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Ken Starr, guest columnist: Years of tension preceded presidential departure from Baylor University

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Tensions between Baylor President Ken Starr and BU regents often focused on organizational restructuring.

Staff photo— Rod Aydelotte

Since his departure as president, chancellor and, finally, law professor at Baylor University, former federal judge and constitutional scholar Ken Starr, 70, has maintained his busy pace, immersing himself in community endeavors such as helping Waco Independent School District students in mock-trial competition and traveling far and wide to champion religious liberty, a cause he talked about in his Aug. 28 interview with the Tribune-Herald. When not entertaining Baylor students at his home in West Waco, Starr has been writing a book, one which might be described as something of a love letter to Baylor alumni, students and faculty. Covering his six-year administration at Baylor, the book holds insight for anyone interested in governance and administrative issues regarding America’s universities and colleges. In this excerpt from his forthcoming book “Bear Country,” from a chapter titled “Farewell,” Starr makes clear that his differences with at least some of Baylor University’s Board of Regents didn’t begin with release of the Pepper Hamilton law firm’s investigation of administrative handling of sexual-assault cases involving Baylor students and his subsequent dismissal as president in May.


Spring graduation 2016 was a joy. As tradition holds, I greeted and hugged every Baylor graduate who walked or otherwise traversed the Ferrell Center stage. The Pepper Hamilton report seemed to fade into the background. We were still standing, and the mood seemed upbeat. The spirit, as always at Baylor graduation, was joyful. We sang the sweet songs of Baylor commencement ceremonies — “God Bless America” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” And, of course, we closed with “That Good Old Baylor Line.”

Almost 3,000 graduates — both undergrads and graduate students — received their diplomas over the course of Friday afternoon and Saturday morning and afternoon ceremonies. Then, after an early church service on Sunday morning, I headed down to San Marcos, south of Austin, to speak at the San Marcos Academy graduation. The high school graduates — a handful heading for Baylor — were from all over the world, especially China. This was America at its welcoming best.

Then, bidding farewell to my San Marcos friends, off I went to Atlanta for a meeting, then quickly back to campus again. It was Tuesday after May graduation — only three days had passed since the uplifting ceremonies at the Ferrell Center. All seemed peaceful.

The news came abruptly. The thunderbolt was delivered by the university’s lawyer, Ray Cotton, a renowned D.C. practitioner. I was being fired as president. I had run out of bullets, I was informed.

A very able attorney whom I had come to know well, Ray had been kind and thoughtful to me over the years, but at day’s end, he was the lawyer for Baylor University, which is — and rightly so — controlled by the Board of Regents. The regents had decided. I was told that their decision was unanimous. That came as a complete shock. But I accepted it. Gladly would I serve, and so cheerfully I must accept the regents’ death sentence.

It was May 16. I was to step aside — as president — on either June 1 or July 1. Terms and conditions on my continued service as chancellor would be discussed in short order. In announcing my firing, I was also to take several steps, including accepting responsibility for the various events — and shortcomings — reported to the board by Pepper Hamilton. In addition, I was to announce that Executive Council member Reagan Ramsower was becoming executive vice president — the clear No. 2 officer in the university — and that L. Gregory Jones, our new executive vice president and provost, would simply serve hereafter as provost.

The news was stunning and yet not entirely unexpected. Quietly, I had been living on borrowed time. For more than three years, the board’s leadership had worked to ease me out of the CEO role and slot me instead into the non-executive position of chancellor, primarily a fundraiser. For various reasons, I was not satisfying the board’s vision of a CEO. In their view, I was to be, instead, an outside person who built the university through raising money.

Although I relished the fundraising role, I had resisted dramatic change in roles. No longer would I be placing my imprint, however modest, on the university. Yet, as I saw it, I could energetically continue to fund-raise through the daily work of the presidency. Indeed, through the able leadership of Dave Rosselli, who we had enticed to join the Baylor family from the University of Southern California, we were well on our way in laying groundwork for a major capital campaign. Dave and I had traveled to and fro — including to California and Arizona in recent weeks — to prepare for that eagerly anticipated and much-needed capital campaign. But the board’s reaction to the Pepper Hamilton “report” had laid me low.

I was out, and not of my own volition.

