Battle at Baylor: Will the atmosphere change?

During the past few years, I have hesitated to write about the national coverage of Baylor University’s academic civil war — either in my Scripps Howard columns or on this blog.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, I have two degrees from Baylor and my whole family bleeds green and gold and, to varying degrees, some members are involved in Baylor life. The man who has been the lightning rod at the heart of the Baylor changes — President Robert Sloan — is a friend. Now he is standing down.

Nevertheless, let me make a few comments — stressing that everything I say here is my own analysis and should not be pinned on others.

First of all, the mainstream media coverage so far in the state of Texas has had little to do with the issues at the heart of the Baylor conflict, other than the personality clashes linked to Sloan and those who oppose him. There are significant ideas at the heart of the war and you will rarely see them in the newspapers. Without a doubt, the best article about the Sloan era was printed in a liberal, mainline Protestant magazine — The Christian Century. To read it, click here. More on this article in a moment.

In the Texas press, the Baylor war is often linked — directly or indirectly — with the multi-decade conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention, pitting “moderates” against “fundamentalists.” This is half right.

In the SBC civil war, the “moderate” Baptists — think Bill Moyers, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — have lost virtually everything when it comes to corporate power, seminaries, etc. In Texas, Baylor has always been at the center of “moderate” life. A small number of these Baptists are, literally, crypto-Unitarians who simply like good preaching. However, most would feel right at home in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Above all, they do not think of themselves as evangelicals and they cannot tolerate “fundamentalists.”

The “moderates” are at the heart of revolt against Sloan and the vision known as Baylor 2012. As they often say in private: “We are not going to lose our Baylor,” with an emphasis on “our.”

Following a common media-coverage template, that means Sloan represents the “fundamentalists.” The only problem is that he does not. A wide variety of people have backed his cause, from mainstream evangelicals to traditional Catholics, from Anglicans to the Orthodox. At the national level, many Christian educational leaders — from Notre Dame to Yale, from Duke to Harvard — have endorsed the Baylor vision. Check out this list.

The Baylor conflict has pitted “moderate” Baptists against this diverse national coalition — call it the ecumenical traditionalists. Are they conservatives? Yes, mostly. Are they in favor of “Christian education”? Yes, in the historic sense of the term. Are they “fundamentalists”? No, they are not. Many of the central thinkers in Baylor’s move toward the integration of faith, research and learning are Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.

The Christian Century piece captured this. The big question: Does the historic Christian faith have intellectual content? Does this matter on a university campus that calls itself “Baptist,” “Christian” or both?

Here is a key section of Robert Benne’s piece in the Century. I have done some editing to shorten this. Note the role of the former Baylor president, Dr. Herbert Reynolds, a key figure in the campaign to oust Sloan:

The Christian identity Baylor leaders are seeking is not defined by a confessional tradition, as at Calvin College, or by evangelical definitions of faith, as at Wheaton College. It seeks a “big tent” kind of Christian orthodoxy that includes Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and others, as well as the hoped-for number of Baptists. It is a “mere Christianity” kind of orthodoxy.

What’s so controversial about this? The answer lies in the particular form of Baptist piety — with its accompanying view of Baptist higher education-that has prevailed at Baylor and is now being formally challenged. For former President Reynolds and his faculty supporters, one’s relationship with Christ is what is essential in faith. … Christianity, in this form of Baptist piety, includes an inevitable moral imperative. But in one’s relationship with Christ — which is highly individual and inward — one has “soul competency.” A true Christian shares the freedom of the priesthood of each believer. This competency and freedom compel one to read the Bible and its meanings according to conscience. Nothing about the faith should be articulated in creeds or systems of Christian thought. . . .

This traditionally Baptist construal of the faith results in a particular vision of the Christian university. Some have called it the “atmospheric” or “two-spheres” approach. The Christian character of the university resides in the hospitable, friendly, caring, just and edifying atmosphere created by sincere Christians. It also resides in the religion courses and the extracurricular religious activities that permeate the university. But what happens in the classrooms of this kind of Christian university is pretty much the same as what occurs in public universities. . . .

Above all, traditional Baptists disagree with Sloan’s contention that Christianity has intellectual content. In the view of Baylor’s new leaders, faith is more than atmospheric. There is a deposit of Christian belief that all Christians should hold to. On the basis of that belief they should engage the secular claims of the various academic disciplines. In Sloan’s view, the Christian faith gives a comprehensive account of all of life and reality; it addresses the key questions of life, death, human nature, salvation, history, meaning and conduct.

