12:00 AM CST on Sunday, December 26, 2010 | By S.C. GWYNNE / The Dallas Morning News | [email protected]
JERRY LARSON/The Associated Press |
Shedding the pious image he acquired investigating the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair, Baylor President Kenneth Starr joined students in rushing onto the field before the Bears’ home football game against Oklahoma last month.
Most of the world knows him as the Whitewater prosecutor, the man whose zealous investigation of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky led to the president’s 1998 impeachment. To his many critics and adversaries, Starr seemed a sort of Old Testament avenger, a grim, puritanical apostle of the Christian right whose office conducted what amounted to a political jihad against a sitting president.
From his campus office, Kenneth Starr directs Baylor’s efforts to transform itself from regional Baptist school to world-class – but still avowedly Christian – research university.
But the reality of Kenneth Winston Starr, who in June became the 14th president of Baylor University, is quite different. To watch him work the crowd at the Baylor-Texas A&M football game, in fact, is nothing short of a revelation.
Here, he seems less a pious righter-of-wrongs than a sort of funny uncle. Resplendent in a white warm-up suit trimmed with green and gold and a yellow Baylor cap, and bearing a cherubic smile that never quite leaves his face, the 64-year-old Starr plunges into groups of startled tailgaters. He talks to everyone. He hugs anyone who will agree to be hugged. He tells jokes. He tosses footballs. He poses for photographs, lots of them.
DOUG MILLS/The Associated Press
Starr testified to lawmakers in 1998 about his Bill Clinton inquiry, which included the president’s sex life. ‘We just had a nasty, unpleasant task to do, and we simply had to do it,’ Starr told Ken Gormley for the book Death of American Virtue.
When the Baylor players emerge from their bus to walk a gauntlet of fans, Starr tries to hug all of them, many of whom appear to have no idea who he is. He fails, but is undeterred.
Though his enemies might prefer to think otherwise, this is the actual Ken Starr, the one the TV cameras never quite got: warm, kind, humble, funny and engaging.
Even before taking office as Baylor’s president, Starr consoled basketball player Dragan Sekelja in March when a loss to Duke kept the Bears from advancing to the men’s Final Four. Though detractors might prefer to think otherwise, Starr is warm, kind, humble, funny and engaging.
Even more remarkable is what Baylor’s board of regents has hired this cheerful, politically polarizing fifth-generation Texan to do: unite a 15,000-student Christian university that has been riven by internal wars – academic, religious and otherwise – for a decade.
Healing those wounds is just the beginning of Starr’s task: His larger mission is to fulfill one of the most breathtaking visions in American higher education. Baylor wants nothing less than to transform itself from its traditional role as a somewhat sleepy, second-rate, predominantly regional Baptist school to a world-class research university with highly ranked graduate programs.
With his wife, Alice, Starr greeted guests at a community Christmas reception this month on the Waco campus. In addition to spreading encouragement, Starr said, he spends time every day raising money for scholarships.
And it wants to accomplish all that while asserting itself as a fully Christian, evangelical university with avowedly Christian professors. No Protestant university has ever done this before or even tried. Old-line schools founded on Christian principles like Harvard, Princeton and Yale historically bowed before a relentless secularism and are now places where religion is relegated to extracurricular status. Notre Dame is the only remotely comparable model. It is very definitely a world-class research institution, but not absolute in requiring its faculty to be Catholic or Christian.
Dismay and joy
When Starr’s appointment was announced in February, the news was greeted in the extended Baylor community with a mixture of shock, surprise, dismay and joy. Starr has at least as many fans as he has detractors, and at least half the country (and probably much more than half of Baylor’s alumni body) believes that Bill Clinton’s behavior deserved to be investigated.
Still, many of the comments on the Baylor Alumni Association website and by Baylorites in the press were sharply negative. And even conservative evangelicals who had no political agenda with Starr wondered: Why, at a school whose civil wars of the early and mid-2000s became front-page news, would it possibly be a good idea to hire a non-Baptist with such partisan baggage? (Starr was raised in the Church of Christ, in which his father was a preacher.)
But the Baylor regents had reasons for their seemingly odd choice, arrived at after an intensive two-year search. And it has resulted in a sort of brilliant honeymoon that many would not have predicted.
Starr’s success in winning the Baylor community over is at least partly due to his upbeat, disarming personality and his deep religious convictions that are in tune with those generally held at Baylor.
But he is also the possessor of a legal résumé that few contemporaries can match, as well as a striking record of success as dean of Pepperdine University’s law school.
He is one of America’s leading appellate lawyers, a man who in a single year (1996), while spending much of his time on the Whitewater investigation, managed to earn $1 million in legal fees. He was a federal appeals court judge (9th Circuit) at the age of 37, so well respected that he was considered for the Supreme Court in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush – only to be deemed too liberal by Bush’s own Justice Department. He served as counsel to the attorney general in the Reagan-era Justice Department, as solicitor general under Bush and as special prosecutor from 1994 to 1999, investigating the Clinton White House.
