You are the owner of this article.

Can the sunshine of transparency save Baylor University? Q&A with former Baylor President and Chancellor Ken Starr

  • ()
  • 18 min to read
STARR INTERVIEW

Former Baylor president Ken Starr (right) answers questions from Tribune-Herald opinion editor Bill Whitaker.

Staff photo—Jerry Larson

In the hours immediately following his Wednesday morning decision to step down as Baylor University chancellor, former federal judge and U.S. solicitor general Ken Starr, 69, conducted a whirlwind of interviews with news organizations ranging from the Baylor Lariat to the sports network ESPN to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The prevailing theme: Starr’s case that Baylor University can best be salvaged in its ongoing scandal involving sexual-assault victims, allegedly indifferent administrators and errant athletes through prompt release of all evidence making up the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton’s scorching nine-month investigation of the issue. In his interview with the Trib, Starr — sheared of the Baylor presidency last week — talked about the liberties that resigning the chancellorship offer in making the case for transparency; his sentiments about colleagues Art Briles, now out as football coach, and athletics director Ian McCaw, who resigned his post this week; and charges by some sexual-assault victims that he ignored their efforts to seek his personal assistance. Our late-afternoon Q&A at Judge Starr’s home found him plainly exhausted after a long day of questions, punctuated by some heartfelt emotions incurred in talking with student journalists from The Lariat.

Q    Did you have any sense that the Pepper Hamilton summary of findings would be this damning?

A    I have not seen, I believe, the significant majority of whatever it is that has come before the board of regents of Baylor University. And I have to say at the outset, let me add a little perspective. Emotions are very raw as you can understand today. I think you know [Baylor Law School professor] Jeremy Counseller. When the Texas Monthly online suggestion came that there was a broader issue [about sexual assault] than Sam [Ukwuachu, a former Baylor football player convicted of sexual assault in August 2015], I immediately decided we needed to have an internal inquiry. So it took Jeremy all of 72 hours to come forward with one page: “You need an external investigation.”

Q    Did you seek out Pepper Hamilton yourself?

A    I said to the board of regents — and I don’t want to go into communications involving such a high level because I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be too specific [about discussions between the board and administration] — but at a high level of generality, I recommended to the board, based on Jeremy’s recommendation, that the board — the board — the board — conduct an external, independent investigation. That structural point is so important. So I did, along with others, due diligence as to who would be, in the country, truly independent of Baylor University as a whole, not just the administration, and so I talked with university presidents, including Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia, who is a friend, and she strongly recommended Pepper Hamilton. We had other recommendations and other suitors. I then recommended to the board of regents in a conference call that it — the board — retain Pepper Hamilton to conduct the independent investigation and that Pepper Hamilton would report to the board. The administration was the subject of the investigation, so Pepper Hamilton was not reporting to me. It was reporting to the board.

Q     Nobody in Baylor administration has really talked about all this since last fall. Was this silence a board edict?

A    I’m not going to comment. All I’m going to say is that I called for transparency from Day One. And I decided, based on the totality of the circumstances, and with enormous pain, that today, in conscience, I had to resign from the administration so that among other things I could be at liberty to cry out and call out for transparency, as I have done at every opportunity that I could avail myself of.

Q     One of the overarching questions is this: You mentioned in your initial statement last week that you were unaware of sexual assaults involving the Baylor campus before the Sam Ukwuachu trial [2015]. I guess I’m thinking of [former Baylor football player] Tevin Elliott, who was arrested in 2012 and convicted in 2014. Were you not aware of that case?

A    Of course I was. Let me respond, but again I need to give you perspective. I would like to get you a timeline that shows you precisely what the administration did and I need to tell that story briefly. I arrived (as president of Baylor) on June 1, 2010. In November of 2010, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued its report on Eastern Michigan University involving the death of a student, the victim of an on-campus sexual assault in her dorm room. The investigation had taken several years, but the upshot of the investigation of that institution — Eastern Michigan University — was a series of recommendations as well as sanctions. We discussed that at the Executive Council Roundtable and we determined that we needed a task force on campus student safety. I am all about the students. I have been that way from Day One. It was November of 2010 and we were going into Thanksgiving, finals, graduation, Christmas. Promptly upon the campus beginning in January 2011, I established this committee. It was a student-dominated committee with a lot of staff representation. I personally had conversations with Michael Wright, then president of the student body, and this is in the public domain, that we had sessions about campus safety generally, which included but was not limited to safety with respect to interpersonal violence. That task force met. It met regularly. We have a record of those meetings, and that was a task force that I established. And so that task force met regularly and it ripened into the creation of a committee on campus safety that included a Title IX set of issues [regarding sexual violence], so I believe — not having seen the totality of the Pepper Hamilton findings of fact — that the administration was working all along, including designating a Title IX coordinator, early on. I had that designation given to a senior officer.

