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
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. …