The irony was palpable. On three separate occasions over my six years of service, I had determined that the right course was for me to resign from the presidency and simply carry on my role as a member of the Baylor Law School faculty. I loved the law school and relished teaching my course in current constitutional issues. The law school was, in a sense, my “home base.” If I could simply cross over University Parks Drive from the main campus and settle into the comfortable confines of that gorgeous building beautifully situated on the banks of the Brazos, with its extraordinary dean and exemplary faculty, I would be safe. But my safety zone was soon gone. I was in exile.

The background story briefly told is this: In October 2011, I threatened to resign from the presidency, two years before my appointment as president and chancellor, by virtue of what I considered unacceptably inappropriate conduct — and comments — by the then-chairman of the board, Buddy Jones. The university’s long-running feud with the Baylor Alumni Association (which I chronicled in Chapter 3) had erupted during homecoming celebrations in 2011. Homecoming — that hallowed Baylor tradition and the oldest in the land — was sacrosanct.

To say Baylor Homecoming is “special” is a profound understatement. And on an October afternoon at Floyd Casey Stadium, at halftime, the Baylor Alumni Association had — consistent with tradition — bestowed its annual set of honors on various BAA-endorsed luminaries. Joy Reynolds, widow of the legendary Baylor president, Dr. Herbert Reynolds, went onto the field, escorted by her son, Kent. This venerable figure in Baylor life was to present the awards. The public announcements then followed with the awards duly presented. The BAA had entered center stage at the single most university-honoring event of the year.

The chairman of the Baylor Board of Regents was displeased. In strong language, both in person and in writing, he expressed profound displeasure with the university for having permitted its platform to be used by the BAA to carry on its unwelcome mission. Chairman Jones’ disapprobation was severe and it was strongly expressed.

For months, I had been laboring day after day to bring the fiercely independent BAA in house and had pursued — if unsuccessfully — the announced policy of courtesy, respect and hospitality. As a university community, we were, in all respects, to treat the BAA with “courtesy, respect and hospitality.” I had restated that policy again and again. Here, however, was a clear instance of the Board of Regents’ leadership seeking to overrule the administration and employing crude language that in my view was inappropriate for a Christian institution. I thought that entirely improper.

More fundamentally, there was an ad hoc overruling of a carefully crafted university policy that embodied and reflected Baylor’s Christian values. This was over the line. I made it clear, emphatically so, that, under these circumstances, I could not continue to serve as president as a matter of principle. In short, I would return to teaching law and perhaps resuming the part-time practice that I had agreed to leave upon becoming president.

A regent leader telephoned me and talked me off the ledge. “You may be the only person who can lead us,” he said. He then assured me that the leadership situation was once again under control. I relented and went back to work. At the next game, this same regent leader gave me a kiss on the cheek. The crisis had passed. Nothing else was said.

The second episode occurred in April 2012. Buddy Jones was leaving the chairmanship and completing his nine years of service (three terms of three years each). I was summoned to meet with him and another regent at the chairman’s powerhouse lobbying office — in Austin — for my year-end review. It went well. The review — as with literally every one of my year-end reviews — was highly laudatory. The university was doing well, indeed thriving. We were building Baylor. “Keep up the good work,” was the message. Nothing was said about the contretemps back in the fall. A generous bonus provided tangible proof that the year (academic year 2011-2012) had gone well. (That, of course, was the year of the Heisman and the women’s basketball team’s national championship.)

But after the bouquets were handed out, an additional point was promptly made. To improve execution within the administration, a new organizational chart was to be implemented. It was simply presented to me, a fait accompli. The structure of the Executive Council’s round table would be modified: Rather than a clear No. 2 officer in the person of the executive vice president and provost (Elizabeth Davis), there would now be three senior officers reporting to the president/CEO. Other vice presidents would remain in their respective positions but would report not to the president but to one of the respective senior officers. The culture of the Baylor round table — all voices are equal, including my own — was to shift.

Wisely or no, I acquiesced. For long months, I had resisted the Board of Regents’ continuing calls to have a clearly designated chief operating officer other than the provost. To my mind, the chief operating officer was Elizabeth Davis, our executive vice president and provost. I had not been the one to formulate that title. To the contrary, the title of executive vice president-provost was long-standing and reflected an administrative arrangement that made perfect sense. (I had cross-checked this with, among others, Condoleezza Rice, who had served as both provost and chief operating officer of Stanford University.) In my view, the university’s chief academic officer should, as a matter of sound and wise administration, be the No. 2 person in the administrative structure. The board’s new structure, in practical effect, created three senior officers of equal rank. It was, functionally, a demotion of the EVP-provost and an elevation of two officers — the chief financial officer and the head of development, who was also given the responsibility for strategic initiatives.

