Proposed Baylor governance changes fall short, town hall participants insist

Tony Pederson (right), a Baylor Line Foundation director, journalism professor at SMU and former editor at the Houston Chronicle, moderated a town hall meeting about Baylor University governance reform. Participants from Bears for Leadership Reform included (left to right) Liza Firmin, Randy Ferguson and John Eddie Williams. (Photo / Ken Camp)

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WACO—Governance changes Baylor University’s board of regents will consider Feb. 17 fall short of the drastic action needed to ensure accountability, enhance transparency and restore trust after a sexual abuse scandal, representatives of Bears for Leadership Reform told a town hall meeting in Waco.

“It’s time for us to take major reform steps and not just baby steps,” said John Eddie Williams of Bears for Leadership Reform—a nonprofit group of alumni and donors created last fall to demand greater openness by the university’s regents.

“We think there is a cloud hanging over the university. We don’t have answers. The way to heal is to have full transparency. … The root of all this is lack of leadership, and we believe there need to be changes in leadership.”

Not willing to hold donations ‘hostage’

However, Williams—a major donor to Baylor, for whom the school’s football field is named—emphasized his unwillingness to withhold gifts or ask others to escrow funds until regents implement the changes the reform group desires.

“I have no desire to hold the university hostage,” he said. “We’re not going to call for anybody to do anything to harm Baylor.”

Even so, Williams reported, he knows one donor who planned to leave $25 million from his estate to Baylor who wrote the university out of his will.

About 150 people attended the Feb. 15 town hall event sponsored by the Baylor Line Foundation, successor to the Baylor Alumni Association.

Williams, former regent Randy Ferguson and alumnae Liza Firmin from Bears for Leadership Reform responded to questions posed by Tony Pederson of the Baylor Line Foundation, a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University and former Houston Chronicle editor, and by members of the audience.

Regent participation

Baylor Statue 200Three alumni-elected regents—Dan Chapman, Wayne Fisher and Julie Turner—attended the town hall meeting, along with two other regents, Mark Rountree and Jennifer Elrod. However, they did not participate in the discussion or respond to questions.

Regent Chair Ron Murff did not attend but released a brief statement after the town hall concluded: “We understand the need for continuous improvement. That’s why on Friday, the board will consider the adoption of a slate of previously publicized recommendations that will address how the board does its business and what it shares with the public.” 

The recommendations, developed by the board’s governance review task force, include proposals to increase the size of its executive committee and grant voting rights to regents who represent certain constituencies. Regents already have implemented one task force recommendation—to create an expanded website with board information. 

Representatives from Bears for Leadership Reform affirmed the board for creating the website and posting information on it, but they characterized the actions as inadequate.

Alternative governance proposal

Calling for a more thorough reform process, Williams said. “If self-perpetuating regents have gotten us into this situation, and private meetings have gotten us into this situation, then it’s time for a change.”

In mid-January, Bears for Leadership Reform presented its own governance proposal, which calls for 10 regents elected by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, 10 elected by Baylor alumni and 10 elected by the full membership of the board of regents, with one each elected by the “B” Association board, the Baylor Bear Foundation board, Student Congress and the Faculty Senate. All 34 members would have voting privileges. 

Under the reform group’s proposal, regents would conduct most of their business in open sessions, and the board would not require regents to sign a nondisclosure agreement. During the town hall, members of the Bears for Leadership Reform panel repeatedly referred to the inability of board members to respond freely to questions.

“The chair ought to speak for the board, but the regents ought to be able to speak for themselves,” Ferguson said.

Call for Baylor to set high standard

During questions from the audience, at least two individuals asked why Reagan Ramsower, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Baylor, still is employed—queries that drew applause. Among his other duties, Ramsower oversees the Title IX office and the Baylor police department, which was accused of covering up complaints of sexual violence and failing to respond appropriately to reported incidents.

Former Gov. Mark White, who was in the audience, pointed to the benefits of open meetings at state agencies and state universities.

Governing boards of private universities are not required to conduct open meetings. In fact, the “best practices” recommended by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges include urging private schools to close their board meetings to promote robust dialogue and discussion.

However, White urged Baylor to follow a higher standard.

“Why doesn’t Baylor come out of this debacle with the best leadership and the best moves to change our governance, so others can say: ‘See what Baylor did? Let’s follow them’?” he said.

Williams called on the five regents who attended to communicate the concerns voiced at the town hall to the board.

The day after the town hall meeting, the Baylor Line Foundation issued a statement: “Although Chairman Murff has stated that the regents will hold meetings to discuss governance reform after they vote; we ask that they, instead, enter into that dialogue now with the Baylor family before making final decisions that will affect our beloved university.

“We ask that the regents who attended or watched last night’s event passionately advocate for delaying tomorrow’s vote in order to begin holding town hall gatherings like the one we hosted last night. We would be happy to help facilitate those meetings to try to find some middle ground between the BOR and Bears for Leadership Reform proposals.

“Clearly, the life of Baylor, as we know her, may depend on this decision. Surely those responsible for her future will want additional input before voting on something of this magnitude.”

Editor’s Note: The article was edited at 1 p.m. Feb. 16 to add the last three paragraphs, immediately after the Baylor Line Foundation released its statement.

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