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Woking Up At Baylor

Linda Livingstone, president of Baylor University (Baylor video screenshot)

A lot of people, I find, still can’t process how deep and how far wokeness has spread. This morning a student at Baylor University, the Baptist school deep in the heart of Texas, e-mailed some information that the university’s president, Linda Livingstone, had sent out to the Baylor community, on the subject of how they should all confront the white supremacist within. The reader writes:

Since Baylor is considered one of the leading conservative-leaning, Christian-leaning higher ed institutions in the U.S., I thought this would be of interest to some of your readers. It is of great interest to me, as I’ve hoped for years to have a career in higher education. Watching the erosion of Christian institutions in real time is incredibly disheartening.

The President’s weekly letter to all students included several sections, one of which stated, “As Baylor walks through the process of acknowledging our historical connections to slavery and planning for our future, it’s an opportunity for all of us to engage in self-reflection and education regarding issues of race.”

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This has been the tenor of many of Baylor’s statements on the issue of race, and it didn’t surprise me. But she also linked to an article posted on Baylor’s website and later posted on Baylor’s twitter account. In that article (linked here), the author [Kerri Fisher] (who is a lecturer at Baylor) recommends that students evaluate their own racism using, among other things, “Tema Okun’s characteristics of white supremacy culture.”
The student goes on:

The author doesn’t link to these “characteristics” (even though she links to everything else in her article), but they’re easy to find online. You can read them here, but they include things like “individualism,” “objectivity,” logical thinking, memos, and “requiring people to think in a linear fashion.”

I was surprised to see that the highest levels of Baylor’s administration are recommending this kind of nonsense. I wrote President Livingston to voice my concerns but never heard back.

If you decide to mention this anywhere online, I’d rather not have my name publicly posted. I’m about to finish my degree, and I don’t want to jeopardize that. But I thought parents of prospective students, along with prospective donors, should know about this.
That Tema Okun list really is something. It’s the same thing as that controversial Smithsonian poster about “whiteness” that caused such a ruckus a week or two ago. Reading the list, there are some things on it that I would agree can be problematic about a culture, but it’s nonsense to claim that as “white supremacy culture.” It’s the kind of culture that, for better and for worse, both produced and emerged from the Enlightenment. Is that “white supremacy”? Well, are science and technology white supremacy?

At their worst, these characteristics (the ones on the Tema Okun list) lead to the stereotypical “Organization Man.” But at best, this is why organizations and societies that hold these values  get things done.

Look at this one:

Perfectionism

– little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway

– more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate
– or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them
– mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are — mistakes
– making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
– little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes
– tendency to identify what ís wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what ís right

Antidotes: develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated; develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning; create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results; separate the person from the mistake; when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism; ask people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism

OK, let’s assume for the sake of argument that “Perfectionism,” as defined here, is actually a problem within an organization. How on earth is it “white supremacist”? Why racialize it at all? If this is a question of management philosophy, the “perfectionism” strategy, as defined here, could bring about a culture of discouragement within a culture ruled by it. But going too far in the “antidotes” could create a professional culture of mediocrity, in which making everybody feel good about themselves is more important than doing the work that the office is supposed to do.

Again, though, I fail to see what any of this has to do with racism and anti-racism. And if it does, is it not embarrassing to black people that mediocrity is construed by these academics as somehow a value of black culture? Can you imagine black jazz musicians adopting that approach to their art? Of course you can’t, because they’re serious about what they do. Where is this crap coming from?

Baylor President Linda Livingstone and social work Prof. Kerri Fisher recommend Suzanne Pharr’s Mechanisms of Oppression. Go ahead, take a look. This is the opening paragraph of Pharr’s essay:

It is virtually impossible to view one oppression, such as sexism or homophobia, in isolation because they are all connected: sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, anti-Semitism, ageism. They are linked by a common origin-economic power and control-and by common methods of limiting, controlling and destroying lives. There is no hierarchy of oppressions. Each is terrible and destructive. To eliminate one oppression successfully, a movement has to include work to eliminate them all or else success will always be limited and incomplete.

