S. News and World Report college rankings put Baylor at 71, four slots up from where it was in 2013, and under Starr, the school has been more aggressive about coaxing faculty away from other universities, recently snagging an engineering dean from A&M. (In some cases, Baylor’s Christian mission actually helps attract professors, though obviously it also narrows the pool; Hindus and atheists, qualified as they may be, need not apply.) But in terms of joining the research ranks of Duke or Stanford, the school has a long way to go: after years of emphasizing its commitment to teaching, Baylor is still making the shift toward judging its professors on how much they publish, basing tenure and promotions on scholarly productivity. At first some of the more seasoned faculty argued that this emphasis—publish or perish—was a move away from Baylor’s historical identity. But as Lenore Wright, an associate professor of philosophy, told me, “I think most people have accepted now that this is the new Baylor.”
There’s been some progress: the number of publications has doubled in the past six years, as has external funding for research, though at $30 million a year, it’s still less than half of what Rice University routinely draws. Whether Baylor can serve both God and the academy remains to be seen. “Is that balancing act actually possible? Can you be a national-class research university and hold on to a strong evangelical Protestant tradition?” asked Samuel Schuman, a former chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the author of Seeing the Light: Religious Colleges in Twenty-First-Century America. “Baylor clearly thinks the answer is yes. I think the jury is still out.”
For his part, Starr shies away from terms like “top tier.” “I speak more generally about ‘Let’s build Baylor,’ ” he told me. “We continue every year to make significant progress.” His warmth seems to inspire the kind of devotion that may just keep Baylor on that track. Starr gets praise even from professors who have hurled stones at past presidents; last fall the faculty senate voted to commend Starr for his “spirit of cooperation.” “I’ve not talked to any faculty member that dislikes him, and considering what Baylor went through, that’s pretty remarkable,” said Lynn Tatum, a senior lecturer in religion, who was among the initially skeptical. Larry Lyon, a sociologist and the dean of Baylor’s graduate school, told me that he too had had his doubts, but they were quickly allayed. “He was not born to be a special prosecutor. He was born to be a college president,” Lyon told me. “He will win you over pretty quickly. You think, ‘Is this guy just a really good actor?’ I think he’s genuine.”
The goodwill has spilled over elsewhere. Starr has established a close relationship with Waco’s mayor, Malcolm Duncan Jr., and helped put together strategies for Prosper Waco, the city’s anti-poverty campaign. (“It’s a pretty full partnership,” said Duncan of the ties between Baylor and the city, in contrast to the town-and-gown divisions of the past. “I don’t think we could do much better.”)
And then, not least, are the students. Before the first football game, I ran into four shirtless freshmen hanging around outside McLane Stadium, casually flexing their pecs in the 95-degree heat. They were planning to paint their chests for the game, they said, but didn’t want to sweat off the green and gold before kickoff. (Why they didn’t also wait to remove their shirts went unexplained.) One of the four, a young man from Nebraska named Jacob Humber, recalled how Starr had helped freshmen unload their overpacked vehicles on move-in day. “You’d expect the president of the university to be all formal, but he was in shorts and a T-shirt, carrying the heaviest of boxes,” he said, with admiration. “He was happy to be there, and you could tell.”
While likability is a plus, Starr also had the excellent fortune of taking office just as Baylor sports was experiencing a rebirth. With the spectacular exception of the women’s basketball team, which has racked up 404 wins and just 86 losses since Kim Mulkey took over as head coach in 2000, Baylor athletics continued to languish until 2007, when the university hired Art Briles away from the University of Houston as head football coach. The football team struggled in Briles’s first two seasons, but by 2010 things had begun to turn around—thanks in no small part to Robert Griffin III.
In a memoir published this past summer, Beating Goliath, in a chapter titled simply “Robert,” Briles describes how the two men’s fates became intertwined. Seeing Griffin for the first time at a high school training camp, Briles called an assistant over and said, “We’ve got to hide this guy.” He was afraid some Division I scout would notice Griffin’s deadly accurate spirals and steal him away. That moment, when Briles realizes how good Griffin is, something every other coach apparently overlooked, is a critical one in Baylor history. Without Griffin, it’s unlikely that the team would have risen so rapidly or sold as many season tickets or attracted as many new players or, as it did last year, claimed the first Big 12 championship in school history.
