Amid heartache and scandal, Baylor seeks return to normal

Updated: August 22, 2003, 11:23 AM ET

WACO, Texas -- In ways, it's hard to tell that anything is different at Baylor University as a new school year dawns.

Sophomore Heather Stark still glides down a tree-shaded campus street on skates, seemingly oblivious to the half-dozen television news trucks that line the sidewalk.

"I think people are acting pretty much normal," the 19-year-old says.

Nearby, Ashley Jacobson joins other freshmen in devouring barbecue, corn on the cob and chocolate cookies at a welcome picnic held by President Robert Sloan, who refers to trying times for the nation and Baylor but never specifically mentions the heartache and scandal that have rocked the university in recent weeks.

"We are here for you and your families and let's just have a good time tonight," student body president Jeff Leach tells students and parents at the Thursday night picnic, assuring them no one is under any obligation to speak to the media who have crashed the event.

Still reeling from the slaying of basketball player Patrick Dennehy and the ensuing revelations of major NCAA violations in the basketball program and an attempted coverup by former coach Dave Bliss, Baylor seeks a return to normalcy with the opening of the fall semester Monday.

Attempting to move forward, the Big 12 Conference school scheduled a 2 p.m. CDT news conference Friday to name Valparaiso coach Scott Drew to take over its beleaguered basketball program.

As students move into dorms and unpack their belongings, however, the world's largest Baptist university can't escape the shadow over the campus.

It's evident in the war of words that has erupted between dueling factions of professors -- some who support Sloan and others who have seized on the basketball scandal as just the latest evidence of what they label a failed eight-year administration by the former Baptist pastor. Opponents plan to seek a no-confidence vote on Sloan when the faculty senate meets Sept. 9.

But Sloan reiterated Friday that he has no intention of stepping down.

"Quitting is not the way to approach problems," he said on the CBS "Early Show." "I think you have to face problems squarely. At a place like Baylor, we face them with faith and courage and integrity and conviction and move on."

Sloan declined to comment on a lawsuit filed Friday in Houston by Dennehy's father, Patrick Sr., alleging that university officials conspired to cover up information about his son's death and concealed illegal activities within the athletic department. Dennehy was found dead in a field July 25, shot twice in the head. Former teammate and roommate Carlton Dotson, charged in his murder, remains jailed in Maryland.

Beyond the divided faculty and bitter feelings by Dennehy's relatives, the shadow over Baylor is evident in little ways, too.

The father of a freshman approached faculty member Ellie Caston, an old friend, at a Wendy's restaurant in Waco this week and pulled her aside, she said. Concern showed on his face.

"Are things OK at Baylor?" the man asked.

"Absolutely," Caston replied.

Despite the ongoing signs of turmoil, many students and parents say the summer saga hasn't shaken their faith in Baylor.

Joel and Michelle Jacobson drove about 1,000 miles from Apple Valley, Minn., to bring their daughter, Ashley, to Baylor. She plans to major in forensic science.

"We figure, as far as the murder goes, that was pretty isolated," Michelle Jacobson said. "It was between individuals."

As for problems with the basketball program, Joel Jacobson said, "We've seen that at all different schools. It happens."

Gary Kreder, a 37-year-old Baylor seminary student studying to become a pastor, said he sees the recent events as just the latest challenge for a 158-year-old university that survived the Civil War and, later, civil wars between conservative and moderate Southern Baptists.

What happened with Bliss could happen anywhere, he said.

"When you have people that make poor choices, it doesn't matter what they're doing or where they're living at the time," he said.

Still, Kreder acknowledged, such actions reflect on the institution as a whole. He likened Baylor's problems to recent high-profile corporate scandals: "If it's somebody at Enron or whatever, it may be one person, but then it's a reflection of the whole corporation."

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