On the move
The university’s new president combines a competitive fire with a passion for the integration of faith and intellect
by Rob Felton | firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robin Baker rarely sits still. It’s a personal trait that mirrors his life prior to his hiring in 1999 as George Fox’s top academic officer. Multiple changes of address mark his youth and early academic career. He moved so often, the last eight years he’s spent in Newberg are the longest he’s ever lived in one location.
If not for some quick action last spring by the university’s board, Baker likely would have swapped ZIP codes again. Early in the university’s search for a replacement for retiring president David Brandt, Baker was offered the presidency at a similar university in the Midwest. His family already had picked out schools for the children before the George Fox selection committee called and asked him to hold off on a final decision. Five days, two all-campus meetings, and hours of soul searching later, George Fox University introduced its 12th president.
"We almost lost him," says Barbara Palmer, chair of the board of trustees. "But the board is so pleased he felt called to stay. We believe Robin is uniquely gifted to be the leader of this university."
Baker is six feet, two inches, and 190 pounds of restless energy. His passions range from Civil War history to European soccer to opera. He owns collections of first-edition books by theologian C.S. Lewis and target-shooting pistols. He’s been an all-state athlete and a soloist with a traveling revival ministry. During his academic career, he earned a PhD in history and a reputation as a prankster. He’s a voracious reader who routinely winds down by taking a four-mile run. He’s a veteran Sunday school teacher and a sports-car buff who can out-car-talk a car salesman. Out of a five-generation family of Southern Baptists, he now leads a Friends (Quaker) university.
Growing up the oldest of three children of a high school history teacher and coach, Baker often moved from one small Arizona town to another. His father coached basketball, football, and baseball and is enshrined in the Arizona High School Coaches Hall of Fame.
As a high school athlete, Baker ran to multiple top-six state finishes as an 800- meter runner and started on the varsity football team as a freshman quarterback. Basketball was his top sport. As a junior guard, he was the leading scorer for the 1975 Flagstaff High School basketball team that went 25-0 and won the state tournament. "I shot a lot," he quips.
Sports were always a topic at Baker family gatherings. His father and two uncles worked as coaches, and another uncle moonlighted as a referee. Athletics and education run in his bloodlines. More than half of Baker’s uncles and aunts - on both sides - worked in education. His first visit to Oregon was to see an aunt who taught in Grants Pass.
Holidays often brought 30 relatives to his grandparents’ home in Chandler, Ariz. He still remembers his grandfather greeting each new arrival with a warm, "Come in this house." Raised on Southern cooking, Baker’s a connoisseur of sweet corn and fried chicken.
Baker traces his family back 200 years to Georgia, where his ancestors were Unionists. "They were always Baptists and always farmers," he says. In the 1930s, his grandfather moved to Arizona to raise cotton and helped found the Chandler Baptist Church.
"Growing up, church was central to who we were," he says of his family. "Church was really a program, not just the building." After a minimum of four hours for Sunday school, church, and Sunday evening service, the family was back Monday for evangelism-visitation night, Wednesday prayer meeting, and weekend youth events.
Baker also found time for several trips to the Santa Fe Opera, thanks to the efforts of a Flagstaff newspaper editor whose personal mission was to bring culture to local high school athletes. "We’d come over to his house and read through the libretto," says Baker, who today holds season tickets to the Portland Opera.
Off to college
Turning down an offer to play basketball at West Point Academy, Baker began a nomadic undergraduate career with ROTC and basketball scholarships at Hardin-Simmons University. After he realized military life didn’t suit him and after the coach who recruited him was fired, Baker transferred to Northern Arizona University, where he received a full basketball scholarship. He joined the Baptist Student Union and teamed up with Bob Fowler, an African-American student, to form a revival team. They led services at local churches, with Baker singing and Fowler preaching.
That summer, Baker spent four months with a missionary couple at a new church in Belize. He led Bible studies, directed the music program, and played sports with inner-city youth. He returned to the States with a desire to explore a career in ministry. He enrolled at Grand Canyon University, a Christian college in Phoenix, where his father and a couple dozen members of his extended family had attended.
Robin and Ruth
He met a woman in a Bible study he was leading. A double date flopped. "She couldn’t stand me," he says. However, the other woman on the date did show some interest. Today, Ruth Baker and he have three children: Jacob (15), Rebekah (13), and Tara (11). The family’s new home - the school’s historic Edwards House - is getting an addition to accommodate the family of five. Ruth today is a substitute elementary school teacher in the Newberg district and says she’s excited about the Bakers’ new role as the university’s first family. "Robin wants to have the whole university over," she says, and seems game to try.
