Changes at Baylor
The 171-year-old university fired its football coach and demoted its famous president today. Will that be enough?
For the majority of Baylor’s seventeen-decade-long existence, the Baptist university built along the Brazos River in Waco mostly kept to itself. The private institution, a bulwark of Christian ideals and philosophies, inspired the kind of fierce devotion often enjoyed by small colleges and universities, but few people outside of those who spent their formative years at the university, paid attention to the school. And Baylor rarely captured the nation’s interest (though it did famously generate headlines when it finally lifted its ban on dancing, in 1996).
Yet during the past decade or so, Baylor’s national prominence has shifted radically. It has scaled up its ambition—to become a top-tier university, to have a nationally ranked football program, to build state-of-the-art facilities on its once-sleepy campus. In short, Baylor has grown at an unprecedented rate.
With that explosive growth has come some great pains. Today, after a sexual assault scandal that has been unfurling in the public eye since August 2015, when a former football player, Samuel Ukwuachu, was convicted of raping a fellow BU student, Baylor fired head football coach Art Briles and demoted Ken Starr, the university president and chancellor, who became a household name after his investigation precipitated the impeachment of U.S. president Bill Clinton.
For months, Baylor has been under increased scrutiny as questions have swirled about what school administrators knew about sexual assault allegations involving its students. An independent firm was investigating the school, and people watching the news were waiting for its findings.
All of that came to a head this week, when a late-night report from Chip Brown, a University of Texas writer for HornsDigest.com, a sports news site dedicated to UT, indicated that Baylor’s board of regents had voted to fire Starr as president of Baylor. Brown broke the news with reports from unnamed sources early on Tuesday, May 24, and for hours the report stood unrefuted. Local and national media called Baylor offices and administrators to ask if Starr was still president, getting answers ranging from “as far as I know” to “I can’t answer that question” until, finally, the school communicated via a press release that it “will not respond to rumors, speculation, or reports based on unnamed sources.”
It was a testy and somewhat confrontational response, but Baylor’s statement briefly put a lid on the simmering pot that had national outlets like the Washington Post and ESPN reporting the item about Starr—which turned out to be wrong. Yet things seemed to boil over in the next 48 hours, and by Thursday morning, reports out of Waco were saying that not only would Starr be ousted from his position as president, but that Briles, the exalted head coach who had transformed Baylor’s football program from an afterthought to a national power, would also be fired.
It wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen. After Ukwuachu was convicted last year, Starr sent out a press release that, while lamenting the woman’s suffering, declared that “By God’s grace, we are living in a golden era at Baylor University.” He wasn’t wrong about that, at least if you look at the things the school had achieved since 2002, the year that the school’s administration unveiled its “Baylor 2012” vision for the university’s future.
That ten-year plan was intended to bring Baylor “into the top tier of American universities, while reaffirming and deepening its distinctive Christian mission.” The school scaled up its focus on research, big-name faculty, and sports. It tripled its tuition between 2002 and 2016. It took on unprecedented debt—building a $266 million football stadium, a $103 million sciences building—in pursuit of its ambition to enter that top tier of schools, to become the Baptist Notre Dame.
Putting up state-of-the-art buildings gives people plenty to look at, but those buildings also cast shadows. The story of Baylor’s growth and success often eclipsed increasing reports of sexual assault that went well beyond Ukwuachu. Tevin Elliott, a defensive end who joined the Baylor Bears in August 2009, was convicted of sexual assault in 2014. Face-of-the-franchise player Shawn Oakman, who joined the team in August 2012, was arrested earlier this year on charges of sexual assault; according to a subsequent report, Oakman had been accused of assault back in 2013. Reports surfaced that allegations against Tre’von Armstead and Shamychael Chatman, two other football players, weren’t investigated by Baylor for two years. But sexual assault allegations weren’t only levied against football players—stories continued to spill out involving students involved in the fraternity system, the tennis team, engineering, architecture, and more.
