Ron Murff

Murff


Baylor University alumni groups are continuing to push for more transparency from the board of regents in the wake of the board’s decision to release agendas and minutes starting with its next meeting, scheduled for February.

At the same time, higher education experts say the step to publish agendas and minutes already goes beyond what most private universities do.

John Eddie Williams, a Houston lawyer and prominent Baylor donor, has said the board should release minutes and agendas from the past several years.

Williams has been a vocal critic of the regents through the lens of “Bears for Leadership Reform,” a group of donors and alumni demanding “transparency, accountability and comprehensive reform” after the board’s handling of a sexual assault scandal that has continued for more than a year.

The group includes Regent Emeritus and major donor Drayton McLane, former Texas Gov. Mark White, former board Chairman Gale Galloway and former Regent and former Baylor Alumni Association President Emily Tinsley. The group hosted about 650 people for a meeting earlier this month at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum.

“The recent announcement from the board of regents is a step in the right direction, but it is not nearly enough or timely enough,” Williams said in a statement Friday. “This is just a small, symbolic gesture on the part of the board of regents.”

The board fired Ken Starr as president and Art Briles as head football coach in May after Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP found a campuswide “fundamental failure” in Baylor’s Title IX implementation, regents said.

The board has discussed a “variety” of ways to be more open, Baylor board Chairman Ron Murff said in a statement Friday.

“We thought posting agendas and minutes of our quarterly meetings was just one of the things we could do,” Murff said. “Generally, posting agendas and minutes isn’t done by a private company or a private institution like Baylor. But we recognize that there are benefits to making sure that the Baylor family understands the issues we are talking about, and we are committed to trying to find ways to do that.”

The Baylor Line Foundation, an alumni group with a well-chronicled history of tension with the university, also is asking regents to keep taking the road to transparency, spokesman Peter Osborne said.

“The different calls from alumni, whether it’s from us, whether it’s from Bears for Leadership Reform, all those calls have gotten a lot louder in recent weeks,” Osborne said. “We don’t think it’s a coincidence that they came out at this point with these changes. As I said, we’re hoping that this path they seem to be on — to be more transparent, to let everybody know what’s going on — is just a first step.”

The Baylor Line Foundation, formerly the Baylor Alumni Association, changed its name in March after a lengthy legal battle with the university. As part of a settlement, the foundation has three voting members on the board of regents.

In June, the alumni group called on regents to release a more comprehensive report from Pepper Hamilton. This month, the foundation accused regents of conducting a “carefully orchestrated public relations campaign.”

Faculty Senate Chairman Byron Newberry said he welcomes board agendas and minutes being posted. Newberry said the practice is one of several issues faculty members have discussed with regents in recent months.

“I’m glad to hear they’re taking those steps,” Newberry said.

Faculty Senate minutes from summer meetings revealed professors were rebuffed by regents when asking for more information regarding the scandal.

The degree of openness is a major difference between public and private university boards, and Baylor’s board has followed the standard most private university boards use, said Susan Johnston, executive vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

“On the public side, what the law requires is an open meeting because they are doing the work of the public,” Johnston said. “On the private side, there is no legal requirement. My experience is that private college and university boards do not typically meet or have a standard of open meetings.”

Johnston said it appears the board’s decision to release agendas and minutes is a step beyond what most private institutions do.

When asked about open or partially-open meetings this week, board Chairman Ron Murff called it “difficult,” citing common best practices among private universities.

Texas Christian University’s board of trustees meets behind closed doors, and the vice chancellor for student affairs typically meets with student representatives to discuss the accomplished business, spokeswoman Holly Ellman said. An article about the meeting is also posted on the TCU website, Ellman said.

Baylor also issues press releases after meetings, which detail board actions. Board members also occasionally offer formal interviews with media.

Baylor’s board may also expand its website to include a list of board committees, governance documents and regent profiles, Murff said.

“It is a matter of making sure everyone realizes things that we’re working on, things that we are talking about, what the agenda items are and what some of the conclusions were from the minutes,” Murff said. “There will always be executive sessions, just as public institution boards have, because we have to be mindful of confidential matters.”

Cathy Trower, who provides governance consulting services to nonprofit organizations, called the board’s transparency efforts “relatively unprecedented among private institutions” in a statement Friday. Trower, who has worked with Baylor’s board, meets with colleges and universities, hospitals and health care systems, independent schools, foundations and community service organizations.

“Unlike a public university, a private institution doesn’t have to be as open about its governance, but what the Baylor board is doing is very impressive in this regard,” she said.

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