The future of the 154-year-old Baylor Alumni Association is unclear after an agreement to transfer alumni outreach activities to Baylor University failed to gain sufficient support from members.
The majority of the 1,499 BAA members who cast ballots Saturday at Waco Hall voted in favor of the transition agreement with the university. But the issue did not garner support from two-thirds of the organization’s membership as required in its bylaws.
There were 831 votes in support of the agreement — 55 percent of the total voters — and 668 against it. BAA President Collin Cox, an advocate for the transition agreement, said he had hoped more would vote in favor of the document but acknowledged that meeting the two-thirds threshold was a significant challenge.
The transition agreement, drafted after 10 months of negotiations between representatives from Baylor and the BAA, was pitched as a resolution to a contentious relationship between the two entities for more than a decade.
“We’ve never been this close to reconciling this fight in 10 years,” Cox said. “Sure, we would have loved to have seen it go to two-thirds, that would have been a much better course for all of us, but I think the clear majority of the BAA wants to go forward in a different way (than the current relationship).”
The agreement would have dissolved the BAA, allowed Baylor to manage activities through its Baylor Alumni Network, created a Baylor Alumni Advisory Board to be made up of current BAA board members, created a nonvoting alumni seat on Baylor’s Board of Regents and led to the creation of a Baylor Line Corp. to continue publishing The Baylor Line, BAA’s 66-year-old alumni magazine.
Bette McCall Miller, daughter of former Baylor President Abner McCall, spearheaded a campaign this summer called “Save the BAA” that launched Facebook, emails and robocall messages to persuade members to reject the transition agreement.
“We all want the fighting to stop. The difference between those 831 and the 668 is we don’t want the fighting to stop by eliminating the BAA; that’s too high a price to pay to stop fighting,” Miller said after the results were announced.
“Some things are worth fighting for, and an independent alumni association is worth a fight, especially when a university has pulled out all of its big guns, thousands of dollars and a bunch of other tactics to stop it.”
Baylor paid for billboards along Interstate 35 and Waco and Valley Mills drives and launched a large social media campaign urging a ‘Yes’ vote on the transition agreement. University officials have declined to say how much it spent.
“We thank all those who rallied to express their enthusiastic support for a new day at Baylor as we continue to seek to move our beloved university forward,” Baylor President Ken Starr said in a statement on the vote.
Cox said it is unclear how and if the BAA will be able to continue operating. Baylor in May announced it would terminate the existing licensing agreements that allow BAA to function as its official alumni organization, which Cox said could bar BAA from even using the Baylor name.
In addition, current BAA staff members were given offices in Baylor’s Clifton Robinson Tower in June, when the university began plans to tear down the Hughes-Dillard Alumni Center that had served as BAA’s headquarters on campus since 1978.
A university source said those staff members would not be shut out of their offices Monday and that Baylor intends to treat them with respect.
Cox said the staff still will have jobs with BAA, but their future employment would be at stake if the organization faces challenges from Baylor to continue operating. He hoped to spend the next week with the board and executive committee sorting out what options the organization has to continue operating and publishing The Baylor Line.
“Speaking for myself, I think litigation is a terrible option for the alumni association,” said Cox, a Houston attorney. “It’s going to be incredibly costly. It’s going to be incredibly time consuming. It’s going to be diverting all the energy we should be using into serving alumni into something else entirely, which is a shame.”
Cliff Hamberlin, who drove from Houston to vote for the transition agreement to pass, said he thinks Baylor will quickly begin taking legal action to stop the organization from functioning, and that fighting the cases will drain BAA’s reserves and force it to shutter sooner rather than later.
BAA has about $5.4 million in assets, though about $250,000 is earmarked for scholarships. Cox said that would cover about 18 months of operational costs.
“Sometimes in issues like this, I think the people who are against something, they’re much more emotionally involved and don’t see the pragmatism of what’s involved, and those are the people that show up and be vocal and vote,” Hamberlin said. “I just think a lot of people are being extremely shortsighted.”
But Austin attorney Tom Nesbitt said he personally thought that the BAA should pursue whatever tactics necessary, including taking a case to the courts system, to stop Baylor from going through with terminating the existing agreements.
“For almost all of its life, the alumni association has worked seamlessly with Baylor University, as a partner, as a friend, as a cheerleader and occasionally as a constructive critic,” Nesbitt said. “The current situation is an anomaly, and if Baylor University and its current leadership will honor its commitments and work together with the alumni association, I think the two can successfully help Baylor.”
Nesbitt was one of five lawyers who represented a Chicago-area alum who obtained a temporary injunction this summer to stop Baylor from tearing down the Hughes-Dillard Alumni Center. Kurt Dorr had hoped to halt the demolition until after the BAA voted Saturday on its future direction.
U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr., himself a BAA member, eventually cleared Baylor to raze the building at the end of July. The location will become a grassy plaza leading to a pedestrian bridge connecting to the on-campus Baylor Stadium being built on the opposite bank of the Brazos River.
Dorr, who voted against the transition agreement Saturday, said he was disappointed in both Cox and immediate past BAA president Elizabeth Coker because he thought the leaders should have pushed against Baylor’s proposal and fought for the organization to remain independent.
“They should have done like the other past presidents who were also approached to initiate something like this,” Dorr said. “They just rolled over here, and it really makes no sense.”
Other alumni worried that Saturday’s vote will leave the alumni base fragmented and make a future reconciliation with the university unlikely.
“I was hoping it would be over and that we could be a family again,” said Sherry Edwards, of Waco, who voted for the agreement to pass. “I’ve been hoping that for the past 10, 12 years. . . . For some people, it’s become very personal and very bitter, and I just don’t know if they can give it up. I’m not bitter about it, I’m just sad.”
Marie Brown is a BAA board member and president of the Baylor Black Alumni Network, which has a separate operations charter with Baylor.
She said her organization has had troubles gaining marketing support from the university for its fundraising and scholarship initiatives, and that the university for the past two years has refused to share new black graduates’ contact information.
Similarly, Baylor in 2009 stopped granting BAA access to graduates’ contact information, which leaders say stifled its recruitment of young alumni.
“As recently as June, they still want total control (in exchange for support),” said Brown, adding that Starr has not returned her phone calls requesting a meeting. “I don’t know how they see us or what they think, other than the fact that they do acknowledge that we exist and they do still acknowledge the charter, but we need to know in what ways are you going to acknowledge it.”
Brown, who lives in Dallas, said while she liked terms of the proposed Baylor Line Corp., which would have guaranteed reporters access to university officials and prevented Baylor from censoring The Baylor Line’s content, she voted ‘No’ on the transition agreement because “it should have been a win-win for both Baylor and the BAA, and I don’t think it was. I think we got the shorter end of the stick.”
Baylor Professor Lori Baker, a BAA board member, said transferring alumni outreach to Baylor would have been the better option at this point since the university-run Baylor Alumni Network already has greater recognition and wider appeal with graduates and alumni from across the country.
Baylor created the network in 2002, a move BAA viewed as directly competing with its own programming.
“(Students) have no idea the difference between the Baylor Alumni Association and the Baylor Network,” Baker said in a two-hour discussion forum before the vote. “I couldn’t at times tell the difference between the communications coming from the university and the communications coming from the alumni association . . . the branding has overlapped so much.”
Baker supported the transition agreement, but also noted that actions by Baylor caused the BAA’s struggle to recruit members, including cutting off funding to the BAA in 2007 and banning the organization from participating in commencement exercises beginning in 2009.
“It is the choices by the university that got us to this point, and it’s wrong,” Baker said. “But now we’re left with (figuring out) what to do in the future.”