“He’s part of a very small club at the top of the legal world,” says former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips, a Baylor grad who was on the search committee. “He has had, what, 26 arguments at the Supreme Court? There are probably not more than 10 people who have done that.”
And while Starr is accorded almost automatic respect for his law career, he has had to hustle to win acceptance from parts of the Baylor community that were suspicious of his politics.
Winning over the wary
Perhaps the best example is his experience with a group of extremely wealthy, extremely Democratic trial lawyers who have given large amounts of money to Baylor. Many of them were angry at the news that Baylor had hired the controversial Republican.
“At first, I was very surprised and apprehensive because of his background,” says Baylor Law School graduate Walter Umphrey, one of the wealthiest lawyers in Texas.
Umphrey invited Starr and eight other prominent trial lawyers who were also Baylor grads to his ranch in Wimberley. Starr accepted, spent two days with the group and got their enthusiastic approval.
“He answered all our questions,” says Umphrey. “I was very impressed with Starr, and it appears right now that it is going to be a great thing for the law school and for Baylor as a whole. My plaintiff lawyer friends all have the same opinion I do.”
Starr has spent much of his time since he was hired reaching out to various Baylor constituencies, from regents to alumni and faculty with – thus far – similar results.
“I have to say that Ken Starr as a political figure is indeed polarizing,” says Michael Lindsay, a Baylor graduate who teaches sociology at Rice University and wrote about Starr in his book Faith in the Halls of Power.
“But as a human being, he is not at all,” Lindsay says. “I have yet to meet anyone who has … spent any time with him who does not like him. I worked pretty hard to find someone on the faculty at Pepperdine who really didn’t like him or had bad things to say about him. I did not find that person.”
Perhaps Starr’s strongest credential was his performance at Pepperdine, where he ran the law school from 2004 to 2010. His mandate had been to improve the school’s standing among its peers, a difficult task for any graduate school and one that often requires decades of work. Under Starr, the law school’s standing improved with unprecedented speed.
“He succeeded beyond our wildest dreams,” says Tim Perrin, vice dean of the Pepperdine law school. “When Ken came in, we were 99th in the U.S. News rankings. When Ken left, we were 52nd. No other law school has come close to moving that far that fast.”
The jump in rankings was driven by fast-rising law board scores and grade point averages of Pepperdine students, a number of high-profile faculty hires and Starr’s success in raising money.
“He almost single-handedly went in there and raised the profile of the school,” says Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne Law School, whose book Death of American Virtue, published this year, chronicled the epic battle between Clinton and Starr. “All of a sudden, you saw major national figures participating in symposia at Pepperdine, coming as guest speakers, very high-profile leaders.”
And while Gormley admires Starr’s management style at Pepperdine, he has a very different assessment of his leadership of the Office of the Independent Counsel.
“He was miscast in the role of prosecutor,” says Gormley. “He was not really built for the job. He was more suited to be an appellate judge, not someone in the trenches of a prosecution like this.”
If Starr is the least bit haunted by his five-year stint as the special prosecutor, you would never know it. He is an expansive and relentlessly cheerful person. He is, however, weary of talking about Monica Lewinsky and answering the same questions over and over, many of which amount to: Do you still think you were right to investigate Bill Clinton’s sex life?
“Starr would later conclude,” Gormley wrote, “that it was a mistake for him to expand into the Monica Lewinsky matter, largely because of the disastrous effect it would have on his Whitewater/Madison investigation and in sullying his otherwise sterling professional reputation. His view in hindsight was that, ‘It had to be investigated, but I was a poor choice to do it. …We just had a nasty, unpleasant task to do, and we simply had to do it. It was being portrayed for political reasons as essentially some sort of religious-inspired jihad.’ ”
Over lunch at Baylor, Starr is less interested in talking about Whitewater than in expounding on what it means to be a Christian university.
“At Baylor, we believe fervently in academic freedom and we do not flinch from the truth,” said Starr, referring to the fact that, unlike many more conservative religious schools, Baylor teaches evolution and other biblically sensitive topics from a scientific perspective, as it always has.
“But we do have a world view where we are called to use our talents and gifts for the benefit of our fellow human beings who are created in the image of God. There is no requirement that you check the box saying ‘I covered the Sermon on the Mount’ in physics. But we do provide the freedom to talk about these other things that are part of this centuries-old tradition that animates much of Western civilization, what T.S. Elliot would call the permanent things.”
To understand what Starr and Baylor are trying to do, it is necessary to understand a bit of history.
Baylor is a private Baptist institution – the largest Baptist university in the country – and has been since its founding in 1845. In 1990, after a decade long fight between fundamentalists and moderates in the Southern Baptist church, Baylor’s charter was changed to restrict the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ board representation to 25 percent, effectively taking Baylor out of the strict control of the Baptists. This meant the end of any talk of teaching courses based on the Bible as the inerrant word of God.
Christian at core
Many faculty members and alumni also believed that this event would mark the beginning of secularization, a process that had transformed other once-prominent Baptist institutions, including Brown University, the University of Chicago and, most recently, Wake Forest.