Now, with this in mind, you are ready to read some of the coverage of the announcement that Sloan has decided to leave the Baylor presidency, stating his conviction that the board of regents will carry on with Baylor 2012. It will be interesting to see how openly the “moderate Baptists” attempt to campaign for a president who wants a “Baptist” university but not a “Christian” university.

Here is the Sloan package at Christianity Today and here is the main story at the dominant newspaper in the state, the Dallas Morning News. The old, establishment, mostly moderate Baptist newspaper in Texas — the Baptist Standard — has posted a story offering its perspective.

Above all, anyone interested in these latest developments at Baylor should take the time to watch the video coverage of the actual press conference in which Sloan and Board of Regents Chairman Will Davis discuss what led to this moment and what might happen next.

Let me end with a quote from the Dallas Morning News coverage that offers a hint of the real issues in this bitter conflict — even if the reporter did not fully grasp what this Sloan opponent was saying.

“Traditionally, Baylor has been an outstanding academic education with a Christian atmosphere that produced lots of good teachers and lawyers and physicians and dentists,” said former regent Gracie Hatfield Hilton of Arlington. “It has not been a research institution. Research is great and fine and good — I am not opposed to it, but that is not what Baylor has traditionally been about.”

The key word? “Atmosphere.” There is “education,” then there is “atmosphere.” Two spheres. That’s the story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ken

    Thanks for the summary; this whole problem at Baylor never made sense, but that’s because I was looking though the fundamentalist/liberal controversy template.

    I will take some time to review the links tomorrow, but I do want to comment that the “soul competency” thing is very much in line with something I read in the Baptist Standard 20 years ago: the central, basic doctrine of the Baptist religion is that competency of each soul to stand before God without mediation and determine truth.

    Also, you might have said that the DMN is the dominant paper in north Texas. The Houston Chronicle is also distributed statewide; I have seen in in a newstand as far north as Temple, a bare 30 mile south of Baylor.

  • David

    Since you have done a superb job laying out the important distinctions, and pointing those of us who are not familiar with the details to important documents, permit me to contribute one further clarification in language. You say that some Baptists are “pseudo-Unitarians”.

    That implies to my ears that they pretend to be Unitarians but really are not. I think what you mean to say is better stated by the prefix “quasi-” or “crypto-”. They have the religious affiliation of Baptists, but the religious commitments of a Unitarians. If I was writing this, I would tend to say that they are “crypto-Unitarians.” Whether or not that makes them “pseudo-BAPTISTS” is for Baptists to decide.

    Thanks again for your excellent work.

  • Clayton Jackson

    This was a nice summary of the pro-Sloan viewpoint, and one of the hallmarks of it is that it tries to make the Baylor battle one between those who believe in Christian education and those who don’t–between “pseudo-Unitarian” Baptists and orthodox Baptists. That’s NOT the battle that’s happening, although a lot of Sloan supporters want to put it in those terms because it gives them the moral high ground and makes their opponents look like immoral liberals. The reasons that people have wanted Sloan out are more practially driven than theologically driven.

    –Financial: tuition has risen dramatically since he’s been President, Baylor is over $260 MILLION in debt, there is little money to hire new faculty, professors are having to buy their own photocopy paper–and all the while, the budget for “administration” has risen dramatically and Sloan’s salary went from $275K in 1996 to almost $600K now. The same week he cut benefits for new employees (to save $3 million a year) he bought a private jet (for the same price) without the regents permission. He routinely has given his supporters on the faculty up to 9% raises, while his detractors have received 0-2%. Those kind of actions do not build goodwill, and they have nothing to do with his stance on Christian education.

    –Moral: the Sloan administration has practiced vindictive policies with the faculty. What does it say that 85% of the faculty voted no-confidence in him this year and the faculty senate has voted the same thing over the past two years? They did so because Sloan uses his power to bully and intimate those who do not agree with his tactics. Several people have been denied tenure at the very end of the tenure process after having been given stellar reviews up to that point–and the denial happened with little or no explanation given. In the pursuit of their vision, they felt justified in de-railing academic careers, hurting feelings and families, and causing untold pain, stress, and hardship in the lives of those who resisted. They have intimidated others into silence, bullied those whom they have power over, threatened those that they don’t, and have practiced cruel and vindictive revenge on those who have crossed them. Put simply: the Sloan administration’s mistreatment of people has been the single biggest cause of the resistance against him.

