Love Him or Hate Him, Ken Starr Will Try to Unify Baylor

His 'outsider' status could help or hinder

Courtney Perry for The Chronicle

Ken Starr leaves a meeting at Baylor U. For the past 100 years, its leaders have had deep connections to the Texas institution and the local Baptist churches—links that Mr. Starr doesn't share.
May 16, 2010

The name Ken Starr conjures images of Whitewater or Monica Lewinsky, and many people think of him as a conservative ideologue bent on bringing down President Bill Clinton. But watch Mr. Starr here on the campus of Pepperdine University's School of Law, where he is the dean, and you'll find something very different. In person, Mr. Starr is humble, soft-spoken. He has a calm, even voice that would be a natural fit on public radio, and it's difficult to imagine him ever raising it. The polarizing former independent counsel is also disarmingly friendly.

And he has made some unlikely admirers. One of them is Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the University of California's Irvine School of Law. The two men have known each other for about 20 years. They stand on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and have debated publicly.

"Anyone who knows Ken will tell you he's one of the most gracious people you will ever meet," Mr. Chemerinsky says. "You can't dislike him, no matter how much you might disagree with him."

But for those who know him only through the lens of the media, the image of the aggressive prosecutor from the late 90s has stuck. Considering that reputation, it shocked many when Baylor University announced he would be its next president, starting June 1.

Choosing a president is important for a college under any circumstances, but more than usual was riding on this search. Baylor, a Baptist university in Waco, Tex., has seen its last two presidents leave under a cloud. The university has had more than its share of scandals in recent years. And there are unresolved tensions on the campus, many concerning Baylor's strategic plan to be a more prestigious research institution while enhancing its Christian identity.

Thomas S. Hibbs, dean of the honors college and a member of the advisory committee for the search, says there were at least half a dozen times in meetings when someone said, "We can't get this one wrong."

It's been more than a hundred years since Baylor hired someone from outside the Baylor "family" for the job. For decades, Baylor presidents have held degrees from the university, taught there, and been connected to the Texas Baptist community. This time, ­though, Baylor brought in not just an outsider but one with a charged past, and tasked him with healing the university's divisions and crafting its next chapter. But could he be just the right person for the job?

Defying Expectations

Kenneth Winston Starr is, at 63, almost impossibly energetic. His work ethic is legendary. On Pepperdine's campus, everyone says it's hard to keep up—even his twentysomething research assistant, Matt Williams: "He thrives when he has too much to do."

Mr. Starr is known for working a full day and then taking a red-eye from California to D.C. "He gets more than 24 hours out of each day," says Andrew K. Benton, Pepperdine's president.

But Mr. Starr doesn't come across as harried. Walking through the law-school building here, he greets faculty members and a few students by name. He seems to know what all of them are up to. Despite his friendliness, his conversation can be hard to follow. He sprinkles his sentences with Latin words or quotes from Ulysses S. Grant (whom he claims as a distant relation) or Winston Churchill (the source of his middle name).

There's no question Mr. Starr has had an impressive legal career. In addition to his time as independent counsel to Congress, he served as solicitor general of the United States, arguing 25 cases before the Supreme Court, and as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He was also a partner in two law firms.

Many people at Pepperdine and Baylor tell the same story: They expected an arrogant big-name lawyer, maybe a closed-minded partisan hack. Now those same people think he's nothing like that.

Mr. Starr chooses his words carefully. He avoids statements that could seem to compare the two colleges—he jokingly refers to the 11th commandment, "Thou shalt not criticize, directly or indirectly, any other institution"—or evaluate his own character or abilities. "One should not be the judge in one's own case."

Mr. Starr is, however, particularly proud of making Pepperdine Law more global and entrepreneurial. He is excited to expand both those areas at Baylor and thinks that an entrepreneurial focus will go over more easily in Texas than in California. His new state has leaders "dedicated to the proposition that Texas will grow," Mr. Starr says. "That's not a political statement, that's a government statement."

He goes on to reflect that the way the two states approach business growth is just like the parable of the talents, the story Jesus tells in the New Testament about a master who returns from a trip and asks his servants to account for what they have done with the money he gave them.

It was this obvious familiarity with Scripture—having not only memorized verses but absorbed their analogies and allusions—that first impressed Duane Brooks, a Baylor regent and pastor of Tallowood Baptist Church, in Houston, when he met Mr. Starr.

Baylor's new president is clearly a man whose faith matters to him. He grew up in the Churches of Christ, in which his father was a pastor. And he began his undergraduate career at Harding College (now Harding University), a Churches of Christ institution in Arkansas, before transferring to George Washington University to pursue his interest in public service, a move that set the stage for his highly public career.

And Mr. Starr knows that while his particular kind of fame comes with drawbacks, like the endless association with a presidential sex scandal, there are still benefits. "It was a chapter in my work as a lawyer, and you know, it was a very difficult and controversial chapter," he says, "but hopefully the top side is that when I'm seeking to work with my colleagues in development and advancement, that we might be able to get a meeting or an interview or an appointment with some efficiency, shall I say. And over all, I think the fact that I've been more on the public stage than some other folks has proven to be helpful here in our efforts to build at Pepperdine."