How do you justify running a Baptist university according to this Marxist framework (that is, the idea that all social phenomena must be understood as economic at base)? Something has to give. Read the entire essay, and understand that this is what the president of Baylor is urging students to read in order to understand themselves and their institution better. If Pharr’s analysis is correct, then the only thing to do is to dismantle Baylor as it historically has existed. In order to eliminate racism, then every other -ism must also be eliminated in order to create utopia.

This is not Oberlin or UC Berkeley. This is Baylor, in Waco. Are there no Christian resources that Baylor’s students might read to gain a better understanding of the sin of racism? Isn’t it interesting that Baylor’s president turned to these particular sources — truly poisonous ones, in my view — to inspire student reflection about racism?

It’s important for traditional Christians and conservatives to know what’s going on in our institutions, and not to make any assumptions based on past experience or wishful thinking.

UPDATE: The more I think about it, the crazier this all seems. Did the president of Baylor not think to check with theology professors about Christian contributions to the racism discussion from which students might benefit? Professors on other faculties? After all, Baylor is a Christian university with a seminary on campus. The Civil Rights Movement was led by the black church! And yet, the president of Baylor defers to a social work professor who recommends the same trite progressive cant you can get at any other college. It’s almost as if Baylor’s distinctly Christian identity is only incidental, and maybe even something embarrassing to be overcome.

UPDATE.2: Strong comment e-mailed to me from Prof. Perry Glanzer, Resident Scholar at Baylor’s  Institute for Studies of Religion. He gives me permission to publish this under his name:

Your criticisms of Baylor University and President Livingstone regarding the lack of Christian theological thinking are not surprising as someone on the faculty.  Baylor leadership has given plenty of rhetoric but little concrete action to support to this particular element of the Christian mission (a point I have continually made privately to the administration and now feel free to make publicly due to the lack of action). Unlike many Catholic universities, they do not have a Vice-President for Mission. They did have someone in a similar position, but President Livingstone demoted him on the grounds that all faculty are in charge of the mission.  Thus, the administration lacks someone at the highest levels of leadership who would interrogate this kind of message through a sophisticated Christian lens.

There have also been no recent or significant upper level administrative initiatives to help faculty think through their scholarship, teaching and service from a Christian perspective.  As a result, it is no surprise that we hire faculty who identify as Christians but think like Marxists when it comes to the noble cause of racial justice.  There is a great faculty development program but little of it relates to how faculty might learn to interrogate their discipline through the lens of Christian theology.  The incentives structure at the university does not reward distinctly Christian scholarship, teaching or service (only progress toward R1 status metrics).  When the leadership does not support efforts for faculty to think through how Christ might animate learning, this is the result you get–sloppy thinking and intellectual discipleship about one of the most important topics and causes of the day. The vitally important cause of racial justice deserves our best Christian thinking and not sloppy borrowing from or links to warmed-over Marxism (for a good counter-example of a distinctly Christian approach to the subject, I invite you to see the chapter one of my graduate students wrote in Christ-Enlivened Student Affairs: A Guide to Christian Thinking and Practice in the Field ).

We must and can do better.

UPDATE.3: [Removed and replaced — see Update 6, below]

UPDATE.4:George Yancey, an African-American sociologist (and sometime commenter here) who has recently joined the faculty at Baylor, wrote this yesterday for the Gospel Coalition. It’s very good. Excerpts:

DiAngelo’s basic thesis is that whites have been socialized to have “a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement.” All whites, then, are racist, but not overtly so; they are racist in that whites are complicit in society’s institutionalized racism. And their defensiveness about this—their “fragility”—needs to be broken down, DiAngelo argues, if we’re to move beyond a white-dominated society. This isn’t the totality of her argument, but it’s a key point I’d like to discuss.