Q     That program didn’t come into existence till 2014?

A    You see? We haven’t communicated as well as we should and we have not told our story as well as we should. So the campus safety committee, which now had very senior people in the administration — you see, we had listened to the voices of the students, they’d held hearings, and I attended one of those hearings and participated in a panel (discussion). Again, we want a safe campus, period. That was our overarching goal, which again included Title IX issues. Now what you’re referring to is, in November 2014, the creation of a full-time Title IX coordinator. But there had been prior Title IX coordinators. Pepper Hamilton, I gather, says it should have come sooner. My response to that — but I have not been able to speak out about this — is that we were in the mainstream of university life in what other universities were doing. Other universities did not appoint full-time Title IX coordinators as early as Baylor University did. That having been said, I had an interview with Pepper Hamilton, but I was not given access to their full findings and recommendations or given an opportunity to say what I’m saying now on public record.

Q     But why, for instance, was Sam Ukwuachu allowed to remain on the football team after his indictment for sexual assault [in June 2014]? Did that message not get to you?

A    I don’t recall that specifically, but I need to put this in perspective. We have, I believe, a wonderful and honorable football coach in Art Briles. He reports to someone who, likewise, has resigned, Ian McCaw. And I believe Ian McCaw to be honorable as well. I meet regularly with Ian McCaw and the reason that I have accepted this responsibility, and obviously I serve at the board’s pleasure, but the reason I’ve accepted this responsibility is because the buck stops here with respect to athletics. So as in the military, as in the Navy, “It happened on your watch.” Whether I agree or disagree with the fairness of the judgment, the wisdom of the judgment, it is the judgment of the board of regents.

Q     You mention Coach Briles. Is there any evidence that he was hiding anything or deserved to be fired?

A    I have not seen — I am aware of some of the facts. I’m behind a veil of ignorance — not totally, I don’t want to overstate it. I was privy to significant briefings by Pepper Hamilton sitting with the board on Wednesday evening, May 11, and then briefly on Thursday, May 12. Leaders of the board, I was told as recently as yesterday, have had 30 hours of briefings by Pepper Hamilton, so I can’t sit in judgment as a hopefully fair person when I’m behind a veil of ignorance. And I haven’t heard what Coach Briles (said).

Q     But do you think it was justified? I mean, you worked with the guy a long time.

A    I can’t sit in judgment. I don’t have the full panoply of information. I would need, sitting in judgment, to have that full array of relevant information before me to make that judgment. What I know is that this was a decision made by the board of regents. It was not communicated to me as the president and the CEO until it had been done.

Q     There have been some suggestions that students contacted you about problems in this area [of sexual assault], either through email or personally, and that it was a failure, that no one in your office responded.

A    I have absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever. I will say this: The office of the president receives a whole lot of emails. I will also say that whoever is president is not going to see all the emails that come. I have no recollection of it, none whatsoever, and I would think I would remember if it was something of that seriousness. When on Aug. 20, 2015, there was a [media] suggestion that there was a broader issue, I immediately called for an internal investigation — immediately, that day. I said, “If there is a broader issue, then we need to examine it.”

Q     From my reading, it’s obvious that colleges and universities nationwide are dealing with this problem. You can go to the University of Virginia, you can go to the University of Miami, you can go to Duke University. What does effective action on the part of a university president look like in overseeing these matters? What lessons are there for future university presidents?

A    Well, again, let me put this in perspective. When one recognizes and one has a duty of due diligence to spot and then respond to the issues, I believe Baylor University did a responsible job. Did we fall short? Yes. I believe we have been on the path forward for many months and, Bill, I’m going to go ahead and say with respect to the area of interpersonal violence and Title IX, we are just at or near best practices. The Title IX shop under [coordinator] Patty Crawford, I believe, reflects and embodies best practices. And why am I saying that? Because we deal with consultants who monitor and [work] collaboratively [with] the Department of Education. With respect to counseling, this is one area where we fell short. The board of regents came along in a very powerful way in February of this year to augment the counseling activity. I think that’s an area where we failed to grow the infrastructure sufficiently with the fabulous popularity of Baylor University. We’re a very popular place. We’re living through this [tumultuous] period, but we’re a very popular place and the student body keeps growing, even though we’re not trying deliberately to grow the student body. It’s an abundance of riches. We did fail to augment the counseling. I think we are there now. And I meet with [the Department of] Student Life regularly. I believe we are now at best practices with respect to counseling. I hope one of your reporters, if the university approves it, will interview Dr. Cheryl Wooten [psychologist and coordinator of sexual assault prevention] in our counseling center. She has been there and she is an expert on interpersonal violence — on sexual violence specifically. She has a doctorate and, as I say, we need a greater capacity. I want to move to prevention. This is obviously the underlying issue. All of the episodes of which I am aware occurred off campus. We’re responsible in the Title IX sense because these are our students. But it’s off campus.