A New Chapter

Baylor has gotten big media attention from choosing such a well-known, and controversial, new president, but the campus is no stranger to headlines. The university's last president, John M. Lilley, was fired in 2008. His predecessor, Robert B. Sloan Jr., stepped down after a rocky tenure. And in the past decade alone, Baylor has had a string of embarrassing problems: a major athletics scandal, public struggles over its controversial strategic plan, a crop of contested tenure denials, a hushed-up book about its history, and a much-maligned offer to award more scholarship money to admitted students who raised their SAT scores.

Many at Baylor say the interim president, David E. Garland, dean of the university's seminary, has been a calming presence on the campus, but divisions remain. The university is working to become a top research institution, creating a balancing act between its traditional focus on undergraduate teaching and scholarly pursuits. The strategic plan, "Baylor 2012," emphasizes integrating faith and intellectual life, a process that is open to many interpretations. And tensions within the greater Texas Baptist community—Baylor is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas—can spill over to the university.

"My task is to identify the sources of concern over the past and ensure that we as a community do everything that we can to create the mission statement's vision of a 'caring community,'" Mr. Starr says. "But I think what is so redemptive is the love and passion for Baylor as an institution. It's an institution with a very proud tradition and a very earnest desire to see a new chapter."

Mr. Starr has never been a college president, nor was he looking to be one. He didn't have a particular desire to leave Pepperdine and has taken some ribbing over leaving Malibu for Waco. But when Mr. Starr was approached about the job, he was intrigued, especially because he believes the two universities share a common and appealing approach to Christian education.

Changing Minds

Mr. Starr's tenure as dean at Pepperdine Law School, his position since 2004, is widely considered a great success. Pepperdine has darted up the U.S. News & World Report ranking of law schools, climbing from No. 99 in 2005 to No. 55 in 2010. It's an achievement any number of faculty members and administrators there take with a grain of salt—many of them are no fans of the rankings—but one that clearly matters to some of their students.

Mr. Benton, Pepperdine's president, estimates that Mr. Starr has raised at least $20-million for the law school. "At Pepperdine, all fund raising begins with friend raising," Mr. Benton says, "and Ken is a pre-eminent friend raiser—a friend raiser with a remarkable Rolodex of friends and contacts."

That skill set can only be appealing to Baylor. The strategic plan calls for a $2-billion endowment by 2012; it currently stands at $1-billion and change. Baylor has made progress on some of its goals to enhance research—opening a fancy new science building and planning an ambitious research park. But increasing the endowment is clearly going to be a priority in the years to come, and Mr. Starr's national name recognition could be a big help.

Mr. Starr describes himself as an "encourager." He likes the metaphor of making decisions at a round table, and was pleased to learn that the conference room where Baylor's Executive Council meets comes equipped with a literal one. He says his role as an administrator is finding the money to enable faculty members and students to pursue ideas they are excited about.

Darryl L. Tippens, Pepperdine's provost and Mr. Starr's direct boss, says that he has "energized" the faculty, increasing professors' scholarly output, encouraging them to hold and attend conferences. He has also brought in talented new hires. All of this has spread Pepperdine's name far beyond its beautiful but secluded campus in the cliffs above the Pacific.

Mr. Starr is popular with the law-school faculty, which is not to say there were no questions about how his appointment might paint Pepperdine. Mr. Starr had first been selected to lead the law school back in 1997, at a time when he believed the Whitewater investigation was winding down. But there was an outcry over the independent counsel's leaving an unfinished investigation, so he postponed his start date. Then his investigation spread to Mr. Clinton's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, and it was clear he wouldn't be coming at all.

So by the time Mr. Starr went through a second search, was selected again, and arrived in 2004, he was pretty happy to be on the campus. Not all the faculty members were as happy to have him. Pepperdine has worked to shake its reputation as a very conservative law school, and some professors doubted that Mr. Starr would be much help in that regard.

One professor, Tony McDermott, would not go to Mr. Starr's interview. He even considered retiring. But then his son decided to attend Pepperdine Law, and Mr. McDermott stayed. "I remember the first day, Tim, that's my boy, and I came walking in from the parking lot," he says, "Ken came over, shook our hands, said hello. He never held it against me."

Later, Mr. McDermott was surprised to see Mr. Starr take on, pro bono, the case of a death-row inmate. In the end, he says, having Mr. Starr "was good for Pepperdine in many, many respects."

Probably the most contentious time in Mr. Starr's tenure at Pepperdine was the debate over California's Proposition 8, the measure to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. The issue was troubling for the law faculty, says Shelley Ross Saxer, a professor of law and former associate dean for academics. A professor had been approached to appear in a pro-Proposition 8 advertisement, and agreed to do it. The Pepperdine community held a variety of opinions on the measure, and some chafed at this suggestion that they were all in agreement. Things cooled down a bit after the proposition passed.

