by Jesse Ross
During the 1940s, Baylor presidents Pat Neff and Dr. William White aimed to establish Baylor University as a leader and model for Christian education. However, the administrative visions of the two presidents serving during the 1940s demonstrated their additional commitment to expand Baylor’s notoriety beyond the institution’s traditional identity as a church school. During the latter half of Pat Neff’s presidential term at Baylor, he sought national engagement by establishing military training programs at Baylor and continued multiple building projects across campus. President Neff’s ambitious administrative vision met enough opposition from Baylor’s Baptist constituency that he eventually resigned in 1947. Assuming the role of Baylor president after Neff, Dr. William Richardson White also recognized Baylor’s potential to achieve grander operations. During his first few years as Baylor president, White promoted a greater spiritual life on campus, the development of more complete research facilities, the establishment of a distinguished Baylor graduate school, and advocated for a successful athletic program (Turner, 1948). By examining the rationale behind the administrative actions of Pat Neff and Dr. White during the 1940s one may notice an alternative agenda that combined with Baylor’s traditional denominational focus during this decade.
Period of Prosperity and Expansion
The late 1930s and 1940s stood as one of Baylor’s most prosperous and hopeful periods. Baylor University entered the 1940s relieved of debt and boasting record numbers for student enrollment and financial endowment. Though the distant sounds of world war grew louder, Baylor’s student body, faculty, and administration celebrated the unprecedented growth and remained excited for the school’s future (Baker, 1987). To many, Baylor’s promising growth during the 1940s confirmed the quality and integrity of the university’s religious commitment. However, the extraordinary boom of institutional wealth and notoriety also brought new and more complex issues for Baylor’s administration. This accelerated prosperity forced Baylor presidents, Pat Neff and W. R. White, to determine how the university should direct its recent success regarding its religious obligations as a Baptist higher education institution (Baker, 1987).
Since it’s founding in 1845, Baylor University carried a denominational affiliation to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Baylor’s religious foundation gave the institution a deeply rooted obligation for upholding Christian principles while fulfilling its educational mission. Throughout the institution’s history, Baylor’s leadership has espoused the Christian focus as the ultimate purpose for providing young men and women with a college education. President W. R. White once declared, “We are charged with the responsibility of developing in Baylor a great university true to the Bible and providing the finest culture in the atmosphere of a modern world” (The Baptist Review, 1951, p. 4). With a strong Baptist heritage and Christian worldview, historically, Baylor has been charged with the responsibility for becoming an eminent example of Christian education. However, Baylor presidents, Pat Neff and W. R. White, certainly tested the boundaries of what many thought a Christian university should become.
Pat Neff’s Leadership
Soon after the United States entered World War II, Pat Neff displayed his aspirations for Baylor to join the national war effort. With many Baylor students serving in the war, Neff released public statements about his position on allowing the establishment of a military training program on campus. In 1942, Neff declared, “Baylor University was desirous of cooperating in every way possible in the training of our men for active military service” (Baker, 1987, p. 193). Earlier that spring, Neff remarked, “our [Baylor’s] patriotism is not lacking; instead, it is shown in word and in deed ever day on the Baylor campus” (Baker, 1987, p. 193). Notably, president Neff realized that his decision to establish military programs on campus would meet religious opposition. Although settling his mind on the decision, Neff said, “In doing this we may be violating some of the fundamental principles of our denomination teachings, but the present war is a total war, and we are involved in it” (Baker, 1987, p. 193). He later added, “first business is to win the war. Neither the pulpit nor the pew can shirk responsibility in love and devotion to our country” (Baker, 1987, p. 193).
Picture of Baylor President, Pat Morris Neff. Found in a Baylor University Report (1980, October 24), Thomas E. Turner, Sr. papers (Box 71, Folder 5), The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
Neff’s actions to involve Baylor in the war effort stand in clear contrast to Baylor’s previous position on matters of war during the 1930s. In early 1935, the Baylor Lariat posted a Literary Digest peace poll, which reported a majority opinion of Baylor students against U.S. involvement in war (Reaves, 1935, October 9). Into the next year, the Baptist Student Union led a student peace movement, which eventually formalized into the Baylor Council for the International League for Peace (Reaves, 1936, March 25). Additionally, Baylor professor, Frank E. Burkhalter, repeatedly spoke out around campus that year on the moral depravity and corrupt political interests of war. His message connected Baylor’s Christian identity to the moral reasons for refraining support war engagement. Burkhalter found so much local support that the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) invited him multiple times to present his message at their state meetings (Reaves, 1936, April 9). The fact that the BGCT endorsed Burkhalter’s anti-war message points to the literal and symbolic similarities between their religious and moral interests regarding Baylor’s institutional obligations.