And without RG3, says one freshman, Dane Risinger, “I might not even have come here.” Risinger, who plans to major in biology with an emphasis in pre-dental, was in McLane Stadium when he told me this, standing with a couple thousand other freshmen, all in yellow jerseys, waiting to rush onto the field to meet players like quarterback Bryce Petty, a likely Heisman contender, before their first game. The players would slap the freshmen’s hands before running through a steel arch that spit out fire. As Lyon, the sociologist, also noted: “Maybe athletics shouldn’t matter so much, but it does.”
It’s due in large measure to football that in the past two and a half years, Baylor has raised more than $400 million, money that’s being used for scholarships and a slew of building projects. There’s a new business school being built, as well as a planned new health science center, and the dormitories are set to receive an overhaul. Baylor plans to spend $8 million turning one of the streets that runs through campus into a plaza with a fountain. And perhaps the new cash flow may help realize the school’s research aspirations, however lofty or far away they may seem. “We’re not where we need to be yet,” acknowledged Truell Hyde, the vice provost for research. “You have to put a substantial investment on the table.” One such investment is the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative, a research complex located a few minutes north of campus and housed in a 320,000-square-foot facility that was, until 1986, the General Tire manufacturing plant. So far $60 million has been spent converting the facility.
Not everyone is sanguine about all the spending, and Baylor’s finances are at the heart of a long-running and nasty dispute between the university and the Baylor Alumni Association, an independent body that’s been around since 1859. Though the association’s troubles with the administration began under Sloan, who believed the BAA sought to undermine his presidency, the friction has continued as the organization has raised questions about the university’s debt and tuition hikes. (“The school is leveraged up so high that it doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room,” one BAA officer told me, a notion that Baylor officials strongly dispute, pointing to a recent A-plus financial rating from an independent ratings agency.) The university, arguing that the association fails to connect with more than a small fraction of alumni, has essentially supplanted the BAA with its own in-house alumni group, whose message is controlled by the administration. The war of attrition became so heated that, last December, the administration changed the locks on the association’s offices after hours and banned it from most university events, effectively cutting it off at the knees. In June the university sued the BAA to force it to stop using Baylor trademarks in its advertising. Barring a last-minute settlement, which appears unlikely, the two sides will head to court.
Nevertheless, this has done little to suppress enthusiasm for the school. Ken Hall, who was hired in 2012 as Baylor’s senior vice president for development and strategic initiatives, told me that football has made alumni open their checkbooks wider—even those whose main priority is academics. “Maybe your heart is in scholarships. We can say to you, ‘You could have a football suite if you make a million-dollar contribution,’ ” says Hall. “The rise of the Baylor brand is something that everyone wants to be a part of.”
In fact, the power of that brand is an idea that Drayton McLane, whose name sits atop the scoreboard at the new stadium, has insisted on for decades. The 78-year-old, who graduated from Baylor in 1958, built his grandfather’s grocery wholesale business into an empire and sold it to Walmart, becoming one of the wealthiest men in the country, with an estimated net worth of close to $2 billion. When Starr took office, McLane began pushing him to consider building a stadium, but the president was focused at the time on his $100 million fund-raising goal to offset Baylor’s soaring tuition. McLane countered that if Baylor had a new stadium, the money would follow—or, as he put it, “all ships would rise.” A modern stadium would be proof, as McLane saw it, that Baylor had arrived.
After the Year of the Bear, McLane renewed his plea. “I said, ‘Here is the amount we’ll give, but you need to announce it in the next two weeks,’ ” he told me. He gave the initial gift to finance its construction, then spent considerable time goading others to chip in.
