By Phoebe Suy | Staff Writer
What does it mean for Baylor to be a Christian institution? It’s not just Scriptures carved into the concrete or hymns sung in Chapel. For vice president for university mission Dr. Darin Davis, the mission of a Christian university is lived out in word and deed.
Created in June 2016, the Spiritual Life and Character Formation Task Force is working to reinvigorate Baylor’s Christian mission by seeking to strengthen spiritual and character formation within and outside the classroom.
The task force was formed in response to Pepper Hamilton’s investigation of Baylor’s institutional compliance with and response to Title IX. The Board of Regents suggested that more effort be given to cultivating a Christ-centered environment and attending to matters of community, calling and culture on Baylor campus.
Members of the task force include Baylor faculty, staff and students along with Davis, Dr. Lori Baker, and co-conveners vice provost for strategic initiatives, collaboration and leadership development and Dr. Kevin Jackson, vice president for student life.
Davis said his role is specifically to help the entire university reflect upon and live by the highest ideals of Baylor’s Christian identity and mission.
“I try to encourage faculty, staff, students, alumni and constituents to think about and to be mindful of the importance of our staying true to our identity as a Christian university and realizing that institutions like Baylor have to be very attentive to matters of mission,” Davis said. “The history of American higher education is one in which many colleges and universities that began as faith-based or church-related, either in the Protestant or the Catholic traditions, for various reasons changed over time to be less connected to their founding aspirations.”
Davis said there are few universities who have successfully achieved what Baylor is trying to accomplish, academic excellence, competitive athletics and a grounding in the Christian faith.
“In this task force, we really saw our effort here to observe carefully all the powerful ways in which spiritual formation and character formation were alive at Baylor,” Davis said.
While the task force has implemented some new initiatives such as classroom workshops, servant leadership programs and a renewed focus on Chapel, Davis said a part of their mission is to reinforce and encourage efforts currently taking place.
Because language is the key, Baker said the task force has been intentional about its message and how it talks about key elements such as holy friendship. According to Baker, this is particularly important for students coming into Baylor, because she believes friendships are one of the key components to stopping interpersonal violence. Baker said she believes many of the instances of interpersonal violence took place in a situation where someone else should have stepped in. Friendship needs to play an active part in caring for others, Baker said.
“As an anthropologist, we know that language shapes culture and culture shapes language,” Baker said. “To be intentional about the way we talk and interact with one another and how we message things is really important. If we can use language extolling the virtues, then we have people being influenced by that language without even realizing it.”
One of the task force’s key focuses is the cultivation of moral character in the classroom. Davis said he believes everyone who teaches or mentors at Baylor has a role in the task of moral formation. He noted that historically, religion or ethics courses carried the weight of this responsibility, but Davis said the task force wants to encourage the view that character formation can happen across the disciplines.
“We’ve got a number of programs here that are bringing faculty members across the university together to think about the classes they’re teaching and how they can teach for virtue,” Davis said. “How it is that you can have a class in business and negotiations better understand the virtue of justice? How an electrical engineering class better teach for stewardship? These are really exciting efforts. I don’t know anywhere else that they’re going on with the kind of purposefulness that we’re having right now at Baylor.”
For Baker, guiding professors in re-examining their curriculum in light of Baylor’s Christian context is one of her favorite components of the task force’s work. She admitted it was a slow-moving progress. Approximately 15 to 20 faculty members are involved with the Academy of Teaching and Learning to find connections between curriculum and Christian calling. This task is particularly challenging in courses that are not overtly Christian, but Baker said it can be done.
The task force is also seeking to shift the focus in first-year student activities such as Line Camp and the First in Line program to emphasize friendship, Christian calling and storytelling.
“One of the beautiful things we can do as human beings is see our lives as stories to be told with various chapters and various characters, but also stories which are striving ever to reach a good end,” Davis said. “We want our lives to be good stories. And so we believe that to be a really powerful way of igniting incoming students’ imagination about the lives before them. And recognize that their time here at Baylor is but a preparation for the life that’s set before them.”
Baker said the task force is working through initiatives such as the First in Line program to develop students’ intellectual and spiritual minds. She said these programs feature a lot of one-on-one conversations and are ideally infused with the language of virtue. Students can then begin to talk about how to treat one another as Christians and are given opportunities to develop relationships with a faculty member they feel comfortable with.
“Baylor is a great community and I think some of that is based on being a Christian community. So how do we intentionally think about making that even stronger?,” Baker said. “I think there’s always room for improvement and I think that’s where we are. We have a very special place and then how do we maintain that, care for it, nurture it and make it better.”
Baker began teaching a new class this fall about Christian social innovation. Her course, co-taught alongside Dr. Victor Hinojosa, is titled “Child Migration in the Western Hemisphere.” Students in the course talk about what many children in Latin America are currently facing.
Baker said Latin American children as young as 11 are independently leaving their homes to make a new life somewhere else. What are the factors pushing them out? What happens when they get to their destination? What support systems do they have? Baker said students ask and seek answers to these kinds of questions in the class.
“For me, it’s about showing students, you don’t feel always empowered as an undergraduate student. You still feel somewhat not-an-adult, but you have more education. You’re more educated than the majority of the world right now,” Baker said. “You are better prepared than most of the people in the world to go out and make a difference and you may not know that.”
Baker said she hopes to empower her students by giving them tools that can help them make a difference in the world. Classes like these give faculty and students an opportunity to talk about why they’re passionate about what they do, Baker said, and everything is framed around being animated by faith.
At this early stage in the new academic year, Davis said the task force is working to properly implement its new character formation and leadership development initiatives. He said they are just trying to do well what they promised.
“The work of the task force never ends because the work of deepening spiritual life and encouraging cultivation of character never ends,” Davis said.