St. Neff: Christian Leadership in Higher Education

Pat M. Neff, 1939 Photo Courtesy of Baylor Texas Collection
Pat M. Neff, 1939
Photo Courtesy of Baylor Texas Collection

 

St. Neff Christian Leadership in Higher Education

It is easy to remember the past in bright and vibrant detail, reliving the events larger than they were and elevating the deeds of ordinary men to saintly status. Baylor University is no exception to this practice. Some in the Baylor community remember the past with nostalgia, distorting things from how they really were. Through critical examination of Baylor’s history, the truth minus nostalgia is more visible. President Pat Neff is one example of such nostalgia. Most know Neff as the President who rescued Baylor from financial turmoil during the Great Depression. For his actions Neff is immortalized in the Baylor skyline. Consequently, Neff is remembered for great deeds that he may or may not be responsible for. The problem in this practice is that it is not true to history or to the man himself.  Thus, it is important to study Neff as an entire person, rather than elevating his most noteworthy deeds into heroism. However, this is not an attempt to portray Neff in a negative connotation.  A balanced approach is necessary for a better understanding of the man as a whole. Therefore, this essay will examine Neff’s leadership as it relates to religion. Specifically examining Neff’s personal religious conviction to lead Baylor by Christian principles. Also, studying the way Neff uses religion as a platform to raise funds to aid Baylor in her recovery from The Great Depression.

Part One: Principled Leadership

As a leader Neff has a flair for the dramatic and a tendency for verbose speeches in a broad range of topics. One address in particular illustrates this trait with great clarity. On November 16, 1933 Neff delivers the speech known as, An Epoch Making Chapel Service. The purpose of the speech, according to Neff is to, “ rededicate and reconsecrate Baylor University to the faith of our fathers” ( Neff, 1933, p. 5). The intent for rededication is due to student conduct involving hazing and drunkenness on campus (Neff, 1933, p. 5). Incorporated in the speech is Neff’s resignation from office, which he hands to the Board of Trustees who are present at the Chapel Service. Though extreme in his methods, Neff used his authority at Baylor to mandate new policies to the student body. He specifically addressed hazing, alcohol use and student compliance.  At the time of the address President Neff has been away from the student body dealing with the financial state of the University.  In his address Neff takes responsibility for the conduct of the students in his absence.

“I feel, however, in making that statement, that I probably feel this morning like a father must feel who devoted his time to make money to the neglect of his children. In working with the financial side, I fear I neglected my children here at Baylor, and more than anyone else, I am responsible for the derelictions of certain students, and the conditions that now confront the Institution” (Neff, 1933, p. 6).

It is not safe to assume whether or not Neff actually views himself as a father to the student body, but it may be inferred that he is concerned for their conduct. Before handing down strict behavioral mandates to the students, Neff makes a key remark indicating his belief in spiritual character.

“Baylor Must stand for something besides scholarship. We must build our scholarship on character. The path of life is strewn with tragedies because during school days a blemished character was developed. If Baylor does not stand for something besides that which students get out of books, then there is no justification for its existence.  Character must be rated higher than curriculum. Our intellectual mechanics may slip a cog, but our moral dynamics must hold, or the value of the University goes to its ignominious doom.” (Neff, 1933, pp. 5-6)

In these statements Neff clearly defines the importance of high character over intellect. From these statements, understanding the strict principles Neff holds students to becomes more evident. Neff moves into his new policies on page seven of the address, outlawing hazing and alcohol consumption, demanding obedient chapel attendance, and finally, student respect for authority. Expulsion from the University is the punishment for violating any of Neff’s policies. At the peak of Neff’s address he calls eight students by name, expelling them instantaneously from Baylor (Neff, 1933, p. 9). After expelling the guilty Neff urges the remaining student body to stand with him in cooperation of the new policies concerning student character. While eliminating problematic students from the student body is seen as a good thing for Baylor, Neff uses religion as a tool to keep students in compliance, as is evident through the mandates he passes down in chapel.

In this way Neff uses religion to shape character in an authoritarian manor. Limiting greatly the voice of the student body and creating an environment compliance based on the fear of expulsion. Neff may have felt responsible for the actions of the student body as their self-appointed “father”, but the fashion in which he uses religious principles to discipline the student population at Baylor do not always reflect practices of the Christian faith.

Part Two: Christian Charity  

Neff may be strict, even repressive in his leadership over the student body, yet he is benevolent in the way he leads Baylor in regards to finance. Neff’s charitable actions are witnessed in two areas, charity for the student and charity for furthering Baylor as a whole.

Neff’s presidency at Baylor places him in the middle of America’s Great Depression. Most Americans in this era experience some degree of economic struggle, this reality is true of families attempting to send their child to college. Neff helps relieve some of the financial burden through creative tuition substitutions and putting students to work on campus. Proof of his creativity is found in correspondence to Miss Lonnie Lackey, the assistant cashier at Baylor in 1933. “Dear, Miss Lackey: This communication is to advise you that Winifred Alcock is to be given work to pay for one-half of her tuition. The other half will be paid by her father in flowers and shrubbery to be planted on the Baylor Campus (Lackey Letters).” Neff’s acceptance of flowers and shrubs in place of tuition helps the student and the University in a time of need.

