Monday, February 22, 2010

A Faded Star at Baylor

NOTHING ROUSES THE BLOGGER out of a post-holiday hiatus like news that Ken Starr has been named the new president of his alma mater.

It's true.

The man who whose investigation of the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals engendered President Bill Clinton's impeachment in the House of Representatives is now the president of Baylor University. With the departure of former President Herb Reynolds in the 1990s, Baylor began a sharp slide to the right, limiting what could be taught and who could teach. The appointment of a man whose public career has been about licentiousness over learning, punishment over poetry, sends a sad message to current Baylor students and alums.

In short, this news means that Baylor is more about the ideological world rather than the intellectual world. Education suffers whenever religious agendas drive policy because the tighter the microscope the more likely it is that all subjects are seen through the same lens.

As the world's largest Baptist university, it is understandable that Baylor wants to galvanize its Baptist base. But other Baptist universities, like Wake Forest and Brown (which Baylor should emulate) actually gained momentum and rose in public perception once they realized that education is never about restriction but liberation.

At one time, Baylor's baptistness was not at odds with its ability to deliver a comprehensive first rate education. I was a student at Baylor with award winning poet Todd Heron, Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, and journalist Jess Cagle, who went on to edit Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine. One wonders if Baylor continues to foreground exclusionary values over pedagogical values if the institution would attract such a diverse and talented student body.

Actually, we know the answer to that. No American university has simultaneously become more conservative and more coveted. Indeed, overtly Christian colleges are rarely taken seriously as places where true learning happens.

So, is Baylor's model Liberty University or Brown University? President-appointed Star has not permanently set the college down the wrong path, but the decision to put him at Baylor's wheel is making that detour harder and harder to imagine.