Going by the numbers, the Texas Legislature this session sent a clear message to scandal-plagued Baylor University and all other Texas colleges and universities that might mishandle sexual assaults involving their young charges. No less than six such bills were sent to the governor, including three crafted by tireless state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and a Baylor alumnus.
At the same time, much of the legislation covers reforms that, if not already embraced by Baylor in the 105 recommendations it has sought to implement over the past year, surely are ripe for adoption, given Baylor will do almost anything to show it’s turned over a new leaf — short of holding open regent meetings, that is. As students such as Caroline Grace of Baylor’s Title IX Student Advisory Council testified before the Senate State Affairs Committee, Baylor has “done a really good job” of enacting sweeping changes, including in the murky realm of what constitutes sexual consent as well as “amnesty” for infractions such as drinking that so often figure in accounts of sexual violence and students.
Paige Hardy, a public relations and religion major at Baylor who won plaudits from the committee for identifying herself as a sexual-assault victim and telling her story while touting Watson’s reform bills, suggested universities and victims would gain much from the Legislature showing more resolve and insight in such matters.
“One thing that was really difficult with Baylor was, because the legislation was so light on Title IX regulations and the requirements seemed so low, we didn’t really know what to do,” she told senators in March. “A lot of times universities are taking tips from other universities on how to deal with this. And it’s at this moment I feel the Legislature is behind. [Reforms in] these three bills Sen. Watson is presenting today, Baylor has already implemented and has implemented in the past year or before. And other schools are implementing [these]. And we need the Legislature to be showing universities how to properly treat victims.”
Baylor remains a national poster child for assaults and tepid administrative responses when such problems are actually epidemic at campuses nationwide. However, Baylor officials say that other universities are now reviewing Baylor reforms and new policies as “best practices” to similarly adopt.
Meanwhile, the Baylor regents must have sighed relief that one “Baylor bill” failed to get beyond a Senate Higher Education Committee hearing: West Texas Republican Sen. Kel Seliger’s bill seeking to compel the Baylor Board of Regents to open its closed-door meetings.
And Baylor was quite obviously in the senator’s sights: His original draft sought to require that all private schools receiving more than $5 million in taxpayer-funded Tuition Equalization Grants hold board meetings in public. Only two such institutions fell within those parameters: Baylor and University of the Incarnate Word. Out of respect for the latter, Seliger revised his bill mid-session, requiring open meetings only of those institutions receiving more than $9 million in TEG funds. In short, Baylor University.
Baylor regents, accused by some alumni and donors of hiding their own failures in campus oversight, might have faced deciding, had this bill become law, whether to open up their board meetings or reduce the amount of TEG funds Baylor accepts to elude the law’s scope. And the optics could have been damning, given that TEGs help students of modest means attend private religious universities, especially Baylor.
Accounts differ on why the bill — after a colorful hearing in which senators put the screws to Baylor’s interim president — then faltered. Possibilities range from the lobbying influence of Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, fearful of any precedent being set, to Seliger’s crossing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on unrelated legislation.
Successful legislation mandates that all universities and colleges adopt online protocols for students to report sexual offenses — anonymously if they so choose — and amnesty for “lesser infractions” such as drinking for victims and witnesses of sexual assault, at least when reporting such allegations. While lawmakers balked at legislation requiring “affirmative consent” between sexual partners — a disappointment for Watson, who sought to codify this — he tells me the online reporting provision is a major win. Even if some sexual-assault reports are anonymous, the input will allow university officials to better assess and focus on those students accused repeatedly. It also allows officials to better gauge their campus climate for sexual assault and harassment — a problem that somehow eluded at least some Baylor higher-ups to everyone’s misfortune.