Baylor’s nonexistent cliff

I’m not happy with this story about Baylor’s new president, Linda Livingstone, by my friend Ruth Graham, which is an unfamiliar experience for me because Ruth is one of the best journalists around. (Despite my criticisms here, you should read anything that has her byline on it.)

First of all, let me declare an obvious interest: I teach at Baylor, so I’m invested in its success.

Second: Baylor deserves the media lashing it has received in the past couple of years, and deserves it all the more because it’s a Christian university and should be holding itself to far higher ethical standards than are typical at secular institutions. Instead, and especially in its treatment of women, it has often fallen far below the already-low standards of its peer institutions. Heads needed to roll, and some big heads did roll; however, there are deeper and more insidious cultural forces at work that need to be identified and uprooted. I have seen, up close and personal, Baylor’s efforts in recent months to do that difficult uprooting work, and I commend the institutional leadership for that — even though I doubt that the job can be done as thoroughly as it needs to be done as long as the university is committed to success in Division I sports. (If I were Emperor of Baylor, I would take us to Division III in a heartbeat: no athletic scholarships. Of course, that would lead to my being tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, so perhaps it’s better that I’m not Emperor of Baylor.)

So what’s my problem with Ruth’s post? This claim: “Livingstone’s historic appointment is a rather extreme example of a phenomenon known as the ‘glass cliff’: the tendency of women to be appointed to leadership only when an organization is in crisis.” Ruth is effectively arguing that Linda Livingstone has just signed up as captain of the Titanic.

But this is not true. Student applications continue to go up — last year’s class was the most selective in school history and this year’s may be even better —; giving remains strong and the university has never been more financially secure; we’ve been able to hire better and better faculty, even in the short time I’ve been here. This is an institution that has a crisis, but it’s not an institution that’s overall in crisis.

A comparison may help. The athletic department at the University of North Carolina is immured in an academic scandal so profound that the president of the University of Maryland has suggested that UNC athletics be given the ‘death penalty’ — that is, be shut down altogether, at least for a period. And yet, I don’t believe that anyone has described UNC as an “institution in crisis,” nor would anyone think that someone chosen as its president was about to walk off a cliff.

I’d just like for Baylor’s treatment in the media to be comparable to UNC’s. That is, I’d like for the university as a whole not to be defined, wholly and exclusively, by the worst thing that’s happened here — even though I want that “worst thing” to receive the widespread condemnation it’s already received.

And I also — last but definitely not least — want to say this: I hope Linda Livingstone thoroughly cleans house around here and sets up Baylor for a future in which it won’t even be possible for people to write pieces like Ruth’s.