WACO — 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?’”
He said accessibility was the most significant challenge facing higher education. Like the public institutions, which are suffering from declining state appropriations and placing an increased financial burden on students, independent colleges must build new models for fundraising in an effort to keep costs down, he said.
While government plays an important role in higher education, especially in financing research, Starr said, “that can only be a part — and I think perhaps even a diminishing part — of what is the engine that’s driving higher education.”
“It now has to come from the extended family,” Starr said.
Shortly after taking the helm, he began an ambitious campaign to raise $100 million over three years to boost the university's endowment. Nearly $35 million has already been secured — in part because of Starr’s national stature.
“This has been very biblical,” he said. “How did the ancient Israelites build the tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai? Well, they all pitched in, as opposed to looking to some rich member of the community to do everything.”
This collaborative sensibility informs Starr’s approach as an administrator. Jones characterized him as a “uniter and a peacemaker.” White said that after reaching out to every corner of the Baylor community, Starr — Baylor’s fourth president or interim president since 2005 — “is on the way to healing those deep wounds that have existed” among alumni, faculty and previous Baylor administrations.
Starr’s communitarian philosophy also extends to the athletic conference struggles. “A conference at its best is a collegial group of folks who, like a family, if you have a conflict, you try to work your way through those,” he said.
In April, the remaining 10 members of the Big 12 Conference signed a television contract with Fox Sports worth more than $1 billion, and Starr said he thought the conference was stable. In a rare moment of self- congratulation, he noted that Baylor agreed to equal revenue sharing, though an unequal distribution scheme would have redounded in its favor.
“We weren’t looking for a bouquet,” Starr said. “We were trying to build this institution called the Big 12.”
But then A&M decided it wanted out, in part due to rival UT’s lucrative Longhorn Network deal with ESPN. Starr said “legitimate and serious issues” were raised, but were being worked through as a conference.
“To say it was a disappointment would be a vast understatement,” he said of A&M’s decision.
Baylor responded by refusing to waive its right to sue until it could assess its potential damages, effectively forcing A&M to stay in the Big 12 Conference for a short time. But in recent days, the trend lines have begun favoring the outcome Baylor has pushed for: a preserved, stable Big 12 Conference — with a new institution brought in to replace A&M, which recently announced that it would indeed be moving to the SEC on July 1, 2012.
Starr hopes not to revisit the issue next summer, but instead to be able to focus on university building initiatives. “I’m not a legacy person,” he said. “I just don’t want to foul it up.”
No matter which teams Baylor (off to a 2-0 start this season) ends up playing, when a football game begins at Floyd Casey Stadium, do not look for Starr in the president’s box. He is more likely to be found running out on the field among the Baylor Bears.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the recent official announcement that Texas A&M would move to the SEC on July 1, 2012.