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Letter To a New Faculty Member

The most awarded professor in Baylor’s history leaves a note behind for those who will now carry the torch

Perhaps we all look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. Or, in my case, glasses tinted with the purest green and gold.

Perhaps the past was never as good, never as comforting as we remember it. It only seems so now. Perhaps we mentally edit out the bad memories and, because we return repeatedly to the good ones, they prosper and grow in stature until the bad ones are just crowded out.

•••

If you’ve just arrived at Baylor University with much acclaim from your Ph.D. program, your impressive dissertation figuratively in hand, your all-important “publication potential” touted in multiple hiring committee meetings, then the last thing you want to hear from another old white guy is yet another lecture. This won’t be a lecture, I promise.

And it won’t be stream-of-consciousness series of memories about the Good Old Days, stories quite unrelated to anything you’ve experienced – or are about to experience – in your epic journey through higher education that now culminates at Baylor, this beautiful Tier One, Research One university in Texas.

Instead, in the best English 101 style, I’ll give you my thesis up front: You are joining the ranks of a new Baylor University. But you’ll have to trust me – at least for the duration of this essay – that the old Baylor University is still here, still worth searching for, still worth celebrating.

But I also assure you, this is not one of those sweetly sentimental odes to a semi-mythical past. That’s not to say that old Baylor Bears (like me) sometimes don’t think of the “Jerusalem on the Brazos” version of Baylor the same way that Orson Welles believed there was once a better version of his homeland:

“…I think there has always been an England, an older England, which was sweeter, purer, where the hay smelled better and the weather was always springtime and the daffodils blew in the gentle, warm breezes. You feel a nostalgia for it in Chaucer, and you feel it all through Shakespeare.” *

But poetry aside, those glimpses, those remnants of “old” Baylor do matter. And I believe that it is important that I tell you why.

The Baylor – and Waco – I entered during the tumultuous year of 1972 was incredibly different than Baylor today. I was a military brat, attending three different high schools in four years. My final stop was Kirby High School in small Woodville, deep in the piney woods of East Texas. Unlike my friends, most of whom had attended the First Baptist Church of Woodville since birth, I had never even been to Baylor. They regaled me with stories of their annual RA (Royal Ambassador) trips to Floyd Casey Stadium where they ran amuck in the endzones as the Bears fought with the Rice Owls.

I drove up to Waco with my friend and Great American Jimmy King, who was hoping to walk on with the Baylor baseball team, then coached by the legendary – and often playfully irascible – E.E. “Dutch” Schroeder. Like many of the Baylor athletic teams in those days, he oversaw a program blessed with few resources as it annually competed with wealthy programs like the University of Texas. Dutch didn’t know us from Adam but treated us with the greatest of courtesy, driving us around the campus, treating us (probably out of his own pocket) to a steak at one of the local cafeterias.

It was my first experience with Baylor, but also my first experience with this old Baylor, one marked by a generosity of spirit, a can-do willingness, and an overwhelming kindness. Fifty years after my afternoon with Dutch, I only vaguely remember getting lost on LaSalle Avenue, which was then an appalling collection of decrepit, burned-out buildings, tanneries, junk car lots, cheap motels and ominous warehouses. But I do vividly remember Dutch – who would remain a friend until his passing a few years ago.

In 1972, there were 14 kids at Baylor from Woodville. Fourteen! The primary reason I came to Baylor was the people I admired most in our First Baptist Church youth group had enrolled over the previous two years and loved it.**

To have that many students from a relatively poor small town was possible back then. Of course – tuition was only $25 per semester hour – and Baylor was filled with kids from small towns like Woodville from throughout Texas. Looking back through the Round Ups of that era, there was a more rural cast to the campus – and to the students. We had a Rodeo Club. Some students wore cowboy hats (before they were cool). Traditional country & western music ruled, though Willie and Waylon and the boys were gaining traction. There was still a small-town intimacy on campus – you smiled and spoke to your fellow students between classes. There were just 7,000 students (compared to a current enrollment of 21,000) on a campus half the size of today’s. You introduced yourself to your neighbors in classrooms, in the cafeteria, in Chapel. And it came from the top – President Abner McCall insisted that professors and administrators do the same.

Should you get a few moments amid your class prep and essential research, may I recommend a short book? Abner McCall: One Man’s Journey, edited by Sherry Boyd Castello, the seasoned editor of Baylor Line for 27 years; Gary Cook and Thomas Turner, is one of the best, most succinct, most evocative summaries of what Baylor was like at that time. The school on the Brazos that McCall inherited in 1961 had small, inadequate, and usually outdated facilities, a $12 million endowment (compared to today’s $2 billion), and a modest population of mostly Baptist students (today, only 20 percent of the student body identifies as Baptist). As Castello describes, commentators at the time dismissed it as one step above a sleepy rural Bible college. Over the next 20 years, McCall would be the driving force to transform Baylor and set the stage for what was to come.

