Bayor campus

Baylor University was the focus of a Senate Higher Education Committee hearing in March.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte

Last week Bears for Leadership Reform joined calls to legally force Baylor University to throw open the doors of its long-cloistered regents meetings. The group of BU alumni, donors and past regents formed amid controversy over Baylor’s questionable handling of sexual-assault cases and governance decisions. And now it has backed state legislation that would use Tuition Equalization Grants to strategically strike at embattled Baylor leadership.

Admittedly, Bears for Leadership Reform chose a bizarre way to do this, calling on regents to support the legislation. That’s like asking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to support transparency regarding his use of chemical weapons. But then requests for transparency over many months have come to little while matters have worsened.

“Every week we’re seeing new accusations, new leaks,” BLR President and major Baylor donor John Eddie Williams said. “It’s a drip-drip-drip of bad news with no end in sight. We find ourselves in a situation where we have a Texas Rangers investigation [of Baylor] in Waco, we have Title IX investigators [from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights] on campus, we have the accreditation agency looking into issues at Baylor, we have several bills in front of the Texas Legislature calling for open meetings and then we have lawsuits where the depositions and discovery should begin soon and even more lawsuits possible on the horizon.”

The Legislature’s creation of the Tuition Equalization Grant in 1973 was warmly welcomed in communities with private, religiously oriented institutions of higher learning. This taxpayer-funded financial assistance sought to level the field so students of modest means seeking to attend expensive private schools could better afford the cost. Yet this grant understandably troubled some. While private schools across Texas were more than happy to accept taxpayer money, they remained exempted from the state’s public-meetings law, coincidentally passed by legislators the same year they created TEGs. While public colleges and universities have had to demonstrate considerable transparency in such areas as trustee meetings, their private equivalents are allowed to skirt such scrutiny.

Now ongoing calamity at Baylor is fueling a gutsy legislative proposal to end closed governance meetings there and elsewhere. That can’t make Baylor too popular among private universities. As shrewdly written, the bill requires such transparency only of Baylor — Texas’ oldest continually operating institution of higher learning — and University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, which just happened to fall within the legislation’s narrow and punishing parameters. But that could well change.

Last month’s Senate Higher Education Committee hearing was ostensibly focused on state Sen. Kel Seliger’s bill demanding private universities and colleges accepting more than $5 million annually in Tuition Equalization Grants have governance meetings open to the public — in short, Baylor and UIW. However, the hearing quickly became an inquisition over Baylor’s handling of its sexual-assault controversy, all directed at its interim, low-key president, David Garland, whose explanations were peppered with nervous reminders he was not privy to the Pepper Hamilton law firm’s now-infamous oral presentation of its investigation to regents. He mentioned he was on sabbatical during much of the time in question.

From the outset, Seliger has made clear his legislation is all about Baylor regents’ reluctance to furnish sufficient accountability for their actions in matters directly involving students and public safety. Criticism focused not only on regents’ May 2016 decision to remove a winning head football coach, athletic staffers and a popular president after the Pepper Hamilton report but also on whether other officials contributing to the scandal were still working on campus. Key thrust: Regents’ closed-door meetings had contributed mightily to Baylor’s widening problems.

“If these meetings had been open to the public in the past,” Seliger thundered, “maybe some of the things we read about today might not have taken place.”

It was Garland’s further misfortune that testifying alongside him and advocating open governance meetings was Texas Press Association executive vice president and veteran newspaperman Donnis Baggett, who just happened to have served as Waco Tribune-Herald publisher before the Baylor uproar exploded nationwide in August 2015. Baggett told how, among other things, Baylor successfully undermined the Legislature’s own spring 2015 law requiring prompt disclosure of sexual assaults by campus police departments. Oops.

“When I was in journalism school at Stephen F. Austin way back when we used rocks and chisels to write with, there was an old saying: ‘If your mama says she loves you, check it out,’ ” Baggett told lawmakers. “Well, it’s kind of hard to check it out when, A, you can’t get into the board of regents’ meetings and, B, you can’t get at the records that you need. And y’all are experiencing some of that as legislators. As the media attempts to cover this, it has been thwarted again and again by the lack of transparency [at Baylor].”

Right behind Garland, often shaking his head or chuckling at what he was hearing, was former Sen. Don Adams, a First Amendment champion who spearheaded the charge in the state’s open-meetings act in 1973 and vigorously seconded the idea of making private colleges and universities that accept public money abide by it: “With all the squirming and all the nay-saying and all of the bad things that were going to happen if we passed the open-meetings and open-records acts [back in 1973], they never came to pass.”

Sen. Royce West was particularly intensive in his questions, eliciting from Garland the fact that Bethany McCraw, the Judicial Affairs officer at Baylor blamed by many for failing to appropriately treat sexual-assault victims and their claims, was still employed there (though someone should have mentioned she no longer handles such sensitive duties). Legislators also stressed that, while apparent failures in the football program to adequately report assault complaints involving players were damning, the problem was by no means limited to the athletic department — something Garland acknowledged.

