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The Encourager: A Q&A with Baylor President Linda Livingstone

The Encourager - A Q&A with Baylor President Linda Livingstone

Dr. Linda Livingstone became the 15th president of Baylor University on June 1, returning to the school she served as an associate dean and associate professor from 1991 to 2002. Livingstone was considered for the same job back in 2005, when she was a finalist to replace Robert Sloan as president. She most recently served as dean and professor of management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., taking the reins after the very public firing of her predecessor. Before that, she served as dean of the business school at Pepperdine University for 12 years, overseeing a $200 million expansion of the business school’s graduate campus and construction of an executive conference center. She sat down with The Baylor Line in early June to discuss her path to becoming Baylor’s first female president and how she plans to take on the challenges ahead.

What do you believe is your most important job as Baylor’s president?

To embody and own the mission of the institution and then work on, “How does that play out in a wide variety of ways across the institution?” And then really being an encourager across campus and with all of our constituencies for, “How can we better represent that mission and fulfill that mission in the wide variety of things we do as a university?”

When you were named to the position, you said you plan to do a lot of listening. What have you heard so far?

People love Baylor. They have a great and deep passion for the university and really want the university to be successful. And they all have stories about the way the university has influenced their lives or the lives of their families. And that’s touching to hear, but it also tells you a lot about the institution and the way it’s transformed lives through the years. But when difficult things happen at the university, it means people feel great pain. And so you hear some of that pain that people have experienced as Baylor’s gone through what it has over the last year or so. But in that pain, you also hear people with a sense of optimism and forward-looking at knowing we will work through this. We will get to a better place and Baylor will be stronger. And we’ll then continue and in even more significant ways to reflect our Christian mission in the context of our mission as a higher education institution.

At George Washington, your strategic plan was focused on “taking advantage of the school’s location, offering more global experiences, and providing more interdisciplinary opportunities for students and faculty.” Do you know yet what your points of emphasis are going to be here?

Part of the listening is trying to refine that some but I would say on a very high level, we are going to focus on continuing to ensure we have a safe and healthy campus environment for our students and that student well-being is an important part of what we do as we go forward. We will focus on really building out and enhancing our strategic plan, Pro Futuris, and our desire, our aspiration, to be a Tier One academic institution. There’s been a lot of work done on that.

We will work on fleshing out our academic mission and continuing to enrich and enhance the academic direction of the institution. And then we’re going to also continue to work on how we build the leadership of the institution, work with the leaders on campus, work with our board to ensure we have a strong foundation, whether that’s financially, whether it’s with regard to the other aspects of the university we can then support the academic mission and can support the direction we’re going as an institution and all of that obviously in the context of our Christian mission, ensuring we stay very true to the Christian identity of the university.

Baylor’s gone through four presidents in 12 years, not counting the interims. Our reputation’s taken quite a beating. Did that give you pause when you were thinking about whether you were going to take this job or not?

I certainly looked thoroughly at all the issues going on at Baylor, at the history. I was obviously very familiar with the history of Baylor. But at the end of the day, I know the heart and soul of Baylor. I love the mission of Baylor. I know many of the people of Baylor. And so I was confident the university would work through these issues. And so I certainly reflected on those things but I wouldn’t say it gave me pause in making the decision to come here. I’m honored and excited about the tremendous opportunity ahead for the university.

Linda Livingstone Shaking the Hand of a Student

What will success look like one year from now?

I certainly hope [by June 1, 2018] we have made further progress on the goals of Pro Futuris on our strategic plan around the academic mission of the institution. At the core, that’s the business we do. We want to see progress on advancing our academic reputation and the quality of the experience our students have. We obviously want to see continued embedding in our environment and culture of the ongoing aspects of the 105 recommendations. Over the next year, we will continue to build the leadership team in the institution. We’ll hopefully have some stability and moving forward in terms of the leadership of the university along some of those dimensions. I also hope that within a year, we will have been able to bridge across our Baylor family some of the divides we’ve seen and some of the pain and bring people back together.

We certainly aren’t going to always agree on everything but we hope to bring people back together around the mission of the institution and moving forward together as we continue to have conversations about issues that we might find difficult or that we don’t always agree on.

