Baylor fires second president in as many years

The Baylor Board of Regents announced today that President John Lilley has been fired for “failing to bring the Baylor family together.” In two years of what was supposed to be a unifying presidency following the tumultuous Sloan years, Lilley managed to further alienate faculty, students and alumni alike.

Lilley’s firing is anything but a surprise. It’s been more like watching a family pet limp toward death. You just wish somebody had the guts to pull the trigger. Lilley has been inching, and in some ways sprinting, toward the exit ever since he took office in January 2006.

The final blow for most was his unilateral tenure denial of forty percent of eligible candidates in the spring, many of whom where highly decorated campus fixtures. Two open-forum Q and A sessions for faculty and students did little to quell the insurrection and actually managed to make people more angry. Lilley later recanted his decision, approving all but two of his previous nine rejects. 

This decision helped the mood on campus slightly, but naysayers were quickly given another reason to hate on Lilley. In May, he unveiled a plan to create a new all-purpose-logo and eliminate the use of the interlocking BU. Petitions, Web sites, and factions of displeased Baylorites sprung up with such vigor that Lilley found himself backtracking once again, this time to keep BU on football helmets.

Perhaps what’s most interesting in this whole development is that Lilley could have spared Baylor (and himself) a slew of bad publicity by taking a most generous deal from the board. The university’s press release reads:

“The Board had hoped to transition to a new president gradually, officially beginning the presidential search in January 2009 and eventually replacing Baylor President John M. Lilley during the final portion of his five-year contract. Because plans for a gradual transition were rejected by Dr. Lilley, the Board will immediately seek a new president.”

Sources tell me that Lilley had been offered this deal in some form or fashion since February, but instead of working with the board on a graceful exit, he hired legal counsel. As one reader on the WacoTrib.com put it, “[Lilley] once again put himself above what was good for Baylor.” I can’t say it any better than that. Meanwhile, former provost Dr. Randall O’Brien fled Waco for Carson-Newman College in Tennesee on July 8, where he will serve as president. Talk about a smart man. O’Brien jumped ship just in time, all the while proclaiming, “Baylor is flourishing under the leadership of President John Lilley,” in his exit speech.

Lilley clearly was not interested in saving the Baylor name from another run in the mud. Had he taken the deal, we wouldn’t have to see headlines that read “Another Baylor President Fired” Instead they would say “Lilley completes contract.” Sure, the undercurrent for insiders might tell a different story, but our dirty laundry wouldn’t be aired on a national stage. 

And honestly, what was Lilley hoping for? His contract ran through 2010. Was he really looking for a renewal? Realism is clearly not his strong suit, but this is a new level of delusion, even for him. Besides the more obvious squabbles on campus, there were subtle hints of his departure straight from the man himself.

At graduation, I listened to his speech with more than usual alacrity, hoping to catch a whiff of concession. The rumor was he would be “resigning” within the week. He gave only a small indication of trouble afoot, instructing graduates with a pointed finger “not to let anyone steal your joy.” An interesting point to make at a graduation, with a stadium full of promising careers and youthful idealism.

Speculation about the next president is already in full-swing. Harold Cunningham, former chair of the board and current member, will serve as acting president for a “brief period,” the board claims, while an interim is selected.  I’d like to make my picks for a permanent replacement.

A few ground rules that guided my selections, which aren’t very different from those proclaimed by Howard Batson, chair of the board, are below.

–Proven leadership skills. Lilley came with a lot of baggage from University of Reno, in Nevada, which included a climate of fear among faculty members. Sound familiar? Let’s do our research, people. [For a satirical news story straight from Reno click here]

–A relevant degree (not music, which Lilley had, or theology, which Sloan did). We need a candidate who has proper training in administration.

–A good schmoozer. No more of this awkward speaking style and reclusive nature. It may seem like a superficial quality but after the past two years of a president who was MIA most of the time, it’s a necessity.

–An inside hire. Baylor can be a tricky political landscape to navigate, and merely graduating from here doesn’t prepare one for the task. We need to select a qualified candidate who possesses the above qualities and doesn’t require a briefing on the implications of Baylor 2012.

My choices, in alphabetical order are as follows:

Drs. Diana Garland and David Garland

Think of these two as the Baptist version of the Clintons—all the intelligence and power and none of the controversy. This power couple, who are the respective deans of the school of social work and George W. Truett Theological Seminary, has published books and won grants with such regularity their reputation precedes them nationwide. Locally, they had great rapport with faculty and know students on a personal level. The only drawback of putting these two in Pat Neff Hall is that they won’t be able to rake in the dough through grants.

Dr. Frank Shushok

A Baylor grad and an administrator here since 2001, Shushok has launched a remarkably successful housing campaign to bring students back on campus. As the dean of student learning and engagement, Shushok is literally on the ground with the student body everyday and would bring a level of connection to undergraduates that no one else can.  Additionally, he is well-liked and respected amongst his colleagues. Shushok can scarcely walk down the street without meeting and greeting a host of people by name.

William Underwood

Why did we let this guy go? A proven leader and former dean of the Baylor Law School, Underwood launched his presidential career at Mercer from his interim position on the Brazos. An extremely intelligent man and a proven unifier (think mastermind of New Baptist Covenant) with serious connections (former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), Underwood offers a nice combination of Baylor background and outside experience. 

NOTE: a version of this post is on the Baylor Lariat’s Web site here