Though I support some of DiAngelo’s points, our disagreement is pronounced. As an African American who has not only done academic work on these issues but had to navigate the issues of racism personally, I recognize the irony of reviewing a book by a white woman. But as a professor in the social sciences, I believe she provides little empirical work to support her assertions. The work on implicit bias is questionable at best. Implicit bias may be real, but it doesn’t seem a major factor in why people discriminate against others. Another empirical problem is her lack of research for the unique defensiveness of white people. Where’s the cross-racial research indicating fragility is unique to them?

How can we test for white fragility? As far as I can tell, the only way a white person can’t be “fragile” is if they agree with the accusations brought against them. Any reaction other than compliance is taken as evidence of white fragility. This is not useful as a conceptual tool for hypothesis-testing.

What about empirical results of anti-racism techniques? The type of diversity training that emerges from such efforts has been shown to have little long-term effect on prejudice. Further, focusing on privilege can actually decrease sympathy for poor white people while not raising the overall sympathy for black people. Research seems to indicate that taking the route of DiAngelo is not lessening our racial hostility—but it may be making that hostility worse.

The concept of white fragility is an academic way to tell white people to be quiet and listen. Bottling up the expressions of white people, though, is not the path to addressing our society’s racial alienation. Indeed, it’s a path that will continue to frustrate attempts at correcting racism’s genuine effects.

More:

It’s well established that we have a racial history in which white people have abused people of color—and that this history has yielded a contemporary system in which people of color are often disadvantaged. We need to move from racialized institutions that only benefit the majority to institutions that are fair for everyone.

But proven sociological theories of group interest get in the way of this aim. Why? Because we’ll favor institutional systems that help our own group, even at the expense of other groups.

For white people, given that the status quo works to their advantage, it makes sense that their typical solution is to ignore racial problems. The anti-racism crowd is spot on when they point this out. But what they miss is that group interest affects people of color, too. People of color can also go too far and set up unfair conditions for whites. Group-interest theory indicates that allowing either group total control means that one group will create rules that benefit themselves, while disadvantaging others.

Given group-interest theory, as an African American I shouldn’t feel comfortable living in a society where white people have the final say in race relations. And given the implications of group-interest theory, it’s reasonable for a white person to not feel comfortable with African Americans having complete power either. Indeed, one of the problems of the theory of white fragility and anti-racism is that white people are expected to rely on people of color to not abuse their newfound authority. But such an assumption, empirically speaking, is naive.

Read the whole thing to learn about Prof. Yancey’s suggestions for how to talk through and deal with racism and racial conflict in a Christian way, not in a woke way. George Yancey is a black man and sociologist on the Baylor faculty, and, if you’ve read his commentaries over the years, as I have, you’ll know that he’s a deeply committed orthodox Evangelical Christian. He’s a treasure. Why was he not consulted by the president of Baylor, a Christian university, in seeking out advice for Baylor students on how to think about race and racism? Why was the go-to person a social work professor who doesn’t say a thing about reasoning about race as Christians?

UPDATE.5: A very, very thoughtful, nuanced comment by a Baylor undergraduate:

I am a Baylor undergraduate about to enter my senior year. Therefore, I can’t speak to any of the conflicts and conversations that might be going on within Baylor’s administration and faculty. I can, however, speak to my experience as a student these past three years in Waco.

I came into Baylor as a freshman with high hopes that, after thirteen years wallowing in a high-performing but at times soulless and always stridently liberal public K-12 school district, I would finally encounter a rich Christian academic community where I could explore the Christian tradition and make strong friendships with intellectually serious believers of my own age, which I never encountered in my growing-up years. In those regards, Baylor has been an utter and absolute joy for me, from the Christian faculty who are at once accomplished scholars, excellent teachers, and supportive mentors, to the provocative classroom discussions, the close-knit student relationships, to the number of strong local churches with vibrant college ministries (Evangelical, Catholic, Mainline). I can speak with some confidence that, knowing the state of the rest of the Christian higher ed world at this moment, I could not have chosen a better place to spend my undergraduate years studying the humanities (I can’t speak personally to the other disciplines, but I have heard good things from my friends in other fields).