Neff provides another form of tuition relief to students who help work as Chapel Markers. Nineteen students were awarded thirty-dollars towards their tuition in return for services rendered in Chapel (Lackey Letters). In these ways Pat Neff uses charity to benefit the students of Baylor University. However, Neff does help Baylor find funding in other ways as well.

In another act of creative funding for Baylor during the depression, Neff capitalizes on an opportunity for free books from the state library. In correspondence with John Johnson of the Supreme Court Library, Neff accepts a number of texts at no charge to Baylor (Johnson Letter). This happenstance is an example of Neff capitalizing on an opportunity that in turn benefits the entire student body in the form of academic resources.

Thinking more externally, Neff also engages the Baptist Church in search of donations to help Baylor recover from financial loss. He accomplished this by way of what is known as the Greater Baylor Campaign. The mission of the Greater Baylor Campaign (GBC) is to eliminate the Universities debt through charitable gifts (TGBC, 1932). The GBC begins in the hands of President Brooks in 1928, Neff inherits the GBC as a result of Brooks’ death. Due to the Depression charity became a rare occurrence. Neff takes to fundraising, in order to avoid Baylor having to pay their debts themselves (TGBC, 1932). He experiences success by writing letters, admonishing those who pledged funds to pay whatever amount they could afford (TGBC, 1932).

Neff praises his own efforts in the Epoch Making Chapel Service, boasting a $165,000.00 reduction in operating expenses (Neff, 1933, p. 6).  Though he boasts in his own accomplishment, there is no denying that Neff’s efforts to lower debt were successful. By way of charity to the individual student and seeking charity from the Baptist Church Neff makes a sizeable contribution to Baylor in the form of financial leadership. Neff’s charity towards individual students is an admirable practice that likely provides great financial relief in a time of struggle. Yet, his campaign engaging the Baptist Church is more likely to have contributed to the reduction in debt from 1932-1933.

Conclusion

            A fierce dichotomy exists in the way Neff uses religion to lead Baylor University. In his rule over students Neff is a strict disciplinarian, leaning more towards repression than actual leadership. This is apparent in the mandates he decrees in the Epoch Making Chapel address. As the self-appointed patriarch to the students of Baylor University, Neff employs religious principles to keep students in an acceptable state of conduct. Therefore, coming across as manipulative and a repressor of the student voice. Conversely, Neff leads Baylor financially through Christian charity and benevolence. Creating innovative tuition substitutions to relieve financial burdens, while also campaigning the Baptist Church and their members for pledges made to the University in years prior.

Thus, Neff appears as an incongruent leader after critical evaluation. He does with more or less religious ideals, but they conflict depending on the arena of interest. To students Neff presented himself one way and to the external environment he became someone entirely different.  To the student body he is remembered for his commitment to strict discipline, yet on the individual level he exercised a great level of care. Which is why it is important to examine the man as a whole, taking of the rose colored glasses and seeing the man as he truly was. President Neff is only one man in Baylor’s history with both positive and negative influences to his credit. Using Neff’s words against him, “presidents may come and presidents may go, but Baylor University goes on forever. Baylor’s growth and glory do not depend on any individual” (Neff, 1933, p. 4). Neff is correct, Baylor will continue on despite the leadership of a president. Therefore, remember Neff as the man he is, not a Saint elevated above others in the rich history of this University.

 

Reference Sheet

 

Nash, J. M., (October 31, 1932) First Baptist Church Heights. (Document showing the amounts of support given by the church to Baylor) Pat Neff Collection, The Texas Collection at Baylor University, Waco, TX.

 

Neff, Pat M., (November 9, 1933) John Johnson Correspondence. (A letter from Neff thanking Mr. Johnson for a donation of books from the state) Pat Neff Collection (#0643 box 38) The Texas Collection at Baylor University, Waco, TX.

 

Neff, Pat M., (November 16, 1933) An Epoch Making Chapel Service. (Neff’s speech to the student body and subsequent resignation) Pat Neff Collection (#0643 box 36) The Texas Collection at Baylor University, Waco, TX.

 

Neff, Pat M., (March 9, 1933) Lonnie Lackey Correspondence. (Various letters regarding tutiton from Neff to the assistant cashier of Baylor) Pat Neff Collection (#0643) The Texas Collection at Baylor University, Waco, TX.

 

Neff, Pat M., (October 1, 1932) The Greater Baylor Campaign. (Neff’s appeal to the churches and individuals who had pledged money to Baylor) Pat Neff Collection (#0643 Box 15) The Texas Collection at Baylor University, Waco, TX.

 

 

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