In 2008, Daniel accepted an offer to become provost at Mercer University, founded by Georgia Baptists in 1833. He served as Mercer’s provost until 2012, when he became Mercer’s Distinguished University Professor of History.
Daniel returned to the Baylor campus on Nov. 15, 2013, to attend and lecture at a symposium sponsored by the Keston Center for Religion, Politics and Society. We took the opportunity to talk with Dr. Daniel about his days at Baylor as well as what he is working on now.
Dr. Daniel, you’ve been at Mercer since 2008. What are you involved with now at the university?
I really want to finish my career in the classroom where I started, and where I spent most of my early career. I’m very interested in a research project on a priest named Father Alexander Men. He was a major, major figure among the Russian intelligentsia who was murdered in 1990 in very mysterious circumstances.
Father Alexander left a large body of written material. I’ve gone to Russia probably 12 times interviewing people about him, and I have a book contract to write a biography on him. So, I stepped down as provost (in 2012) in order to return to the classroom and to write this research project, this book.
The deadline I have from the publisher is September 2014. I’ve written the first draft, and I’m working on the second draft now, and that’s really primary in my mind right now. That and my teaching.
Is it fair to say that Alexander Men’s story is probably known more overseas than it is in the United States?
Yes. There is one biography of him in English written by a French scholar. It’s been translated to English, but the translation is not great. This was done in the middle of the 1990s.
A lot of material has come out since then, so I want to write (the biography) in such a way that it will be appealing to Americans. I think he needs to be known in the United States.
What was the reason behind Men’s murder? Was it a political killing, or was it related to his faith?
That question I’m trying to answer. I suspect –– and my evidence is mostly circumstantial evidence –– that it was an arranged murder by political figures who are in various nationalistic camps.
Father Alexander was Jewish by birth, he was Orthodox by conviction but he was controversial and he was progressive. He was an ecumenical person and all of these, I think, came into play, that he became a target of certain political groups.
He was murdered on a Sunday morning as he was going to prepare for his Sunday service. He was murdered near his home as he was walking through the woods to catch the train to take the 20-minute ride to his parish. Two men apparently were waiting for him along that path early in the morning, and killed him.
We will certainly be looking for your book when it comes out. On a different subject, now that you are living in Georgia instead of Texas, what is the biggest difference that you’ve found there?
There are many similarities, actually. Georgia, of course, is southern. I don’t think of Texas as southern, but Mercer is a university in some ways like Baylor and in some ways unlike Baylor.
The first graduate of Mercer University was one of the three founders of Baylor, William Tryon. For many years Mercer became tied to the Baptist Convention of Georgia, as Baylor has been to the (Baptist) General Convention of Texas.
Mercer is no longer aligned with the Georgia Convention. It is independent but it maintains in its mission, its heritage and also in its administrative structure a very strong commitment to those values of freedom of conscience, of separation of church and state, of faith-based initiatives, of faith-based education.
(Mercer is) broad but it’s very sincere and very meaningful. It is heavily geared toward two elements –– toward undergraduate education like Baylor is, and toward professional education at the graduate level.
There is a medical school (at Mercer) that is very prominent. There is a pharmacy school that is nationally ranked and there is a theology school. There are 12 schools and colleges (and) as provost they reported to me, all of them. I had to stretch myself a good bit to become familiar with medical education and pharmaceutical education, but we had very strong deans of those units who were extremely helpful.
Is it fair to say that both Baylor and Mercer are a little excited about football right now?
Definitely here (at Baylor), and we sense that, we feel that and are very proud of that of course.
Mercer just revived football after more than 40 years. It ceased playing football during World War II and did not revive it. So, there are T-shirts that were printed that sold very well saying, “Undefeated Since 1943.”
At Mercer this year playing with freshman — I think of the first 22 players all are freshmen first year students except for three — the team is 9-1.
Mercer built a new stadium largely under President Bill Underwood’s direction that opened this August. It was a wonderful ceremony. The stadium is much smaller than the one you’re building at Baylor, but Mercer is a smaller school.
Finally, Dr. Daniel, is there anything about Baylor and Waco that you miss at times?
We have wonderful friends here (in Waco), and colleagues and community here that mean a great deal to us. We think about them often.
We come back (to Waco), my wife has come back more than I have but I hope to have the flexibility to do that in the future. I’ve been back four times in six years, and this is one of them.
Baylor certainly is growing and expanding, obviously not only regionally but nationally. It’s (growing) not only in football but in research, teaching and its mission. All of that is very prominent, and we’re very pleased to see it.