Throughout that transformation, McCall wisely fought to keep the heart of the university, the one true through-line that had survived since its founding in Independence: the sacred trust between student and teacher. McCall said that he personally interviewed every new professor:

“I tell every one of them that we (Baylor), above all, expect the teacher to have respect, compassion, concern, yes, even to strive to love every student and to treat them accordingly. I tell them we expect them also to love their fellow teachers, and even to strive for that impossible height of loving the university administration. We strive to encourage all on the campus to act toward each other in such a manner of love that the observing world can tell we are Christians.”

Over the years, I have talked to a host of professors and administrators hired during McCall’s presidency – John Belew, Bob Baird, Tom Hanks, Bill Cooper, David Pennington, John Wood, Andy Moore and others – and they’ve all confirmed that account of their initial interviews.

Above all, McCall told them to love the students.

And – in my experience and in the experience of countless other Baylor alums I’ve talked to in over these past 50 years – that’s exactly what happened. McCall was quite happy if you published; he encouraged it. But never, never, never at the expense of your relationship with your students.

That’s the Baylor that welcomed me in’72. The great majority of my professors committed to learning my name the first week and remembered me long after I’d left Baylor. Mind you, I wasn’t a particularly promising student – I certainly wouldn’t have been admitted to today’s Baylor. My parents lived in Alexandria, Virginia, while my father was stationed at the Pentagon, so I only traveled home over Christmas and the summers. But, these professors became my family. They continued to love me, encourage me, nurture me long after I’d graduated. Some still do, all these decades later.

Looking back – though I didn’t notice it at the time, nor did I care overmuch, I suppose – some of these professors (some of the most loved on campus) didn’t have PhDs: David McHam, Rachel Moore, Bob Reid, Ann Miller and others. Like most students, I wasn’t aware (and what students are, unless you tell them?) that any of my professors had published books.*** What I was keenly aware of was that these people, who worked so hard to insure that I understood the material, cared about me.

I gladly, gratefully give those professors credit for much of whatever I have accomplished to this point in my life. I stand on their shoulders. I was particularly fortunate to major in journalism, where McHam, Harry Marsh, Mike Stricklin and others essentially adopted every new generation of budding journalists. I know students in other majors who felt the same from the professors in their own departments.

And it’s worth noting here that, like many rebellious 18-year-olds, I wasn’t exactly a model student. That’s where Martha Lou Scott, A.A. Hyden, Bill Dube and other administrators came in – they modeled the living Christ for me even as they subtly, gently corrected and guided me.

•••

Baylor University was in the midst of an extraordinary sea change during my four years, 1972-1976 in Waco. In One Man’s Journey, Castello notes that 24 campus buildings were either erected or remodeled between 1962 and 1981, including my own Castellaw (1974), where I spent most of my time. The campus nearly doubled in size.

And McCall towered over my days at Baylor, even as we watched him shuffle across the campus each morning, stuffing his pockets with pecans he found along the way. If you were really brave, you could join him in a nearby coffee shop where he’d pop salted peanuts in his Big Red soda and regale those assembled of tales of his time in the FBI.

As president, McCall was adamant that his professors be good people and good teachers. McCall’s successor, President Herbert Reynolds, told Castello that McCall would ask prospective hires, “Do you enjoy teaching?” (Reynolds called it McCall’s “Teacher-Travel Policy.” In short, “If they can’t teach, they can move on.”)

And that’s exactly what I experienced at Baylor as a student. Good people who loved me and who were great teachers. Some were flamboyant (Robert Reid, Ann Miller, O.T. Hayward, Ralph Lynn), some were more subdued (McHam, Marsh, Barry Kingman, Wallace Daniel), but all made me feel that I mattered to them … every single day. (One side note: In my four years at Baylor, I never had a single TA or adjunct. An almost impossible or at least unheard of opportunity for the Baylor students of today.)

When Jim Barcus gave me the opportunity, the honor, of teaching in the Professional Writing department (and later, when Doug Ferdon did the same thing in Journalism), I keenly felt the weight, the expectation of those blessed souls each and every time I walked into a Baylor classroom.

I felt that I had been the recipient of a sacred trust, that teaching was a sacred calling. Beginning in 1988 (as an adjunct lecturer), through 1999 (when I went entered tenure track) and into my next two decades teaching, I told my students just that. It was, I hoped, a way for them to hold me accountable. It was as if, at times, those beautiful faces from my past looked over my shoulders in the classroom, like a cloud of witnesses. I had received a gift of immeasurable value and it would be a betrayal of that gift, that trust, if I didn’t try my damnedest to emulate that compassion, that love for the young people who – if only for a few hours a week – had been placed in my care.

And in my final lectures in May 2023, that’s what I tried to convey one last time to the students in my Film and Digital Media/Journalism 1303: Introduction to Mass Communication and Journalism 2303: Introduction to Reporting and Writing classes.

I care. We care. You matter to us and to the God who created you.

That is the great gift of old Baylor to me, a legacy of extraordinary teaching by extraordinary people. It is what, in my own fumbling, faltering way, I tried for 24 years to convey to my students, even if I didn’t succeed in teaching them anything else. In the end, above all else, teaching matters.

