Houston Baptist University has invited its various constituents to a town hall meeting to “discuss the name of the University.” The notion of a possible change is now the hot topic du jour. As both a loyal alumnus and a member of the marketing staff (University Communications) I wanted to offer my perspective, and perhaps address a few of the fears and misconceptions that have surfaced.
First, let me state my support for a name change. Even though a new one has not been proposed, I think the move will mark a positive turning point in the history of the institution by allowing it to be more effective in its mission while—despite rumors—maintaining its Baptist identity in the ways that matter.
THE SAME MISSION, A BETTER EXECUTION
Some alums have expressed anger that the University is abandoning its values for money or higher application rates. While these things are an expected and welcome side-effect, the accusation is simply unfounded.
Anyone who knows Dr. Robert Sloan or has read the Ten Pillars vision—authored with the assistance of Dr. Hunter Baker—should know that the centrality of Christ in higher education is the guiding principle of the University’s leadership. Every change that has been made in the last six years—enhancing student life, restructuring the curriculum, constructing buildings, adding/subtracting programs, etc.—has been done with the long term effectiveness of the University in mind. Effectiveness is what translates a written “mission” into realized impact.
Dr. Sloan is widely recognized as a bold visionary precisely because he is unafraid to lift faith to its rightful place in academia. Moreover, he rejects the notion that this should be relegated to meager, secluded liberal arts colleges. This is what made Sloan so effective at Baylor, which now enjoys a stellar reputation. Yet, he was criticized there for taking the school in a more conservative direction. To say he is “selling out” reveals an ignorance of Sloan’s character and the University’s true mission. HBU is undergoing incredible changes because of an aggressive vision for transformative growth and influence. While change is often bittersweet—moving forward requires leaving some cherished things behind—I encourage alumni to consider the untapped potential of HBU and open themselves to new possibilities.
Of course, this is not simply about Dr. Sloan or the Ten Pillars vision. Discussions of changing the name have been buzzing around for many years. Early in the school’s history there was always the possibility of a major donor, and as Sloan was being invited to take the helm in 2006, new considerations were being taken very seriously. The only reason the idea is finally going public is because the University is reaching a new horizon and attempting to develop a national reputation. The big question is whether “Houston Baptist” is the brand we ought to build on.
The problem is that, while the mission of the University holds just as fast to its Baptist heritage and its own historical roots as ever, the current name does not reflect the true nature of the institution. “Houston Baptist University” implies three inaccuracies: (1) that it is a school for, of and by Baptists, (2) that it is primarily a school for Houston residents, and (3) that its curriculum may be oriented toward vocational ministry. In fact, the University has a very ecumenical approach that is welcoming to ethnic, cultural and theological diversity; it desires to “recruit for national influence”; and its curriculum and program offerings are quite broad. The false impressions created by the name make it more difficult for HBU to reach and engage its target audiences. One of the several reasons for this is…
LIKE IT OR NOT, “BAPTIST” HAS BAGGAGE
In order for the University to improve its quality, reputation and influence—which I assume most supporters of HBU want—it must have a “brand” that is inclusive and free of baggage. Though many do not want to admit it, the word “Baptist” raises hurdles.
Such an explicit denominational display turns away many potential students, donors, sponsors, faculty and staff—many of whom, like me, are faithful Christians. This fact has been backed up by both experience and empirical research. A perfect example is the high school student who walks up to the admissions table at a college fair and says “Oh, that’s what HBU stands for… well, I’m not Baptist, but do you know where the Baylor table is?”
The data shows that while most Houstonians can recognize the name, they know nothing else about it. HBU is associated with Baptist education, not quality education. Thus, the University’s ability to attract non-Baptist involvement is severely deficient. But this isn’t just about making non-Baptists feel more welcome; future students of all denominations would be well-served by a University that is gaining greater recognition for excellence.
I can share a personal anecdote. In my junior and senior year I attended several of out-of-state seminars and conferences, and applied to a number of graduate schools. In each case I faced an obstacle in the name of my alma mater. With “Houston Baptist University” on my name tag, people were immediately skeptical, supposing that I might be an undereducated fundamentalist with a biased and narrow perspective. Of course, these stereotypes can be overcome, but they are an impediment, and in some cases the first impression is all one gets. As someone heavily steeped in the discourse of politics and economics, it is important that people view my education as credible and unbiased. A name change will allow students like me to introduce themselves on neutral ground, giving them a better shot at their top-choice fellowships, internships and graduate programs.
I think HBU has incredible potential to offer something that is truly one-of-a-kind in the world. The University will soon be the only Christian institution of higher learning in a major metropolitan location, offering a liberal arts core, a broad set of majors, Masters and Doctoral programs and NCAA Div 1 athletics. On top of that, new developments are underway to expand and revitalize the campus and community. Great things are in store for all who support the mission of HBU, but we must be forward-looking enough to see the great blessings that lie not just behind us, but on the road ahead.