By Sara Katherine Johnson
Dr. Robert M. Baird, professor of philosophy and Master Teacher, has been teaching on Baylor University’s philosophy faculty continuously since 1968. He is retiring this spring after a career spanning more than a half century and full of many academic, administrative and service milestones.
Writer Sara Katherine Johnson sat down recently with Dr. Baird to talk about his life at Baylor and his future plans.
One rainy day, on a front porch sat a father and his teenage son. The father, a civil engineer not known for his life lesson talks, gave his son a word of advice: “Whatever you do, just be sure you pursue a career that you enjoy every day getting up and doing.”
That lesson from his father has stayed with Dr. Robert Baird ever since.
“I have loved being in the classroom,” Baird said. “There are few things more exciting to me than standing in front of a group of students, engaged in conversation.”
When asked how to describe themselves, most people begin by listing concrete accomplishments, or possibly adjectives describing personal characteristics. Baird is retiring this spring after 47 years of teaching at Baylor, and he begins talking about himself by discussing his relationships with others.
Before he talked about his students, Baird began our conversation discussing his family. With a wide smile, he bragged on his children and grandchildren. But he said his key relationship is the one he enjoys with his wife of 54 years, Alice. In fact, he said without having met her he might not have ended up where he is now.
Baird began his undergraduate years at a small school in Arkansas, and never imagined he would become a philosophy professor. Instead, after being very involved in high school politics, he planned to study law in college and was considering seminary as well.
After his first year of college, an English professor pulled Baird aside and told him that the questions he was bringing up about literature were rooted in philosophy. Because the small school did not have a philosophy department, the teacher suggested he transfer to Baylor, which he did his sophomore year with philosophy as his new major.
During his senior year at Baylor, he met Alice Cheavens and fell in love. But Alice was not a senior, and Baird did not want to go to seminary and leave her behind. He needed a way to stay at Baylor.
Since he was minoring in history, Baird knew about some good fellowship programs offered in that subject, so he went ahead and applied for graduate study. The dean of Baylor’s graduate school happened to be a member of the philosophy department, and he called Baird in and asked him –– why not study philosophy?
Baylor offered him money to stay and pursue a master’s degree in philosophy, and Baird accepted.
After a year, Baird had his master’s degree and Alice had completed her undergraduate degree. Baylor just so happened to have a faculty vacancy, and they asked Baird to stay on for a year as an instructor of philosophy. He agreed, and soon found out that he truly enjoyed teaching.
“It was the year that turned my life around,” Baird said. “I remember being so anxious for the Christmas holiday to be over so I could get back in the classroom.”
Leaving Baylor after a year for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Baird was able to follow up on his desire to study religion. After earning a bachelor of divinity degree, he pursued plans to teach by earning a PhD in philosophy from Emory University.
After earning his doctorate, Baird spent a few years teaching in Nebraska at Wesleyan University. He never dreamed teaching again at Baylor would be a possibility, but an unexpected phone call about an opening brought him back to campus in the fall of 1968. He’s been happily teaching in Waco ever since.
Baird said that among other things, philosophy professors ask their students to consider the question, “How should we live?”
“The only difference between someone who teaches philosophy and someone who doesn’t is the opportunity to focus on that question in a lifelong way,” Baird said. Some of his favorite classes to teach have concerned the history of modern philosophy, or social and political aspects of philosophy.
Baird is one of a select few Baylor faculty members who have received the designation of Master Teacher.
“I just take teaching so seriously that to be called a Master Teacher is greatly appreciated,” he said. “I really appreciate the designation, though I don’t think of myself as a ‘master teacher.’ I think of myself as a student of good teaching — I try to always improve my teaching.”
In the classroom, Baird said he has tried to emulate one of Baylor’s legendary professors.
“The model professor for me was Ralph Lynn in the history department,” Baird said. “Ralph Lynn was such a marvelous teacher. When I took courses with him I couldn’t wait to get to class. I really was viscerally sad when the class was over — that’s how good he was. There were a lot of teachers at Baylor like that (when I was an undergraduate). I think that’s been one of Baylor’s strong suits.”
One favorite memory that Baird shares is when he received Baylor’s Cornelia Marschall Smith Professor of the Year Award in 2005. What made the experience special, he said, was not only the award itself, but also the accompanying public lecture he got to deliver to an overflow crowd, which addressed the question, “Is the choice to die ever morally permissible?”
“The reason (the lecture) is such a good memory for me is because it was so controversial, but Baylor provided a framework for me to argue. And my argument was yes, it is sometimes morally permissible to choose to die,” Baird said. “Baylor was providing me a framework for advancing an argument in defense of a point of view that most people around here wouldn’t agree with.”
Baird recalled that back in his undergraduate days, Baylor was much smaller than it is now, having only about 5,000 students. Now three times as large, Baylor’s campus has grown as well with new buildings that have cropped up. Baird said the University also emphasizes research more now than it did before, and enjoys a greater racial and religious diversity as well.
“The more diversity you have, the more stimulation there is to think new thoughts and consider new possibilities,” Baird said.
During his time at Baylor, Baird served 18 years as the chair of the philosophy department. He has done extensive research in contemporary moral problems, writing essays on the nature of the self and publishing many book chapters, encyclopedia articles, books and journal articles. Through it all, he maintains that relationships are the most valuable thing in life.
“It’s what gives life its richness, its excitement and its happiness,” Baird said.
Looking back over his time at Baylor, Baird is pleased with his decision to return to his alma mater.
“There’s been a great deal of emotional satisfaction in coming back to a place and trying to stimulate students to think in new and creative ways, in a way that Baylor teachers stimulated me to think when I was an undergraduate,” he said. “There’s been great emotional satisfaction in living out my life here. I don’t even begin to think of myself in the same category as the Ralph Lynns, Bob Reids and Ann Millers, but at least those are the ideals I strive for.”
While he is looking forward to his retirement, Baird plans to keep busy.
“I will never run out of books to read,” he said. “I will also be freer to spend time with my grandchildren in California and in Michigan. That will be a priority in Alice’s and my agenda — and enjoying the relationships I have with my dear friends.”
Photo courtesy of Baylor University Marketing & Communications