Baylor Lariat rounds up a ghost

40129You know something interesting is taking place on a campus when your student newspaper ends up being quoted in the New York Times. When your school is the world's largest Baptist university, you just know that this is rarely going to be good news. Most of the time, national stories about my alma mater usually involve something to do with sex ("Baylor co-eds in Playboy") or the lowering of some kind of barrier between Southern Baptists and the mainstream media's take on normal life ("Baylor holds first on-campus dance"). Of course, you can also hold a bitter academic war about whether it is good or bad to be an openly Christian university in the first place.

In this case, The Baylor Lariat wrote a real live news story (not an cheap editorial) about a really serious issue and -- yes -- placed it in the context of Christian ethics. Check out the Lariat account and then head over to the report in the Times. Here's the "secular" news lede:

Baylor University in Waco, Tex., which has a goal of rising to the first tier of national college rankings, last June offered its admitted freshmen a $300 campus bookstore credit to retake the SAT, and $1,000 a year in merit scholarship aid for those who raised their scores by at least 50 points.

Of this year's freshman class of more than 3,000, 861 students received the bookstore credit and 150 students qualified for the $1,000-a-year merit aid, said John Barry, the university's vice president for communications and marketing.

In addition to being a new wrinkle in national debates about the use and abuse of the SATs, this Baylor headline fits into ongoing coverage of the university's own debates about its place in the framework of national higher education -- period. Thus, we read:

Robert Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest, a nonprofit group that has been critical of the use of standardized tests in college admissions, said Baylor's move "fans the fire of SAT paranoia."

Whatever university officials might say, Mr. Schaeffer said he found it hard to believe that encouraging students to retake the SAT was not connected to the university's widely publicized 10-year strategic plan -- called Baylor 2012 -- which says that one of its major goals is bolstering its ranking in U.S. News & World Report. It was ranked 76th in 2009.

Now this is where the Times misses an interesting angle, perhaps due to lack of space. Maybe.

You see, the issue of Baylor's national ranking could be called part of the "secular" agenda of Baylor 2012, as opposed to the faith-based part of the agenda that fueled the conflict between old-guard Baylor faculty and those who supported the work of former President Robert Sloan. The issue of whether it is possible to be a national-quality university and enthusiastically Christian was at the heart of the fighting that felled Sloan.

So did the "secular" 2012 goals triumph over the "sacred" 2012 goals? That's one way to read what has happened, even as the Baylor regents search -- Again! Already! -- for another president who will please the old guard, yet also please parents and donors who want to support Christian higher education.

Oh well. Whatever. Never mind.

It is clear that it's hard to talk about this kind of academic question in the context of a school like Baylor without having the religion ghost come out of the Baptist closet. In this case, the Times actually gave a strong nod to the original Lariat report (which made the former Lariat staffer in me most happy). We'll end with this thought:

One of those quoted in The Lariat's initial article was Emanuel Gawrieh, a sophomore.

"I think the people who put forth this decision completely compromised what they say Baylor is about: its Christian values, the integrity of Baylor, the integrity of Baylor 2012," Mr. Gawrieh said in a telephone interview.

A number of freshmen in Mr. Gawrieh's residence hall took Baylor up on its offer to retake the SAT. "It was because of the incentive," said one of those freshmen, Max Herrera, 18, a chemistry major from Houston. "It helped with the books. My books cost over $800."

Photo: From the files at the official Baylor University website.

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