But then the faculty learned that its dean would be arguing on the side of Proposition 8 before the California Supreme Court. Ms. Saxer and Douglas W. Kmiec, a Pepperdine law professor and U.S. ambassador to Malta, decided to write an op-ed piece. They argued that the state should get out of the marriage business, give everyone a civil union, and leave the rest up to religious groups. Their article received national attention and even came up in the court case. But, both professors say, it did not hurt their personal relationships with Mr. Starr. Ms. Saxer's children call him "Uncle Ken."

The Baptist Question

Baylor's search and advisory committees gave a lot of thought to the implications of hiring the man who investigated Whitewater. But there was another big question about his candidacy: Mr. Starr did not belong to a Baptist church, and Baylor's president is expected to be an active member of one.

Mr. Starr said he would join a Baptist church if he got the position, but the committees had lots of questions about his faith.

Not only was Mr. Starr raised in the Churches of Christ, but Pepperdine is affiliated with that denomination, and he attends church on that campus. Mr. Starr, however, still considers McLean Bible Church, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, his home congregation, and is comfortable in that kind of large, active, nondenominational environment. He and his wife, Alice, still have a home in McLean and remain involved in some of the church's ministries.

On the spectrum of Protestant groups, the Baptists and the Churches of Christ aren't too far apart. Their main theological division concerns the importance of believers' baptism by immersion, which both practice, says Mikeal C. Parsons, a professor of religion at Baylor. Despite the similarities between the two denominations, many people at Baylor and in the Texas Baptist community have been reassured by Mr. Starr's connection to McLean Bible. It shows he "has gone beyond that particular expression and experienced a larger world of Christianity," says Mr. Parsons, who was on the advisory committee and whose department is unusual at Baylor in requiring its faculty members to be Baptists.

Not only does Mr. Starr see similarities between Christian education at Pepperdine and Baylor, he can describe it in language steeped in Baptist tradition. "Both institutions really deeply honor individual freedom, conscience, and what in the Baptist tradition is called 'soul competency,'" he says. "I'm also a great admirer, and have been, of the Baptist tradition of religious liberty. ... I try to be a serious student of the founding, and Madison's views about freedom of conscience were shaped at least in some measure by Baptist minister John Leland. There's a growing body of scholarship that has helped us understand why Mr. Madison came to the views he did in Anglican Virginia."

During Mr. Starr's interview, Mr. Parsons asked questions about his faith and found the answers satisfying. "There are still issues that are going to have to be dealt with, there are going to be those sixth-generation Baptists who are going to say, How can this person be the president?" he says. "But in terms of dealing with it substantively, I couldn't see any reason that would disqualify him from consideration."

For his part, Mr. Starr says it would be odd to lead Baylor without joining a Baptist congregation, and he plans to select one before starting the job in June. "McLean Bible Church is still our home church," he says. "It could easily be McLean Baptist Church. So theologically, I'm very comfortable."

What he lacks in Baptist heritage, Mr. Starr makes up for in geography: He frequently mentions being a "fifth-generation Texan." He was born in Vernon, a small town near the Oklahoma border, and grew up in San Antonio. He has extended family in the state and owns land there. The job opening at Baylor was "a potential call to return to the home of my ancestors."

2012 and Beyond

As "Baylor 2012" nears the end of its shelf life, thoughts on the campus are turning toward the future. No one expects Baylor to back down from its heightened Christian commitment in the classroom or to scale back its research ambition. But the way these goals are approached could change with new leadership.

Mr. Starr has said repeatedly that his plan for the first year is to listen and learn. He has avoided delving into many specifics about his plans for the university's future, and some faculty members at least find that comforting. When he gets to Waco, Mr. Starr says, his No. 1 task will be getting to know the place better. "A lot of it is going to be rolling up the sleeves and sitting down with people with my yellow legal pad and my razor-point pen, having the different communities and stakeholders share with me what they would share and then be able to ask questions and to probe," he says.

When it is time to make a plan for the future, a process likely to begin within months of his start date, Mr. Starr says he wants to find consensus. "Everyone should come to the conversation, assess where we have been, where do we want to go, but one thing I think is a given, and that is to honor the great tradition of undergraduate education," he says. "That is at the soul of what Baylor University is. That this is a transformative experience for individuals leaving the nest of the home when they're 17 or 18 or 19 years of age and really finding out who they are and what their sense of calling and vocation in the world is."

Not everyone at Baylor is quite sure yet what to make of Mr. Starr's appointment. Many are excited, some remain skeptical. But nearly everyone is ready to give him a chance. "There seems to be a genuine, nigh unto universal commitment to have everyone rowing in the same direction," Mr. Starr says. "And I sensed that almost from Day 1—please, let us not only come and reason together, but let us move forward. And that was at the heart of the attraction."