Q     I heard Vice President for Student Life Kevin Jackson talk about sexual assault with the Texas House Higher Education Committee and this aspect came up.

A    Prevention is so critical and, while we are focusing on Green Dot [a national campaign that seeks to prevent acts of interpersonal violence, such as dating violence, stalking and sexual assault]—

Q     Green Dot?

A    Green Dot came out of the U.S. military and is considered the gold standard with respect to prevention training. And we are working within the Green Dot arena, [through] training and the like. We’ve been very responsive. About “It’s on us” [a Baylor pledge to help keep women and men safe from sexual assault through intervention and awareness] — when you go to any athletic event — “It’s on us” [is there]. These are student-led, guided by the vice president for student life and his very able officers, and I think they’re very able. And it all comes down to caring. We believe we are helping shape and mold the character of our students.

Q     Yet something obviously short-circuited, obviously in the Baylor staff or in athletics. When you look at all this — and I know you haven’t seen all of Pepper Hamilton’s findings — do you have any instinct as to where the trouble might have been?

A    I’d make a perspective point: No institution will achieve perfection with no bad incidents. No institution can be held to that standard. The young man who has been charged and indicted [in May for sexual assault] — the president of a [Baylor] fraternity — had been trained [in preventing sexual assault] the month before.

Q     And the Shawn Oakman arrest [in April] involving partying and alleged sexual assault came after some of this prevention training had gone into gear at Baylor.

A    Shawn was trained. All university athletes have been elaborately trained. I believe Baylor has the culture of a very caring community and I think this community knows it and I know our student body members think it. Not every person [benefits from this] because we hear their voices and we grieve for them. So on occasion the university did not live up to its solemn responsibilities with regard to all of our 16,000 students on campus at any one time. We are a town where our students live and work and eat and play and then at times they go off campus, so one of the things we have really worked on hard with our terrific Baylor police department — I think it’s a great police department and it keeps getting better and better — is: How can we have prevention that is consistent with constitutional rights at off-campus parties? Therein lies, I believe, the venue of deep concern — off-campus parties.

Q     Is there something to be said about the university’s ability to stay informed about student interactions off-campus with outside law enforcement, so that you were in the loop or Coach Briles was in the loop or athletics director Ian McCaw was in the loop? Some of the suggestions are that you were all out of the loop when it came to Baylor students getting into trouble [off-campus].

A    I have a totally different perspective. I just don’t think we were out of the loop. Reasonable minds may differ. I think we sought campus safety. With all respect, I want you to review that timeline [on progress by Baylor administration to address sexual violence]. I have no idea whether Pepper Hamilton reviewed that timeline or not. I just don’t know what information Pepper Hamilton had.

Q     You really are in the dark about Pepper Hamilton, aren’t you?

A    I’m significantly in the dark. I’m not totally in the dark — I don’t want to overstate it — but I am significantly uninformed about the findings or the information that underlines the findings, which I submit, Bill, are more in the nature of conclusions.

Q     I gather from your statement a week ago and some of your comments today that you believe the regents should release that report in the interest of transparency. Is that a fair statement?

A    Yes, but I don’t want to have word quibbles because I’ve heard there will be a report in four months. I want the Pepper Hamilton body of information released to Baylor Nation and the world so we can move forward. I’m eager for there to be a path forward.

Q     When you say full disclosure, what does that constitute?

A    It means full disclosure of the underlying information subject to FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act restrictions] and common decency — the kind of privacy requirements that you as professional journalists honor.

Q     Do you think regents will release it?

A    Bill, I honestly hope that the board of regents, which is filled with honorable men and women who love Baylor, will in fact see fit to embrace a policy of genuine and true transparency. I have been quoting [U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis] Brandeis: “Sunshine is the great disinfectant.”

