Kenneth Starr in the “Athens of Texas”

During my first visit to Baylor University, now nearly a decade ago, I learned that the city of Waco billed itself as the “Athens of Texas.” High praise indeed, some would sniff, but Baylor itself had high aspirations. The university’s president at the time, Robert Sloan, sought to turn “the largest Baptist university in the world” into a “Protestant Notre Dame.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the possibility that, with the appointment of such scholars as George Marsden and Mark Noll and the fact that fully a third of the graduate students in philosophy are Protestants, the famous school in South Bend, Indiana, may itself be the “Protestant Notre Dame.” Sloan’s vision, which he called Baylor 2012, was that his university would become a magnet for Christian scholars and a center—perhaps the center—for Protestant intellectual life.

I was in Waco to write a feature article for Christianity Today, and I confess that I was intrigued by the audacity of Sloan’s plans. Modest, but steady increases in tuition over a period of years, combined with an orchestrated scheme to tap into the wealth of Texas Baptists, would allow Baylor to embark on an ambitious building program and the recruitment of top-tier faculty from around the world. (Sloan’s point man for faculty recruitment and development at the time even initiated conversations about the possibility of luring my wife and me to Baylor as distinguished university professors.)

Sloan overreached, however, and eventually fell victim to his own ambitions. Although my article was, I think, generally positive (or at least cautiously optimistic) about Baylor 2012, I worried that the recruitment of academic “stars” would create a two-tier system and engender resentment among Baylor’s existing faculty. That turned out to be the case, one of several factors that led to Sloan’s ouster in 2005. His successor, John M. Lilley, lasted only three years; he was fired for failing to unite the university’s faculty and students.

Now we learn that the Baylor regents have selected Kenneth W. Starr as the university’s fourteenth president, news that is both surprising and not so surprising. Surprising because Starr is 63 years old, a bit ripe for the beginning of a university presidency. Surprising also because he’s not a Baptist, although he says he’ll join a Baptist church (if Paris is worth a mass, I suppose that Waco is worth a couple of praise songs.)

Starr’s appointment is not surprising because it apparently reflects the right-wing leanings of the regents, if not necessarily the faculty or the students. Starr as special prosecutor, of course, sought to bring down the Clinton administration. (Was it my imagination, or did Starr seem just a tad too interested in the tawdry Monica Lewinsky business?) Starr also has been dean of the notoriously right-wing Pepperdine Law School, and he has been in the forefront of supporters for California’s Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that reversed the legalization of same-sex marriages.

At the announcement of his appointment, Starr sought to play down his past. “Baylor’s pursuit of knowledge,” he intoned, leaning closely to read his notes, “is strengthened by the conviction that truth has its ultimate source in God.”

As a person of faith, I have no quarrel with that statement. But the real question for the faculty and students at Baylor is how the new administration approaches the “pursuit of knowledge” at the university. What if the pursuit of knowledge entails stem-cell research or leads to the conclusion (gasp!) that evolution is the most satisfactory explanation of human origins? What if a member of the religion department or the divinity school faculty notices that Jesus really had little or nothing to say about homosexuality or that Paul’s statement that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female merits a capacious interpretation?

What happens then? How will the Starr administration respond?

The “Athens of Texas”? We’ll see.