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Transformation: Q&A with Baylor President Ken Starr

Photo courtesy of Baylor Photography

By Mark Osler

Students of drama sometimes observe that there are only two kinds of epic stories: the “hero’s journey,” and “a stranger comes to town.” Depending on one’s perspective, the arrival of Ken Starr as Baylor President on June 1 could fit into either category.

Over the course of a remarkable career, President Starr has been an appellate attorney, the Solicitor General of the United States, a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, the independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation and dean of Pepperdine Law School. Nearly two months into his presidency, he sat down with the Wacoan to discuss his background, his accomplishments at Pepperdine, the challenges at Baylor and even the possibility of inviting former President Bill Clinton to campus.

Starr spoke with law professor Mark Osler, who left Baylor on August 1 to teach at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Challenges at Baylor

WACOAN: Let me be the 7,000th person to welcome you to Waco.

Starr: Thank you, it’s good to be here.

WACOAN: Do you want to buy a house?

Starr: Happily, the university generously provided a house. We love Allbritton House, so not at this time.

WACOAN: Your first week here, the Big 12 was melting down. Tell me a little about that.

Starr: I began on June 1, and the very next day I went to Kansas City. Storm clouds were gathering, but the seriousness became quickly evident in light of various comments in meetings and outside of meetings. So we began 16 days that were extremely long and demanding. At the same time, the days proved to be very rewarding in that there was a great outpouring of love and affection for Baylor. The Baylor community came together as one mighty voice, and that voice was heard. Baylor has influence and authority in excess of its size and wealth.

WACOAN: We’re small —

Starr: And we’re not rich.

WACOAN: That’s often not a good combination. How important is the Big 12 to the school?

Starr: There’s greater importance than one might think. It’s obviously vitally important athletically. It also has effects in terms of standing, stature, improving the possibilities for students and the exchange of ideas and activities. When the Big 12 all get together with the possibilities of joint projects, those are very valuable in academics as well as in reputation advancement. It’s a good thing to be the one private university in the Big 12, and I think, for its part, the Big 12 would lose something by only having public universities. The SEC has a private university; the PAC 10 has a private university and, obviously, the Big 10 would like to have a private university.

WACOAN: In a world of online education and the financial challenges that we see in the education market right now, what does Baylor have to offer a bright and interesting 18-year-old that will make it worth the financial cost?

Starr: Well, we are still a bargain, and we are officially recognized as one. At the same time, the cost of higher education is an enormous factor. I’m working on that and have identified that as my single priority, to wrestle with the cost of education here at Baylor.

But what Baylor offers is transformation. As we have moved to be more of a research institution, we continue to value not only teaching, but we value teaching as part of a larger, more holistic approach in which we value all human beings. We see the students as being eternally valuable. We care about them and that means mentoring, nurturing. Great teaching is at the core of what we do because we are a university, but at the same time, we go the extra mile. We stop our work in the laboratory or the library. We keep our doors open to the students, and we say in every way, ‘We care about you.’

We also provide — I think the most remarkable thing — opportunities at spiritual formation and to develop one’s sense of call. I saw that last evening at Independence, Texas [the birthplace of Baylor]. That trip was an invitation for one to reflect on one’s sense of calling. It was beautiful. It was an opportunity to connect with the past in that very deep moral and spiritual sense, and to hear these great stories, some of which are fairly recent and some are almost ancient.

WACOAN: That word ‘transformation’ is a great one in this context. I know that I see that in my students. If I have something in the courts or in Congress, I bring students to help me, and let them share the project. It’s remarkable to see the change in their outlook. I’m very happy to hear that word ‘transformation’ being used, because it’s possible.

Starr: It’s done daily.

WACOAN: In 2017, how would you like to see the Princeton Review describe Baylor?

Starr: Well, I’m glad you chose the Princeton Review because one of the things I was very proud of at Pepperdine — and this is one of those situations where I didn’t foul it up — I encouraged the continuation of a culture of caring. Princeton Review ranks the Pepperdine faculty as the most accessible faculty in the United States. Pepperdine Law is continuing to emphasize research and scholarship and conferences, going to conferences, hosting conferences, but we didn’t lose that very vital part of our culture.