    Personal–The public relations for the university have been a disaster. Sloan tried to intimidate the Alumni Association–which had been an independent organzation–into giving up its name, and he later stipped it of funding (the funding was later restored by the Regents command). In response to their refusal to give up control of their services, he created a separate Alumni Services department within the university to offer the same services and essentially compete with the original Alumni Association–thus splitting graduates in two camps. This was another attempt to intimidate and silence his critics and to control the flow of information. Long-time donors have been driven away because of the financial misdealings. Local papers in Texas, including the Houston Chronicle, have written editorials calling for Sloan’s resignation, creating a storm of bad publicity that has hurt the university’s image in the sate. And while enrollment in Texas universities is booming, Baylor has struggled to meet its goals (leading to the budget woes).

    I could go on, but the point: this isn’t just about theology or liberal Christians who want to stop Christian education at Baylor. It’s about financial mismanagement, the abuse of power, and a person who has almost single-handedly split a university in two.

    There’s always another point of view. For those interested, you can find more information from the “other” side about Baylor here:

    Thanks. : )

  • Clayton Jackson

    “A small number of these Baptists are, literally, pseudo-Unitarians who simply like good preaching.”

    That doesn’t seem to me to be an accurate characterization, but rather an attempt to marginalize one’s opponents so that one’s readers will dismiss their point of view. Most of those involved in the Baylor controversy are steeped in the Texas Baptist “moderate” tradition, which became crystalized after the conservative/fundamentalist takeover of the SBC in the 1980′s and 1990′s. These Baptists did not like the control tactics of the SBC leadership (for various reasons), so they blocked SBC control of their institutions and pulled back from the ties with their convention. Theologically, however, they are well within the Baptist mainstream, and they still ascribed to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message–the document which governed Baptist life until the 2000 revision. That’s hardly a “pseudo-Unitarian” document, and I personally don’t know anyone involved in the struggle that would fit that description at all.

    By saying that they’re “pseudo-Unitarian”, you’re implying that they have little or not doctrinal grounding–that they would reject basic doctrines about the Trinity, salvation, etc.–and that they remain Bapitst because they like good preaching. No only is that inaccurate, it seems like an attempt at a veiled insult which serves to demean a group of people with whom you disagree. After all, it’s easy to dismiss a point of view when you marginalize those who hold it.

  • tmatt


    Ever been to Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte?

    I stand by my statement that a “small number” fit this description. I have known them all my adult life.

    David, you are correct and I will change that.

  • Clayton Jackson


    I haven’t been to Myers Park in Charlotte, and I have no doubt you can find Baptists like that somewhere. Baptists are a diverse lot.

    However, you seem to be intentionally connecting those type of Baptists with the people who have been involved in the Baylor discussions. After your description of moderates in the paragraph which included the description “psuedo/crypto-Unitarians”, the next paragraph starts, “the ‘moderates’ are at the heart of the revolt…” The connection you’re trying to imply seems clear, and I think it is unfair. In general, moderate Texas Baptists are much more conservative than their East coast counterparts, and I don’t know of anyone involved in the Baylor struggle who would fit that description at all, including the specific person you mentioned, Herbert Reynolds.

    Again, it seems from my reading that you were attempting to marginalize those you disagree with in the Baylor struggle by labeling them with a derisive term (or, at the very least, implying an association between the those with that label and those invovled at Baylor). That’s fine–it’s your blog, of course, and you can label people how you see fit. I just disagreed with it because I don’t think it’s an accurate descrption of the people involved, and I thought it distorted the truth of the situation.

  • tmatt

    Actually, I grew up in the heart of Southern Baptist life in Texas and know the moderate scene there better than in the East. “Moderate” is not a derisive term in Seventh & James (outsiders, this is Texas lingo). You are saying that moderate Texas Baptists are not, by nature, opposed to evangelicals and the traditional forms of Catholic, Orthodox and mainline faith?

    But all of this is beside the point: The Christian Century magazine piece remains the best summary, in my opinion. I would ask readers to read it for themselves. The two-spheres issue is the key. I will stand by that.

  • Clayton Jackson

    “You are saying that moderate Texas Baptists are not, by nature, opposed to evangelicals and the traditional forms of Catholic, Orthodox and mainline faith?”

    I’m saying that no one involved in this battle is anywhere near being a “crypto-Unitarian”, and though not fundamentalists, they’re quite conservative in their theology. Not all moderates go to 7th, and the type of people we’re talking about would be more along the lines of FBC Waco types (to add to the Texas lingo).

