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Forcing Baylor University regents into the sunlight: Q&A with Bears for Leadership Reform

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The Nov. 10 press conference and rally of the newly formed Bears for Leadership Reform at Waco’s Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum comes at a volatile time in Baylor University history. The long-embattled, secretive Baylor University Board of Regents and the football team’s assistant coaches have lately sparred on social media and in the pages of national newspapers over former head football coach Art Briles’ culpability in the sexual-assault scandal that has crippled the university’s once-lofty ambitions.

Fallout continues in devastating fashion over Title IX coordinator Patty Crawford’s October departure after clashing with at least some Baylor officials over efforts to address sexual-assault victims and prevent attacks. Questions have intensified over regents’ decision in May to dismiss Briles and Baylor President Ken Starr at the conclusion of an investigation into the scandal by the Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton law firm, even as regents now employ the G.F. Bunting public relations firm, specialists in “reputation management,” to better articulate and defend their decisions, including implementation of Pepper Hamilton’s 105 recommended reforms.

Now Bears for Leadership Reform, made up of high-profile donors and alumni, demands not only a full report of Pepper Hamilton findings (rather than the mere board outline released last spring) but also significant changes in protocol to ensure future transparency and accountability of Baylor regents. In this Nov. 10 Trib editorial board Q&A, Bears for Leadership Reform leaders — Houston attorney and prominent Baylor donor John Eddie Williams (for whom the football field at McLane Stadium is named), former Texas Gov. Mark White and former regent Emily Tinsley — all Baylor alumni — discuss the group’s aims and goals, as well as the contempt and indifference with which they say they’ve been greeted by Baylor regents.

Q    A resilient movement to bring back former head football coach Art Briles exists. Is that what this new group, Bears for Leadership Reform, is about?

John Eddie Williams    Absolutely not. As members of the Baylor family, this is about leadership reform. We’ve got to change the culture, we’ve got to fix the problem and we think the way to do that is to change the leadership. We have a board that has appeared to be tone-deaf. I don’t know who they’re listening to, but they’ve gone underground in this situation. I told people today [at the Bears for Leadership Reform rally], “This should be the board of regents up here speaking to this group.” We had 650 people. We have 9,000 likes [on Facebook] and 40,000 watched online, so we’ve touched 40,000 to 50,000 people on this issue already in some form or fashion.

Q    Your name is out there on the football field at the new stadium. You’re a prominent lawyer. I don’t understand this long-running divide between Baylor regents and people such as yourself who have obviously been extremely generous with Baylor or are prominent sons and daughters of Baylor. Does this go back to all the battles between alumni and former President Robert B. Sloan Jr. years ago?

Williams    I wasn’t involved in that at all. The disconnect you’re talking about doesn’t make sense to us. It doesn’t make sense to us that the board wouldn’t come out and speak to the Baylor family. When you have a problem, you get together and talk about it and, to my knowledge, the only thing the Baylor board has done has given snippets to “60 Minutes” and The Wall Street Journal. I mean, have you sat down with them?

Q    Just a couple of times, primarily with Chairman Ron Murff and President David Garland.

Williams    Therein lies the issue. It seems to us there should be such transparency by the board. We have in our group people like Emily here who have years of experience on the board, including two former regent chairmen in Drayton McLane and Gale Galloway. There’s tremendous disconnect between the board and alumni. We want to be a voice for alumni, students, faculty — anybody who thinks there have been failures at the board level.

Q    Where did this disconnect begin?

Williams    I don’t know the answer to that. I can tell you as an alum, it’s always been a situation of if things were going well, then the board was doing its job. It’s kind of like a referee during a game. If the referee is doing a good job, no one notices them. And if the board’s doing a good job, all this shouldn’t be an issue. But Baylor unfortunately has a cloud over it as a place of excessive sexual assaults. Any sexual assault would be excessive. But that’s not the Baylor I went to and that’s not the Baylor any of us believes should exist. We believe there’s been a series of mistakes made by this board and misjudgments and poor decisions and there needs to be transparency. And yet it seems they’ve adopted a bunker mentality and won’t come out and speak with people. It seems to me after every board meeting there ought to be some minutes, that we ought to know who’s on what committee, know how people voted, what the issues were. And we ought to know the board’s bylaws, if they’re signing any confidentiality oaths, which we hear they are. Transparency is good for governance and certainly governance at Baylor. Now, sure, they ought to be able to go into executive session if they’re discussing things that are truly proprietary that should not be shared. We understand that.

Q    But haven’t regents for decades conducted their meetings behind closed doors?