When I would talk to alums at alumni gatherings, I would not mention U.S. News & World Report. I would say the ranking I’m most proud of is Princeton Review ranking Pepperdine’s faculty as most accessible faculty in the United States. That is a very vital aspect of culture. Of course, we need to be doing other things. You can’t just have your door open and not be engaged in scholarly research and great teaching, but that accessibility was precious as part of the Pepperdine culture, and I bring that with me.

WACOAN: Here, we have a Baptist identity. As other things change and we see changes in the composition of the student body, what do you think about Baylor maintaining that Baptist identity?

Starr: I think it’s vitally important, and I can say that as someone who was not part of the denomination until late May. I was very comfortable becoming a part of Baptist life, and one of the advantages of Baptist life that I am sharing with the student body is it gives you opportunities of service that are very difficult to achieve to the same extent in the non-denominational world. There are Baptist distinctives, especially religious freedoms, that are at the core of the American experience, which I value, and which I think are valued by the culture more generally. That has really been at the core of the Baptist experience since 1604. Here in the United States, time after time, very powerful voices have lifted up faith and religious freedom, which is an ultimate kind of value in the human experience.

WACOAN: You have described these first weeks as a ‘listening project,’ and certainly that’s something I’ve heard from people in the community. How do you deal with people who may be frustrated with that, people who want immediate action about something?

Starr: I can only counsel patience.

WACOAN: Have you found that your counsel is taken?

Starr: That I don’t know. But I think there is a high degree of understanding that it is best to understand before one acts.

WACOAN: I get the sense that you believe that time is on your side, and that allows you to have patience. Some of our former leaders have seemed much more urgent in needing to make change almost immediately.

Starr: I don’t know. I tend to be very impatient. I always want something done yesterday, but that is being done today. I have a great respect for institutions and cultures, including subcultures, and one of the things about the legal process is that we believe in process. We also believe in the march of equality, that all voices should be listened to. That’s process. It’s also fundamental fairness. That’s part of our culture, and the law lends itself to thoroughness and listening to very able people.

WACOAN: One of the things you did at Pepperdine was bring in very significant speakers, including Supreme Court justices. Will you be able to do the same thing here at Baylor?

Starr: I hope so. I certainly will be working with folks at the university more generally to see who would be helpful to bring into the community and share. It’s always great for students, but it’s also great for the faculty, the administrators, the staff to be able to see a renowned lawyer or justice of the Supreme Court.

WACOAN: Would you ever consider having one of those people be Bill Clinton?

Starr: Of course! I’d be honored to have President Clinton here.

From Lawyer to President

WACOAN: Up to this point, your work has involved the law in a fairly direct way, and in this job, you’re stepping away from that. Are you going to miss the day-to-day involvement with the legal world?

Starr: Well, I do miss it, honestly, but I have felt drawn to higher education for several decades. I was privileged to serve on the board of trustees at American University in Washington, D.C. I served on the board of trustees at a small university in Virginia, Shenandoah University in Winchester. I have very much enjoyed dealing with broader issues in higher education the last six years when I was privileged to serve as the dean of Pepperdine Law School. It’s not entirely a move into unfamiliar territory by virtue of those prior experiences. I’ve been hanging around universities and colleges, as well as law schools, my entire adult life.

WACOAN: This week, you are on your way to California to have a constitutional law debate with [constitutional scholar and University of California-Irvine School of Law dean] Erwin Chemerinsky. The two of you are among the most prominent appellate lawyers in the country. Do you think your experiences as an appellate lawyer will help with what you have to deal with here? For example, one quality I see in the best appellate lawyers is patience, which we have already discussed.

Starr: One does need to be patient — in life generally and professionally. Lawyers at their best are problem solvers. I would hope that those problem-solving skills and analytical skills would prove to be of relevance. Lawyers should be good listeners. We like to talk, but hopefully, our talking is preceded by very careful, thoughtful listening to clients and learning the law and the facts. Lawyers should be among the best listeners on the planet, and listening is a very important skill in higher education given the values of academic freedom and shared governance.

WACOAN: You have had a number of remarkable jobs: Solicitor General, federal judge, dean, independent counsel. Which of those experiences do you see yourself drawing from as you take on your role at Baylor?