    “But all of this is beside the point…”

    Which is why implying associations or labels to the other side doesn’t help the discussion. I’m not trying to argue. I just didn’t think it was a fair characterization, because I thought someone could easily read your post and decide that those opposed to Sloan were non-evangelical, Trinity-denying would-be Presbyterians. That’s not the case, and I offered a clarification from my point of view. People can check the links and decide on their own.

    By the way, I’m am everyday reader and I find your site quite informative and helpful. Sorry to stir up some dust.

  • virusdoc

    I earned my biology degree from Baylor in 1994, and was a freshman the year BU broke from official control of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. So as long as I can remember, BU has been charged with politico-religious power struggles. When I left my time at Baylor, I was fairly fundamentalist in my faith, and from my perspective the moderates–led by Dr. Reynolds–had won the day. Years later, and much more moderate to liberal in my faith, I met Robert Sloan at a conference in Jackson, TN and heard him articulate the nascent seeds of the 2012 vision. I was impressed by him: he was kind, articulate, and seemed deeply committed to the idea that a uniquely Christian approach to world-class scholarship in all disciplines could be achieved. I wasn’t sure I agreed with him, but I wanted to believe this could be true.

    I remember asking him at the time how such Christian scholarship could be fostered at an institutional level. He responded that changes must be made in the way faculty were hired and tenured, such that one could be assured that faculty with a genuine commitment to integration of their faith and their studies were retained. I said something to the effect of “that’s going to piss some people off, isn’t it?” He nodded in prophetic agreement. This was long before any of the controversy you delineate erupted.

    The whole affair makes me sad for Baylor. Sloan was a man of unique vision and passion, and as you fairly state he wasn’t a fundamentalist or a credalist. The mistake he seems to have made is not so much demanding that a professor’s Christian faith, if genuine, should affect the way they approach their research. His mistake was assuming you could transform a “two-spheres” university into a faith/discipline integrated institution in 10 years. Something about the incompatibility of new wine with old wineskins comes to mind.

  • Michael Bush

    The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is what? Openly unitarian? Certainly not.

  • Dan Knauss

    Professor Mattingly Terry is right that the mainstream coverage–including that in Christianity Today–has been poor and reductive. The Christian Century piece is a step up. But better still, I think, (and longer), is this balanced, insider summary and reflection (by a recent Baylor graduate) of the 2012 debacle:

    More opinionated commentary can also be found at the same site (and more is forthcoming) from a unique perspective that prioritizes the need for local autonomy rooted in tradition rather than globalist interventions rooted in rationalized theory, regardless of the projected or real outcomes. (Fish around the

  • Sherry

    I have a daughter now attending Baylor, and I have been watching this controversy with great interest. I also grew up among Texas Baptists although I graduated from another Texas Baptist university, not Baylor. Anyway, I wrote briefly about my take on Dr. Sloan’s resignation and the vision for a rigorously academic and Christian school at my blog. (The New Pantagruel article linked in the previous comment is excellent, by the way.) Let me just say here that the faculty, the students, and the alumni are much more evenly divided over all this than it might seem. Many faculty members are strong supporters of Dr. Sloan and Baylor 2012, especially faculty in the Honors College and new faculty members who have been recruited during Dr. Sloan’s tenure. Mr. Jackson is also right to say that there are financial issues involved. It’s a complicated mess, but I’m still rooting for the vision of Baylor 2012. I think it’s an amazing, God-honoring, vision.

  • Andy Black


    I agree that most coverage of this story has been inadequate, at best.

    I hope you have a chance to read the article Dan linked above. I’d appreciate your thoughts on my take.

  • durb

    Excellent commentaries from all on a complicated situation.

    I’ve always said that the claims of Sloan being a “fundamentalist” were off. Some people think he’s “liberal”, which goes to show how ineffective those labels are, and how they can be used to misrepresent the issues.

    I also think the issue of Dr. Sloan’s presidency/leadership, and Vision 2012 need to be separated as well. As things moved along, there were many things that Dr. Sloan did to alienate a good portions of Baylor alumni and faculty. As Clayton points out, there are a number of issues involved that go beyond the value of 2012. The cutting of funding of the alumni association and creation of the “Baylor Magazine” rubbed some people the wrong way.

    Unfortunately a lot of dissatisfaction with Dr. Sloan’s leadership is also tied into the athletic department. His hiring of friend Tom Stanton, who had no prior athletic administration experience, proved to be a huge mistake in the long run. While sports/football shouldn’t have anything to do with how a University is run, it is seen as the “face” of an institution (especially in Texas). The Baylor Basketball fiasco further added to the appearance of an athletic administration that was, at best, ignorant and inept. While these are only small parts of the real issues, these played a HUGE role in the public opinion of Sloan as a leader. Just check some of the commentary over at and you’ll see a lot of those remarks.

