Baylor's Ambition - and Response to Tragedy ; as Athletic Scandal Roils the School, Many Question Colleges' Direction and Quest to Be Richest, Biggest, Best

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Moving south through Waco, the Brazos River turns from shallow rapids to flat pools, then a glassy stillness as Mustang grapes drop from low-hanging vines. Here on the riverbanks, stately oaks stand among red-brick buildings, giving Baylor University a genteel air. And as students returned to campus this week, they reveled in their home, walking the expansive quad with a lazy lope.

But amid eager reunions, hugs, and high-fives, an unsettling question lurks: How much has changed?

The murder of a student athlete this summer, evidence of corruption in the school's basketball program, and calls for President Robert Sloan's resignation have vaulted this respected but somewhat parochial Southern Baptist university into a place it's never been: the center of a national scandal. Now, the tidy lawns and columns are bearing witness to sorrow, confusion, and faith- testing questions, all in the context of unfathomable tragedy.

Most here view the death of basketball player Patrick Dennehy as an isolated incident, the result more of human frailty than institutional failure. Still, Mr. Dennehy's murder, mixed with clear evidence of wrongdoing in the athletic department, has prompted many to question their school's direction.

Like many schools nationwide, Baylor has striven for the cachet - and cash - of a top-tier reputation for athletics as well as academics and research. But the downside of that hard-won stature is seen when missteps of athletic scandal - or worse, tragedy - tarnish a school's image, as happened, too, at the University of Alabama and Iowa State University this spring. And at Baylor, tragic misteps have illuminated a struggle larger, even, than corruption within the athletic department: They've brought out a battle over the rightful mission of the university.

"Dennehy's death has been a terrible drain on everyone," says Stan Madden, a marketing professor and former head of public relations for the university. "We are a culture of inquiry here, so people are going to go over it again and again until they resolve it in their own minds."

Like most of the Baylor community, Mr. Madden watched the scandal unravel on TV this summer. When Dennehy's teammate Carlton Dotson was charged with the murder in mid-July, Madden was vacationing in Colorado. Soon after, he learned with the rest of the country that the basketball program had illegally given players gifts and scholarships.

Believing most of the story had been revealed, Madden learned a few weeks ago that coach David Bliss was secretly recorded asking players to say Dennehy earned his funds by selling drugs. The news was surreal. "It hurt everyday," says Madden. "It was like cutting a dog's tail off a little bit at a time."

Sophomore Shannon Wihlborg followed the scandal over the radio and through her parents' friends, who called after each revelation. But the news did not surprise her. "The spirit of God isn't in a lot of what's going on here," says the Katy, Tex., native, who became a Baptist a month after enrolling at Baylor.

The unethical use of money in the athletic department, she says, is an extreme example of the school's turn toward becoming a bigger, richer, more competitive institution. …