How are “Christian academics” different from other top schools?

As you think about the work you do as an academic, one, it’s important to be really good in your academic field, independent of your Christian perspective, because then that gives you credibility to have a Christian voice in the academic community. And then I think our faith oftentimes informs the way we think about the academic subject we study. What that means in the sciences versus in the liberal arts versus in business, versus in social work, might be quite different. But I think it gives us a different lens through which to look at our academic subject through which to think about our research. But at the end of the day, we need to be doing really high-quality academic work that gives us credibility in the academic community. And then that also gives us credibility to embed the Christian context in that conversation.

How close do you think Baylor is to achieving its goal of being a Tier One research institution?

It’s a process you have to engage in over a period of years because it has to do with the type of research your faculty are doing, the funding your faculty get for research and it takes a significant commitment both of will and of resources to move into that tier. There’s clearly been a lot of progress made over the last five years in the initial phase of Pro Futuris. Now we get to look at what we have to do over the next three to five years to continue to make progress. But I know the deans are deeply committed to that. The university is. The regents are. It was a significant part of the conversation during the search process. So I’m looking forward to making progress on that myself.

“Transparency” has been used a lot about the last couple of years. How do you define it?

I think, “transparency” is making sure you’re being open with information to your various communities that helps them understand where the university is, helps them know how we’re moving forward, helps them understand how we’re addressing issues. There’s a variety of ways to communicate and how you communicate with different groups varies depending on what you’re communicating. But I also think it’s being as transparent as you can while also being thoughtful about what information’s confidential information and has to be dealt with in a bit different way. We have to find the right balance. But we certainly are working on how we communicate, what we communicate, and to be as open as we possibly can while being appropriately confidential when necessary.

Baylor is often described in the press as “embattled.” How do you change that narrative? How do you not have every story include a couple of paragraphs reminding readers what has happened here?

I think you change a narrative by doing things differently than you’ve done them in the past. And the university has made dramatic changes in the last year. There’s still obviously work to be done but there’s been tremendous change that’s taken place. It’s just a daily process of telling the story of Baylor and the exciting things that are going on while also continuing to respond to and address the questions we get about the sexual violence and the issues that arose out of that. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s day by day trying to do the right things and share the message. And over time, that narrative will change.

I do believe the narrative has begun to change. And I think we’re seeing more focus on the things we’re doing to address the issues in the 105 recommendations while still acknowledging what it was that led to those recommendations needing to be made. I think we’re seeing some really positive metrics that you watch just in terms of the health of the university overall and these are metrics you monitor independent of these kinds of difficult circumstances.

We’re going to hit our enrollment number for our freshman class for the fall, and it’s going to be a very high-quality class. We’ve been doing orientations in the last couple of weeks and seeing some very excited students and family. So that’s a wonderful sign. We raised more in the past year than we raised the year before. We’re over $100 million for the last six or seven years in a row. Our retention rate of our existing students is going to be around 90%, the highest it’s ever been. So we have very strong metrics which suggest that even in the midst of the significant challenges that we’ve had, there’s still an underlying strength of the university.

There’s an understanding of the quality of the academic experience that students have and that this is a really good place for students to come and to develop both academically and personally and spiritually. So every day, we’re going to keep telling this story and addressing the issues and over time, that will make a difference.

How would you describe your management style?

I try to be very engaged with the people I work with. I try to listen to them and support them in the work they’re doing while also providing them with clear direction on where we’re trying to go as an institution. We work on building that direction together. But then really being a facilitator of the work they’re doing and helping remove barriers, helping provide resources and then encouraging them in the work they do. In the kind of role I have, you need a strong leadership team to get the work done on a daily basis. And so it’s important to me to have people in those roles who are deeply committed to the mission of the university, look beyond themselves at what’s best for the institution and work well together in helping us move forward. And then my role is to help to make their jobs easier and to facilitate the work that they’re doing and really to spread the word about Baylor.

Linda Livingstone Visiting with Students
Dr. Livingstone stops to visit with students on Baylor’s 5th Street.

Your research has been focused on creativity and organization “as influenced by the fit between the individual and the organizational environment.” How do you plan to bring the fruits of your research to Baylor?

