By Rewon Shimray | Reporter
Within the next decade, half of the universities in the U.S. will close, according to Dr. Mary Landon Darden, specialist in higher education administration. Inside Higher Ed, an online publication focusing on collegiate topics, attributes financial pressures for academic institutions being on “the verge of a major collapse.”
“We are living in a time of crisis for higher education,” Darden said. “Our leadership is absolutely critical. It will be literally life or death for these institutions. It makes total sense that we look at the complete pool of talent out there to make sure that we are getting the best person to lead our institutions. To exclude any groups for any reason would be a mistake.”
Baylor saw the inauguration of Dr. Linda Livingstone, its first woman and 15th president, in 2017. The extensive and careful search for the university president gave way to Livingstone’s presidency, which envisions progress in academics, Title IX protocol and administrative transparency.
There has been a long tradition of women university presidents, but almost exclusively within single-sex institutions, according to Dr. Andrea Turpin, associate professor of history. She said it was rare to find women presidents in co-educational institutions, and even more so in the South, until 30 years ago.
“Becoming the president of a southern religious, private institution is no small feat. It’s pretty darn cool. We’re making progress,” Darden said.
Baylor has had women in positions of the higher levels of management prior to Livingstone’s presidency. Dr. Elizabeth Davis was formerly executive vice president and provost until 2014. Dr. Robyn Driskell currently serves as the executive director and president’s chief of staff.
“It is historic that she is the first female president, but she is simply a good president as a person, period. Which is a demonstration that, yes, women bring unique perspectives, but simply also that some of the talented people in the world are women and we would be remiss to ignore that entire pool of talent,” Turpin said.
Livingstone entered the presidency on June 1, 2017 in the midst of Baylor settling a Title IX lawsuit. Baylor had already begun implementing the 105 Recommendations for Title IX policy.
“It was painful, personally, to watch what Baylor was going through, so to be able to come in and really help continue that progress, I felt very good about,” Livingstone said. “Because I knew the university was deeply committed in that way, I felt confident coming in that it was a good environment to come into and that we were going to make really good progress on those issues as well as looking forward on some of the academic initiatives we needed.”
Livingstone said she has two main missions: to address Title IX protocol as a part of “progress on working on issues we need to from our past” and to carry out the Academic Strategic Plan, which gives “optimism and hope about the future in store for Baylor.”
Pro Futuris, a five-year strategic vision with goals of “transformational education, compelling scholarship, informed engagement, committed constituents and judicious stewardship,” was already in discussion when Livingstone was inaugurated.
Livingstone said that as she reviewed Pro Futuris, there was a clear need for a plan to move Baylor “toward preeminent status as a Christian research university.”
The Academic Strategic Plan, Phase II of Pro Futuris called Illuminate, outlines four pillars: Academics, Facilities, Financing and Fundraising.
Livingstone said there will be an Illuminate proposal to the Board of Regents in May to be developed over the summer and implemented in the fall.
“A realization of Pro Futuris” is to come under Livingstone’s leadership, according to Dr. Andrea Dixon, associate professor of marketing and faculty regent.
Dixon said the projected growth in the graduate program would provide Baylor the opportunity to generate knowledge at a higher level.
“She understands that, at the core, Baylor is an undergraduate institution that loves to help young people develop a platform to become very strong citizens of the world and very strong citizens for Jesus Christ. The attention and focus on undergraduate education will not wane under her leadership, but I think she will bring additional energy to other areas as well,” Dixon said.
Following the completion of the 105 recommendations, Baylor’s warning sanction was lifted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) in December 2017.
Livingstone said that Baylor continues to ensure the recommendations “are embedded in our culture and we have a safe and secure environment for our students.”
Student Body President Amye Dickerson said students were unsure of what the relationship with the president would be when Livingstone was announced. Dickerson said she thinks Livingstone “has done an incredible job connecting with out students.”
“You always see her and her husband Brad around campus, at the basketball games, at the football games, walking their dog Bu around campus, and also being present in a lot of the events that takes place. It seems like they’re always in multiple places at once,” Dickerson said. “That’s been really great to see them connect, not only with our freshman students, but with our senior students as well as our alumni and other constituent faces.”
Livingstone said that students have warmly embraced her and her husband Brad as they have try to be present in many different areas on campus. She said engaging with students has been the biggest source of joy to her and her husband during her time at Baylor.
Dickerson said Livingstone’s presence on campus has helped students feel “that they can come up and talk to her and talk to other leaders within our university and see that they are very much a part of the university and want to be there for the students while also shaping what the future looks like for our student body.”
Livingstone has also initiated more open communication with the Baylor community through a weekly email called Presidential Perspective, which summarizes events on campus, ongoing research, and other general announcements. Livingstone said the idea came from a combined effort between herself, Jason Cook, vice president for marketing and communications and chief marketing officer, and others.
Dickerson said the emails were an answer to “a rallying call for the university” for transparency.
“When I first got here, it was clear that because of what the university had been through, it was important that we communicate a lot, that we begin to tell the positive stories at Baylor,” Livingstone said. “There had been so much negativity for so long, and we sort of needed to recapture the spirit of Baylor and tell our story and own telling our story.”
Livingstone said she viewed the platform as a “way to highlight the really good things going on at campus and to tell our story in a different way, in a bit of a more informal narrative.” She also said she has received emails back from faculty, staff and students with pictures and stories of how they are “bright lights.”
In the university president search, a 12-member committee was formed and announced in September. The community was able to speak into the process through individual input forms, over 700 of which were submitted. During October and November, the Presidential Search Committee held external listening sessions around Arlington, Dallas, Houston, Waco, San Antonio, Austin where people were invited to share their thoughts about the personal and professional qualities Baylor’s next president should possess.
Dixon, who served as vice chair of the presidential search committee, said listening session attendees were enthusiastic and “highly invested in making sure their voices were heard.” Dixon also said that each session went for the entire time it was scheduled.
“The ownership people in the Baylor community feel to Baylor is very unique to Baylor. People have a desire to stay connected and speak into, what they like to call, their Baylor,” Dixon said.
Every sessions was summarized into a seven or eight page document of single-spaced notes by a member of the presidential search committee that was then uploaded.
“We were able to use that kind of data to create a very, very rich profile that became part of public record of what we were looking for. That was actually information that was contained in the document that went out to prospective candidates,” Dixon said.
There were also internal listening sessions with faculty, staff administrators and students.
Dickerson, who attended a few internal listening sessions, said she perceived a “sense of vibrancy where there was hope, there was excitement for who that next person would be and what impact they would have on the student body and on Baylor.”
“I can tell you very, very distinctly, from the process of helping craft a profile to sitting on all the interviews to now watching her in action as a faculty member of the university, that she is the person God called to Baylor for this role,” Dixon said.
Darden conducted her dissertation on the changeable attributes of women presidents of American four-year colleges and universities that contribute to their success. Among the found characteristics of risk-taking, experience, collaboration, communication and vision, Livingstone holds all of the keys to a successful presidency, according to Landon.
“I think Baylor holds a special place in higher education, so for me to be able to come back to provide leadership at a university whose mission I believe in deeply, where there are people I know well and know are deeply committed to moving the university forward, it was just a tremendous opportunity for me and my family,” Livingstone said.