As Baylor’s relationship with the City of Waco has grown stronger, more and more students have begun to live downtown, and those students, and their credit cards, have helped spur a revitalization of the city’s center, which has improved dramatically in recent years, though it still has empty storefronts and seemingly abandoned blocks. McLane thought the relationship should be a two-way street, so he convinced the city to donate $35 million to the stadium, arguing that it would attract further development (creating, as Briles put it, “a little San Antonio”). He advocated for a footbridge, so students could walk to games from campus, and for the stadium to be visible from the interstate.
“If you just drive through Waco, there’s not an exciting image,” McLane told me. “There is no striking symbol in Central Texas. When you go to New York, you think of the Statue of Liberty. You think of Chicago, you think of the Sears Tower. You think of St. Louis, you think of the Arch. I think the stadium is going to be the symbol not just for Baylor but for Waco.”
Early on the morning of the first football game—before I met Nick Adams, Raul Aguilar, Jacob Humber, Dane Risinger, or any other Baylor freshmen—I happened upon Michael Berry, a 1986 Baylor alum, who was setting up chairs and a table under the awning of his enormous new black RV, which he’d parked across the street from the stadium in a spot that cost him more than $1,000 for the year. Berry had driven the ten hours from Memphis to tailgate, and a flat-screen TV installed on the side of the vehicle would soon blare the voices of pregame talking heads.
Berry loves Baylor football. He also believes in Baylor’s mission. As the university grows and finds itself basking in the national spotlight, alumni like Berry fear that Baylor will ease away from its historic ties and become a place where religious commitment is merely a relic. “So much of modern academe is anti-God, anti-Christian,” Berry told me. “At some point, we’re going to be Baylor or we’re going to be something else. If it comes to the point that the school becomes another Wake Forest, I’d stop supporting it.” His daughter is a freshman, and he wants her to have the same kind of fulfilling experience he had nearly thirty years ago. “I didn’t want her to attend a place that would actively set out to humiliate her because she’s a Christian,” he said.
As when I was a student, Baylor, for the most part, wears its religion lightly. There’s still a required Scripture class, as well as mandated chapel services, but you generally won’t see anyone issue an altar call there. In fact, devout students attending chapel for the first time are often taken aback by what seems more like an inspirational episode of Oprah than a church service. “Sometimes we get students who are not prepared for what Baylor is in its breadth,” said Burt Burleson, the university’s chaplain, noting that less than a third of students are Baptists. “We get some who feel it’s very progressive and others who feel it’s way too conservative.”
I was a junior when Baylor discarded its on-campus dancing ban, in 1996; by then, the ban had become a curious artifact, and there was no serious outcry over its elimination. Its end was briefly a national news story (the gist being “Can you believe they’re just now letting them dance?”), but otherwise it had no effect on daily life. It wasn’t as if everyone started moshing in the library. Yet, in a small way, it showed how rules that sprang from a particular tenet of Christianity—in this case, a concern for modesty and chastity—could become outmoded, even ridiculous.
Far weightier and more contentious is the topic of homosexuality. Last year, Brittney Griner, the six-foot-eight former star of Baylor’s women’s basketball team, who now plays with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, told the press that as a student she knew not to speak publicly about her sexuality. Griner, who is gay, told ESPN The Magazine that “the coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”
Baylor’s student handbook decrees that in their personal lives, students must abide by the university’s interpretation of biblical norms. “Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior,” it reads. “It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.” As more states legalize gay marriage, and as opinion polls, even among evangelical Christians, show greater acceptance of gays and lesbians, the prohibition of homosexual behavior (which the handbook does not define) is likely to become even more of a lightning rod, raising questions about whether Baylor is staying true to biblical norms or promoting bigotry.
On campus, there’s high-profile support for discarding the ban. Robert Baird, a recently retired philosophy professor who taught at Baylor for 47 years, is widely admired, including by Starr, and his attachment to the university couldn’t be any deeper. “I absolutely love Baylor,” he said. “I committed my professional life to it.” He graduated from Baylor in 1959, back when the university was still all-white; it didn’t admit its first black students until 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in schools. For Baird, the ban on homosexual behavior is analogous to not allowing students of color to attend. “The intimate relationship between human beings is so valuable and so important,” Baird said. “It seems that we are branding ourselves in a certain way that does denigrate and undermine the dignity of some people at our university.”
