Linda Livingstone dropped no major bombshells during her teleconference interview introducing her as Baylor University’s 15th president in April or her subsequent solo Q&A with the Trib. That’s not so surprising. Livingstone strikes me as smart, articulate and press-savvy — and she’s in no hurry to get crossways with the embattled Baylor University Board of Regents and rankled alumni over a sexual-assault scandal raging on and on partially because of misguided actions by Baylor leadership. Who can blame her?
And while Livingstone served for more than a decade as a faculty member and administrator at Baylor before assuming more prominent positions at Pepperdine University in Malibu and then George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she’s almost certainly being honest when she says she isn’t fully informed about the mishandling of assaults by the university’s athletic department or upper-level administrators, particularly in Baylor’s Judicial Affairs Office. The fact the oral presentation for regents by the investigative Pepper Hamilton law firm regarding Baylor bungling supposedly ran longer than the old Soviet film “War and Peace” only bolsters her explanation.
“One of the things you have to start with is listening to people and trying to understand what their issues and concerns are,” Livingstone said during her April 24 Trib interview. “Certainly in the Baylor community, because people do feel so deeply about the university and are so passionate about it, their reactions about it are very strong.”
Asked if in her years at Pepperdine or George Washington she encountered a protocol or strategy that might better prevent sexual assaults among college students (often off campus) or show how college administration can better handle them, Livingstone dismissed the idea any one-size-fits-all silver bullet exists. That’s probably the right answer, too, given each campus has its own system of links in the proverbial chain of command. Weak links on one campus may not be the same at the next, yet both can result in serious problems if ignored.
Yet certain priorities demand action promptly. Among them: Baylor’s outlining how the 105 recommendations for campus reform offered by Pepper Hamilton a year ago are being implemented. The vast majority reportedly are in place, but Baylor has balked at explaining these in any detail. If all agree the foremost priority is ensuring Baylor students are safe, it’s high time for a proper and frank accounting.
Livingstone’s arrival at Baylor is a rare opportunity for leadership — regents included — to transform campus culture and show raw initiative at transparency. This might stave off further legislation such as state Sen. Kel Seliger’s bill forcing BU regents to open up governance meetings, a bill predicated on the notion that Baylor, if it isn’t covering up, is surely dodging accountability.
It hasn’t helped that Baylor’s culture has long suggested sexual assaults and lots else aren’t anyone’s business, victims included. This attitude is reflected in events ranging from Baylor’s blocking release of campus police reports of sexual assault (angering state legislators who passed a law requiring just that in 2015) to passing up an opportunity to articulate a compelling defense of board governance and vision at a February Baylor Line Foundation forum — a chance that shouldn’t be missed again, assuming organizers can vow to tightly manage the event to prevent dialogue from devolving into rants and slurs (which I’m sure the Baylor Line Foundation can do).
So can Baylor reinvent itself? Depends on several factors — not only Livingstone and whatever latitude she is given (and pursues) but whoever is selected regent chair, a uniquely pivotal decision to be determined this week. Also, watch to see how Baylor handles release of a campus survey on sexual assaults that it voluntarily (and somewhat courageously) undertook. University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven earned plaudits after he boldly released that system’s shocking findings this spring. Ironically, these spurred state legislative efforts targeting Baylor, given its scandal and reputation for secrecy.
None of these moves will quiet legitimate demands for a more robust accounting than regents’ bracing but vague “findings of fact” of what went wrong at Baylor the last several years (in short, where those weak links were). But they might create an environment allowing for more thoughtful discussion of how Baylor can avoid such failures — and safeguard everyone.