Q     You get very high marks from many students. Concerning the salvation of a university that has really moved forward the past several years as well as the city of Waco that works in partnership with it, what is the biggest challenge in now moving forward out of this quagmire we’re in?

A    Acceptance of responsibility, which comes with full transparency. I frequently quote scripture. Our Lord, as I view him: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” So we need then to acknowledge our mistakes. I’ve already acknowledged our responsibility. I don’t have all the facts, but I’ve acknowledged the ultimate responsibility that rests with the CEO. So let’s get all the facts out. They’re coming out and personnel actions (are) being taken incrementally. I think we’re on the path forward. Now we have to have sunshine at Baylor.

Q     You’ve mentioned that you will be doing teaching duties at Baylor Law School. Will you and Alice continue to live in Waco?

A    Oh, yes.

Q     Some of your fans fear you will move to Virginia.

A    There are those who are strongly suggesting it. For my part, and I’m only going to speak for myself in this conversation, I love Waco. I love Baylor. This has become our home. And I love the Baylor Law School. I love the faculty. I love that this school is so connected with the legal profession. I must say that too many law schools are disconnected, willingly and willfully, from the legal profession.

Q     Why?

A    Because they choose to be academic. We have strong academics at the Baylor Law School, but we have strong, deep, historic ties to the legal profession — to judges, to lawyers and to public policy individuals who have been trained in the law. I treasure that and I treasure that culture. I’ve long admired the Baylor Law School. The legal profession through the American Bar Association has for 25 years counseled and browbeaten the 200 American Bar Association law schools to reconnect with the legal profession. Baylor never disconnected.

Q     It seems that a lot of people really want your head on a platter. Why is this? Is it because of your political past, the [Clinton] investigations in the 1990s? Why is there this rush to judgment about you?

A    That’s a question about our culture and our politics. I have frequently lifted up the value of civility — I did so recently at the National Constitution Center — that we need to be able to have conversations as a free people. You’ve heard me say, because you faithfully attend many of our events, including at the Baylor Law School, that debate should be, as Supreme Court Justice [William] Brennan said in New York Times v. Sullivan, “robust and uninhibited.” But he went on to say that frequently the conversation makes us uncomfortable. I believe the American people need to relearn the lessons of civility and to honor the ties that bind us together as a free people. I want the Baylor Law School to be a part of that restoration of a culture of civility, which we honor at the Baylor Law School, where people can disagree without being disagreeable. My friend, Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University, puts it very well: “The world has become a shouting match.” There is no reason for the world to become a shouting match. Let’s honor one another as Americans, whether we love Bernie or don’t love Bernie, or Donald, or Secretary of State Clinton. Let’s recognize our bonds. I draw from Lincoln. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about Mr. Lincoln and all that he did and the way that he did it. Lincoln called on us to set aside malice — “with malice toward none and charity toward all.” That’s what the American people are, I hope, in the future. That’s [how] the American people have been emerging out of the Civil War.

Q     The past two weeks have been a tumult of news releases, rumors, blogs, administration releases, regent releases. Some said you had been fired last week before regents demoted you from the presidency. Today’s announcement is that you will not remain as chancellor. How did discussions about your remaining chancellor go? I mean, were regents relieved [when you decided to no longer remain as chancellor]? Many people see you as a major asset to the university.

A    I don’t think it’s appropriate at this time to comment on my conversations with the regents about my own situation.

Q     Have you spoken with regents since the Pepper Hamilton outline was issued?

A    Yes — not as a board but as individuals have reached out to me. The short answer is yes.

Q     How do you feel Baylor has handled this scandal — and, by the same token, how has the press and the Baylor community handled this crisis?

A    From my vantage point, the university would have been better served by greater openness and transparency from Day One. Again, I called for it, but Pepper Hamilton reported to the board of regents, and the board of regents determined what the policy would be with respect to public disclosure. I’m talking about the last nine months. I never had control or authority over the report. Again, we were the subjects of the investigation. The Pepper Hamilton report was of the administration, including the athletics program. It was of us.

Q     I watched the interview that ESPN did with you this morning and it seemed some of your critics were taking exception to your use of words such as “interpersonal violence” and “allegations.” I’ve seen you in different venues and I know that’s how you speak. I know you embrace legal terms, such as “allegation,” which is something we in the [mainstream] news media use as well. But how do you respond to those who feel that this is what someone called “fluff” language?

A    The term “interpersonal violence” is the term of the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. That’s what we deal with when we deal with Title IX. Sexual violence is a subset of the overall category under Title IX and that is interpersonal violence, which may take many different forms — harassment, stalking and the like.

