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Changing mindsets, outlooks amid uproar at Baylor: Q&A with BU regent chair Ron Murff, interim president David Garland

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For nearly a year, Baylor University officials have struggled with unrelenting controversy concerning sexual assaults, some involving Baylor athletes. In the wake of the Aug. 20, 2015, conviction of former Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu for sexual assault — and the surprisingly light sentence he was given by jurors — outrage erupted in news and social media nationwide, much of it placing the spotlight on sexual-assault victims who alleged their complaints to Baylor officials were greeted with incompetence, insensitivity or indifference. After a nine-month investigation by the Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton law firm, the Baylor University Board of Regents on May 26 demoted Baylor President Ken Starr, suspended with intent to fire head football coach Art Briles and sanctioned athletic director Ian McCaw. McCaw has since resigned and Briles recently settled his football contract with Baylor.

On Thursday Ron Murff, chair of the Baylor University Board of Regents and a Dallas businessman, and Baylor interim President David Garland, a professor of Christian Scriptures at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, sat down with Trib opinion editor Bill Whitaker and staff writer Phillip Ericksen to discuss controversial decisions involving Starr, Briles and McCaw; reasons for the lack of a published report regarding Pepper Hamilton findings; and forging stronger lines of communication between the athletic department and Title IX officials in charge of addressing allegations of sexual violence.

Q    Let’s talk about the committees recently formed to implement the 105 recommendations offered by the Pepper Hamilton law firm in May. Given status reports you’ve received, what appears to be the most challenging recommendation to implement?

David Garland    There are 10 task force teams. I meet with them once a week because we consider this so important. We’ve made incredible progress. It’s an all-hands-on-deck thing. This was a wake-up call for us, so we’re really taking this very seriously. We’ve invested a great deal of money in this and at the end I would hope Baylor is seen as a model [for how to address these problems].

Q    So what’s going to be the toughest part to implement?

Garland    Fixing policies, procedures, staffing — those kinds of things — are the easy part. For me, it wasn’t in the recommendations but changing the culture and root causes of these assaults. I just came from a meeting with Student Affairs and we’re developing in the fall masculinity programs — specifically what it means to be a man. One of our regents, Chris Howard, president of Robert Morris University, is doing it at his school. He’s talked about how manhood is usually associated with the three B’s — the billfold, the bedroom and the ballpark. We must redefine that.

Q    So you’re saying culture is the big problem.

Garland    I was in a hyper-masculine environment [growing up] and went to an all-male high school, naval academy and then the Navy, and I never heard people talking about assaults. Prostitutes but not assaults. So something has happened. And from my perspective at a Christian research university, we need to be trying to do things that will prevent this.

Ron Murff    It’s a national issue. It’s difficult to say it’s a cultural issue because culture is a big word and can encompass a lot of things. Obviously, we’re not the only ones dealing with the issue. But ultimately that doesn’t matter to David and me. As he said, not only do we need to take the [Pepper Hamilton] recommendations and implement them as quickly as we can but also make sure we’re asking the right questions, that we have the right people and that we have it all properly staffed, properly resourced. But how do you get out in front of it? What can we do to solve it or mitigate it?

Q    Let’s look at one aspect of sexual assault that Kevin Jackson, Baylor vice president for student life, raised when he spoke with state lawmakers this year — specifically how some unhealthy impulses can develop in groups characterized by insularity such as fraternities and football teams. I’m certainly not saying that’s where such campus-oriented crimes always occur but he said that’s one area where Baylor must focus, given the sexual-assault convictions of former Baylor football players Tevin Elliott and Sam Ukwuachu. [Another former Baylor football player, Shawn Oakman, has been indicted for sexual assault.]

Murff    I was hearing a report today about something during freshman Baylor Line Camp [an orientation activity]. It’s how to be a friend. What does that mean? How do you connect with people so that, if you see them in a difficult environment, you’re more likely to say, “Come with me. Let’s get you out of this.” Or you physically step in. It’s how to be a friend — and being a friend is not just being nice to somebody. It’s sometimes taking action where action needs to be taken. We should know that as individuals as we grow up. Certainly we should reinforce that as we parent our children. I know many of us do that, but maybe not all people have that relationship [and upbringing], so we need to make sure we are being as proactive as we can be.

Garland    Dr. Jackson was also discussing how we change fraternity culture and pledging culture to a mentoring culture, with seniors, not sophomores, doing the mentoring. It also means increasing adult supervision of the fraternity. So we’re very aware of the problems and these are the harder things. Changing [bureaucratic] structures? We’ve done that already.

