Baylor bridges gaps in faith, education

By Phoebe Suy | Staff Writer

In a world where some institutions of higher learning are trading religion for scholarship, four of Baylor’s most prolific researchers gathered to discuss the importance of upholding both, not only for Baylor, but for an impact that resounds beyond the parameters of campus.

Faith and academia are not mutually exclusive, as Wednesday’s panelists emphasized at “Cultivating Human Flourishing: An Academic Symposium.” President Dr. Linda A. Livingstone and Interim Provost Michael McLendon hosted the symposium at Waco Hall, one of the final events before Livingstone’s inauguration ceremony on Thursday.

The four faculty scholars included: Dr. Dawn Carlson, H.R. Gibson Chair of Organizational Development in Hankamer School of Business; Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, distinguished professor of religion; Dr. Byron Johnson, distinguished professor of the social sciences and founder of the Baylor Institute for Students of Religion (ISR); Dr. Dwayne Simmons, Cornelia Marschall Smith Endowed Professor and chair of the department of biology.

“We aspire to be a top-tier research university while strengthening our commitment as a Christian institution, what better way to do that than to profile some of our own preeminent faculty who are doing significant research that is making a difference in the world,” Livingstone said.

In the context of Baylor’s strengths as an institution committed to its faith tradition, McLendon said he believes it’s important to look forward and ask, “In 10 to 20 years’ time, what problems in our world do we want Baylor scholars and researchers to have contributed leading solutions?”

Research Solutions: Crime and Religion

Although representing a variety of disciplines, the panelists emphasized the importance of research for policymakers who seek to understand the facts on the ground.

For example, Johnson’s expertise on the scientific study of religion gave him the opportunity to conduct a five-year study on faith-based ministries in the nation’s largest maximum-security prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Although known as one of the most violent and corrupt prisons in America, the Louisiana State Penitentiary is also home to an extension of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Since the establishment of the prison’s seminary in 1995, 29 inmate-led congregations have been formed. Johnson noted each congregation is complete with its own church staff and represents a variety of Christian denominations.

“It’s one of the most ecumenical environments that you would ever see,” Johnson said. “Suicide, down. Violence, down. Assaults, down. Across the board. These inmate ministers now are being transferred to other prisons as missionaries.”

Johnson and his team found that inmates who attended the seminary were more likely to exhibit positive social behavior. While inmates who found God did better in treatment, Johnson said they ultimately found another component to be essential to the recovery process.

“Inmates or offenders who find God and serve others in treatment, that’s the ticket to sobriety. Faith and service,” Johnson said. “We found that faith and service matters. And isn’t it special that in a place like Baylor, faith and service matters as well.”

Johnson said he hopes his research allows policymakers to make informed decisions that also conserve resources.

Research Solutions: Work-Life Balance

Carlson’s research explores the intersection between work and family life. She has published over 80 journal articles, the most recent “Applying the Job Demands Resources Model to Understand Technology as a Predictor of Turnover Intentions,” in the scholarly journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Carlson said she believes it’s important to set boundaries between work and family spheres so people can fully engage in each domain and, in turn, flourish as human beings.

“My work helps define the work place conditions in which humans can flourish,” Carlson said. “My hope is that my research helps organizations set policies and create cultures that are supportive and family friendly. My hope is that my research helps individuals be better able to manage the competing demands of work and family and able to capitalize on the fact that they’re engaged in multiple domains. My hope is that my work helps people lead better lives and flourish no matter where they are.”

Carlson’s work regarding work life balance testifies to the interdisciplinary nature of human flourishing. While it may be possible to succeed at work, it might seem that it comes at the cost of valued family time or vice versa. Carlson said she believes there is a better way for family and organizations to co-exist.

Research Solutions: Sensory Overload and Hearing

Simmons joined the Baylor faculty recently after conducting research at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom as a Fulbright Scholar. Simmons was previously a professor in the department of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA and worked to increase diversity in biomedical undergraduate research through his work as a director of several NIH-funded programs.

Simmons’ said he has been fascinated with the brain as long as he could remember. He recalled being fascinated as a child by the senses — daily phenomena like seeing colors or hearing pitches. His work now centers on how sensory systems respond when they are overloaded, particularly how the brain and the immune system communicate with one another. His most recent research focuses on cellular and molecular mechanisms related to hearing loss in the brain and inner ear.