In the context of both Baylor’s unprecedented growth during the 1940s and Neff’s constant desire to extend Baylor’s operation further and higher, Neff’s spirit of support for the war uncovers an interesting administrative theme guiding Baylor during the 1940s. Considering the strong pacifist sentiment on the Baylor campus and the BGCT’s endorsement of it during the mid-1930s, president Neff’s decision to establish a military program on campus in the face of religious opposition reveals his alternative vision regarding Baylor’s commitment to Christian education. Considering his disputed decision to place Baylor on the national stage with the war effort, Pat Neff seemed willing to redefine Baylor’s religious values against war in order to progress the institution’s reputation. He even expressed his intentions to Baylor faculty by saying he wanted “clearly stated that one hundred years from now it could be known that Baylor University wholeheartedly supported the war effort” (Baker, 1987, p. 193-194). What was meant as a grand gesture for Baylor’s patriotic duty was also intended to draw historical attention and further bolster the institution’s reputation as a highly relevant university.
Pat Neff’s Resignation
Perhaps the most telling example of Baylor’s crisis of purpose during the 1940s is shown through the administrative tension surrounding Pat Neff’s resignation from the Baylor presidency in 1947. Pat Neff’s leadership is recorded by Baylor’s university website as steadfast, “dictatorial,” and devoutly Christian (Baylor University, 2015). However, early sources point to Neff’s steadfastness as a point of contention for Baylor’s administration and its Baptist constituency. Baylor’s institutional troubles of the late 1940s were “mainly a product of the changing of Baylor from a regional, denominational school into a growing institution in tune with a new world, centered largely around austere Pat M. Neff” (Turner, 1958, January 26). In fact, Baylor University shared enough ownership with Southern Baptists that a large number of local pastors and Baptist leaders became discontented with Neff’s rigid ambitions regarding Baylor’s expansion (Turner, 1963, April 24). Apparently, the Baptist community desiring a say in Baylor’s future felt ignored and disagreed with Neff’s unchecked decisions to extend Baylor’s influence and purpose beyond the institution’s espoused religious values. Eventually, the gap between Baylor and the Baptist constituency grew so wide that the opposition “gently, but firmly eased” Pat Neff out of office in 1947 (Turner, 1963, April 24).
Surely, the individuals opposing Neff’s efforts to expand Baylor appreciated his influence on the school’s prosperity and lack of debt during the 1930s and 1940s. However, the tension seemed to exist between Baylor’s accountability to Baptist concerns and Baylor’s accelerating direction toward growth and greater institutional complexity. Neff’s pioneering nostalgia for denominational higher education often pressed too far with conservative Baptists holding to a minimum vision for Baylor’s growth. This tension caused objections due to the conflicting evaluations of Baylor’s purpose as a Christian education institution. A Baylor University Report (1980) describes this troubling moment in Baylor’s history as a contentious transition “when one era was rapidly giving way to another (the pre- and post-World War II generations) and neither side was very happy with the other” (p. 9). The two sides described here were made up of those desiring strict preservation of Baylor’s Baptist heritage and purpose and those pushing for progressive expansion and a contemporary vision for Baylor.
President Neff advocated for expanding Baylor’s campus and heightening contemporary relevance. Neff’s ambitious decisions created tension with Baylor’s conservative constituents, whom remained reluctant towards Baylor’s exponential growth and frustrated with Neff’s forceful administration. In 1947, a publication of The Texas Spectator commented on Pat Neff’s resignation by emphasizing an “earnest campaign” by members of the Board of Trustees to oust Neff that had persisted through the last five years of his presidency (1947, November 17). It would take the harmonious leadership of the next Baylor president to reunite the Baylor family and ease the worries for the university’s expansion.
W. R. White’s Leadership
After Pat Neff resigned in late 1947, Dr. William Richardson White assumed the role of Baylor president on February 1, 1948. Several early sources present W. R. White as the chosen “peacemaker,” suited to mend the internal distress leftover from Pat Neff’s “stern and unyielding” term as Baylor president (Turner, 1963, p. 6). White is often named the right man for the job to salve the “interfamily troubles” encumbering Baylor’s administration at the time. Though White’s term only overlaps into the last two years of the 1940s, his early administrative work shows his intentions to guide Baylor beyond just achieving religious prestige.
Picture of Baylor President, Dr. William R. White. Image found in a Baylor University Report (1980, October 24), Thomas E. Turner, Sr. papers (Box 71, Folder 5), The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
Like his predecessor Pat Neff, White espoused grand goals for Baylor University on the eve of his inauguration. Recorded during his inauguration address, White’s immediate foci included promoting a greater spiritual life on campus, developing more complete research facilities, and establishing a distinguished graduate school (Turner, 1948). Unlike Neff, however, White chose to address the growing community desire for Baylor to build a more prominent athletic program, specifically, a successful football team. Inheriting Baylor’s decade-long success and overwhelming growth, White faced demanding implications carried over from Pat Neff’s leadership. During Pat Neff’s presidency, Baylor hosted large increases in student enrollment, ten new campus buildings worth $9,000,000, numerous additions to faculty, and an unprecedented standing with accrediting agencies (Turner, 1958). White recognized that Baylor’s success depended on its ability to accommodate this substantial growth.