Williams    Perhaps they have. But we’re now in a crisis at Baylor and it’s my sense if you had a vote of confidence put out to students, alumni and faculty about this board, it would not go well for them. We all want a board we can support and right now we need some disclosure to figure out how we got into this situation. We should be setting an example for campus security. We should be setting an example for Title IX [compliance]. And we should be setting an example for openness.

Q    Has Baylor reached a size where transparency is more relevant than in the days when it was a small Baptist college?

Mark White     The way the state operates, [former] state Sen. Don Adams for one and [former state Rep.] Stan Schlueter passed open-records and open-meetings laws that everyone in the press across this state applauded. And, yes, there was all this gloom and doom from the insiders down in Austin that this would be the end of the world. Well, open meetings and open-records laws give the people a chance to see what those jaybirds down in Austin are doing. I mean, there are exceptions for things like contracts and lawsuits and personnel and that sort of thing, but this works well. You go down to Austin right now and those people still want to keep it just as secret as they can and that’s wrong. Same thing out here at Baylor. We’ve always operated in an aura of trust and confidence and Christian faith and commitment and we didn’t question each other’s judgment. Sometimes we might wonder why they did this or why they did that, but never — well, Emily, we never questioned her when she was on the board. She was right every single time. [Laughter.] She served beautifully. They went through crises while she was there, but they handled it right.

Q    Well, Emily, again, why should the board of regents suddenly move to a protocol of transparency?

Emily Tinsley     If you’re serving on the board of a large nonprofit institution, whether it’s a health-care system or a university or whatever else, there are instances in which you use judicious transparency for obvious reasons. One time I served on a presidential search committee and the consultant brought in candidates from all over the country. The one thing [candidates] said while they took the interview was how easy it would be to be president of anything that had the Baylor family on its side. It’s legendary. And a lot of that has changed in the recent course of business. The leadership of the board operates as if they’re heading a private company independent of — I don’t want to be too harsh here because I haven’t heard their deliberations — but what comes out of it is unbecoming, negative. And all of these things that people ask about — why Art Briles or other things have happened — those are symptoms of the problem. They’re not the problem.

Q    Well, regents have reportedly been talking about transparency lately. Regent Chairman Murff even had a posting this week —

Tinsley    What a coincidence!

Q    But is the board’s current talk about fixing protocol reassuring? You know, there was this governance document you alluded to. As you said at the meeting this morning, you suspect your gathering just off-campus prompted regents to suddenly post this new governance document.

Williams    It would certainly appear so. Pepper Hamilton’s Section III says there are governance problems, including conflicts of interest. Well, what are those problems? We’d love to know so that people can have some input in how to solve them. And [Pepper Hamilton’s citation of this as a problem] was six months ago and regents said, “Oh, we’re going to implement all these things with great urgency.” And I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence, I say jokingly, that they announced their governance committee the day before we have our press conference this morning. So we feel like we’ve at least nudged them into doing things they should have done six months ago.

Q    Do you think it will take more meetings like the one today?

Williams    The ball is in their court. We’re going to continue to grow in size and people will continue to call for transparency and reform. Let’s see if they’re listening and how soon they will do it. They’ve talked about reform but they didn’t give us important information such as what’s their deadline and what it is they’re trying to reform. Most importantly, they’ve not told us how we can have input. There’s a lot of smart people in the Baylor family. Yet I challenge you to go on their website and see if you can contact any members of the board. There’s no contact information, no suggestion box. To me the fact not a single regent rode in this year’s homecoming parade symbolizes the disconnect. What are they afraid of?

Q    Baylor alums have been asking for full release of the Pepper Hamilton law firm’s report and that hasn’t happened. Is the thinking of this organization that, with people like Emily and Gov. White and yourself and Drayton McLane — big names, people who should have influence in the Baylor family — regents will listen and shift their methods?

Williams    We hope so. But for Baylor, I’d be a longshoreman. My education came on an athletic scholarship, a needs scholarship and an academic scholarship, undergrad in law school, and because Baylor was so good to me, I have made it a point to give back. It is important to me to give back. And I want Baylor to be the best it can be. It hurts my heart that there is this cloud over our university.

Q    Your name is on the football field and the law school library, Drayton’s name is on the stadium—

Williams    Everyone has his or her own story. Back in June, four major donors asked to meet with the board. Collectively in that group there was probably $100 million in commitments and giving, most of it Drayton’s. But you would know any of these four. And we asked, “What’s going on?” And all we were told is that, “Well, you don’t know what we know. Trust us.” And the answer from our side was, “Well, why should we trust you?” After that meeting, I have not heard a word from a board member. It made me go back and reflect. We as four of the largest donors had asked to meet with the whole board and they said no. If they won’t listen to us or at least give us the courtesy of speaking with them, then how can anyone get his voice through? It made me wonder how anyone can be heard. The frustration is that even people who have been committed don’t seem to be able to get this board’s attention.