The administration’s response to such criticism is twofold. “We have to remain lovingly in conversation about these very sensitive issues, but at the same time we are duty-bound, and cheerfully so, to remain true to Christian teaching,” Starr told me. (In 2008, before he was president, Starr was on the legal team that pushed to uphold the amendment to California’s state constitution that disallowed gay marriage.) When I asked Kevin Jackson, the vice president for student life, whether it is okay to be gay at Baylor, he replied that students are “going to have questions, thoughts, and predilections, and if you feel that you have same-sex attraction, we want to talk to you about that. And we want to talk to you about how that may or may not be shaping your view of the world and who you see yourself becoming.” He later clarified that “Baylor welcomes these conversations with our students.”
Kevin Ebach, who graduated from Baylor last year, didn’t really come to terms with his sexual orientation until he was already at the university. As a senior, he decided he wanted to come out, but he was counseled against it by a chaplain in his dorm (students from Baylor’s Truett Seminary serve as dorm chaplains). Ebach worried that he might lose his position as a resident assistant, and while there are no reports of students’ being thrown out for being gay, flouting the student handbook could in theory be grounds for expulsion. He came out anyway, with no official repercussions. Before he left Baylor, Ebach met with Jackson and told him that he believed Baylor would eventually see the light and drop its anti-gay stance. “It makes you feel that you’re always wrong and who you are isn’t okay,” Ebach told me. “It makes anyone who is gay feel that they don’t fit in and they aren’t good enough. They try to say, ‘We welcome gay people,’ but it’s a very contradictory message.”
Starr frames that message as a mandate that’s bigger than Baylor. “We all fall short,” he said, “but we lift up the great and enduring values of Christian thought transmitted over the centuries, over the generations, given to us as hopefully faithful stewards.”
The paradox of a university like Baylor is that while it draws its identity from a set of values and ideas outside mainstream culture, it must adapt to shifting mores or risk becoming irrelevant. And it has adapted over the years, in ways both momentous and minor. In the twenties, the very suggestion that Darwinian thought might be creeping into the curriculum created an uproar. As late as the sixties, the dress code dictated that Baylor women wear skirts on campus and cover up with raincoats when going to and from gym class. Now evolution is taught as scientific fact and women are free to wear jeans or even—gasp!—shorts without fear of reproach.
If you look closely, you can see other, more subtle shifts. During Welcome Week, for example, there is a long-standing tradition—no one’s sure precisely how long, though it dates back decades—of freshman men serenading freshman women. The ritual dictates that late one evening, the men materialize outside the women’s dorms, some wearing togas and bearing bouquets, and croon up at the blushing ladies in the windows, their hands over their hearts. The women, giggling and nudging one another, might feign a swoon or reach down to grab an offered carnation.
This year, for the first time, the custom was modified slightly to keep up with the more gender-equal times. Instead of waiting to be wooed, the women met the men in a large grassy area between the dorms known, appropriately, as Minglewood Bowl. The men had already rehearsed their songs and dance moves in a nearby parking lot, warbling karaoke-style to Van Morrison’s biggest hit, swapping out “Baylor” for “Brown-Eyed.” Some of them had dressed formally, in button-down shirts and neckties, while others showed up in shorts and sandals. They sprinted en masse, a hundred or so in the group, to rendezvous with the women, laughing and bounding over benches. As they ran, someone yelled, “Let’s go meet us some wifeys!”
With a fuzzy-sounding boom box for accompaniment, the men serenaded the women—and then the women, in turn, serenaded the men, belting out a medley of inoffensive pop standards like Toni Basil’s “Mickey” and “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. It was a scene that, at a secular university, might seem quaint, but here at Baylor it felt almost progressive. Like the songs, the dancing—an activity that was officially verboten not so long ago—was entirely innocent, devoid of anything sexual, silly rather than suggestive.
It is Baylor, after all.
Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education. He lives in Austin.