Faith, humility, teamwork propel Linda Livingstone to lead as her ‘authentic self’

Atop her desk, President Linda Livingstone has a Bible of mysterious origin that has been passed down by former presidents. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor

By Luke Lattanzi | Staff Writer

President Linda Livingstone doesn’t know if she ever would have found Baylor if it had not been for her doctoral dissertation adviser at Oklahoma State University, who, knowing how deeply she prioritized her Christian faith, recommended she apply for a faculty position at Baylor.

What started out as a small private Baptist school that was barely on her radar would soon become her home for her first 11 years as a professional in higher education. She was first hired by Baylor as a professor in 1991 and went on to become an associate dean for the Hankamer School of Business in 1998. In 2002, she left Baylor for Pepperdine University to become the dean of the Graziadio School of Business and Management, serving in that capacity until 2014, when she took over the deanship at the George Washington University School of Business.

It wasn’t until 2017 that Livingstone would return to Baylor, this time taking a true front seat as the university’s 15th president. Livingstone had learned a lot about resilience from her roles at Pepperdine University and George Washington University, but when considering whether or not to accept the Baylor presidency, she said her husband was pivotal in providing the encouragement and emotional support that helped propel her forward.

“I could have stayed at Baylor, and it would have been easier, and I wouldn’t have had to deal with these really difficult circumstances,” Livingstone said. “And he would tell me over and over; he goes, ‘Linda, God is preparing you for something even bigger and more significant than what you’re doing at Pepperdine or what you’re doing at George Washington.’ And he said, ‘We have no idea what that is, but we just need to trust that the things that you’re going through, that we’re going through, are preparing you for something more significant.’”

Livingstone would certainly have her work cut out for her. On top of the usual challenges of a university presidency, Baylor was still reeling from a Title IX sexual assault scandal that had rocked the institution to its very foundation. During her first year as president, Livingstone said she did a lot of listening, trying to hear the concerns of the Baylor community and address the institutional failures that had led to the scandal.

“I traveled all over the state, around the country with our [Board of Regents] chair, Joel Allison, and we really shared about what the university was doing to address the issues of the past, as well as to move the university forward,” Livingstone said. “And then we just took questions, and whatever anybody wanted to ask us, we were willing to take, and we tried to be as transparent as we possibly could be.”

During that process, what became clear to her wasn’t that people hated Baylor because of the scandal, but rather that the love students, faculty and alumni had for the university could be a double-edged sword. When the university does something positive, that love manifests in excitement and optimism. However, when a scandal takes it by storm, the community reacts with outrage and dismay.

“What I learned from that, even beyond what I knew when I came, was how important it was to provide the university and the Baylor family with a sense of hope that there was a brighter and better future for Baylor than what they’ve been through over the last several years,” Livingstone said.

The push for a “brighter and better future” would come with the launch of the Illuminate Strategic Plan in 2018. As part of the plan, Baylor began its $1.1 billion Give Light fundraising campaign, and it is now expected to surpass its initial goal and draw in $1.5 billion. Perhaps most notably, Illuminate set the goal of achieving R1 status — a designation given to elite universities with very high research activity — by 2024. Baylor reached that goal in 2021, three years ahead of schedule.

But as Illuminate begins to wind to a close, many have asked what’s next for Baylor in the coming years. While Livingstone couldn’t give any specifics, she said the university’s next strategic plan is already in the works, and she intends to have it ready for the Board of Regents to affirm in May. Wanting to build upon the progress made through Illuminate, Livingstone said Baylor is asking itself more foundational questions about what purposes it can serve as a truly global university, relative to its unapologetic Christian mission.

“The question we’re asking ourselves is, what does the world most need Baylor to do?” Livingstone said. “And so what we hope to do in this plan is refine that some and probably narrow our focus [to, say,] where are the places that Baylor can have the most significant impact to make a difference in solving some of the really difficult problems in the world, given our uniqueness as a Christian research university?”