Q    Given that a new school year is about to start, what would students, parents, faculty and even student athletes notice as being different in returning to Baylor this fall, as opposed to, say, two years ago?

Garland    Title IX training. From Day One, we’re doing Title IX training for all of our students. It’s also true for the staff.

Murff    Some of these things started last fall. Before the judge and jury and all the things that happened to Sam [Ukwuachu], the university had already planned to do the “It’s On Us” campaign with the first football game. [“It’s On Us” is an awareness campaign to battle sexual violence on college campuses.] There was a conversation about whether we should go ahead with it. We had a video about how to report an incident, what to be sensitive to and how you can help someone you know out of a situation — just things to be careful about. So that started even last fall. But I think the administration has made an even more concerted effort to make sure we train all the new students as part of freshman orientation.

Q    Title IX alludes to a “preponderance of evidence” in allegations of sexual violence. [The preponderance-of-evidence standard is usually embraced in civil cases, not criminal cases.] And a university is decidedly not a court of law. I would imagine it’s hard to make the right call on a lot of the cases that come forward.

Garland    And when you have respondents making appeals, it is quite different than a court of law where the standard of guilt is “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Q    There have been some interesting seminars across the nation about the challenges in this, including respecting the rights of the accused as well as those making accusations.

Garland    We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Q    How much pressure is a university under regarding Title IX, given that some of its prescriptions appear to be more guidance than regulation? There are some 200 universities under federal investigation [by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights] regarding sexual violence.

Garland    To be honest with you, the fact that regents hired Pepper Hamilton — I was talking with [Pepper Hamilton attorney] Gina [Smith] yesterday and she guaranteed me that, because they’re so well known to [the Office of Civil Rights] we are going to be protected just because we hired them.

Murff    But whether it’s regulation or guidance or whatever, it might not seem fair to the university because it is difficult to make those decisions. You have people who have two different versions of a story. It’s emotional, it’s salacious, sadly, and [the question arises] as to whether the court system would be a better place for that. But then you [risk jamming up] the court system.

Garland    We also send [cases examined by university officials involving Title IX allegations] to outside legal advisers to go through this to advise me. They [consider] briefs to be able to evaluate the evidence.

Q    So let’s say there’s an instance where there’s a “preponderance of evidence” that someone has committed sexual assault. The harshest punishment for that [at Baylor] is expulsion. So what is involved when someone is found to have committed sexual assault through a preponderance of evidence, yet is not expelled?

Garland    I haven’t had enough experience with that. So far there have been suspensions, so I have not had that experience and, to be honest with you, I’m relying on legal investigations and advice. I call them up and they help me make such decisions. But it’s very complex and hard.

Q    How have channels of communication between the Baylor Title IX office and the athletic department been changed?

Garland    We did not have Title IX properly implemented [previously], so it’s very clear now that, if you hear reports or rumors [of sexual violence], they must be reported to Title IX.

Murff    The policy has always been that if someone came to the coach and maybe had information about something like this, it should go to Title IX.

Garland    Responsible employees at Baylor University — that’s nearly all of us — have to report [Title IX offenses].

Q    So that was not happening?

Garland    That clearly was not happening. That’s on us because we didn’t have it fully implemented and, to be honest with you, we’re not the only ones that haven’t.

Q    Some Baylor sports fans have questioned whether it’s fair for administration and regents to hold any coach too responsible for such things. When McLane Stadium construction was nearly complete, Baylor held a press conference and all these Baylor officials talked about various aspects of this $266 million state-of-the-art stadium and donors and traffic patterns. They finally got to Coach Briles, who just turned to everyone and said, “Well, you know, my chief responsibility is making sure we win football games.” So just what is the right balance for a coach with athletic priorities and complicated Title IX obligations?

Garland    I don’t think there’s any balance. If you have sexual assaults, it’s unacceptable. I don’t care if we go 0-12, we cannot have sexual assaults. And the reality is we intend to run a program that will be successful. The other night Baylor interim head football coach Jim Grobe said, “We’re going to recruit five-star character athletes — not just five-star athletes but five-star character athletes. I loved the Trib editorial where you talked about Coach Briles, who is a very honorable man and an outstanding coach, and how he had this second-chance philosophy [for many of his players and prospects]. That’s very admirable. But it does create some problems.

Q    Well, it can create a huge risk for other students if certain student athletes evolve into sexual predators.

Garland    Absolutely. And we had some serious problems with transfer students.

