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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 02/18/2010

President Ken Starr? Yes, at Baylor

By Valerie Strauss

Most university presidents have risen to their posts after long careers in academia, sometimes working in relative obscurity on arcane subjects far below the public’s radar.

But this week, there was an interesting break in the pattern.

Kenneth W. Starr, the former independent counsel who investigated president Clinton during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals--and who released an explosive report with parts so sexually explicit that they were called pornographic--was introduced as the new president of the largest Baptist university in the world.

Starr, a former U.S. solicitor general who led the $40 million-plus independent counsel investigation of Clinton, is leaving his job as dean of Pepperdine University Law School in California to head Baylor University, in Waco, Texas. The selection by Baylor’s trustees was unusual; the flagship university of Southern Baptists traditionally is led by a Baptist, and Starr was never a member of that church. (He told a newspaper in Waco that he plans to join a Baptist church when he arrives.)

Curious about what kind of university president Starr would make, I asked journalist Michael Weisskopf, who co-authored the 2000 book “Truth at Any Cost: Ken Starr and the Unmaking of Bill Clinton,” which chronicled Starr’s investigation and prosecution of Clinton.

Weisskopf said the selection was interesting on a number of counts.

Starr grew up in San Antonio as part of a family that belonged to the fundamentalist Church of Christ. As president of his high school senior class, he was charged with planning the senior prom. He did, but was unable to attend because his religion banned dancing.

For most of its nearly 170-year-old history, Baylor did not permit dancing either, though the policy was changed in 1996.

Weisskopf said that while Starr is deeply religious, he will, perhaps surprisingly, “bring an air of secularism” to the institution.

“In the Washington context he was thought of as being a religious fundamentalist, but to Baylor he will bring an air of worldliness,” he said. “He is very literate and has an extremely broad reach in history and literature.... The intellectual standard he brings will be very hard.”

Starr is also, Weisskopf said, a “fine manager” who is able to win extreme loyalty from his staff.

But any student caught drinking on campus or violating a Baptist rule can expect no break from Starr.

“He is a very strict adherent to the established norms,” Weisskopf said. “I don’t think it serves the truth to call him an absolutist... but whatever the rule is you can expect him to comply with it.”

Starr was also extremely secretive during the Clinton prosecution and cared not at all about how the public perceived him or how others characterized him, he said.

“He doesn’t believe in the need to put on a good face as long as you are doing your job,” Weisskopf said.

This is one university president that will be interesting to watch.

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 18, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  higher education  
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