Through it all, Baylor’s response was institutional silence. Starr spoke only through press releases issued at curious times—just before kickoff on Super Bowl Sunday, in the midst of Baylor’s annual “Late Night” festivities—and Briles and athletics director Ian McCaw addressed only friendly media, responding to questions about the sexual assault problem at Baylor with context-free claims like “we constantly address [sexual violence]” and “we have a zero-tolerance policy [for the issue].”
At the moment, McCaw still has a job. According to yet another press release issued by Baylor, he faces “probation” and “sanctions,” while Briles is “suspended” pending his final termination. Starr, meanwhile, has been relieved of his duties as president, remaining on as chancellor and taking on an unspecified role at Baylor’s law school.
In a statement released today, Starr wrote:
It must be known, however, that I was not privy to any of the allegations regarding interpersonal violence until the Fall of 2015, at which time I immediately launched an internal investigation before recommending to the Board an independent external investigation, which the Board then commissioned with Pepper Hamilton.
Statement from Baylor President Ken Starr. pic.twitter.com/6vtqseYlPD
— Vincent Harris (@VincentHarris) May 26, 2016
The external investigation to which Starr refers came about following the media firestorm that was kicked off upon Ukwuachu’s conviction. Baylor retained the services of Pepper Hamilton, a law firm out of Pennsylvania that specializes in offering consulting and recommendations to colleges and universities facing issues around sexual assault on campus. Pepper Hamilton’s reputation hasn’t always been sterling—it has come under fire in the past for an approach that’s left survivors of those assaults feeling less-than-acknowledged—but in the case of Baylor, based on the findings of fact released today, the firm appears to have done a very thorough job of confirming things that we’d learned of through our own reporting on the matter.
Based on information released today, the report also explains why Briles lost his job, even as the entire university has problems around sexual assault. According to the findings of fact:
In addition to broader University failings, Pepper found specific failings within both the football program and Athletics Department leadership, including a failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player, to take action in response to reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, and to take action in response to a report of dating violence.
The failure to identify and respond to patterns in the football program has long been troubling—it’s at the heart of a lawsuit against the university by one of the victims of Tevin Elliott—and Pepper Hamilton’s report is consistent with what multiple sources told Texas Monthly in the winter of 2015 and spring of 2016 about Baylor, Briles, and the football program. More broadly, the report noted that there are “significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of athlete misconduct” and that Briles’s leadership “created a cultural perception that football was above the rules,” because “in certain instances, including reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, athletics and football personnel affirmatively chose not to report sexual violence and dating violence to an appropriate administrator outside of athletics. In those instances, football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or a parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct.”
It should be noted that Briles’s replacement is reportedly Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, the same coach who, two months before Ukwuachu was convicted of rape, announced that the player was expected to suit up for the 2015 football season.
Findings from the report are also consistent with information we’ve learned that questions the way other administrators and Baylor staff have handled assault allegations. According to Pepper Hamilton, “administrators engaged in conduct that could be perceived as victim-blaming” and “perceived judgmental responses by administrators based on a complainant’s alcohol or other drug use or prior consensual sexual activity also discouraged reporting or continued participation in the process” were among the failures. But if someone is being held accountable for the behavior being outlined here, we don’t know who it is.
Pepper Hamilton also notes that the Baylor University Police Department “contributed to, and in some instances, accommodated or created a hostile environment,” but the measures taken to put an end to that are currently a mystery.
When Baylor’s board of regents held a conference call for media, officials refused to answer our specific questions about changes at the Baylor Police Department, instead hewing to their established talking points.
These are difficult concerns to address, and in Baylor’s 171 years, it largely didn’t have to answer questions like these. But as the university has grown in the past 10 years, it is now finding that with increased power and visibility come increased vulnerability and scrutiny, and Baylor, at this point, has to decide whether it’s a small, sleepy school on the banks of the Brazos or if it still intends to be large, influential force of higher education in America. If it’s the latter, then it desperately needs to learn best to respond to issues like the ones it continues to face.