Murff    It’s a difficult issue for the coach, for any of the coaches. If someone comes to them [with allegations of a sexual assault] — however this information comes to them, through rumor or innuendo, from hearing it in the weight room or through whatever sources — I think the rule not just here but at universities across the country is clear. If you have a discipline problem where the concern is not football-related but is possibly grade-related or attendance-related or parking-ticket-related or character-related, it has to go over [to other campus administrators specially tasked with handling those problems]. I mean, it’s a natural conflict of interest otherwise. How can a coach coach the athlete — deciding when he plays, doesn’t play, whether he plays first team, second team, third team — and then also make a decision about how involved was [that player] in whatever is being alleged [off the field]? That’s a conflict of interest. Common sense would tell you that, in addition to Title IX, when you have some of these issues, you need to kick them over to the administration and to the proper part of the school that has special training in things like trauma and, say, how to ask sensitive questions.

Garland    And it takes special expertise to understand and interpret traumatized witnesses. Because of the trauma, their [responses and explanations] are not necessarily linear, so you have to have special training to understand someone like that, someone who has been traumatized.

Q    So when Patty Crawford was hired as a full-time Title IX coordinator in November 2014, would it not be a simple matter of telling the football coach: “Hey, here’s her cell phone number, here’s her email, if you hear anything, tell her.” That’s a short meeting. I mean, I’m sure they knew Patty was working there. So what went wrong in that communication?

Murff    I’m not sure I can tell you what went wrong, but it did go wrong. The communication may very well have happened. I would assume that it did. It was policy. The policy was that any person across campus — not just administrators, not just faculty, but almost everybody — was responsible. Common sense would tell you: “If I hear that kind of information as a coach, I don’t want to be the one to make that decision. That needs to get to an unrelated party who has more training or more knowledge in these matters. It’s just not proper for me to do that.” Why that didn’t happen when those issues came up with football in this example? Why didn’t they move them over [to Title IX]? I don’t know. But they didn’t and that’s what we found, that’s what we disclosed and that’s what we have to fix.

Q    With the football team being on the field, experiencing great success the past few years, was there any concern that football is just too big at Baylor? I mean, does this involve an ego thing for the players or the coaches? Is this taking up too much of everybody’s time?

Murff    Well, you certainly have to think of that. There’s no reason why you can’t be a successful educational institution with an excellent football team. Those are not mutually exclusive. It happens at a lot of places. I don’t know why we can’t do both. We weren’t. We have disclosed that there were some issues with what happened in certain instances and we’ve taken action to try and rectify those problems. But you can be successful. You can do both and a lot of places do it. And that’s going to be one of our objectives.

Q    We’ve received a lot of columns and letters from people — mostly from your constituency — who have expressed anger over demotions, suspensions or firings involving popular and high-ranking Baylor officials. I know you’ve previously declined to discuss these with us and others, citing them as personnel issues. So let me ask this hypothetically: What expectations do you have for a university president now as opposed to two years ago? What do presidents at Baylor need to be doing now [in regard to Title IX issues] that maybe past presidents have not addressed?

Murff    Even in the findings of fact and briefings, we’ve outlined some of this. There were some things that the administration was not doing. We did not implement Title IX properly. We did not have it properly funded.

Q    But the argument has been made that Baylor was actually ahead of the curve in that regard by adding Title IX duties to staff before many other colleges and universities did. [Starr has said Title IX duties were assigned to a senior staffer before Patty Crawford’s arrival as full-time Title IX coordinator in fall 2014.]

Murff    I’m talking about back to 2011 and 2012, some of the earlier years. We did institute a full-time Title IX coordinator with Patty in fall 2014. Maybe that should have been done earlier with all the regulations—

Q    Even though one could argue some of this Title IX material is more guidance than actual regulation?

Murff    I think you could go back and do some research. It was guidance. But I think you were also starting to see the federal government through the [U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights] get very serious about that guidance. It was a little more than just guidance because of the investigations that were coming back around. So that was known.

Q    One thing that strikes some local folks is how much Baylor regents invested in a president who reached out to the surrounding community in such meaningful ways, partnerships that President Garland was reassuring community leaders at today’s luncheon would continue. And, of course, you finally had a winning football coach who in many ways paved the way for a new, on-campus, riverfront stadium. What do you say when people corner you and say, “Why didn’t you just take this list of recommendations, implement them and keep Judge Starr and Coach Briles?”

Murff    When we started the investigation a year ago, when Pepper Hamilton was engaged, you knew there was likely to be a difficult ending. You don’t start many of those types of investigations, where you give someone full, unfettered access, without there being some issues. You didn’t know what it was going to be, but certainly there was a thought that it wasn’t going to be a soft landing. As we came into May and heard the findings, got the information from Pepper Hamilton, heard the details of the victims, what had happened and what had not been done properly, as we started trying to decide what we would do with this information, from the beginning our thought process was: “We need to do what’s right.” Certainly, we are all friends with Judge Starr, we are all friends with Coach Briles, and we certainly know how beneficial both of those men and their families have been to Baylor. We realize that and we’ve enjoyed that. It’s been fun. But we also told ourselves we needed to do what was right. That’s a judgment, certainly, but as we heard everything we heard, as we were walking through [all this] and trying to make our decisions, we felt like the actions we took were reasonable.

