baylor

A group touring Baylor University during last Wednesday’s orientation for new students poses by a statue of Judge R.E.B. Baylor near Pat Neff Hall.

Staff photo— Bill Whitaker

During the “Community Expectations” segment of last week’s orientation for incoming Baylor University freshmen and their parents, nary a word was said in Waco Hall of the ugly national scandal involving sexual assaults that has brought seismic upheaval to the Baylor campus. Maybe no one needed to say anything.

While experience has taught me that many college students are blissfully unaware of current events, even when some of those current events are breathing down their necks, parents are generally more vigilant, more skeptical. And while Baylor officials didn’t allude even slightly to the scandal, they did soberly highlight concerns and consequences for the naive and the anxious.

Baylor Police Chief Brad Wigtil begged students to do everything but tattoo the campus police phone number on their arms. He pressed them to call if they suspected anyone “in a vulnerable situation.” Title IX coordinator Patty Crawford talked of the student advisory council that is helping a beefed-up Title IX department better reach and possibly understand students regarding sexual violence. Given that most sexual assaults go unreported by college students who have been victimized, that’s a good thing.

And Meg Patterson, director of wellness at Baylor, reminded students that this Christian university of 17,000 students is a “dry” campus. She outlined how the consequences of alcohol abuse range from missed classes to falling prey to sexual assault. And online courses in all this, she said, are mandatory.

Granted, in the aftermath of sexual assaults, it’s not politically correct to suggest drinking is also heavily to blame in a society that understandably rallies to victims of rape. Then again, the dads and moms in Waco Hall were grateful for the emphasis, political correctness be damned.

And, after all, the picturesque campus that they toured last week has in recent days seen the controversial ousting of a nationally celebrated university president who, for many, was the very epitome of academic enlightenment, community engagement and Christian principles. Also banished: a nationally acclaimed head football coach with an astounding record of victories and a reputation for second chances among his young athletic charges. The pair’s removal accompanied a damning if cryptic investigation outline regarding institutional failures in dealing with assaults.

Feeding the rumor mill

Worse, the Baylor board of regents has shed little light on how any failures by former Baylor President Ken Starr, coach Art Briles and others sent into exile actually brought this once-giddy university to its knees. Many fiercely loyal Baylor supporters loudly question regents’ leadership and culpability in all this — the kind of questioning that strains relationships and fractures friendships.

Regents have done the public and “Baylor family” no favors in skirting accountability regarding a seeming plague of sexual assaults involving Baylor students, including some football players; allegations of institutional indifference to the victims (and even retaliation); and what critics refer to as the “thuggery” of some in the Baylor football program. Ironically, the regents have unwittingly fueled some pretty dark rumors, including dastardly motives for board actions.

While Starr, Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw and a handful of students, athletes and administrative staffers have come in for most blame, I’ve heard from women who, at the risk of falling into the societal trap of “victim-blaming,” have wondered aloud about those cases in which some sexual-assault victims possibly put themselves in situations that at least contributed to their subsequent plights.

Evidence bolsters some of their arguments. For instance, researchers at Wayne State University say more than half of sexual assaults against college students involve alcohol with binge drinkers especially vulnerable to blackouts and falling unconscious or near-unconscious — and thus easy prey for sexual predators. One general conclusion of several studies is that “if either the victim or the perpetrator is drinking alcohol, then both are.”

A colleague tells me that he gave his daughters a long list of fatherly advice when they went off to college. On the list: Refuse any open drink someone hands you — something Patterson stressed in Waco Hall: “Don’t drink the punch.” And don’t leave your drink unattended. And that’s assuming you even must drink alcohol.

Other telling findings: A Department of Justice report notes the homes of victims or perpetrators are the most likely venues for sexual assault. And a 2015 Association of American Universities survey says risks of the most serious types of “non-consensual sexual contact” — that due to physical force or incapacitation — decline among students the longer they’re in school. One fair interpretation: Many begin to acquire their parents’ healthy skepticism if not their wisdom.

If Baylor now follows the 105 recommendations of the law firm Pepper Hamilton from its nine-month investigation, a strong focus will be put on athletes and the athletics department, including the football program, to ensure “all athletics personnel receive specific, extended, targeted, ongoing and annual training regarding Title IX obligations and responsibilities [in gender violence], including an understanding of the risks attendant to Title IX issues.” This includes disciplinary actions not only for athletes who stray but department personnel who fail to follow protocols.

Interestingly, a new study of Division 1 schools suggests increases in rapes of college students might have less to do with the football team and more to do with the drinking and partying that come with a successful football season. That raises uncomfortable questions about such divine institutions as unrestrained tailgating.

Let’s not tell anyone

In the absence of detailed information about what happened that toppled Baylor’s top leadership, regents must bend over backward in the months ahead to demonstrate — and with complete transparency to prospective students, worried parents, discriminating faculty, outraged alumni and any university president or football coach who dares sign on — that new protocols are being taken seriously. Neither the press nor the public has seen this yet, just promises and assurances.

While rumors of further squelched reports of sexual violence at Baylor loom amid calls by some pundits for the NCAA to impose the so-called death penalty on Baylor’s football program, it’s critical to remember that what struck Baylor is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Equally horrific sagas are tarnishing universities and colleges nationwide. As the Washington Post reported last week in its eye-opening listing of campuses with the most rapes, Brown University and the University of Connecticut tied for the highest annual total of college rapes reported in 2014 — 43 each.

For the record, Stanford University — in the spotlight now for the light sentence given a swimmer convicted of sexual assault — had 26 reports of rape in 2014. Baylor reported four. Then again, Baylor’s bizarre legal efforts to fight releasing even the simple campus police reports of sexual assaults as sought by the Trib (which is legally allowed such information), combined with those troubling statistics that indicate most sexual assaults go unreported at colleges, only make this issue harder to address with any sense of resolve and confidence. Any solutions at Baylor may well be undermined by its confounding and self-destructive penchant for secrecy at all costs.