By Luke Lattanzi | Staff Writer
Dr. Mikeal Parsons, Kidd L. and Buna Hitchcock Macon Chair in the religion department, was recently designated as a University Distinguished Professor, the highest honor awarded to a Baylor faculty member.
Faculty members designated for the prestigious award are recognized for their achievements in their respective disciplines, as well as their effort to advance Baylor’s mission “through outstanding achievement and scholarship.” University Distinguished Professors are also recognized for their ability to be exceptional mentors to their students.
Parsons was the first faculty member to be selected per the award’s new requirements, which requires a selection from the dean of the department and a selection committee of faculty members. Two maximum University Distinguished Professors are expected in each two-year cycle that a selection process takes place.
“It is a great honor, and it is a humbling experience to be recognized as a Distinguished University Professor,” Parsons said. “It certainly was not something, as a younger version of myself, would have ever thought … or even this version of myself would have thought [to] come my way. But I am very grateful for the recognition and all the people who have helped that to happen over the years.”
Having started teaching at Baylor in the fall of 1986, Parsons is the longest-serving professor in the religion department. Feeling a call to ministry as early as his sophomore year of high school, he majored in both religion and philosophy at Campbell University, which went on to cultivate his passion for Christian scholarship.
“When I was in college, it was the first time I ever experienced a Christian intellectual,” Parsons said. “Somebody who was very learned … [an] expert in his or her field, and yet had a very deep faith, and that was attractive to me. Of course I loved what went on in the classroom. I loved learning, I loved being exposed to new ideas, I loved learning about the academic study of the Bible and deepening my own understanding and deepening my own faith.”
Dr. Doug Weaver, professor and religion department chair, who attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with Parsons, said the award-winning professor has always been a leading scholar in his field.
“I’ve known Dr. Parsons since we were in seminary together,” Weaver said. “Ever since I met him he’s been a highly productive academic, an unbelievably good teacher in the classroom, always a leader in his field in terms of publications. … He’s always been a leader in the department, and will continue to do so.”
After studying abroad his senior year of college at the University of Wales in the United Kingdom, Parsons attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to be a pastor and earn his Ph.D.
As a result of being the longest-serving professor in the religion department, Parsons said it felt surreal how much time had passed, and he has gained a lot of perspective since his hiring in 1986.
“I think last year, [or] the year before, was the first faculty meeting [of that year], we had a workshop in the beginning of the year, and I looked around the room and realized there was nobody in that room who was there at the first faculty workshop I had gone to back in 1986,” Parsons said. “I still considered myself to be one of the young professors, but obviously that wasn’t true anymore.”
Parsons also said he was drawn to Baylor due to its unique position in religious scholarship, giving him the opportunity to teach both undergraduate and graduate students.
“I have, from the beginning, taught those general education survey classes, now they’re Christian Scriptures and Christian Heritage,” Parsons said.
He said he has also found great pleasure in seeing his graduate students go on to publish their own work and become scholars themselves. Pointing to the bottom bookshelf in his office, fully stocked with thick green books, he said:
“Those green books there are all [former students’] Ph.D. dissertations, watching them conduct research and writing at the highest level, and then make a contribution to the field. Most of those green volumes have been published as dissertations … and that’s very rewarding.”
Additionally, Parsons said he loves seeing students being exposed to new ideas for the first time. He said the “aha” moment that students get when being able to understand a new idea helps to remind him why he loves his profession.
“That’s fun, that’s exhilarating, that’s a vicarious experience that you have,” Parsons said.
Dr. Derek Dodson, a former doctoral student of Parsons and now a senior lecturer in the religion department, said he always enjoyed learning from him.
“I do think he’s the best educator I’ve had. He’s a master of the material and his knowledge of the field is incredible,” Dodson said. “And yet he doesn’t sort of lord it over you, he sort of draws you into the material, and sort of journeys along with you. He just made learning really fun and really engaging.”
Even after getting his degree, Dodson also said Parsons continues to serve as a mentor for him.
Parsons said he would advise people who are new to his profession to be curious and to always be willing to ask new questions. He suggested they remember their students can be a great source for inspiration and intellectual novelty.
“If I were speaking to faculty, I would say students have a lot to offer, and to teach us, because they come with questions we haven’t thought of,” Parsons said. “And they haven’t been encumbered by, ‘This is the way it’s always been done or thought about.’ They come with questions that you might not think about, so I learn something really in almost every class, because they’re extremely good.”