Q    No second thoughts?

Murff    No. We saw these actions as reasonable and proper, considering the information we got. It was sad.

Q    Consider Baylor alumnus and Austin attorney Bill Crocker and his column in the Trib this month asking, “Why couldn’t the board just have ordered these things be implemented without firing anyone?”

Murff    It was the weight of all the issues, the weight of all the information. It was the weight of the facts we heard, it was the weight of the stories of the investigation and the survivors and the difficulties and how we had let them down and how we could have done better and should have done better. It was just a combination of all of that, given that procedures weren’t followed, policies weren’t followed, things weren’t done when they should have been done on a timely basis as far as making sure we had Title IX properly implemented and all the things that we disclosed about where we failed and where we were slow and what we were not doing correctly. So it was that combination, the weight of all those issues, that got us to that point. And, again, it was 30 people hearing this information, not just me, not just one or two of us.

Q    Well, I’ve heard the board vote was pretty narrow.

Garland    No.

Q    It was not?

Garland    You’ve heard that? That was highly misleading.

Murff    I’m not going to get into that. You may have heard what the vote is. Thirty people who care about Baylor, care about the students, care about Judge Starr, care about Coach, care about being able to win football games, given the weight of information, came to the conclusion that this was the best decision.

Q    When Judge Starr resigned as chancellor some days later, I remember in an interview he used the expression about the captain going down with the ship. Is that how you saw it regarding Judge Starr and Coach Briles — that these guys are in charge? Is it more that rather than specific things they did?

Murff    It’s probably a little bit of both, but, again, it was just the weight of the information, the combined aggregation of what we were hearing. Yes, they were in charge — that’s obvious, they were in those roles — as well as Ian [McCaw]. From our perspective, we believed this [action] indicated we were pretty serious about the issues. I mean, very few schools would take action against those three positions all at once.

Q    It was a pretty sweeping decision.

Garland    I don’t think there’s any school that has done this. I don’t know of any school that did a findings of fact from an investigation [such as this] that then published them.

Q    You and President Garland have talked about how everyone at Baylor needs to be involved in addressing the problem of sexual violence. I notice some of the Pepper Hamilton recommendations specifically address the regents. For instance, what’s this about making sure regents don’t have conflicts of interest?

Murff    Well, some of the things in those recommendations would be standard recommendations that Pepper Hamilton makes regarding Title IX-type governance issues and how regents should be involved, what questions they should be asking, whether they can receive training to make sure they understand all the issues.

Q    Is there something that Baylor regents need to be doing?

Murff    A lot of that is more generic — making sure we understand that we’re asking the right questions. I mean, we were asking the questions, we were getting answers, but I guess the answers were not as accurate as they could have been. I’m talking about over the last three or four years. But we were asking questions about Title IX.

Q    Is there anything Baylor regents could have done differently to have ensured the efficient Title IX implementation you wanted? I mean, I understand regents have other obligations — businesses, families, other responsibilities — but don’t regents also bear some responsibility in all of this?

Murff    Well, certainly we have fiduciary responsibility for the institution. That’s understood. We were asking those questions, we were getting information about how things were going. Again, we volunteer, we’re not here all the time, we have to properly collaborate with the administration. The administration is the one that has the capability, the resources, to make sure they have the right people doing the right things and have the offices staffed properly.

Q    Well, for instance, there’s a Pepper Hamilton recommendation about the composition of the Baylor board of regents. It does seem the board swells and shrinks in size with some regularity. Are there plans to change the composition of the board?

Murff    The composition? No. We’re always making sure we have great representation on our board from all of our constituents. We had 30 people on the board back at the end of May, we added four, so there are 34 voting members now. That’s an average-sized board.

Q    And I notice that there are now three Baylor Line Foundation [formerly Baylor Alumni Association] members. How are they?

Murff    Well, they just started. They’re great.

Q    I’ll ask you about them in a year. [Laughter in the room.]

Murff    Let me correct you on that. They are not Baylor Line Foundation members. They are three alumni that the Baylor Line Foundation and we agreed upon to be able to serve in that capacity. But we’re always looking at governance issues. Again, our board’s an average-sized board. I think TCU has 50. SMU has a lot [42]. So this board’s size isn’t out of the ordinary. I think an average board size for a private institution is in the low 30s. We’ve been as low as 25. Step back a few years, I think we were closer to 40. We’re always looking at that. But board size didn’t have an impact on all this.