“I concur that you’re trying to fix it and I think Baylor is in much better shape going forward, having gone through this horrendous experience,” Sen. Larry Taylor told Garland at one point. “But at the same time, if we still have people around who were part of the problem, I think they need to be cleaned out as well. That’s really one of the frustrations we have is that we don’t feel like that’s happened and we’re not getting that transparency [about it].”

Obviously, senators made this a grueling day for the Christian university of some 17,000 students. Garland explained that regents had adopted 27 pages of governance reforms such as posting minutes online and making regent leadership accessible to the press after closed-door meetings. Legislators gave such efforts no more credit than Bears for Leadership Reform has.

From all this, a few impressions emerge:

  • After more than 40 years in the daily press, no one more than I believes in open-meetings law, especially when a governing body oversees an entity regularly accepting taxpayer cash. It’s not just about the right to know but the right to understand. Open meetings compel leadership to articulate and defend rationale for or against actions. For the open-minded, any issues discussed and debated are no longer black and white but nuanced in shades of gray.

That said, last month’s arguments conjure up a worthy legislative principle: Any law that targets an individual entity, either for a special break or punitive action, must invite close scrutiny. Seliger acknowledges Baylor’s clandestine ways are the reason for this bill. But if it seeks to prevent further cases of secrecy that can infect or derail other institutions of higher learning, what’s to keep such obstruction from undermining a college that accepts less than $5 million in TEGs? This bill shouldn’t focus just on Baylor but on all private colleges accepting any amounts of taxpayer-funded money.

Let’s hope this is why Seliger calls his bill “a work in progress.”

That said, the regents’ failure to realize their worsening situation in all this and its threat to Baylor does seem to justify some legislative pressure. As BLR President and attorney John Eddie Williams said last week in support of the bill: “There are unique circumstances at Baylor, a unique history of unfortunately tragic events.”

  • One complicating element to this bill is that TEGs technically go to the student, not the university — a point Garland correctly made while noting that, in the past year, Baylor accepted $10.4 million in Tuition Equalization Grants, many of them benefiting minority students. (Data provided by Baylor shows that, of the 27,778 Texas students receiving these grants, 2,943 students attend Baylor.) The distinction is a fair one and a potential Achilles’ heel in this bill.

One of Garland’s few strong moments during the hearing came when he read a note from a Hispanic student who works 20 hours or more a week at a Whataburger, comes from a single-parent household and is a first-generation college student: “I truly hope the TEG stays in place because I need it to come to Baylor. If it does not, I would have to transfer. I know that fund is around $5,000. To some, that may be nothing, but to me and my family that is months of 40-hour weeks of work.”

Unfortunately, this testimony was largely lost in a hearing that questioned Baylor’s stubborn argument that a more complete Pepper Hamilton report couldn’t be released because it might compromise the identities of student victims (university officials seem oblivious to the art of redacting). Senators said what regents did release didn’t specify those administrators who failed the institution. Sen. Taylor noted a sad irony: “At some point, we’re not protecting students’ identities, we’re protecting adults who are working at the university.”

  • Allowing Garland to face Senate slings and arrows seemed not only illogical but cowardly, given anyone could have anticipated he would be grilled about matters beyond tuition grants. A mild-mannered, recently widowed professor of Christian scripture at Baylor’s Baptist theological seminary, Garland was outgunned, even as he stressed that his primary responsibility was implementing the 105 Pepper Hamilton recommendations to prevent sexual assaults and improve protocols for addressing such situations.

“I would like to say that I don’t know Dr. Garland,” former Sen. Adams, also a BLR board member, said after the committee’s questioning of Garland. “I think the most important part of Dr. Garland’s testimony was that he was principally hired to see that the Pepper Hamilton report was followed, followed by his testimony that he wasn’t aware of what was in the Pepper Hamilton report. I think that is pretty telling testimony on the part of Dr. Garland.”

Sen. Taylor, a Baylor alumnus, put it more diplomatically, even as he questioned elements of the Seliger bill: “It would have been nice if Baylor had sent someone [here] who was actually there at that time and had a part in running some of this.”

Indeed. Several Baylor regents and a few of the senior administrators would have fit Taylor’s request perfectly. Then again, regents’ reluctance to face the music and demonstrate more accountability is the key point of this bill, something that underlined one of Adams’ more unguarded comments at the hearing’s close.

“I am a Baylor graduate and I’m proud of it,” Adams said, digressing from his discussion of the bill. “And my great-grandfather was, my father was, my sister was, my great-uncle was and I was, and we’re all proud of our Baylor education. I am proud of Baylor University and I resent — resent — the smear that the board of regents and some of the administration have administered to the good name of Baylor University.”

Then he paused, looked down and collected himself.

“I got off on a rabbit trail there.”