This was a classic trade-off. No outside chief executive officer would be imposed on what I considered a healthy, open and collaborative structure. That was good. At the same time, several of my colleagues were, in effect, organizationally demoted. They would now report to senior vice presidents. I brought back the news to campus. It was not well received. The effect around the Round Table was predictable. Like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” some colleagues were “more equal” than others. I had failed to fight for an important principle — the collaborative culture of Baylor’s Executive Council.

The most dramatic episode occurred in the summer and fall of 2013. It followed on the heels of several months of gentle nudging back in 2012 by outgoing former-regent chairman Dary Stone to move me into an outside role. Dary had guided the conversation — both over dinner at a fancy restaurant in the Crescent and over breakfast at the Flying Fish (both in Dallas) — toward my finding professional happiness: “Judge, we want you to be happy.” He was immensely charming and winsome.

The narrative that had emerged from Pat Neff Hall and Clifton Robinson Tower was to this effect: Judge Starr’s abiding passion was the law and thus he would be more fulfilled in an outside role (such as chancellor) and the university would benefit from whatever fundraising and “friend-raising” skills I might bring to bear. Present for both those 2012 conversations but largely silent throughout the Dary-Ken exchange was the new chairman, Richard Willis. His turn to move me to the side then came a year later — in the summer of 2013.

The setting for this resignation-causing episode was very pleasant. After worship at Prestonwood Baptist in Plano, an extraordinarily vibrant megachurch, Chairman Willis and regent Ron Murff, who chaired the powerful Governance Committee (then called the Board and Administrative Affairs Committee), and I had “Sunday dinner” at the Bent Tree Country Club just north of the LBJ Freeway. The takeaway from our very pleasant gathering was that, in order to do a more comprehensive review of my performance as president, an outside consultant would be brought in to conduct a “360 degree evaluation.” I welcomed the idea. Soon thereafter, I was contacted by Susan Resneck Pierce, a former university president herself and a respected higher ed consultant. She did her work through telephone interviews from her office in Florida, submitting written questionnaires and the like. In October 2013, she came to campus for several days to complete her fact-finding.

Over breakfast at the Waco Hilton, overlooking the Brazos, Susan observed that this was a highly unusual situation. She said the university, from all appearances, was doing very well, indeed prospering, that spirits were high and the faculty seemed to be at peace. Yet something seemed awry. I was clueless but effused about the university, the camaraderie around the Executive Council round table (even with the structural change from the year before) and the like. We bade farewell but confirmed that we would gather several days later for a wrap-up session.

Susan completed her on-campus visits and we reconvened once more over breakfast at the Hilton. Once again, she opined that this was one of the most unusual situations she had ever encountered in higher ed. The university was doing well, but the board had made a decision. My contract — which had two years remaining (until June 1, 2015) — would not be renewed.

I was thunderstruck. Yet again, I posed the how and why questions. A consummate professional, Susan made it clear that I was not what the board had in mind as CEO but that I could usefully play a different role in university-wide leadership. I pressed for examples. I protested that the board had — for three straight years — given me highly favorable, laudatory reviews, including as recently as the spring of 2013, just months before. I had not been guided or directed to any failing or shortcoming in my service. I was genuinely perplexed. But my mind flashed back to the Crescent and the Flying Fish, and the departing Dary’s gentle nudges to move me up and out. In response, Susan flagged the fact that I had not attended meetings of the outside Investment Committee, which provided advice and guidance to our high-performing investment office headed by Dr. Brian Webb. That was it. No other examples.

My response was simple: I have nothing to add or contribute to the investment committee. That was simply not anywhere near — much less in the wheelhouse — of my area of expertise. My time, I said with some fervor, was directed toward building Baylor, to connecting with the students, to encouraging the faculty, to restoring unity, to generating enthusiasm on the part of Baylor Nation, to raising money, to building stronger ties to the Waco community and so on. Susan acknowledged that the three years (and four months) of service had been, by all measures, successful, but the board wanted me to take on a different role.

My quick calculation yielded up a very undesirable scenario. To have a new president in place on June 1, 2015, when my contract would expire, a search process would need to be launched within a matter of months — likely early 2014. At that point, I would overnight become a lame duck. The university’s initiatives, as I saw it, would be put on hold. I was perplexed.

Susan then added an intriguing footnote. She said that she asked the board whether she, Susan, should be the one to deliver the news that my contract would not be renewed. She was told yes. She was to be the messenger. My service was appreciated, but I should move into a new role with the board’s enthusiastic encouragement and support.