That being said, some of Baylor’s shine does wear off the longer one is here. My own observation is that Baylor’s mercurial quest to achieve Research One status over the last two decades, noble as it is, has had some side effects, and the campus is feeling the costs of these side effects now.

The one that stands out to me most – again from my limited perspective as a mere undergraduate student – is the reality that in order to fund the massive expansion of buildings, research, and endowed professorships, Baylor has had to jack up its tuition to a pretty ridiculous $40,000+ a year, which (even taking inflation into consideration) is twice as much as it was in the early 2000s. The result is that every year, Baylor has to admit a pretty significant mass of upper-middle class and upper-class students whose parents can pay the whole tuition bill. Baylor has effectively priced out the vast majority of what up until the early 2000s was its primary student demographic, Texas Baptists. During my time at Baylor, I’ve happened to interact with more than a few Baptist parents from middle-class backgrounds (teacher, salesmen, etc.) across the state. Real salt-of-the-earth folks. They talk fondly of how their parents went to Baylor, and they went to Baylor (it’s really incredible how closely-knit Baylor and Texas Baptist life have been over the last several generations), but when I ask if their high-school-aged children are considering Baylor, I get a terse reply: “No, Baylor’s gotten way out of our price range.” And they’re right. At least when I applied to Baylor three years ago, unless you’re a minority, the only way to get significant scholarships is to be National Merit Finalist-caliber or better. But the hypothetical high school senior from a middle-class family who’s deeply involved in her Baptist church in small-town East Texas, but has a 28 on her ACT, doesn’t have a prayer of getting enough financial aid to come to Baylor. Baylor has priced out a student demographic that has long served it faithfully (whose families still cheer when Baylor football is on TV), a demographic that probably could provide a lot of spiritual vitality throughout what is a sprawling 13,000-person student body.

Now Baylor is, in a way, lucky, because while the rest of the country, because of falling birthrates, is hemorrhaging the demographic of college-aged students whose affluent parents can pay full tuition, Baylor is situated in between Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, four of the seven fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States. As best as I can tell, Baylor recruits very heavily from the rapidly growing upper-middle class suburban areas in all four cities in order to get a critical mass of full-tuition paying students in each incoming class. Some of these students are really solid young Christians who are a joy to be in class with and a joy to be friends with. But some of these students are quite nominal Christians (or non-Christians) whose parents pay for their luxury off-campus apartment as they slide through their business degree and party off-campus on the weekends. For them, Baylor’s Christian identity is a peripheral annoyance, an ironic pre-game stadium prayer before the football games. My understanding is that it’s in these social circles that much of the sexual assault crisis from 2014-16, a truly lamentable series of events, took place. On the positive side, I’ve known more than one person from this loose demographic of students for whom coming to Baylor was the reason they finally encountered true, orthodox Christianity and came to be a genuine follower of Christ.

But essentially (although this is an oversimplification), it seems from my perspective that a cohort of spiritually ambiguous affluent students are, through their parents’ full-tuition payments, subsidizing the scholarships that allow for me and other faithful, intellectually curious students to come to Baylor and enjoy the riches that can be found here working with a critical mass of incredible Christian and/or conservative professors. At the end of the day, though, with each passing year there are fewer and fewer eighteen-year-olds with a coherent Christian faith of any type. They probably constituted just 3-5% of my high school graduating class.

So the force of demographics means that Baylor, even if it were to make good-faith efforts, would continue to struggle to fill a 13,000-person student body from the ever-thinning number of serious young Christians left in the United States. That’s not just a Baylor problem. Talking to my friends who attend evangelical liberal arts colleges across the United States, they’ve all noticed the same things at their own schools. The orthodox Christian faith (Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox) is receding in the United States. To any parents who are sending their kids off to evangelical colleges this fall (even the big-named colleges), realize that among students, orthodox believers with a modicum of spiritual maturity and adherence to traditional Christian ethics on abortion and sexuality are now a subculture within these institutions, not the majority of the student body. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth sending your students to these schools (because my own embedding in that subculture at Baylor is still a rich experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world), but if you’re looking for the theological and ideological purity of George W. Bush-era conservative Christianity, you probably can’t find it anymore outside of the bible colleges. (Yes, I’ve heard stories even about Liberty).

