Since the race-related events of last summer, institutions across the nation have been reckoning with their historic racism, urgently attempting to wipe the stains from their histories. But few institutions have taken the time to consider the deeper issues of the human heart. This semester, Baylor has modeled an institutional response to histories of wrongdoing that is guided by Christian faith and teaching.
On June 26, 2020, Baylor’s Board of Regents passed the Resolution on Racial Healing and Justice. This resolution acknowledged Baylor’s historic connections to slavery and assembled the university’s first Commission on Historic Campus Representations. The commission was made up of faculty members, alumni, current undergraduate and graduate students, and top Baylor staff. These members met regularly for months to investigate Baylor’s historic connections to slavery and discuss a proper response.
Mark Rountree, Chair of Baylor’s Board of Regents explained the Biblical motivations for establishing the commission. First, he cited Esther, explaining that the Board of Regents considered action necessary “for such a time as this.” Second, he cited James’ instruction that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.” Mr. Rountree explained that the commission delayed immediate action but allowed ample time for thorough consideration. He claimed that this progression was necessary because “reckoning must proceed reconciliation.”
The conversation series represents an important achievement worth celebrating. While few will take the time to scrutinize the 98-page report, the panels provided an approachable, inclusive avenue for the Baylor community to honestly consider its history and discern the right path forward together.
The first panel discussed the institution of slavery in America. The second panel considered slavery in Texas and Baptist communities. The third panel covered Baylor’s own connections to slavery.
In her opening remarks, President Livingston explained, “These will be conversations that address difficult subjects. Subjects that are painful and about which there are disagreements. However, we are committing ourselves to practicing civil discourse and open dialogue for the sake of reaching a place of mutual understanding and healing.”
The first two panels provided helpful context for understanding Baylor’s fraught history. The panelists discussed the centrality of slavery to the nation’s founding. Both northern and southern universities benefitted economically from slavery, and nearly all university founders were complicit participants in this culture.
The panelists confronted issues directly, refusing to shy away from uncomfortable realities. They pointed out that evangelicals share culpability, since few supported the full inclusion of African Americans in civic life, even if they opposed slavery.
The final panel discussed Baylor’s specific connections to slavery. All three of Baylor’s founders were Baptists who owned enslaved persons. Other important leaders during Baylor’s early years also owned and supported the Confederate cause. Baylor’s original campus located in Independence, Texas even served as a training ground for Confederate troops.
During this final panel, the speakers reflected on the grief they experienced as they processed the history of their beloved university and its founders, who never repented of their wrongdoing.
Alicia D.H. Monroe, a member of the commission and the Board of Regents, explained that Baylor’s Christian mission necessitates a reckoning with its history of wrongdoing. She explained, “We can come together in a divided society and have conversations about things that are very difficult.” Further, she said, “Because we believe in Christ and because we speak the truth in love, we could do this work. And, it would not only be transformative for us individually and for us as the commission, but ideally, we could be an instrument of God’s grace.”
The final panel also considered the appropriate response to the commission’s findings. President Livingstone explained that Baylor plans to adhere to a plan of “addition rather than subtraction” to address its past wrongs. This “addition” strategy will mean presenting a more complete view of Baylor’s history throughout different venues.
“It is a testament to the importance of telling truth, of asking for forgiveness, and of reaching out to others impacted by the institution of slavery in fulfilment of our Christian mission and in keeping with our Christian witness.”
Specific additions may include new required courses for students, updated plaques for statues, and a more thorough explanation of Baylor’s history at Line Camp, on the university website, and during campus tours. Gary Mortensen, commission member and Dean of the School of Music, emphasized Baylor’s ambition to hire and retain diverse faculty and commented that the last hiring classes have been the most diverse in university history.
The recommendations of the panel and the full report come from a place of careful scholarship and Christian faith. As President Livingstone described during the first panel, “The end goal . . . is to foster an environment of racial equality in which all students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of Baylor know they are valued and loved throughout the reaches of the Baylor family.”
No doubt, changes will be made at Baylor. But, the way Baylor has handled its history reminds us that listening is a necessary and difficult precursor to productive and meaningful change.
The long work of listening has enabled Baylor to make appropriate changes that are grounded in prudence and aimed toward real progress. And, the work of listening has been transformative for the panelists themselves. Many of the panelists commented that they felt their Christian faith strengthened through the process of listening.
The work is not complete, but the efforts of the commission, panel, and report are meaningful steps for Baylor. As President Livingstone explained, “It is a testament to the importance of telling truth, of asking for forgiveness, and of reaching out to others impacted by the institution of slavery in fulfilment of our Christian mission and in keeping with our Christian witness.”
Faith VanVleet is a Junior from Houston, Texas. A University Scholar, she focuses on International and Slavic Studies. She works as an English Teacher for Magic Ears Online ESL for students in China and enjoys playing the cello and piano in the Baylor Campus Orchestra along with learning French, Russian, and Polish.