After graduating in 1980 from Grand Canyon with a bachelor’s degree in political science and history, Baker decided his personal calling might be found in empowering others through education. "I see it as mission-related as what a pastor does," he says. He returned to Hardin- Simmons University to pursue a master’s degree in history. After being named the outstanding graduating student in the graduate school, he went on to Texas A&M for his PhD. His doctoral dissertation focused on the political and social factors that led the Confederate South to start the Civil War. "I find war fascinating," he says. "Why societies choose to engage in conflict that leads to massive loss of life. I want to know, ‘what’s so valuable that someone would risk losing their life?’."
Discovering C.S. Lewis
During a Bible study he led at Texas A&M, several fellow students talked about C.S. Lewis’ ideas on how faith affects a person’s view of the world. Baker read Mere Christianity and several other Lewis works. "I resonated with how he understood the world."
After completing his doctorate, Baker took a temporary teaching appointment at Wheaton College (Ill.), where a large archive of C.S. Lewis works is kept. "Lewis was prominent in the works and minds of Wheaton scholars," Baker says. "I had never thought effectively how faith connects to the rest of life. Faith had always been about the church experience and not about experiencing God in a daily walk."
When Baker’s contract ended, Wheaton history professor David Maas went to the academic dean. "I told him ‘Robin is a wonderful teacher. We’re making a mistake letting him go,’" he said. "That’s the only time in my 38 years I’ve done that. He’s that good."
Prankster and provost
Following two years of teaching at John Brown University in Arkansas, Baker returned to Grand Canyon. He took his first administrative position as dean of the College of Liberal Arts in July 1996 and six months later was named senior vice president. Jim Helfers, then the school’s dean of arts and sciences, says Baker was instrumental in creating a more unified general education program and jump started a campus discussion on what it meant to be a Christian university. Although Grand Canyon had Baptist roots, its faculty came out of many denominations. "Robin’s vision was to unite us into a diverse Christian community," Helfers says. "He helped us find our Christian identity as a school."
Helfers says Baker had a playful side that emerged less frequently as he entered the administration. "Robin’s famous jokes often involved hiding people’s personal effects at social functions," he said. "He also took the hinges off of office doors so that the door would fall in. That was a trademark of his."
Baker was also on the receiving side of pranks. One of the most notable occurred when a colleague spent an entire night building a brick wall in his office doorway. Baker could get in only by crawling through his office window.
Even as he moved into administrative roles, Baker continued to teach one or two courses a year. George Fox business professor Deb Worden says several students have expressed disappointment that Baker’s new position will take him out of the classroom. "Students say he’s one of the best teachers here," she says. "They know he cares about them."
While leading several of the university’s three-week Juniors Abroad study trips to Europe, Baker caught the continent’s soccer fever. When he addressed the faculty at a retreat this fall, he wore the red jersey of his favorite team, Arsenal of London.
Baker also is an aficionado of European sports cars, although he now grudgingly drives a hybrid sports utility vehicle for utilitarian reasons. "He loves talking to car salesmen," says his wife. After Baker - who subscribes to five car magazines - engaged in a discussion of the engine specifications of new Audi models, one dealer admitted to him, "You know more about these cars than I do. I just sell them."
Former president David Brandt hired Baker in 1999 and promoted him to provost in 2002. He describes Baker as a strategic thinker, a skilled budget manager, and a leader who will allow his managers to make decisions. Brandt credits Baker with reorganizing the university into its six-school structure, creating a faith and learning curriculum for new faculty, and initiating the Act Six urban scholarship and leadership program (see related story).
Brandt also saw a competitive fire that hasn’t faded since Baker’s days as a student- athlete. "Robin Baker has to win," Brandt says. In graduate school, Baker and his classmates would compare scores after each returned paper. "I love to make everything in some way a competition," Baker says. "It’s not enough to finish; you need to be the best."
After several years of running for exercise, Baker began entering competitive races in his mid-30s. When he first came to Oregon, he ran a road race twice a month.
"In high school, I always knew I’d finish in the top two or three," he says. "When I reached 40, there was no way I was going to stay up with the 18-year-olds. My goal changed to finishing in the top two or three in my age group. I began to redefine what it meant to win."
He applies the same lesson to his leadership. "I’m always trying to redefine winning. It doesn’t mean beating everyone. It’s different being a leader versus being a performer. As a leader, it means getting everyone involved and working toward the same goal. That’s winning."
Baker, 49, is one of the fittest employees on campus. He works out at the university’s fitness center so often that one athletic trainer calls him an "exercise addict." In April, he entered a university sponsored five-kilometer fund-raising race. As he had in previous 10-kilometer races, he finished first.
On July 1, George Fox University harnessed that immense energy. Robin Baker - now President Robin Baker - plans to keep winning.