Q    What about new standards for board members? That was in the Pepper Hamilton recommendations. And when President Garland says these are mandates, that makes us think they are going to happen. So are there new standards?

Murff    We always look at — well, standards may be a difficult word — but characteristics. We’re always making sure that we have board guidelines as to what requirements there are. Certainly we want them to be involved at the school. Some of them may have more philanthropy capacity than others. Some may bring more spiritual capacity. We have certain pastors who are on the board. Twenty-five percent of the board is nominated through the Baptist General Convention of Texas. So our board is always changing. Step back a few years ago, you always had to be a Baptist. You always had to be a member of a Baptist church. Now that has been changed to where at least 25 percent can be members of a church other than a Baptist church. So there’s moving and changing and evolving and making sure we’re embracing best practices. That’s what we’re looking at there.

Q    So what is the rationale of not having a published report of a comprehensive nature? I know regents put together and released an outline of “findings of fact” on May 26 that accompanied Pepper Hamilton’s long list of 105 recommendations, but you say there was no full written report produced?

Murff    That is correct.

Q    But why?

Murff    Well, I think there are several issues. Pepper Hamilton had finished their investigations, their interviews, all of their work in mid-April or early May. We wanted the information. We wanted to be able to act. We knew they had concluded and we wanted to be able to take action and make adjustments where adjustments were necessary — not necessarily personnel — and we wanted to know what the issues were. That was a part of it. The other part of it was, and you’ve heard this before, you do have laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act [FERPA] that are very rigid about what can be said and disclosed to the public —

Q    Even with redactions?

Garland    Let me interject. Even with the findings of fact, people have been able to discern who the victims were and have been hounding them.

Murff    So we had FERPA, we had confidentiality issues, certainly we had attorney-client privilege issues and then we were getting advice from Pepper Hamilton as it relates to reports of what David is alluding to. The University of Virginia was another campus that had similar issues to ours [involving reports of sexual assault and gang rape over several years not properly investigated by UVA]. They did a report and redacted all the names, then went to the [Department of Education Office of Civil Rights] and said, “We want to issue this report.” And the government said, “No, you can’t,” because of what David just indicated: There was too much information, even with the names redacted.

Q    So the federal government discouraged that?

Garland    They didn’t discourage it, they forbade it.

Q    Here at the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative today, you had an appreciation luncheon for Mayor Kyle Deaver and community leaders, affirming ongoing partnerships between Baylor University and local initiatives in such areas as battling poverty and bolstering public education. Judge Starr did seem to preside over an awful lot of community outreach, much of it also begun when Dr. Garland served as interim president during a previous tenure. How does what has transpired at Baylor over the past year impact the relationship between Waco and what Baylor regent and local civic leader Clifton Robinson contends is Waco’s No. 1 industry — Baylor?

Garland    I don’t see how it impacts things negatively. We’re going to continue to do this. That relationship is not going to change in any way so far as I know. I mean, people might worry about the negative impact happening here also happening for the city of Waco. But as I said before, when bad things happen in Waco, that also affects us here in things such as recruiting. And vice versa. From my perspective, the synergy between us — well, we’re bound at the hip and I think that’s valuable. As Baylor has thrived, Waco has thrived. And it is an upward curve.

Q    In my conversations with Mr. Robinson, he voices enormous optimism about the future of Baylor in the wake of all this scandal. What does he know that we don’t?

Murff    Well, we have a great university. There’s no doubt about that. Our mission is to educate these young men and women. You know the mission statement — we do this by integrating academic excellence and our Christian commitment. That’s a unique mission. I think Clifton has every right to be optimistic because of that. We’ve got great faculty, great staff, we’ve got great facilities. We’ve been able just recently to attract a very excellent athletic director who has just been named. I think we’ll be able to attract an excellent football coach. We’ll start the presidential search at the right time, here in the next little bit, and I think we’ll be able to attract an excellent candidate to be successful as our president. There’s a lot of people doing great things here, great research, just as we see in this room [a BRIC lab involved in solar research]. And we have a lot of great student athletes. It would be grossly unfair to paint all of these football athletes as problem. They are not. I don’t know them all, but the ones I’ve been in front of are wonderful kids. I would be proud to call them my son. But we just need to challenge them. We need to challenge all of our students to be the whole person and be the best man, the best woman, the best student, the best engineer, the best accountant or the best lawyer as they get out of school.

Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.