Higher education is changing dramatically and so I think it’s imperative institutions of higher education are willing to think differently about the way we do things, that we think creatively, that we’re willing to innovate in our practices and the work we do. [My research] found the environment you create almost has more influence on how creative people are than actual individual characteristics of those people. So if you create an environment where people can try new things, can take risks, they’re encouraged to think differently about things, you provide them with support and resources to try new things, they’re far more likely to be creative regardless of their individual bent towards creativity. So I think it’s creating an environment where people know they can experiment with things, they can try new things, they can work across traditional lines and see what’s going to be successful as we go forward. And that’s certainly important not just at Baylor but across higher education right now.

What’s the “pebble in your shoe,” the thing that irritates you?

I think one of the really important qualities in leadership is humility. So I guess [what bothers me] would be maybe an arrogance or a selfishness in the way people think about the work they’re doing. I believe you really have to put your own personal interests aside and you have to say, “What’s in the best interest of the organization? What’s in the best interest of our students, our faculty, the people affiliated with the organization?” And you have to put your own self-interest aside. And I think that takes humility. It takes selflessness. So I guess my pebble is a self-interest or a selfishness where you aren’t looking out for the best interests of the organization.

You’ve been described as cheery, calm, tranquil and good at connecting different points of view. How would you describe yourself?

Someone once said “She doesn’t do chaos,” which I really liked. It was one of my favorites. I think in a role like this you have to bring a sense of stability and calmness. It doesn’t mean you’re not moving forward and you’re not making things happen and you’re not making difficult decisions. But I think particularly in a circumstance like we have at Baylor where there’s been a very difficult year and a lot of change and a lot of transition and challenges, there needs to be a sense of continuity and stability as we go forward, even in the midst of continuing to need to evolve and change the organization. I try not to overreact to things while taking things in an appropriately serious way. I try to listen. I try to help people think through solutions to problems.

Linda Livingstone poses for picture with group of students

What’s the most important lesson you learned from your parents?

My mother was a stay-at-home mom until my younger brother went to school and then she taught kindergarten for many years and then finished her career teaching second grade. And my father was a basketball coach and coached at Oklahoma City University, University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.

My mom is a servant at heart and she is always doing things for other people. I think from my mom, it was looking beyond yourself and looking at what you could do to really help others and to help make the lives of others better. For my dad, it was probably always pushing yourself to excel and to be better and to do the most you could with the gifts you’d been given.

At GW’s commencement you urged students to look to role models for inspiration and guidance. Who were your role models?

I absolutely view my parents as important role models for me in the way I was raised and in helping me to develop into the person I am today. I’ve had other role models through the years, people I worked for and who influenced my thinking. I also have had people in my life who identified something in me and encouraged me to do something I might not have done otherwise. I had a faculty member in my MBA program at Oklahoma State who encouraged me to get my PhD, thought that would be a good path for me. I don’t know if I would have thought to do that if I hadn’t had a faculty member encouraging me. I also had a fellow faculty member here at Baylor encourage me to apply for the dean’s position at Pepperdine University a number of years ago. And again I probably wouldn’t have even known that position was available if there hadn’t been someone in my life who saw something in me and thought that would be a good fit.

What did you learn from your biggest failure?

I think you have to acknowledge what you did wrong in a circumstance or what you didn’t know enough about that led to that failure. You have to be willing to grow and change and I think I’ve learned that from circumstances I’ve had where maybe things didn’t work out like I wanted them to. I think I’ve also learned you need to have people around you who will be very honest with you and will give you tough news if they need to, whether it’s about your style and you personally or about a decision you’ve made. Because if you have people around you who are very honest about things like that, then you’re probably less likely to make decisions and do things that aren’t going to work out the way you intend for them to.

Why is your best friend your best friend?

My best friend is my husband because we just do life together. And when we got married, we committed to each other we were going to do life together from now till the end of our life. And we have fun together. We love each other. We spend a lot of time together. We have a common value base. Our Christian faith is a significant driver of that. And we just actually like each other. We talk. He gives advice. He says, “My advice to young people is to marry your best friend. And if you do that, then your marriage is going to be successful and your life is going to be successful.” And that’s what we did and it’s worked out very well for us.