Still, despite the progress that has been made, the presidency isn’t a cake walk. Livingstone said she’s learned a lot about what it takes to do the job since first starting. She noted a truly pivotal variable during her tenure has been seeking out expertise in others when necessary, giving her the wisdom and insight to make tough judgment calls, especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

“We learned very early on that in that circumstance — and there will be other circumstances like this — that we didn’t have the expertise we needed on my leadership team to address all of the issues and questions we were going to have to address,” Livingstone said. “And so we had to be willing to have the humility to admit that and just say, ‘We’ve got to find other people on our campus, outside of our campus, that have that expertise that can really advise us and help us make wise decisions as we deal with a really difficult, unpredictable, unexpected circumstance.’”

President Linda Livingstone speaks with staff writer Luke Lattanzi. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor
President Linda Livingstone sits down with Lariat staff writer Luke Lattanzi. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor

Another crucial aspect of the job, Livingstone said, is the leadership team she’s surrounded by. She said her experience thus far has shown her just how important that team is, given the grand scale and scope of her responsibilities. Livingstone also said she is excited for the new additions to the team, with the university bringing on vice presidents Curtis Reynolds from the University of Florida and Jason Diffenderfer from the University at Buffalo.

“We’re really excited,” Livingstone said. “I mean, we loved the people that transitioned off to open these positions up, but we’re really excited about new perspectives and new ideas that will continue to help us to be better.”

Livingstone’s position is also unique on a national scale. As part of a relatively small number of female university presidents, her leadership extends far beyond the Baylor campus. She was also elected as chair of the NCAA board of governors as well as chair of the American Council on Education. Most recently, she was elected chair of the Big 12 Conference’s board of directors.

According to a report by Women’s Power Gap — a research firm devoted to analyzing gender disparities in leadership positions — the percentage of female R1 university presidents increased from 22% to 30% from 2021 to 2023. While Livingstone acknowledged things are moving in the right direction, she considers finding more opportunities in higher education leadership for women, as well as for individuals of color, to be a personal priority.

One program Livingstone emphasized the importance of and has also participated in is Baylor’s Accelerate, Innovate, Matriculate (AIM) Leadership Collective — a university-wide initiative dedicated to providing mentorship to those in leadership positions who are in underrepresented groups. Livingstone was among AIM’s second cohort of professionals, and she said it is especially important for allowing women and individuals of color to advance through the professional pipeline associated with positions in higher education leadership.

“It’s open to anybody on campus, but we’ve certainly had a lot of women, and I think over 60% of the participants in that program have been women,” Livingstone said. “We’ve had wonderful participants from individuals of color on our campus, and it’s a yearlong program that helps with leadership development. Many of the individuals from that program — this is the third year it’s been going on — have already moved into leadership roles in other positions on campus.”

The President’s Council, the central team of university administrators surrounding Livingstone, also currently includes six women: Nancy Brickhouse, provost; Susan Anz, co-interim chief business officer; Cheryl Gochis, vice president for human resources and chief human resources officer; Robyn L. Driskell, vice president and chief compliance and risk officer; Tiffany Hogue, chief of staff to the president; and Kristy Orr, board professional.

Livingstone said it is vital for new presidents to have a strong leadership team around them, as well as to find other presidents from whom they can seek advice. Perhaps more foundationally, however, Livingstone emphasized the importance of university presidents being their honest selves, stressing that people can detect when someone is being disingenuous.

“I think it’s really important that leaders be their authentic self as they lead,” Livingstone said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to do things better or you can’t develop new skills or you can’t learn to adapt in situations, but trying to pretend to be a certain type of leader that’s not natural to you is not going to lead to your success.”

Luke Lattanzi is a senior political science major with a minor in news-editorial originally from Monroe Township, New Jersey, now based in Houston. In his last semester at the Lariat, he is excited to learn more about what it takes to report for a daily news publication. Luke also serves as assistant editor for conservative digital magazine American Pigeon. He hopes to work for a publication as a reporter after graduation.