Q    So you didn’t get to meet with the full board.

Williams    Right, we got to meet with four or five.

Q    Does this suggest to you that details of the Pepper Hamilton report are so heinous they can’t afford for them to be released?

Williams    I can’t speculate what I don’t know about. I can’t even tell you whether the Pepper Hamilton report is valid because we can’t even judge it without the details. I can tell you that it’s troubling to me that, from what I read, they didn’t speak to people in the athletic department. That creates trouble for me because, as a lawyer, I believe in due process and talking to both sides. And how much did [the investigation] cost and why did they have to hire somebody to tell you that you’re not doing the right thing? The whole thing is very problematic to me.

Q    Would you advocate the entire report be written, that every detail be put down on paper and given to the Baylor family?

Williams    The first step would be to see what the board saw. Let’s protect the victims — absolutely protect them — but how can we determine if this was done accurately? I just don’t know. I question it because everything’s so secretive. Thirty-some-odd people heard an oral rendition of that report and there’s 30-some-odd versions, right? And none of them have told us their version really. It is a culture of secrecy I don’t think serves the Baylor family well.

Q    So you don’t propose openness, transparency and accountability on just this matter, you propose a new protocol in terms of all this beyond this scandal.

Williams    Absolutely.

White     The point here is that they’ve circled the wagons, closed the doors and put gag orders on all board members so they can’t talk to anybody. They have one spokesman and he doesn’t talk to anybody so nobody hears anything and then they run from y’all when you try to get a statement. That’s not good. There’s something wrong. Baylor has had these sexual assaults. It’s horrific. I agree. Everyone agrees. And if we’re a caring, Christian community, you shouldn’t have to have the government tell a caring, Christian community what to do. When someone is hurt, you don’t do what Baylor did and what they’ve admitted they’ve done. They have admitted they ignored these girls and their claims and their hurt. You don’t have to go hire outside counsel to know what to do about that. You don’t have to go to the West Coast for a PR firm to cover up or deflect attention. You treat them just like you would your own daughter. The U.S. Department of Education issued a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter [about the serious need to implement Title IX reforms] to every college and university in the nation [including Baylor University]. Baylor admits they didn’t do anything. Oh, there’s some suggestion that, “Well, we had this group over here doing it,” but it was one of those diffuse deals: Nothing was really there and no one knew how to get a hold of anyone [regarding a sexual-assault allegation].

Q    President Starr would argue with you on that.

White     Now, let me tell you, I would argue with President Starr on that. If President Starr had done what the federal government suggested ought to be done — you don’t argue with them. You may not agree with them, you may think it’s unconstitutional or overreaching, but the point is you’re taking their money and you better listen to what they have to say. I disagreed with a lot of things the federal government did, but I still paid my taxes. Anyway, they get a letter on Title IX. And what do they do? Ignored it, essentially. “Oh, we didn’t ignore it, we had some little deal in the judicial office over there,” but there was no central authority. There was no obvious answer for someone who said, “I’ve been assaulted. Where do I go?” Poor girl goes out here and talks to her professor, and her professor has never been told what to do. Title IX’s whole thesis is, “You are to inform everybody on this campus as to exactly what you’re to do in a case of sexual assault. Exactly.” And that goes for Coach Briles or the head of the religion department or the head of the geology department. When you become aware of even the suggestion of sexual assault, it’s a simple thing: One phone call to the Title IX office and you have largely fulfilled your total responsibility under the law. But if there is no Title IX office, what do you do? It’s a little harder to fulfill your responsibility, it’s a little diffused as to what you’re supposed to do. Title IX has the same simple instruction: It tells the coach, it tells the head of the religion department, it tells the geology department one simple thing. You report sexual assaults. After that, it’s Title IX’s job. No one at Baylor ever got that message and there’s only one group at fault: the board of regents and the president of the university. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Before Baylor’s creation of a full-fledged, stand-alone Title IX office headed by Patty Crawford in November 2014, Title IX responsibilities were delegated to various Baylor administrators juggling other duties, which is what former Gov. White critically refers to. All this is further complicated by continuing debate over whether the Department of Education’s prescriptions regarding Title IX and colleges and universities are guidance or regulation.]

Q    Would I gather from that then that regents were justified in the terminations they undertook in May?