Starr: Well, they all play a role, but having been a judge most of all. There is that process — listening, researching, then making a decision — that is very similar to what I am called upon to do now.

WACOAN: When I see a great appellate attorney — usually it’s someone I’m facing, rather than myself — one of the things that I’ve noticed is that they have a great sense of deference. They are able to project their beliefs and their ideas, but at the same time, show deference to precedence and to the court itself. Is that part of the skill set you bring to this job?

Starr: That I don’t know, but we are trained to understand that there is higher authority, to the academy and the chain of governance. It was said of one great advocate who became a great judge, Henry Friendly, that in his oral arguments, which were apparently the stuff of legend, that he evinced a quality of ‘respectful equality.’

I think it’s fairly important in the academic setting that I should respect my equals, those around the table, that they may very well have more information and much more wisdom than I will have. I need to draw from those various wells, but then come to my own judgment.

WACOAN: The last time I heard that quote was 20 years ago from [former Solicitor General and Yale law professor] Drew Days. It’s great to have gotten the same advice from two former Solicitors General.

Speaking of education, over the course of your career you’ve mentored some extraordinary people, one of them being my law school classmate, Brett Kavanaugh. Who are a few of your mentors?

Starr: Well, I’d have to say my principle mentors were persons under whom I served. Beginning with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit judge with whom I was blessed to serve, David William Dyer, a great man who was largely unknown. Happily, a dean of my law school figured it all out and made the match. I was placed with Judge Dyer. Then, through the great experience with Judge Dyer, who became instantly a great mentor and guide, I clerked for [Chief] Justice [Warren] Burger, who was a wonderful shepherd. William French Smith, with whom I practiced law as a young pup, was a great mentor. I learned so much from that gentleman who was destined to become the Attorney General of the United States under [President] Ronald Reagan. I could keep going but those are three individuals who loom very large in my list of heroes.

Success at Pepperdine

WACOAN: At Pepperdine Law, you were able to accomplish something remarkable in terms of enhancing the stature of that school. It moved up some 50 places in the U.S. News rankings. Rankings are not the be all and end all, but it did reflect the way people looked at your school. How did you do that?

Starr: It was a shared effort. It certainly was not a unilateral action. I said to the faculty that I wanted to be an encourager, so how could I encourage them? I tried to encourage people in a variety of ways that ended up helping enhance the reputation of the university as a whole as well as the law school.

One was to encourage the fostering and deepening of a conversation about very important issues, and to be a center for individuals to come in, to share, to help our students. Obviously, it is of interest to faculty to have renowned scholars and practitioners come in.

I think also, consistent with the Christian mission of Pepperdine, we came together to provision that ours would be a center for global justice, and that we would reach out to the farthest ends of the world or right in our own backyard in Los Angeles to help the least of these. The upshot of that was we were attracting students who literally were admitted to law schools such as Harvard, University of Michigan. Those are real cases when I say ‘such as,’ — I mean individuals who were admitted to those schools and who came to young Pepperdine because they were drawn to the mission.

We had a vision of who we were. Everyone was welcome even if they didn’t share that vision, but we were tireless in articulating the vision of who we were trying to be, and that was truly to be a center for global justice. And it was manifested in various ways through being open and, hopefully, energetic. One of my favorite parables is the parable of the talents and what happens to the poor chap with one talent. It’s not very pretty.

WACOAN: No, it’s not.

Starr: So we tried to be creative, and one of the partnerships that I continue to be very proud of is our partnership with Saddleback Church. Who would have ‘thunk’ it? A law school partnering with perhaps one of the most dynamic Christian communities in the world, and with [Pastor] Rick Warren and Kay Warren personally. That wasn’t a personal friendship. I knew Rick — I did not know Kay — but that wasn’t one person connecting with one person. We were connecting with what Saddleback Church was doing through its justice taskforce. So we tried to find those types of strategic partnerships and that, in turn, excited our students.

WACOAN: As you know, I have friends on the Pepperdine faculty, and I was really struck by the common sense of purpose among the faculty there. What did you do to foster that?