In fact, the reverse happened. The charter change – which blocked a fundamentalist takeover of the school – actually freed Baylor to reassert its Christian identity. In 2002, it embarked on an ambitious plan, known as Baylor 2012, whose goal was to completely alter the character of the university. Baylor had long been content to be primarily a low-tuition teaching university for children of Texas Baptists. Professors did not publish much and were generally not leaders in their fields.
Under Baylor 2012, all that would change. Faculty would teach less and publish more, and their tenure would depend on it. The university would also greatly expand its graduate schools. The largest building campaign in the university’s history would add whole colleges and academic buildings. Students would come with improved boards and grades. The idea was to move the university’s ranking from the mid to high 70s in the U.S. News and World Report list into the top 50, the cutoff for “Tier One” status.
The university’s second and far more controversial goal was to reaffirm its Christian mission, which meant hiring only faculty members who were not only Christians, but also deeply committed to their faith. (Roughly one-third of Baylor’s faculty and students are Baptist these days.) Though Baylor’s Christianity is visible in many ways, from mandatory chapel attendance to the abundant school-sponsored mission programs in the U.S. and abroad, the school’s religious character resides primarily in its faculty.
The result, in 2002 to 2005, was a small civil war inside the university that centered on President Robert B. Sloan Jr., the man whose vision Baylor 2012 had been. Sloan declined to comment for this story.
The primary issue was the wrenching change in the faculty, both in the insistence on research and publication and in the often confusing new religious standards, which many interpreted as a doctrinal litmus test. Prospective teachers were grilled about their Christian convictions, and the existing faculty was split into “A” and “B” groups, separating the newly favored “research” types from the teachers. Sloan was soon at war with both his faculty and his alumni association; he received two votes of “no confidence” and resigned under fire in 2005.
For a while, it seemed that what the many skeptics had said was true: Baylor could never be both Christian and a great academic institution.
Then something interesting happened.
Slowly, quietly, the main precepts of the 2012 plan began to take hold. The number of faculty with degrees from top-flight research institutions rose substantially, as did their rate of publication. In departments like sociology, Baylor managed to land world-class faculty members who were also Christians.
In 2002, the number of faculty articles in major publications was 202; by 2008 that number had risen to 496. Scholarly citations soared, too, as did external grants for research, the number of doctoral programs (rising from 14 to 20) and enrollment in those programs (up 32 percent). Student SAT scores have risen 50 points in the last 10 years, while undergraduate applications rose stunningly from 7,431 in 2002 to 34,224 in 2010.
Baylor’s biggest challenge is finding talented Christian faculty members. For many academics, the prospect of being asked about their religion in interviews is not an appealing one.
“It’s difficult, and you have to work very hard at recruiting,” says Kevin Pinney, associate professor of chemistry and a leading cancer researcher. “It is not always easy to find people without offending them. They can even have strong Christianity and still not want to be asked about it.”
“We are learning patience,” says the school’s provost, Elizabeth Davis. “We require faith commitment, research excellence and teaching excellence. The pool gets smaller when you put ‘excellent’ in front of each of those words.” Still, Davis, Starr and other leaders are convinced that Baylor can attract the faculty it needs.
Plans require money
This is the world Starr is entering as he begins his tenure as president.
Compared with the wars of the mid-2000s, it is largely a world at peace, at least for the moment. But it is also desperately in need of money if it is ever to have a real chance of carrying off its grand plans. The most conspicuous failure of Baylor 2012 was the school’s inability to substantially increase its endowment.
Money is needed to fund faculty research, to keep fast-rising tuition down, to reduce Baylor’s student-faculty ratio and to build more buildings, fulfilling the goal of having 50 percent of students reside on campus.
The biggest of these issues is tuition, which at Baylor, as at other institutions, has risen steeply over the last decade. It was no coincidence that in Starr’s inaugural address in September he called for a major campaign to raise scholarship money.
“Fundraising is a huge part of my job,” says Starr. “If I don’t succeed at that, I am a colossal failure. But I think that the uniqueness of the Baylor experiment will bear very abundant fruit in terms of people even without Baylor connections wanting to see Baylor succeed. I am counting on it. You have to try, of course, to deepen the mission of the university. But then you have to go out and build.”
Thus Starr’s days have been stacked with meetings and appearances with all manner of university constituents. He lives in a brick house with wide columns on the campus, and he and his wife, Alice, who is as gregarious as he is, have already become fixtures around Baylor.
When asked what a typical day is like, he says: “Well, tonight I have to be at a dinner and then a lecture and then two basketball games. That’s the ‘encouragement’ part. But I also need to make sure that I am doing something every day on the fundraising front. Today we had meetings on the scholarship initiative. Where are we? How do we get the faculty and staff energized?”
For all of its efforts, Baylor remains both undercapitalized and unable to improve in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. And there are very real limits on how many outside grants – one of the main measures of a research university – it can expect to get.
Starr, meanwhile, is nothing but optimistic.
“It’s a great ambition,” he says. “One of the great things about the vision of 2012 is it envisions a community where we love one another and forgive one another. We have all fallen short of that as a goal, but that is wonderful to have as a stated ideal. We can just talk in those terms, and that is very liberating.”