How should Baylor respond when its Christian mission conflicts with its mission to be an educational institution? In many ways, this question gets at the heart of an identity crisis Baylor has had for decades.
Over the last few years, that question seems to be the root of many of the school’s most controversial incidents and conversations – from how the University’s policy on pre-marital sex impacted its handling of Title IX reports, to how its ambition to be a Tier One research institution will affect what is taught, Baylor seems to be at a crossroads when it comes to declaring an identity.
In recent weeks, this deep-seated identity question has been further brought to the forefront because of controversy surrounding speakers on campus. On February 18, Asian-American author, speaker, and activist Kathy Khang spoke in chapel. During her talk, she referenced a news story about an 11-year-old Florida boy who was arrested for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, something that is legal in the state. There are disputes over whether the boy was arrested for his refusal to stand or if he was arrested because of threats he made to the teacher. As Khang referenced the incident in her first chapel of the morning, a student stood up and yelled out that the facts she offered about the story were false. While the student was promptly removed, Khang later wrote in a blog post that she was deeply shaken by the incident and feared for her safety.
The incident quickly incited claims from some, such as Baylor’s chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT), of censorship of vocalizing their differences of opinion with speakers. Conversely, others felt the incident had racial overtones. In an op-ed to the Baylor Lariat, the Baylor Coalition of Asian Students responded to the confrontation and YCT’s response, questioning if the student and YCT were only speaking out against her because she was an Asian-American woman. While there was no clear conclusion to the saga, it sparked a wide-ranging conversation about what kind of speech should be allowed on campus, with one side arguing that Ms. Khang’s ideas were too progressive and do not adhere to Baylor’s religious tenets, while others argued that disrupting and disrespecting a speaker was out of step with the University’s desire to foster a caring Christian community.
On Dia del Oso, April 9, Baylor’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) hosted conservative blogger Matt Walsh to give his speech, “The War on Reality: Why the Left has set out to redefine Life, Gender, and Marriage.” The event, which was approved by Baylor’s Department of Student Activities, immediately sparked controversy for a number of reasons. Walsh is known for blogging about contentious issues, such as race, gender, politics, and sexuality, in an often-provocative manner. Not long after the event was announced, a Change.org petition created by Baylor alum Patrick Hill II began circulating to have the Walsh event cancelled. That petition has picked up almost 2,300 signatures. Subsequently, a counter-petition was created that has garnered a little over 3,000 signatures.
Another point of contention for those against the YAF event were the flyers posted around campus. The flyers included a sickle and hammer on an LGBTQ+ pride flag, which some felt communicated a likening of advocacy of homosexual issues to communist propaganda used by the Soviet Union. In a statement given to the Baylor Lariat, Hill II said, “It’s a speech that is blatantly attempting to equate progressives and LGBTQ people and people who define gender in some different way or marriage in some different way, as some sort of agenda rather than as people.” Zachary Miller, chairman of Baylor YAF, said, “What’s at issue here is a speaker coming to talk about the virtues of traditional morality, specifically the virtues of Christian traditional morality. If that’s out of bounds, I don’t really know what Baylor’s doing.”
Despite the controversy, the event on April 9 went on as planned. There were no protesters at the Matt Walsh speech, but that evening an event held by the on-campus Beauchamp Addiction Recovery Center, originally designed to give students recovering from addiction a safe place to spend the evening of Dia, morphed into an opportunity for students of all backgrounds to unite and feel supported. On April 10, a small protest took place outside of Pat Neff Hall. A small groupl of students displayed posters with names of victims of LGBTQ+ hate crimes.
Because of the calls to cancel YAF’s event, Student Senator Connor Price introduced a bill on April 4 calling for Baylor to fully support freedom of speech on campus, especially in light of the Trump administration’s executive order, which would pull funding from universities that the Department of Education find to have limited speech. While a senate resolution would not change Baylor’s policy, which provides broad discretion for what is allowed, the goal was to encourage the University to allow freedom of speech on campus. When the bill was read before the Senate, considerable debate ensued, mainly over the purpose of the bill. President Trump’s executive order requires only that private universities that receive federal grants follow their own speech policies. Many senators, including junior Ridley Holmes, felt that the bill was confusing because it was not clear how the executive order applied specifically to Baylor. The bill ended up being tabled so that Senator Price could rewrite it to clarify his intention for Baylor to support full freedom of speech on campus.
Both the chapel incident and the Matt Walsh event have brought more debate about where Baylor should draw the line on what types of expression are allowed on campus. In response to the Matt Walsh event, alumni, faculty, and students submitted a letter to President Linda Livingstone calling for the allowance of a university-sanctioned LGBTQ+ student organization. Their rationale was that Baylor allows other organizations that differ from their stated views, using YAF’s speaker Matt Walsh as an example of a school sanctioned event with a speaker whose views on gender roles, academia, and American culture differ from the University’s. The letter has 71 pages of signatures. A competing letter to be delivered to Dr. Livingstone has asked that Baylor stand by its position of refusing a university sanctioned LGBTQ+ organization, citing concerns that such a group would be out of step with Baylor’s declared position on human sexuality and marriage.
When asked how Baylor should decide what expression is and is not allowed on campus, two opposing positions have become clear. “I think Baylor should be allowed to draw lines on things that directly contradict Christianity. So, if someone wants to have a pro-gay marriage event, YAF’s not going to take a position on that, one way or another. We don’t care. But if Baylor wants to restrict that, I think that’s within their rights,” said YAF chairman Zachary Miller. Senior Eric Soo, chairman of College Republicans on Baylor’s campus, said, “For me, freedom of speech doesn’t have to mean that every idea is always represented, just that I feel like I can speak my ideas without having something come back at me.” On the other hand, journalism professor Dr. Robert Darden, a signee of the letter in support of an LGBTQ+ student organization, pointed out the limitations of free speech and hate speech. “If somebody’s past record has shown that they repeatedly demean, speak hatefully of, speak without any kind of verification, and it’s all opinion, it’s all emotional on women or blacks or Jews or gays or Muslims, then I do not believe the free speech tenets promote or suggest that they should be allowed to speak.” One suggestion Dr. Darden made to stem controversy around speakers on campus would be the creation of a non-partisan panel that vetted speakers before they were approved. Whether that idea has been or will be considered in the administration is unknown.
In many ways this debate stems from the question Baylor has struggled with for years – what does it mean to be a Christian institution of higher education in practice? Baylor has set policy that defines its beliefs, but when it comes to applying those policies to situations that are often touchy and hotly debated, the lines that seemed so clear somehow get blurrier. As the University takes steps to become a Tier One research institution, this question will likely be asked more frequently. Only time will tell how Baylor chooses to answer it.