Shock. That was my response when a mid-February email from a former Baylor regent arrived with the news that well-known special prosecutor Kenneth Starr had been tapped as the next president of the university in Waco, Texas.
Reading it a second time, it still appeared to say that this polarizing political figure — the independent counsel who relentlessly dug into President Bill Clinton’s relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky — would be leading the world’s largest Baptist University in need of reconciliation between various factions.
As the news spread over the next couple of days, several calls and emails came asking what I would be saying about this matter — and when. But there seemed to be plenty of public comments from high praise to strong condemnation — all coming from moderate Baptist leaders who typically share opinions.
On one hand Starr was described as a brilliant and effective leader, currently holding the deanship of Pepperdine University Law School in California. On the other hand, his selection was lambasted as a move that would further divide Baylor or, worse, take the university down the road to far-right conservatism.
There was nothing really for me to add. And, while I have visited Baylor several times and count many friends among the alumni, faculty, staff and supporters, my relationship to the university is not as an insider.
For Texas Baptists, being an insider seems quite important. In that regard, Starr is half-credentialed: a native Texan but not a Baptist. However, he quickly assured all Baylorites that he would have his name on a Baptist church roll by the time he takes the helm on June 1.
So why speak now?
Well, I caught Starr on MSNBC last night speaking out against the efforts by Liz Cheney and others to paint current Department of Justice lawyers as terrorist sympathizers — even dubbing some as the “al-Qaeda 7.” The charge is based on the attorneys’ earlier representation of terrorist suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay.
Starr was animated and passionate in arguing that legal representation for all persons is essential to the American justice system. He pointed to John Adams’ unpopular decision to represent British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre — ensuring that the process worked fairly for all.
He condemned the recent depiction of Justice Department lawyers as terrorist sympathizers as “out-of-bounds characterizations.”
While host Lawrence O’Donnell commented on the beautiful Malibu backdrop, neither he nor Starr made any reference to the upcoming move to Waco. But I couldn’t help but wonder if Starr’s appearance was a way of seeking to soften his image before the broad and conflicted Baylor nation.
Was this just a coincidence — or a public effort to show a side other than the one that made him well known?
I don’t know. But come June 1, there will be a lot of people waiting and listening to see what kind of president will lead Baylor into the future.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.