To fully appreciate The Dallas Morning News’ Texas-sized profile of Baylor University President Ken Starr, one must accept its basic premise.
That premise — full of religious imagery — is underscored at the top of the 3,000-word Sunday story:
Meet Ken Starr, fun guy.
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.
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.
So there you have it: Starr is not as bad a guy as you thought he was. And, oh yeah, he’s working miracles at Baylor.
The profile itself makes for an entertaining and, in some ways, informative read. I became quite familiar with the stretch of Interstate 35 between Dallas and Waco during my time with The Associated Press, so the subject matter caught my attention.
The talented writer of the Morning News’ piece is a veteran Texas journalist whose work has drawn praise from your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas. But in this case, the Starr profile brings to mind that old saying about the cowboy who was “all hat and no cattle.” I should stress that I’m referring to the profile itself — and the evidence it uses to back up its assertions — not to Starr.
The story drips with effusive praise for Starr’s tenure at Baylor (all seven months of it). Take this section recounting the former prosecutor’s hiring by Baylor:
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 resume that few contemporaries can match, as well as a striking record of success as dean of Pepperdine University’s law school.
How long do university presidents’ honeymoons typically last? Is it really all that surprising that seven months into the job, Starr enjoys positive relations with the Baylor community? Speaking of which, where are the quotes from Faculty Senate leaders, from Texas Baptist leaders and from others who have sparred with past Baylor presidents to support the notion that Starr is different than the previous leaders who failed?
No Baptist leaders or editors who questioned hiring a non-Baptist president to lead the world’s largest Baptist university are quoted to say that their position has changed. As for Starr’s “deep religious convictions that are in tune with those generally held at Baylor,” the story does not explore those convictions or explain how they are in tune with what Baylor believes. The story does not even report whether Starr has joined a Baptist church, as he promised to do when hired.
More from the story:
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.
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.
Again, I’d appreciate some actual sources to back up such statements. Who — besides the reporter — sees Baylor’s traditional role as that of a “sleepy, second-rate, predominantly Baptist school?” What expert(s) — besides the reporter — verified the claim that “no Protestant university has ever done this before or even tried?” Or are readers just supposed to take the newspaper’s word for it?
As for healing Baylor’s wounds, that statement seems somewhat at odds with how Starr himself characterizes the situation he inherited. From the excerpts of Starr’s interview with the Morning News included with the story:
“The Baylor I entered was a Baylor at peace. David Garland, the interim president, brought a great and steady hand to bear for 20 months during the search process. He proved to be a great balm and healer. So I have tried not to in any way disrupt the great state of peace and tranquility that I was very privileged to inherit. There is a lot of energy on the Baylor campus, and we need all that energy poured into a positive, constructive effort. That certainly was the direction Baylor was going in when I arrived, and it has been my job not to foul it up.”
The profile ends like this:
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.”
Again, some sources — and in this case, some actual details — would be nice concerning “undercapitalized” and the U.S. News rankings. As for Starr’s final statement, the reference to “forgive one another” definitely made me curious. That sure sounds like a potential religion ghost.
Photo: In February 2010, newly named Baylor University President Kenneth Starr, right, receives congratulations from regent Chairman Dary Stone.