    I hope that with Sloan as chancellor, a new president will be able to mend some of those fences, and that the vision of 2012 will also continue to develop.

  • Rocky


    Interesting comments, and the Christian Century piece was a good read. I do think, however, that the religious media has been too quick in labeling this just about the two-sphere or integration debate, just as the secular media is too quick to look over the intricacies of the religious debates involved. The issue is much more complicated, and because of the sometimes bungling job that Dr. Sloan did, the realization of an “integrated” Baylor may never come to be. That would be a horrible shame, because the other alternative, in my opinion, is lazy Christianity and lazy academics.

    I do have to take some objection to your blanket definition of the term “moderate” Baptists in Texas. Agreed, some moderates, or those claiming to be moderates, work well with your definition. But that is not all Texas Baptists. There is an increasingly large “Uncomfortable Middle” who quite frankly don’t know how to be labeled. Those who think like I do enjoy the integration model, love deep-thinking believers, cherish creedal statements (though they do not use them in place of scripture), fall anywhere within the arminian/calvinist paradigm, and shun anything that could be labeled as separatism. This final qualification leaves us stranded between the Southern Baptists of Texas (and the SBC, fundie types) and the BGCT types who want to wage war against all fundies. Much like the Baylor debate, Baptist life in Texas is quite complicated. Just thought that I would add in my two cents. Thank you for your time and bringing this issue up.

  • Fr. Gassalasca Jape, S. J.

    Nobody is noting the relevant history in this issue either, which adds some nuance: The Christian “integrationist”* theory behind initiatives like 2012 (not to mention GetReligion) is from Reformed (specifically Dutch Calvinist) thought since the mid- 20thC, which developed in the US as a partial reaction to the world-withdrawn Evangelicalization and consumptive Americanization of Reformed communities, their schools and churches. What resulted was a divisive battle in the Reformed colleges and churches that resembles Baylor’s situation somewhat.

    Results were mixed, but the Reformed community ended up pioneering “integrationist” and “worldview” education and scholarship. Evangelicals appropriated much of this ferment, and the cooperation of Northern Reformed and Evangelical folk is clear in the associations and labor behind and leading up to things like 2012. To Southern Baptists with a strong sense of a very different tradition, it is easy to see why they might feel invaded by condescending carpetbaggers.

    On the other hand, the Reformed-Evangelical alliance is tenuous itself in similar respects, although it is not a source of open conflict and shows no sign of becoming one. The Wheaton-Calvin rivalry might be paradigmatic.

    While the Reformed community has enjoyed status as the brains trust and pioneers of “Christian cultural engagement” through higher education and much else, they are numerically and financially weaker by far than the big tent Evangelicals. The Reformed denominations relevant to this history are also in sharp decline. (In some cases we’re talking under 200,000 people.) Individual churches that are growing are doing so the favorite way: Rick Warren’s church growth model. This invariably follows on and exacerbates a loss of traditional confessional distinctives at the same time that demographic change in heretofore ethnically-defined (Dutch) denominations are also transforming identity. So it is not uncommon to find a love-hate relationship toward Evangelicalism among the Reformed. At bottom in all this stuff is a core motivation among Evangelicals, Baptists and Reformed Protestants to not only survive with their threatened heritage and orthodoxy intact at a time of crisis and strain, but to flourish. And to flourish, one must be first among one’s allies, and they must learn to recognize and serve the true master. (No doubt it adds to the general anxiety when Baptists and Baylor grads join the throng of ex-Evangelical papists and possibly more acceptable Eastern Orthodox. Props to Jeremy and tmatt.)


    *on the term “integrationist”–Some Reformed thinkers prefer “integralist.” A professor at the Institute for Christian Studies published (a few years ago) a critique of George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship as an “integrationist” model that seeks a place in the world of multiculti, modernist Liberalism. Preferred at ICS is a different “postmodern” integralist model. Relevant to the differences also I believe is Marsden’s years outside the Reformed community at Notre Dame rubbing shoulders with Evangelicals and Catholics. ICS was *the* institution developed out of the renewal of the Reformed mind in the 60s-70s. Built in Toronto in the Vietnam era with historic ties to the Netherlands, this is a particularist group that I think tends to see itself (with warrant) as getting less credit and consideration that it’s due among Evangelicals who have appropriated Abraham Kuyper’s cultural mandate for themselves.