Starr: I was pretty honest when I was being considered as a prospective dean. I said the following: Given its Christian mission, this institution is poised to have a truly global impact, and we simply need to organize and then unleash our forces.

WACOAN: What has happened with that so far?

Starr: It’s still very active and vibrant, and I’m so thankful for that. We were not pioneers. We sort of hitched our wagon to important kinds of organizations like IJM [International Justice Mission]. I knew [president and CEO] Gary Haugen, but I wasn’t chummy with him, and I had never been on an IJM mission. And while I had a very inchoate, underdeveloped vision of how that might develop, at least the seeds were there. And then, what was so beautiful was I wasn’t the chief farmer. The students and the faculty started driving this to our dear friend, Bob Cochran, who had already engaged on this particular front through his creation of what is now the [Herb and Elinor] Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics.

The other thing I could try to do was to raise resources. This is not rocket science. I knew that if our students were going to go to Rwanda, if they were going to go to Uganda and India, that we needed resources. So I was encouraged by the reaction of prospective donors and friends who were really drawn to the vision of global justice. Even non-lawyers found themselves drawn to it, so, for example, the Nootbaar Institute was established with a $5 million endowment gift, which was enormously helpful. Like Baylor, Pepperdine is quite entrepreneurial in its focus, so it was my task, along with others, to go out and get that wonderful center endowed, and an alumnus came alongside and gave us $5 million dollars.

WACOAN: I moderated a panel at the conference when they opened the Nootbaar Institute. I was very impressed with the ambition of it.

Starr: Exactly, and social entrepreneurship was at the heart of that. It wasn’t simply for a profit, which is fine and wonderful, but a very strong emphasis toward social entrepreneurship, including microfinance. At every turn, I tried to encourage creativity. Even if I was not clever enough to think of the idea, I knew that my faculty, colleagues and student co-discovers could. We involved Noble Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, thanks to the creativity of my colleagues and faculty who said, ‘Let’s go develop a friendship with Muhammad Yunus.’ I wish that I had had the clever thought. I didn’t. But at least, not only did I not stand in the way, but I said, ‘You, go. We’ll figure out how to pay for the airline tickets.’

Moving to Waco

WACOAN: Coming from California, you must be facing big cultural differences. Yesterday, I was dropping something off at an overnight shipping place, and the woman behind the counter took my package and, as I was leaving, said, ‘Can I pray for you?’ I can imagine that’s not the sort of thing you heard in Malibu.

Starr: California is a more secular culture overall. At the same time, Los Angeles County has the largest single population of evangelical Christians of any county in the country. It is a very diverse place.

The social and religious culture of Central Texas is starkly different. There’s greater harmony with respect to certain manifestations of religion and public life, with the ability to pray in public. I would imagine that overall the percentage of churchgoers in McLennan County is higher than the percentage of churchgoers in Los Angeles County.

WACOAN: In terms of moving to Waco, what has surprised you?

Starr: I’m a fifth-generation Texan. I lived in East Texas. I was born in North Texas. I was raised in San Antonio. We’ve owned property in Texas in the Hill Country outside Johnson City. I got back here for vacations visiting family and friends. So there’s no real cultural adjustment. It’s rather much more a sense of homecoming, even though I hadn’t lived in Waco. But Waco is very much part of the culture of Texas.

WACOAN: Absolutely. One thing that I’ve really been struck by while living here is that I’ve never been in a place with the degree of civic involvement I see here. What do you see as your own role in the community?

Starr: Well, it was my privilege early on to become involved in the Greater Waco Education Alliance through the leadership of the now former mayor, Virginia DuPuy, a proud Baylor alumna. I wanted to help in any way that I could. I plan to mentor one or more students beginning in the fall and to encourage what is already remarkably underway. The Baylor community here on this side of I-35 is very deeply engaged, so I was very pleased when Virginia noted that over 500 Baylor students are already volunteering and mentoring. I use that as a single example of a wide swath of activities that do involve us very helpfully in the Waco community. I’ve become involved also as an ex officio member of the board of the Chamber of Commerce.

WACOAN: If you receive just half the grace this community has shown me, this will be a wonderful place for you.

Starr: Thank you. It is a wonderful place.

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