Editorial: Regents must open up for Baylor to thrive once again

The dome of Baylor University's Pat Neff Hall gleams brighter after the board of regents decided morality is more important than football victories. (Photo: “Baylor University” by Danny Huizinga CC by 2.0 via Flickr)

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Two months ago, when Baylor University’s sexual assault scandal blew wide open, the Baptist Standard editorial’s headline read: “Baylor places values ahead of victories.

knox newMarv KnoxThe university’s regents deserved praise for making hard decisions to remove President Kenneth Starr and to secure the departure of Coach Art Briles and Athletic Director Ian McCaw. During their tenures, Baylor enjoyed tremendous success, most notably the exploits of the Bears’ football team. Calling for their heads required courage, as well as commitment to Baylor’s ideals.

The regents also deserved praise for selecting David Garland, professor of Christian Scriptures and former dean at Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary, as interim president. Garland’s long and impressive career, faithfulness among Texas Baptist churches and abiding integrity leave no doubt he will lead the university to implement the corrections recommended by the Pepper Hamilton law firm, which investigated the scandal. Even more significantly, Garland will help Baylor repair its spiritual failings, which enabled the scandal.

Predisposition toward secrecy

But now the regents’ longstanding and lamentable flaw—their predisposition toward secrecy—threatens to undermine the sunny optimism of that headline. The regents’ impenetrable shroud of secrecy will prolong Baylor’s agony.

For years, the regents have functioned so covertly, the National Security Council could take lessons. They hold closed meetings. They share only the information they want others to know, framed in the way they want others to know it. And they hold each other to a level of zip-lipped secrecy that induces fear and compliance in any regent who might think others have a right to know what’s going on.

To be fair, the regents must maintain a level of confidentiality—particularly in regard to some legal and personnel matters, as well as the safety and security of students. But the regents’ default mode is to ramp secrecy far beyond the range of reason.

Sometimes, perhaps often, their secrecy undermines Baylor and the regents themselves.

Notorious example

The university’s sexual assault scandal is the most obvious, notorious and painful example. The regents steadfastly refuse to disclose the “report” provided by Pepper Hamilton at the end of its exhaustive investigation into sexual assault at Baylor.

In fact, the regents say they cannot release a report, because Pepper Hamilton provided only an oral recitation, not a printed document. This is a dodge, of course. Pepper’s attorneys are capable of typing. They prepared their verbal report, and lawyers being lawyers, you can bet they read from an extensive manuscript. They could produce a written report as quickly as one person can press a “shift” and a “send” key.

More ominously, the regents say the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act—FERPA—forbids them from presenting a report. They also say, justifiably and believably, they do not want to identify the sexual assault victims, neither purposefully nor inadvertently. But these are straw men. They could redact a report sufficiently to pass FERPA muster and also protect victims. No reasonable person wants to violate the victims or put them through agony. But reasonable people have a right to know specifically how Baylor failed those victims.

Collectively short-sighted

Give the regents the benefit of the doubt; they believe they are upholding their fiduciary duty by declining to be transparent about sexual abuse. For a group of people who obviously are smart and successful, they can be collectively short-sighted.

They would have benefited by including a public relations professional among their ranks. A conscientious PR person doesn’t succeed by “spinning” information, but rather by helping the public know all they need to know to make informed decisions. A wise PR person realizes the public imagination is far worse than the truth about 99 percent of the time. And a Christian PR person working in a faith-based context (a) recognizes the responsibility to tell the truth and (b) affirms the obligation to respect the rights of the constituency by providing them with the truth.

Unfortunately, the regents are not receiving—or listening to—wise public relations counsel. Consequently, the distrust created by years of secrecy has welled up to levels not seen recently. Ironically, the nation’s sportswriters are the champions of institutional ethics, providing the steadiest drumbeat for reporting and transparency. Baylor won’t get past its suspicious constituents (who love the university) or dubious sports fans (who may only be out for blood) by issuing denials and effectively saying: “Trust us. We know best.”

Issue a redacted report

The Baylor regents would serve their university best by instructing Pepper Hamilton to issue a report and to make it public. Pepper could work with the Department of Education to ensure the report passes FERPA muster and thoroughly protects the victims.

The report should address several questions, among others:

Who in the athletics department—football coaches and other staff—knew about sexual violence and failed to report it according to Title IX regulations?

The university can’t expect others to believe simultaneously that it places “values ahead of victories” and that only Briles and two football staff—and no coaches—knew about the sexual violence.

Who along Baylor’s Title IX chain of command and elsewhere in university administration failed to follow up on reports and complaints of sexual assault?

Even if the regents believe, for purposes of legal liability, they cannot name names, they still should be more forthcoming. They should at the very least report the numbers of staff—both in athletics and elsewhere in the university—who failed the victims. And if some of them are coaches, they should be fired now. As Garland told the Waco Tribune-Herald: “If you have sexual assaults, it’s unacceptable. I don’t care if we go 0-12, we cannot have sexual assaults.” A major key this football season is coaches, and a coach who failed to report sexual assaults doesn’t deserve to stay on this season in order to preserve wins.

What did Pepper Hamilton learn about the regents and/or the regents’ structure that needs to be changed?

Pepper’s recommendations state Baylor needs to “resolve current governance issues at the executive council and board levels.” The recommendations also address “actual or perceived conflicts of interest … and due diligence standards in the selection of board members.”

“A plea for Baylor”

These requests come from someone who loves Baylor University and who, even though not an alumnus (except “by choice” from Truett Seminary), long has felt part of the “Baylor family.” Without a doubt, my number is legion—both among actual alumni and among Texas Baptists and others who admire Baylor and want only the best for the university.

To be sure, the sexual assault scandal does not define Baylor. Yes, football got too big for its britches And university leaders failed to take sexual assault seriously, perhaps naively wishing “it couldn’t happen here.” But reasonable observers know Baylor’s core identity far transcends this awful sin, which we dare not deny. Baylor doesn’t always meet its Baptist/Christian ideals, but we know it tries mightily.

And so demanding transparency and accountability from the regents is not a sign of disloyalty or disaffection. It’s a plea for Baylor to respond with integrity, humility and openness to this dark moment so that it can pursue its highest aspirations.

Follow Marv on Twitter: @marvknoxbs

For a compilation of the Baptist Standard’s coverage of Baylor University’s handling of campus sexual violence, click here.

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