Based solely on his brief tenure, Ken Starr might reasonably conclude that one of the annual summer duties of a Baylor University president is scrambling to preserve the Big 12 Conference.
On May 31, 2010, Starr, the former federal judge and Clinton antagonist, pulled into the driveway of the Allbritton House, the official president’s residence of the roughly 15,000-student, private Baptist-affiliated institution here. He took office on June 1. The next day, he found himself in Kansas City, Mo., negotiating the preservation of the conference as two universities, Nebraska and Colorado, broke away.
If that was a 400-meter dash, Starr said, this summer had been a marathon. Texas A&M University’s effort to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference threw the future of the region’s major athletic conference — which also includes the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma and Texas Tech University — in turmoil, and century-old rivalries in doubt.
While the larger universities would be picked up quickly by other major conferences if it came to that, Baylor would risk getting left behind — a potentially devastating blow to its prominence and prestige. In the last major conference shake-up, in the mid-1990s, Baylor’s interests were protected by powerful alumni: Gov. Ann Richards and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. That luxury no longer exists.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we’ve been in crisis mode for about six weeks,” Starr said.
Athletic conference instability has easily been the most significant struggle of his first year, Starr said. Otherwise, the unlikely Baylor president has thrived beyond expectations — something that even those who opposed his appointment happily concede.
To put it mildly, Starr’s reputation preceded him. Most famous for the Whitewater investigation and his lead role in the Monica Lewinsky melodrama that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Starr remains a divisive figure in national politics.
“I had some very serious misgivings when the announcement was made that he was going to be the president,” said former Gov. Mark White, a Baylor alumnus and a Democrat. “How happy to know that I was totally wrong.”
Another alumnus, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he worked hard to keep an open mind, and he has reached a similar conclusion. “It is a universal assessment that his first year has been a success,” Watson said.
Starr does not care much for talking about himself. When it comes to his current day-to-day duties, he said the notable trials of his past were “an irrelevancy.”
“I tend to look forward and not in the rearview mirror,” he said. “That was a specific set of duties that came my way.”
For those involved in Baylor’s presidential search, concerns about Starr’s political baggage arose “right off the bat,” said Buddy Jones, an Austin lobbyist and chairman of the Baylor Board of Regents. But they quickly evaporated.
“After we said, ‘No way, but we’ll give him an interview,’ we literally fell in love with him,” Jones said.
The regents had hoped to find a “Baptist Superman,” Jones said. As an evangelical Christian brought up in the Church of Christ, Starr did not technically fit that bill. He has since joined a Baptist church in Waco.
Starr, the former dean of the law school at Pepperdine University, the Church of Christ-affiliated school in Malibu, Calif., said he would not be as drawn to running a secular university. He said he worried about “ignoring the spiritual dimension of humanity, which too much of higher education does.”
Baylor has largely been spared the upheaval that has recently shaken the state’s public universities, which have been at the center of a politically charged debate that has questioned their mission and the value of academic research.
“We do have the advantage of knowing who we are,” Starr said. “We don’t have an identity crisis. We don’t have to have great debates over, ‘What is this all about?'”
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SOURCE: Texas Tribune – Reeve Hamilton