White did well to marry a vision of growth with Baylor’s espoused values and religious obligations, something Neff struggled to do without causing distress. In his inauguration speech, W. R. White called upon the Baylor family to embrace Baylor’s original “two-fold purpose” … “to serve the church and state” (Baker, 1987, p. 223). With this opening address, White began his presidential term at Baylor by tying Baylor’s Christian mission to other obligations to reach culture and society with its principled influence. Similar to Neff’s visions, perhaps only articulated more smoothly and gently, White envisioned a Baylor that would transcend a narrow educational mission and reach for greater prominence in the world.
For example, White used Christian ideals to defend the improvement of Baylor’s athletic program into one of competitiveness and a winning record. By the late 1940s, community enthusiasm for Texas sports grew so rampant that it became a topic of discontent for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. A BGCT committee expressed their distaste on the matter by saying “We look with apprehension upon the overflowing enthusiasm of our people for football” (1953, Thomas E. Turner, Sr. papers, Box 71, Folder 5). Comparing the state’s community fanaticism for football with materialism and paganism, the committee also pointed out communities’ “lack of enthusiasm when it comes to the business of the kingdom of God” (1953, Thomas E. Turner, Sr. papers, Box 71, Folder 5). Seemingly, members of the BGCT opposed the growing sport fanaticism in Texas, because it distracted community members from evangelical priorities.
Recognizing the heightened emotions surrounding Texas sports, especially at Baylor, White faced this religious criticism regarding sport fanaticism by expressing his intentions to advance Baylor’s athletic programs. He not only wanted to expand Baylor’s athletic program and have winning teams, but also “to demonstrate that real Christianity is ‘not lopsided and reaches out into all realms of life’” (1948, August 15). “Football,” White later said, “is an antidote to the softness creep-ing into our way of life … It serves as an outlet for the tension of our times,” (1953, Thomas E. Turner, Sr. papers, Box 71, Folder 5). President White even expressed his desire for a “great athletic stadium” grand enough to host larger schools from across the nations (Baker, 1987, p. 224). Missing only six out of the 104 Baylor football games during his first ten years as Baylor president, White certainly proved his conviction for Baylor sports (Baylor University Report, 1980, p. 11). President White’s support for Baylor football is a good example for how he resisted religious conservatives in the BGCT in support of the growth of Baylor’s athletic programs. By doing this, he endorsed the Christian outlook as a sensible reason to expand Baylor’s role in collegiate athletics and resist being too religiously focused, or lopsided, to host a successful sports program.
Additionally, President White’s early aspirations for upgrading the new Baylor graduate school are also telling of his progressive vision. In his inauguration address, White declared his desire to improve Baylor’s graduate school to offer more advanced degrees (Turner, 1948, April 14). Days after the address, White told the Waco Rotary Club, “Since no church school in Texas has a graduate school which offers the doctor’s degree, the field is wide open and the challenge is reassuring. I want Baylor to take advantage of the opportunity” (Baker, 1987, p. 224). President White wanted Baylor to surpass of church schools in Texas by being the first Christian higher education institution in Texas to offer advanced doctorate degrees. To White, this would help Baylor surpass the other religious schools in Texas and promote it’s educational capacity at the national level.
The decade of the 1940s contained significant clues to how Baylor’s leadership envisioned the university’s duty as a Christian education institution. In multiple occasions, Baylor presidents, Pat Neff and W. R. White, expressed their ambitions to push Baylor beyond being just a religious school with a narrow, overly conservative mission in education. Throughout its institutional history, Baylor has indeed maintained it denominational affiliation to Southern Baptists along with its religious motivations to educate with a strong Christian influence. However, Pat Neff and Dr. White refused to allow Baylor’s religious focus to hold the university back from the national limelight and continual development.
As one considers Baylor’s expansion crisis during the 1940s and the modern issues facing Baylor today, one can perceive a lasting theme correlating the two eras. For example, in a recent issue of TexasMonthly magazine, Baylor’s present-day reputation as an athletic powerhouse and nationally ranked research institution is attributed to its progressive views from its head leadership within the last 10 years. As the article appropriately explains, “The paradox of a university like Baylor is that while it draws its identity from a set of values and ideas outside mainstream culture, it must adapt to shifting mores or risk becoming irrelevant” (Bartlett, 2014, p. 218). Even throughout the rest of the 20th century, Baylor struggled with the pluralism of being a Christian school while becoming reputably diverse, which was a common endeavor for protestant universities in American history (Ringenberg, 2006).
The efforts of Pat Neff and W. R. White in pushing Baylor toward prominence were driven by a practical notion. The notion was that a Christian university should succeed in all areas, not just denominational conformity, in order to bring prestige, attention and loyalty to the university. These aspects would then reinforce each other and begin a cycle that continually amplified the institution’s prosperity and resources. Though the two presidents held Baylor’s spiritual foundation in high priority during the 1940s, they both used notions of reputation, cultural relevance, and Christian prominence as means to expand several areas of Baylor and achieve it’s religious educational mission.
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White has big goals for B. U. (1948, January 23). [Clipping from an unidentified newspaper]. Thomas E. Turner, Sr. papers (Box 71, Folder 5). The Texas Collection, Baylor University.