Of course, the cultural window seems to be closing as to whether there’s space for a tier-one Christian university committed to a broad, generous orthodoxy, which is what Baylor notionally set out to become two decades ago. There has always been opposition within Baylor to this vision from a constituency of liberal former Southern Baptists (a rather strange subculture, I must say!) who are still smarting at having lost control of their denomination three decades ago. Their strident opposition to the efforts of others within Baylor to push for some sort of substantive, institutionally implemented, broad Christian orthodoxy, I think, has probably held the door open for folks like the professor who wrote the aforementioned article to find a place on the faculty. The tone-deaf adoption of this Marxist pablum as an institutional response to (to be sure, legitimate) racial issues embroiling the country seems to signal that that window, which seemed so promising when Baylor set out to become the evangelical Notre Dame twenty years ago, may now finally be closing. And of course, who knows what COVID-19 will ending up doing to Baylor (or the rest of Christian higher ed, for that matter). But I’m optimistic (and I think with good reason) that something like a solid, sizable Christian community within Baylor’s students and faculty will endure, regardless of the actions Baylor’s high-level administration takes. And at the end of the day, Baylor is heavily reliant on elderly, conservative Christian megadonors, which may act as a force to keep things from getting out of hand.

So if your a parent whose son or daughter is finishing high school and eyeing Baylor, and you can make it work financially, do it. The culture war struggles at Baylor that were highlighted in Rod’s post are happening at every Christian college and university in the country right now. Baylor continues to have excellent Christian professors, particularly surrounding their Honors College. I have heard enough horror stories from my Christian friends at secular universities to know that I have truly been blessed to have been an undergraduate here at Baylor, and your son or daughter, if they are spiritually mature, will have little trouble finding likeminded friends and faculty.

UPDATE.6: Baylor literature professor Alan Jacobs took down his post about this incident, and replaced it with one he believes to be more charitable, and a better indicator of his thinking. Excerpt:

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to denounce calls for reconciliation. Some say, “We don’t want reconciliation, we want justice.” But to Christians, reconciliation is what justice is for. When injustice marks our relations, then what is unjust must be repaired or healed in some way, insofar as that is possible, so that we may live peaceably and lovingly with one another. Walking away from one another is not, for Christians, an option. Forgiveness must be asked for and granted, ordered and received.

In my judgment, it is the opportunity to receive and extend forgiveness that is the greatest possible inducement to repentance and amendment of life, and — I cannot stress this too strongly — a shared repentance and amendment of life make genuine community possible. I have many colleagues who believe the same, and students at Baylor can find us. We will join the prophets and cry out for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But we will also echo St. Paul and tell you that we Christians forgive others because God in Christ has forgiven us. We will tell you that your shortcomings and failures can never outpace the mercy of God, who loves his wayward children, all of them, and will someday wipe from their eyes every tear. This is the great hope of those who wound as well as those who are wounded. And all of us sometimes wound and sometimes are wounded.

(And then we will sit down at a table and strive better to understand, and better to pursue, the good, the true, and the beautiful.)

But does Baylor University, as an institution, believe in any of this? If so, why is none of it ever mentioned in our administration’s public statements about race and racism?  Why do we strive to build an entire system of dealing with racism that doesn’t touch on the Christian Gospel at any point? Why don’t we offer a word of hope? President Livingstone likes to say, “The world needs a Baylor.” If Baylor simply echoes the language and the policies of other institutions, then no, the world really doesn’t need a Baylor. But if we think and speak and act out of a deep commitment to the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen One, then we can make a difference indeed.

 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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