Hear me: Teaching matters. These relationships matter. This time matters to these young students in ways you and I will never know or understand. Yes, research is important. “Publish or perish” is the real deal in the Baylor University of 2023. But long after our articles and books have been reduced to footnotes in obscure journals, the relationships you build with the young souls placed in your care will the things that endure, the things you cherish most in retirement.

If you believe that teaching is getting in the way of your real purpose – publishing – at Baylor, then perhaps you should consider another profession.

If spending time with students is an annoyance and something that must be endured so you can get back to your research – then perhaps you’re in the wrong profession.

Baylor was built and forged on the conflict between two eternally warring and competing visions. There were and are those who wanted it to be a Bible college, a religious institution. There were and are others who equally desired it to be an academic powerhouse. Those visions, that dichotomy, I believe have given the university much of its crackling vitality and energy as it has earnestly sought to be both. Forever walking that tightrope, forever taking potshots from true believers from both camps who would see Baylor become their vision of what the university should be. Working through that tension, I believe, has made Baylor stronger.

McCall once wrote that Baylor could be both Jerusalem and Athens: “…the revealed truth and the discovered truth can be taught in the same institution, and both can be dealt with honestly and completely. As a matter of fact, they complement each other to produce the whole truth and neither is complete without the other.”

I believe the same holds true today with the teaching versus research conundrum at Baylor. My wife Dr. Mary Darden’s company, Higher Education Innovation, Inc., has spent years assisting and guiding struggling small colleges. One of the many common denominators among universities that face financial issues is that they are bad at customer service at every level. Students won’t go where they’re not made welcome and won’t stay once they get there if they’re not treated with respect.

Mary says that to flourish in today’s uncertain educational climate, colleges must be places where teaching and personal interaction is valued or they’ll fail.

If you’re willing to put the work in, you can become as effective a teacher as you are a scholar.

When I came to Baylor, this grand old school was the perpetual under-dog in nearly every aspect of academic (and athletic****) life. It had been 50 years since the Bears had been to the Cotton Bowl. Bigger and better funded schools like the University of Texas and Texas A&M dominated the state. Academically, Baylor’s name was rarely mentioned, if at all.

But the Texas legislature sported a disproportionate percentage of Baylor and Baylor Law graduates. Baylor grads led major corporations, held high-ranking military positions, pastored the biggest Baptist churches in the land. Baylor alumni were high school teachers, principals and advisors – influential leaders all.

Why? Because, ultimately, great teaching matters. Baylor graduates were equipped, nurtured and cherished since the school’s founding in 1845. It was teaching and that commitment to personal connections that made the difference.

•••

As McCall neared retirement, the Baylor Alumni Association (now Baylor Line Foundation) contracted with playwright Orlin Corey to create a theatrical event about the history of the university. Corey tapped an amazing cast of actors, technicians, artists, and musicians to create The Towers of the Brazos, which premiered in Waco Hall in February 1982. It’s an inspiring story of Baylor’s humble origins, detailing the array of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that the school overcame to reach the present day. Corey wisely focused on the individuals who shaped Baylor through those difficult decades and created the imaginary Stroller, played by noted actor and Baylor grad Wilbur Swartz, to serve as the omniscient narrator and host.

As The Towers of the Brazos closes, the Stroller stands amid the towers and old oaks of the campus and finally turns to the audience. As the music swells and the mist from the river swirls around him, he speaks one last time:

“What may we say of Baylor? Oxford is a place of ancient pleasantness. Harvard is a state of mind. And Baylor – is a willingness of the heart.”

So, welcome to Baylor. As a new professor, a wonderful world awaits you, one that’s better than you’ve ever dreamed. My free advice to you is, as you stand in front of your classes, both large and small, take a heartbeat to remember why you’re here. It’s more than a profession. Teaching at every level is a sacred calling. Those faces staring expectantly up at you are more than clients, they’re your charges, they’re your obligation, your treasure, each one a pearl beyond price.

At its best, Baylor is a “willingness of the heart.” The best way I know to have a joyful, memorable, utterly fulfilling life as a professor is to unreservedly share your willing heart with them, to seek to inspire them, to thrill them, to frighten them a little if necessary, but by all means, love them and give them your best in every lecture, in every meeting, in every chance meeting in every hallway.

If you’ll do those things, you’ll experience what Baylor professors have discovered for the past 178 years: More than anything you ever do or write or say, your greatest reward, your greatest fulfillment will come from the lives you have been privileged to touch every single day.

And, in the end, that’s at the crux of it all.

Cover photo by Robbie Rogers

*Thank you, dear Rachel Moore, who taught my first Baylor literature classes. See? I did pay attention after all!

** Bruce Burton, Carmen Cordero, Jeff Fortenberry, Linda Minyard, Steve Jones, and Rhonda Bowen. Bless you all.

***I was aware of Jack Flanders’ People of the Covenant (a copy of which I still have) because of the controversy with Baptist fundamentalists but only because I read about it in the newspapers.

****Thank you, Grant Teaff.

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