White     I don’t know. I don’t know what instructions they gave them [Ken Starr and others]. You can’t fire somebody in the dark. “Oh, well, it happened over here, it happened over there.” The fault, my friend, lies in the failure to instruct. Let’s back it up. What if in 2011 they had done exactly as the [Department of Education letter on Title IX] said? How many of those ladies might not have been assaulted in the first place because [through Title IX] guidelines everyone gets instruction on what to do, how to operate, how to protect yourself. That might have helped. We don’t know. But we darn sure can tell it wasn’t done. All of the problems that Baylor University faces today start from that one decision and that one failure.

Q    What does perfect board protocol look like? Is it continuing with closed-door meetings and then meeting with the press afterward? Is it open meetings where anybody can go?

Williams    I’d like to see minutes, who’s on what committees, how people voted. From what I can tell, we get virtually no information from the board. We’re interested in what issues come before the board and what decisions they’ve made.

Q    I assume you have read the 105 recommendations the Pepper Hamilton law firm issued in May following its nine-month investigation into problems involving sexual assaults at Baylor. Does it seem Baylor regents are on the right path regarding this? Do you think this will make Baylor not only a safer place but also a place where allegations of sexual assault are taken more seriously, more comprehensively, than in the past?

Williams    I compliment them for saying they’re going to take action on those things, but some of those recommendations involve governance and board issues and administration issues. Six months later they hadn’t done anything till the night before we were to have a press conference.

Q    One curious thing is when Phillip and I interviewed Chairman Murff in July, we asked about these very board governance recommendations by Pepper Hamilton and the chairman said something to the effect that these are more or less formulaic, customary recommendations Pepper Hamilton routinely inserts in all such recommendations.

Tinsley    Boilerplate, in other words.

White     Well, go read their announcement from yesterday and it says, “This is just one of our regular updates on governance.” It makes it sound like the board is already up to date. If you look at how that board is conformed, it has been developed over a period of time to where they appoint their friends and their friends appoint their friends and it keeps going around like that.

Williams    It’s a good ol’ boy system.

Q    Do you believe Baylor can restore its credibility with this current board? Is the resignation of at least some regents necessary for healing in the Baylor family?

Williams    My guess is that, yes, the resignation of some regents will be necessary to regain the confidence and trust of the Baylor family. There are some very fine people on that board and, till we see the facts and other things — who’s in charge of what — it’s hard to tell. We need to see the facts of who voted for what and what the board was told and when and how they reacted to what they were told. We just have to get the facts. And this board is so big, it’s gotten unwieldy. I’m not sure it makes sense to have a board of that size. [The board at full strength consists of 32 members.] It’s grown and shrunk over the years and I’m not sure we’re being served appropriately with the size of this board. You know, one thing that bothers me considerably is the cost to education. What has been the cost to Baylor of all of this at so many different levels? Certainly our heart goes out to the victims of assaults. But there’s been a real cost to Baylor in this. How much have they had to pay to people? And most of the time if not all of the time they requested confidentiality in how much was paid. My guess it’s millions or tens of millions of dollars. We don’t know the cost of the Pepper Hamilton stuff. We don’t know the cost of whatever lawsuits are occurring. We don’t know the cost in what has happened with donors. To get through Baylor [as a student], it’s outrageous in cost if you pay full fare. And students come out with tremendous debt. Yet the board seems to be spending money on California PR firms and Philadelphia law firms and, well, where is all this money coming from? It’s being taken away from the resources that Baylor needs. And what’s happened to donations?

Tinsley    I ran into a website the other day about the number of colleges and universities closing every year in this country. You would be absolutely astonished. And students are graduating with obscene student debt. I live in Houston and grew up there and have friends who went to other universities and have served on the boards of those universities at the same time I served on the Baylor board. And the questions are: “Wow! What’s happened at Baylor?” It’s like the reputation of Baylor is tanking and this makes me so sad for the generations of people who came before us and who have served that university.

Q    John Eddie, you were asked during the press conference about withholding donations because of all this and I believe you said that this was unknown, that it was an individual question for people. But do you know of major donors who have withheld donations because of all this?

Williams    I know of somebody who wrote Baylor out of their will as a result of this and the amount was $25 million. It wasn’t me, but I know of a person who did that.

Tinsley    And that’s the worst publicity Baylor can get.

Williams    And guess what? He told the board and they have not responded to him or contacted him.

Interview conducted by Trib staff writer Phillip Ericksen, city editor Tim Woods, editor Steve Boggs and opinion editor Bill Whitaker. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.