My reaction was strong but restrained: “Susan, the bonds of trust have been dissolved. I can no longer serve. I will resign.”

I put this point in context. I drew a story from my earlier service on the executive committee of my former law firm, Kirkland & Ellis. A non-equity partner had violated firm policy (but not any federal or state law) by investing in a client’s enterprise without disclosing that investment to the firm. The question before the executive committee was what to do. We considered various alternatives. As the conversation unfolded, a brilliant senior partner, Howard Krane, who was serving at the time as chair of the board of trustees of the University of Chicago, offered his judgment: “By his actions, he has dissolved the bonds of trust. He should leave the firm.” We all agreed. What Howard Krane had said years before, I told Susan, applied to my own unhappy situation.

Susan tried to be reassuring: The board did not want me to go away but just complete my remaining months of service and simply shift over to more of an “outside” role. I stood firm. I would resign as a matter of principle.

Within days, I was back with Richard Willis and Ron Murff. The setting was Floyd Casey Stadium, just before the West Virginia-Baylor football game. I told them face to face that the bonds of trust had been dissolved. I recounted my service in the Reagan Administration, when I had been chief of staff to the U.S. attorney general.

Although not close to President Reagan, I had watched him closely. I greatly admired his style of leadership. It was leadership based on first principles, and then choosing the right people to implement and carry out those principles and goals. I picked the example of national security: “President Reagan focused carefully on issues of foreign policy and national security. But if you asked him, ‘Mr. President, how many B-1 bombers are there in the fleet?’, I’ll bet he would not know the precise answer. He would know the role of the B-1, but he wouldn’t know that detail. It’s a different style of leadership.” Yet from the regents’ perspective that day, the president should have known the exact number of B-1 bombers in the fleet.

So there it was — a conflict of visions about what the CEO was at the university. For whatever reason, this was the first time that the honest difference of opinion had surfaced.

We left the meeting without any resolution, or even agreement on next steps, and headed back to the game. I ran, perhaps a step or two quicker, with the Baylor Line (the freshmen, who by tradition run onto the football field to welcome the team as they enter the stadium from the dressing room). As matters stood on that chilly October night, the bonds of trust had been dissolved. I left at half-time. Never before, or since, had I left my duty station in the president’s suite. But we had entered a radically different phase in the president-board relationship.

Whatever happened within the councils of the Board of Regents, I don’t know in any detail. But the upshot was that Richard Willis and Ron Murff came to me as if nothing had happened armed with an attractive proposal: The board wanted me to remain as president. My contract would be extended for two years, until June 1, 2017, and I would also assume the role of chancellor. I was pleased and relieved. The bonds of trust were being restored. I loved Baylor. I loved my job. I wanted to continue.

So it was until the fall of 2015, when the Pepper Hamilton law firm’s work began and, separately, negotiations resumed with the BAA. A great hero of mine, U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade, reached out to Baylor Law School Dean Brad Toben and yours truly. We then commenced an intensive period of planning and negotiation with the BAA’s leadership. Litigation, including terribly expensive and divisive pre-trial discovery, was continuing apace, as the university sought to end its long-standing feud with the BAA. Soon I stepped out of the process, which was then guided from the university’s perspective by Richard Willis and Cary Gray, a board member and highly accomplished lawyer in Houston. Intense negotiations brought about the long-awaited “treaty” of peace. Unity was restored.

In early June, the Baylor Alumni Association — now reconstituted as the Baylor Line Foundation — held a celebratory dinner. The principal honoree was, fittingly, Judge Kinkeade, who I said over and over again deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his singular role in getting the successful negotiations between Baylor and the BAA jump-started. The long-sought goal of unity had been accomplished. But in the meantime, I had left the post of president of the university I had come to love. And, as a matter of conscience, I voluntarily stepped down as chancellor when terms to which I could not agree were put before me in a special meeting at Allbritton House on May 31.

Like all good things, my service to Baylor had drawn to a close.

Scripture teaches that the generations come, and the generations go, but the earth remains forever. My own time had come and gone, but the long-standing desire of the regent leadership had been achieved. I would no longer serve as president of a great institution that was older than the State of Texas itself. But life marches on — and so does that Good Old Baylor Line.

Ken Starr is a former federal judge and solicitor general who served as Baylor University’s president from 2010 to 2016. He was previously dean of the Pepperdine Law School.