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?

I would tell myself to be authentically me, to be true to myself and who I am and not to try to live life to please others but to live life to please God and to be true to who I am and the things I care deeply about, that I’m passionate about.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Ensure I stay grounded in my faith. If I do that on a personal level it will help me maintain the integrity of my values, which is really important when you’re in leadership positions. That can be difficult sometimes. There’s all kinds of pressures pulling you in multiple directions at different points in your life. And so it’s something you actually have to be disciplined about and take seriously. You can’t think it’s going to happen just because. You’ve got to make it happen.

What’s your first rule of parenting?

Just love that kid as much as you can. We have a lovely daughter. She’s a fabulous young woman and we’re so proud of her and I’m going to get choked up talking about her. And so just love them as much as you can and let them be themselves too. Don’t make them into your own image, but let them be themselves.

Dr. Livingstone Takes Picture with Students

Does that rule equate at all to your work job, your work setting?

I certainly think it’s part of our responsibility at a university because we’re educating young people and helping them to grow into productive adults. It does give us an opportunity to think about how we provide an environment where [students] know they’re loved and cared for, but [that] they also have the freedom to explore lots of different interesting opportunities and directions that will help them to grow into the person God’s intended for them to be. And so it’s a real privilege and a sacred honor we have at a Christian university to do that.

What’s your superpower?

I think I really try to be genuine with people and hopefully people will see that and respond appropriately so genuineness would be what I would say.

What’s your kryptonite?

It’s an interesting question. I think in positions like this, you have to stay grounded. You have to avoid the risk of thinking in a position like this that you’re special or that you deserve something other than what everybody else does. So I think it’s maintaining that selflessness and not becoming selfish in the position you have, which I think some people can do in significant positions.

You seem to be embracing the notion of Baylor Family. Do you feel that Baylor Nation was a misstep?

I think there are different ways to frame what you’re doing and how you’re doing it at different seasons of life for an organization. And so I certainly wasn’t here when that was as much a part of the lexicon. But I do think now as we talk about who we are and how we go forward, and particularly given the difficult issues that we’ve gone through over the last year or so, talking about us as family and bringing us back together as family is really important. And so I think [family] resonates with people, and is a very accurate depiction of who we are and how we live and work together.

What’s your favorite Bible verse?

There’s one I’ve been using recently. It’s Micah 6:8, which says “And what does the Lord ask of you to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?” I’ve reflected a lot on that one as I came into this position because I think those are qualities — justice, mercy and humility — that are really important in leadership and particularly taking on a responsibility like this at Baylor. So that’s been important to me recently in my reflections.

In the movie, Bull Durham, Kevin Costner does a speech about what he believes. What does Linda Livingstone believe?

I believe Jesus Christ is my lord and savior. I believe each of us are created uniquely and in gifted ways and I believe we should use those gifts to make the world a better place. I believe that I, that we, should do everything we can to help those around us to be better.

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4 thoughts on “The Encourager: A Q&A with Baylor President Linda Livingstone”

  1. A question or two that specifically addressed the place for and role of athletics in a university – particularly Baylor University – would have provided interesting insights. How does future athletic success blend with academic success? (President Livingston is coming from a university where athletic prowess and importance – other than possibly in basketball – has not appeared to be a high priority). A question or two about the role and qualities to be found in athletic leadership personnel (the AD and coaches) would have added to the narrative.

  2. So happy to read of your beliefs & goals, both for yourself & the Baylor family! Having two sons graduate from Baylor, am so proud to think that it is now my grandson’s goal-to also be a Baylor grad. he is in 8th grade, but already thoughts are of Baylor! I encouraged him to llearn all he can about the University, careers he may be interested in, & what Baylor has to offer in these fields. They live in Indonesia, so he will probably have to get his info from the net, his dad & uncle!
    It has been dismaying to see all of the negatives from the last few years, but love your life verse & core beliefs, which gives hope for future great days for you, Baylor, faculty & students!

  3. You spoke of the pain. Grief work needs to be an explicit priority, an important aspect of (re)building the Baylor Community.
    David, class ’64

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