A full school year has passed since former Baylor University football player Sam Ukwuachu’s conviction for sexual assault unleashed charges and claims that Baylor treated sexual assault victims indifferently and looked the other way about allegations regarding athletes as Baylor’s national reputation as a football powerhouse soared. Baylor leadership compounded matters by remaining tight-lipped as assault complaints, confusion and anger swirled about the resolutely Christian campus of more than 15,000 students.
That deafening silence may be about to end. Tuesday an unsubstantiated report suggested that revelations from an external review of Baylor’s protocol in all this are damning enough for heads to roll, beginning with Baylor President and Chancellor Ken Starr, an otherwise transformational influence for good in the “Baylor Nation” and surrounding Waco community.
The tumultuous school year began with calls by the outraged for firings of Baylor football coach Art Briles and Associate Dean for Student Conduct Bethany McCraw, the latter even lambasted by a local prosecutor. And while the uproar subsided at times, the year now ends with renewed cries for dismissals, including that of Starr, whose administration has been marked by such accomplishments as a $100 million scholarship initiative; helping keep the twice-imperiled Big 12 athletic conference together; and working with the city of Waco on such difficult issues as poverty and education.
Yet through all the controversy of sexual assaults and athletics, Baylor has stayed mostly mum when not fighting disclosure of even the most fundamental information.
The black hole
So has this strategy worked? Hardly. Baylor’s information lockdown and knee-jerk invocation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (largely irrelevant if we’re talking about campus protocol more broadly) has sucked others into its black hole, deservedly or not. In some ways, Baylor’s failure to demonstrate simple transparency regarding Ukwuachu to the degree it did in the similar but earlier Tevin Elliott sexual assault case prompted much of the uproar. What a colossal blunder.
Last week’s revelations by ESPN about more football players, more assault allegations and more supposed Baylor inaction suggested that Waco police and even the city of Waco were complicit in helping Baylor hide information from the public and an inquiring press. Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, information officer, dismissed ESPN’s insinuations, branding its report “sensationalism in journalism.”
Baylor as its own victim
The Trib’s attempted dragnet of sexual assault records held by Baylor’s own police department last week produced a muddled state attorney general’s opinion that offered Baylor a loophole big enough to drive a truck through; raised ethical questions about an attorney general who has two degrees from Baylor (though neither in law); and prompted legitimate questions about a popular 2015 state transparency law regarding private university police departments that Baylor has now helped render toothless.
If there’s an overarching tragedy beyond victimization of Baylor students assaulted by athletes or others; the careers of those Baylor student-athletes who do maintain moral standards; and the frustration of Baylor officials innocent of wrongdoing, it’s that Baylor, through its struggle against release of even simple facts, has ironically obscured just how complicated the issue of sexual assaults really is for colleges and universities nationwide.
Instead of demonstrating Christian resolve and academic enlightenment in tackling this ugly problem head-on, Baylor’s actions — including its refusal now to come clean on the long-awaited external review of Baylor protocol by the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton — not only allow Baylor’s critics to contribute more damning narratives, it also confounds public understanding of the sensitive and conflicting dynamics involved in campus sexual violence.
For instance, universities and colleges are, whatever else, not courts of law and are limited in how they can proceed with allegations of sexual assault, even as federal law also obligates such institutions in how they report sexual abuse allegations, treat victims and scrutinize the accused. This tension was evident at a Feb. 5 University of Miami forum on Title IX and sexual violence on college campuses.
“What’s going on at college campuses is horrible and toxic and it takes courage to face it, and there are things like football money that make us not want to face it,” said Diane Rosenfeld, a Harvard University lecturer on law and an expert on the Title IX federal law’s widening reach in combating gender violence, especially when it involves campus athletics.
Alluding to the University of Miami’s own problems, such as in 2014 when two football players admitted to getting a 17-year-old classmate drunk, then repeatedly raping her, Rosenfeld noted that “a lot of sexual assault is being committed on college campuses by men in groups who are loudly proclaiming their right to rule and to rape women, and that’s the thing we have to target in our prevention programs on college campuses.”
However, Tamara Rice Lave, University of Miami Law School lecturer, just as passionately spoke of the real dangers of marginalizing the rights of the accused in such cases — and how some federal guidelines make it harder for colleges and universities to ensure those rights. Examples cited include preventing the accused from promptly seeing a statement by the complainant and lowering the burden of evidence required to go after the accused.
Lave also noted that, however small the percentage of cases might be where the accused is innocent, they exist: “False reporting is when someone says they’ve been raped and they’re lying. Baseless reporting is when someone with the best of intentions thinks they have been — maybe they got drunk, they’re not sure what happened — and then it turns out that in fact they hadn’t been (raped).”
Time for sunlight
What’s more, studies about the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses are all over the map, ranging from a 2015 Association of American Universities survey that indicates one in four university women has been sexually assaulted or raped to a 2014 National Crime Victimization Survey that showed much lower numbers — 6.1 of every 1,000 university women — reporting sexual assaults or rapes.
Add statistics such as the finding that 91 percent of college campuses disclosed zero reported incidences of rape in 2014 and evidence that many victims don’t report such incidents to either the police or university officials and one can see how Baylor’s relative silence regarding its own tempest fueled assumptions that it has something to hide.
With claims from anonymous sources suggesting that Baylor regents are about to take out their frustration on Starr and possibly others, one only hopes Baylor leadership realizes how failure to release every page of the Pepper Hamilton report and meaningfully discuss solutions runs counter to what Rosenfeld calls a “student-led civil rights movement of our day.” You can only say nothing for so long.