“As a child, I was interested in the brain and how it perceived and saw all of these amazing inputs coming into it,” Simmons said. “As an adult, and as a scientist, we’ve been working on trying to make sure we understand this in a way in which we can actually help others, those who actually have or suffer from hearing loss from overload of sounds or those who suffer from damage to their spinal cords.”

Research Solutions: Cultural Consequences of Scripture Interpretation

Gaventa is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, whose work particularly engages with the writings of Paul. She has published several books, including “Our Mother Saint Paul” and “When in Romans.”

“The task of the Biblical scholar is very simple. It is to enhance our reading and our understanding of Scripture,” Gaventa said. “More generally, Biblical scholars help us to understand how religion contributes to human flourishing, contributes to our shared humanity.”

Gaventa acknowledged that at times, religion has been twisted or distorted in unproductive ways. For example, Gaventa said the Bible could be read in a productive, enlightening way, or it could be read in ways that have harmful effects such as the justification of slavery or oppression of women.

Gaventa said she sees her work as a Biblical scholar to counteract the harmful interpretations and lift up positive readings and constructive ways of thinking about Scripture.

Research Meets The Classroom

When students hear about high research activity at a university, a prevailing conception is a professor who is too busy for quality teaching, much less forming relationships with students. However, students at Baylor have a unique opportunity to come alongside and engage with faculty members in the work they are contributing to society.

Carlson incorporates her passion for research in the classroom with her graduate students in the Hankamer School of Business. MBA students form relationships with community partners to analyze the organization’s use of human capital. Students conduct interviews, surveys and comparative analysis to collect data. At the end of the project, students share their findings and provide feedback on ways the organization can develop human capital and further human flourishing in the workplace.

For Simmons, research in the sciences is fundamentally the best way to teach what science is all about.

Simmons said he taught his first freshman class at Baylor last spring. At the beginning of the course, Simmons said he found that only about a third of the class had been engaged in any type of research.

He said he met with each student one-on-one and tried to challenge them, asking, “What are you going to do? What contribution can you make in creating new knowledge that we didn’t already know?”

Johnson said students normally approached him first about collaborating with him in research endeavors.

“In that way Baylor’s different, too,” Johnson said. “That [students] would take that initiative to come see you and see if they could get plugged into a project, that’s one way it happens … whether it’s post-doctoral students, graduate students or undergrads, I think that the mentoring piece is huge. I was the beneficiary of mentoring and it changed my whole career.”

The Baylor Difference

Simmons said he’s worked at a number of secular institutions and did well, but found there was something just different about coming to Baylor.

“[Baylor] wanting to be not just a Christian institution, but to really set its goals very high and say, ‘We want to be top-tier. We want to be a really great research institution, and on top of that, to tenaciously hold onto teaching as a mission,’ Simmons said. “Bringing those two together, most institutions just say no, they really don’t go together. But here, we’re really trying to make them not only go together, but to raise them both up.”

Simmons said he believes that Baylor’s aspirations to be a quality research institution testify to the fact that it is possible to be both a faithful Christian and a strong academic.

“What Baylor is doing is rethinking that and saying, we’re putting it back together again,” Simmons said. “We’re going to be an institution where one’s Christianity and faith are as important as the academic work you’re doing and we can do both together.”

Gaventa, Carlson and Johnson all echoed Simmons’ reflection of Baylor as an institution where higher learning and faith can be embraced equally and openly.

When Johnson first received a job offer from Baylor, he said he asked himself, “Why would I want to come to Baylor? I’m in the Ivy Leagues.”

Johnson said the more he prayed about his decision, God changed his heart. He said the desire to be a part of a great Christian university that aspired to be a great research university really touched him.

Not only did Baylor’s top-tier research aspirations attract Carlson to the university, she said she believed Baylor’s culture concerning work and family balance gave her confidence when she interviewed for the job 18 years ago as an expectant mother.

Livingstone was a part of the group at Baylor that hired Carlson to join the faculty. When Carlson saw that Livingstone was married, raising a child and doing well in her work, Carlson said she felt confident that she could achieve as a scholar, mother and family member at Baylor.

“By creating this unique environment, it brings us to the table. It brings a Christian perspective to the table of decision-making and the table of policymaking, to the table of scholarship,” Carlson said. “We can have an impact on lots of people beyond simply the walls of Baylor because we’re creating such outstanding scholarship here.”