Ken Starr is going to be named the new president of Baylor University. Already, there have been rumblings. Here in Houston, where I live, the pastor of Ecclesia church Chris Seay, who is a well known author, has already suggested people should join him in sending a statement to the Board of Regents expressing concern. When I sent him a message via twitter, his opposition appeared less than sinister. He was just surprised to get what he viewed as a conservative political operative choice rather than a “Billy Graham” style choice.
I think this kind of protest misunderstands Kenneth Starr. Because he conducted the investigation which led to President Clinton’s impeachment, Starr became the focus of intense media scrutiny and was viewed as some kind of attack dog for the Republican Party. That sort of view does not convey a real sense of who Ken Starr is or has been.
Of course, Starr has led the school of law and public policy at Pepperdine University for several years now. In the past, Pepperdine has made its commitment to the integration of faith and learning clear and they are indisputably one of the finest Christian universities in the nation. They are one of the finest universities period. (Mr. Starr may be excited about the simpler task of paying academics in Waco versus finding a way to pay them adequately so that they can find a home in Malibu!)
In addition, before the Clinton-Lewinsky mess — which I believe he took on as a public servant and not as a hack — Ken Starr was on the short list for the United States Supreme Court. He is extraordinarily well-regarded in the legal community and occupies a place in the very highest level of practitioners. Although Baylor has an outstanding law school, Starr will immediately become the best known and most distinguished lawyer at the university.
Overall, I have little doubt that Starr will bring a new level of recognition to Baylor which has been rising fast. Anyone who visits the campus will be amazed at how beautiful it is today and what a wonderful environment it has become for students and professors. Certainly, there are still tensions. Baylor continues to be a school in transition and that means there are different camps of people hired in different periods. But if ANYONE can withstand the politics of Baylor University, I would suggest it is Kenneth Starr. He handled himself with grace and dignity throughout a difficult time in the spotlight in the 1990’s. Notably, the worst thing that anyone could find to say about him was that he enjoyed singing hymns to himself. Members of the media found that habit to be extremely odd.
One more question, which is significant, has to do with Starr’s long affiliation with the Church of Christ. Baylor’s last president, John Lilley, had been a Presbyterian for many years and then returned to the Baptist church for Baylor. (If Paris was worth a mass, what is Waco worth?) Starr has agreed to join the Baptist church because the president of the university is required to be Baptist. The question is whether Baylor has given up on true Baptist leadership since the last two presidents have had to “convert” in a manner of speaking. I am unable to come up with a good answer here. I suspect that the best long time Baptist candidates were already committed to their own projects and could not leave.
I wish Mr. Starr the very best and hope he will find good advisers in the provost’s office to continue driving forward on the integration of faith and learning at Baylor. A great deal will depend on what kind of leadership he chooses on the academic side of the university.
(Disclosure: The very first magazine item I ever had published was a letter to World Magazine defending one Kenneth Starr from the slings and arrows of elite opinion.)