Q     I know you’ve replayed a lot of the past nine months — maybe the last six years — over and over in your mind about all this. Is there one thing you think to yourself, “Boy, if I had just talked to this person or given the boot to that person, none of this might have happened”?

A    On this day of fatigue, I don’t have an answer to that — not at this time. Because I look back on the six years — the sexual violence matter aside — these are times of great promise and achievement. When I arrived to begin my service exactly six years ago today, little did I know that the Big 12 was falling apart.

Q     If I recall right, it happened the same week you got here.

A    On the very day that I arrived. Then it became known on the second day, so do you see what I’m saying? I have done my very best to steer Baylor through crises but at the same time to stay on what I call Track I. Track I is building Baylor. That’s the enduring question for every single person who loves Baylor: How in a small way or a grand way can I build Baylor? That’s my job — or was my job till very recently. My hope had been that, in the role of chancellor or whatever title that might be, I would be encouraged to continue to build Baylor. That’s Track I. Track II is crisis management and actually the Big 12 (incident) was both Track I and Track II. And what I’ve encouraged all of my colleagues to do — we have to as a matter of due diligence and faithful stewardship — is manage the issues on Track II, the real crises. But at the same time we cannot be deflected from the enduring question of Track I, which is building Baylor. And I’m very thankful for the team effort that resulted in Baylor flourishing over the past six years. Some would say it has enjoyed unprecedented flourishing. I leave that, Bill, for others to conclude. What I do know relevantly is that Baylor’s relationship with the community is at its zenith and I am personally hopeful that this deep relationship and the deep love of Baylor for Waco, and I believe of Waco for Baylor, will continue.

Q     You had an associate dean for student conduct who got yelled at by a local prosecutor [during the Ukwuachu sexual assault trial] and has been mentioned in some of these ESPN reports as less than empathetic to students—

A    Bill, I’m going to cut that off because I have not seen the Pepper Hamilton findings with respect to — and I won’t mention her name. I’m just not going to go there because I can’t sit in judgment of someone when I haven’t seen all the facts. That’s unfair.

Q     But—

A    There really is no “but.” If people come forward with criticisms of a senior officer, then those have to be assessed, and I assume the board of regents had a careful assessment. Now, I will say, I had interactions with Pepper Hamilton in my own long interview with them that suggested their concerns in certain personnel respects, but I don’t think in fairness you should ask me to address those.

Q     The board of regents is an interesting group of some 36—

A    There are 30 voting members, and this is one of the things I am very proud of. I encourage the board, but the board gets the credit—

Q     That’s a large board.

A    It is. But I encouraged the board leadership to open the membership to students and faculty, and the board was very receptive to that and I’m very grateful that we have an outstanding faculty regent in Lori Baker and her predecessor who served for two years, Dr. Todd Still, dean of our beloved seminary, and our student regent. We now have two student regents who just assumed office today and that’s an expansion. We had it on an experimental basis with Kelly Rapp, the president of our student body, who did a wonderful job as student regent, bringing the student voice into the midst of the regent assembly, both in formal sessions and those precious interactions that they have. So I think it’s been helpful to the regents to have both the faculty and student regent voices. And now we have the alumni voices and I’m very eager to see this. As of today, we have three regents (representing alumni). I’m very proud of this. The resolution, and the regents get lots of credit for this, of the long, long, deep feud with the Baylor Alumni Association—

Q     Well, do you —

A    May I finish? This is so important. It was under-reported, if I may say so, by my local newspaper in light of the controversy, but I know that resolution of a controversy isn’t as newsworthy as the controversy itself. But we’re very thankful — and allow me to finish: The Baylor Alumni Association has in peace come inside under the umbrella as the Baylor Line Foundation with the dedication to raising money for student scholarship. That is what Baylor is trying to do at its best: peace and harmony. I wanted peace, I wanted unity, let’s all get in the same boat and row in the same direction. I am so thankful for the leadership of the board of regents for helping guide and steer the process by which we finally got peace.

Q     But do you feel like you got a good shake from Baylor regents?

A    I am not going to comment. I have done what I have done as a matter of conscience.

Q     Last question: What would you regard as your top two or three accomplishments as Baylor president? I obviously listed some in my column last weekend, but you might be thinking of something entirely different that I didn’t even consider.

A    He loved the students. He fought hard for the students. He loved the faculty. He deeply respected the faculty and the principle of shared governance.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.