Baylor's improbable dream

Posted: Aug 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Coach Dave Bliss failed in his attempt to turn Baylor University's basketball team into a major power. On Aug. 8, he resigned amid accusations of payoffs, players' drug use and other improper activities, all brought to the forefront during media attention resulting from the tragedy of one of his players killing another.

Baylor President Robert Sloan rightly placed Baylor's basketball program on probation for two years and ordered changes in the drug-testing protocol for Baylor athletes; the NCAA might require more. But, oddly enough, Baylor's problems in trying to gain athletic fame point to parallel questions about its ambitious "Baylor 2012" plan to be ranked a first-tier school academically at the same time it regains a Christian footing.

Baylor is the only private university in the Big 12, one of the six (soon to be five) top athletic conferences in the country. All of these conferences are largely made up of state universities that can rely on legislatures and state pride to help out in budget crunch time. Baylor is in the wrong league.

Sure, Baylor can point to private universities, such as Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference, that go up against state university competition. The private schools expect few championships and treasure the unusual year when everything comes up roses, as it did for Northwestern in Big Ten football a while back. They also tend to be academically prestigious places with high-paid alumni and high-end endowments.

Could Baylor be such a place, for the good of its sports programs but far more so for the good of its students and the glory of God? That's what Sloan intends. He has spoken often of Baylor advancing to the research university forefront while returning to its Christian roots. But the definition of "research" in much of academia today will make it even more difficult for Baylor to do both than it was for Bliss to succeed.

Gaining research awards in the hard sciences and engineering while maintaining a Christian worldview is hard, but not impossible. Darwinian fundamentalism in biology remains a large problem, as proponents of "intelligent design" theory at Baylor itself can attest, but in some scientific areas concepts and products that grow out of research need to prove themselves in measurable ways.

Research in the humanities and social sciences is different. Professors gain prestige for themselves and their universities by presenting papers at meetings of academic trade associations and writing articles for the journals such groups establish. In past years, I've been to the annual conventions of five such groups -- Modern Language Association, American Sociological Association, American Historical Association, American Studies Association and Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication -- and can offer Baylor a message from personal observation: You cannot serve both God and academic bigotry.

Along these lines, a look at the schedule of the American Sociological Association's 98th annual meeting (Aug.15-19, 2003) is suggestive. One of the official highlights is a section on "Marxist sociology," but paper and roundtable titles like "Queering Reproduction and Reinforcing Heteronormativity" or "Female Solidarity in the Sex Industry" suggest the radical fixation that is at the heart of much of today's academic sociology.

I'm not against studies of subcultures, movements and pressures. I could sink my teeth into annual meeting topics like "Defining a Good Steak: Global Constructions of What Is Considered the Best Red Meat." I'm even curious about the research findings to be unveiled in "‘Just Like the Boys'? Gender Negotiation in the Skydiving Community." But I have seen how writing that says God is in charge receives ridicule among those who glorify their own neuroses.

Baylor will find Christian humanities and social science professors who can be excellent in both teaching and real research only if it ventures outside the normal academic channels. That may translate into lower academic prestige in the short run, but the university will have to make hard choices, as it now must do concerning its sports program.