Kenneth Starr will have his work cut out for him as president of Baylor University
Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who took on President Clinton over the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals, will be leaving his post as Pepperdine University law school dean this spring to become president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, the schools announced Monday.
Starr has headed the Malibu law school since 2004. During his West Coast tenure, he also represented the supporters of Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage, during a challenge before the California Supreme Court last year. Starr won the high-profile case, with the state high court upholding the voter initiative’s legality in a May ruling.
Starr said he hoped to remain active in the practice of law in his new position but that it would be up to the Baylor Board of Regents to decide whether he should take on off-campus issues as he did in defending Proposition 8 while at Pepperdine.
In a statement posted on Baylor’s website, Board of Regents member Joseph B. Armes said Starr was “a fifth-generation Texan who, throughout his distinguished career in law, the academy and public service, has been an articulate advocate for Christian ideals in the public square.”
Baylor, of course, has had real difficulties internally in the last decade or two (including some failed presidencies), with a divided faculty, a divided administration, ideological combat growing from the increasing secularization of the institution, and the attempts by some to encourage the school to retain its traditional values (it started as a Southern Baptist school) in the face of growing pressures to ape purely secular institutions. it is by no means clear that “peace” is possible at Baylor unless one side or the other clearly wins, assuming that victory is not Pyrrhic. It is not clear to most observers which side will win, though it seems to me that at this point the secularizers have the edge, or a bit more.
To take the job as president of Baylor, Kenneth Starr is leaving his role as leader of the Law School of Pepperdine University. Has his time at Pepperdine, which is experiencing the same pressures as Baylor, though perhaps not quite so extremely, prepared Judge Starr for the task at Baylor? Will he conceive his role as trying to keep Baylor faithful to its historic mission, or will he, Gorbachev-like, preside over a gradual surrender to the pressures of dissolution that will leave Baylor a thoroughly secularized school, with only an honorable mention for its religious origins?
I doubt even he is sure at this point. Some people say being a university president is the hardest job in America. Maybe. I’m pretty sure it helps if you know what you believe, and if you take a position at a school that historically resonates with your beliefs. Some presidents see their role as fundamentally changing an institution. Some see their role as preserving it. Some see their role as growing it, whatever the cost.
That’s what remains to be seen. I wish him Godspeed, in a very difficult task. And I hope he sees the task as one of preservation first (probably with elements of recovery), with growth and change coming in as distant second and third.