Protests Arise Amid Talk of New Ties Between Medical School and Religious University

January 19, 2010

Word that Baylor College of Medicine is pursuing a closer affiliation with the Baptist university it separated from 40 years ago has prompted protests from medical students, faculty members, and alumni of the medical school, in Houston. More than 400 people have signed an online petition criticizing the move.

The petition was posted online after Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine ended their discussions of a possible merger last week and rumors began circulating that the financially troubled medical school might merge with Baylor University instead.

The interim president of the medical college, William T. Butler, confirmed in a letter to medical students and employees on Tuesday that the institution was discussing "a strengthening of our longstanding affiliation with Baylor University," a Baptist institution in Waco, Tex.

But he insisted that, unlike the arrangement the college had been pursuing with Rice, any affiliation with Baylor University would not be a merger.

Many of the people who signed the petition protesting the idea of a merger posted comments saying that the missions of a religious-affiliated university and a biomedical, research-based medical school were incompatible. Critics said that such a partnership, even if it fell short of a merger, could scare away donors, turn off potential students, and cause an exodus of top faculty members from the prestigious medical college.

In his letter, Dr. Butler suggested there was no need for alarm.

"Any new affiliation agreement between Baylor College of Medicine and Baylor University will assure that BCM maintains its independence and, importantly, its scientific and academic freedom," he wrote. "Our board is firmly committed to remaining a nonsectarian institution and continuing with our current no-discrimination policy."

The petition, which was posted before Dr. Butler's letter was sent out, contends that the university's religious mission is "incongruous" with that of the medical college.

"The religious ideologies that permeate throughout BU's academic policies may adversely affect both scientific progress and the culture at BCM, particularly in relation to issues such as evolution, embryonic stem cells, and sexual orientation," the petition states. "While we respect everyone's right to religion in his or her own life, we believe that science and medicine must be separate from religion, and urge you to reject any such merger."

Ties between Baylor University and Baylor College of Medicine date back to 1903. The medical school moved to Houston in 1943 as a nonsectarian institution that was still owned and controlled by Baylor University, Dr. Butler said in his letter. The university and medical school agreed to separate in 1969, although Baylor University retained the authority to appoint one-fourth of the medical college's trustees.

The medical college's Web site points out that the 1969 separation of the medical school from the university "encouraged broader, nonsectarian support and provided access to federal research funding."

Privately, faculty members at Baylor College of Medicine say they are already frustrated that so many people assume the medical college is part of the Baptist university.

Critics of any close affiliation say that anything that furthers that perception would hurt the medical institution.

Baylor University's interim provost, Elizabeth B. Davis, told faculty members at a meeting last week that the university, the medical school, and Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston, were engaged in discussions, but that no one from the university could comment further.

Texas Children's Hospital, which also confirmed such talks were going on, is one of Baylor College of Medicine's main teaching-hospital affiliates.