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Struggling to maintain an independent voice and a relevant role in the Baylor family: Q&A with BAA President Tom Nesbitt

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ALUMNI2

RIGHT: Baylor Alumni Association President Tom Nesbitt, Waco native, 1994 Baylor University alumnus and today an Austin labor and employment law attorney, says “in the view of past presidents and regents throughout Baylor history, the proper role of the alumni association was to give a voice to questions and to report facts.” LEFT: BAA chief marketing officer Peter Osborne. The BAA has more than 16,000 members.

Staff photo—Jerry Larson

The Baylor Alumni Association’s long-running dispute with Baylor University, which began during the stormy if transformational administration of Baylor President Robert Sloan 13 years ago, spilled into the robust administration of Baylor President Ken Starr when he took over in 2010. Last summer Baylor filed suit against the BAA, alleging the independent alumni association was improperly using the university’s name and registered trademarks. The litigation took an ugly cast this summer when the BAA released emails that suggest a concerted effort led by a faction of the school’s board of regents to snuff out the alumni group’s on-campus presence and ability to operate. More damning emails were released online this past week.

BAA President Tom Nesbitt sat down to discuss the dispute with Trib editor Steve Boggs, city editor Tim Woods and opinion editor Bill Whitaker. Topics covered included release of embarrassing emails involving Baylor administrators such as Vice President for Constituent Engagement Tommye Lou Davis and former regent chairman Buddy Jones (now including one in which he refers to the BAA as “terrorists”); pretenses for the controversial razing of Hughes-Dillard Alumni Center on campus; cherished BAA independence through vehicles such as its magazine, The Baylor Line; and what the BAA seeks in any resolution to the litigation. This Q&A was conducted on Aug. 7.

Q     Baylor University is arguably experiencing the finest years in its long history. It’s recognized nationally in athletics. It’s evolved from a notable Baptist school into a vibrant Christian university that is inclusive of all faiths. It doesn’t deny science but embraces it in exciting ways. It has an articulate president with a national profile. And then it has this continuing fight with the Baylor Alumni Association to the point Baylor has sued it over the right of the BAA to use “Baylor” in its name and activities. Baylor has its own Baylor Alumni Network now. It’s enough for us to wonder if the Baylor Alumni Association is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Some see it as more the thorn in the side than wind beneath Baylor’s wings. Is that a fair description?

A    I think it is a fair description to say Baylor is experiencing great success. I think it is fair to say Ken Starr deserves a lot of credit for that. I think it is also fair that many leaders of the BAA and the BAA itself are responsible for some of that (success) because the BAA for 156 years has connected people to Baylor, has cheerled for Baylor. And incidentally, even as we are being sued by Baylor so that Baylor can try to avoid its agreements with our organization, we are still cheerleading for Baylor and connecting alumni at Baylor University. The Baylor Alumni Association is still supporting Baylor. We are communicating with alumni. We are giving alumni a forum in which to discuss matters of importance to Baylor. A good example of that would be Baylor’s recent amendment of its sexual conduct policy [dropping a specific ban on “homosexual acts”]. The BAA provided a robust forum for that to be discussed.

Q    Really?

A    A lot of people discussed that on our Facebook page. That’s not being done at Baylor University, but it’s an issue that alumni should be aware of and should be able to dialogue about and we provided that. But we can’t ignore the fact Baylor has sued the Baylor Alumni Association, its historic partner, and we are going to defend principles that are important and that have long been important to Baylor alumni, including an independent voice for alumni in an otherwise self-perpetuating and secret-governance structure. Another thing I think is important to Baylor alumni — that we be proud of a university that honors its commitments to its friends. That is an important principle that we will stand in defense of. And we will also continue to inform our members of who made this decision to come after the BAA, to try to “put it out of business” — their words, not ours — and now to sue to avoid longstanding agreements with the BAA. The telling of that story, the truth of that story, is a service that the BAA is quite frankly providing to alumni and friends of Baylor.

Q    After you released rather embarrassing email comments by some regents and administrators, President Ken Starr made clear in his column in this newspaper that this really involved one or two people who complicated matters for the BAA. I’m thinking primarily of former Baylor regent chairman Buddy Jones. Isn’t Judge Starr right? Isn’t it fair to say that it was really one or two people who caused a lot of this trouble or aggravated it?

A    I believe it is a fair characterization that a very small group of regents drove this fight, but it is also true that Ken Starr’s administration wanted to but did not stand up to those regents to stop this assault on the BAA. That is becoming abundantly clear, even though President Starr and his administration knew that it was wrong to be going to war with the BAA.

Q    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I’m the president of Baylor University, then the board of regents is my boss. In the inner sanctum of closed-door regent meetings, he may well have fought that battle. And we know from his emails that this was an uncomfortable situation for him and that he was getting tired of all the fighting. Is it fair to really hold Baylor administration out to dry? Seems like some regents have some explaining to do.

A    I don’t think we are saying that it is the administration’s fault. What we are saying is that a small group of regents got it into their minds to put the BAA out of business. Ken Starr said in emails to his own senior staff, “I cannot in conscience preside over a policy of waging war within the Baylor family.” That was early in his presidency. There are other emails similar to that, expressing his view that we have to get this resolved — but ultimately he did not stand up to the board of regents. Ultimately, something happened to his conscience somewhere along the way because he carried out their policy of putting the BAA “out of business.” I don’t think that is really in dispute. As the president of the Baylor Alumni Association, I want to tell you that the fight for us is to preserve our existence, our name and our right to carry out the mission of this 156-year-old organization. We are not fighting to undo any policy of Ken Starr. We are not fighting to undo any initiative of the board of regents. Even in the 2000s, the Baylor Alumni Association was not editorializing against any policy or practice of the administration. The BAA was discussing the issues, raising questions about whether this or that was right for Baylor, then letting the alumni decide. So we are not fighting Baylor. We are defending against a lawsuit to preserve our existence, our name and our independent voice, which a lot of wise men and women of Baylor’s past thought was a pretty important thing. We still do.

Q    Here at the newspaper we like to think of ourselves as independent and if you as a reader decide you don’t like the way we do something, you can drop your subscription. Is it fair for the Baylor Alumni Association to expect to maintain this independence while at the same time bemoaning collapse of contractual arrangements with Baylor? Doesn’t one conflict with the other?

A    Not at all. In fact, it is the opposite. Your question is best answered by something Robert Sloan, of all people, wrote in the pages of The Baylor Line early in his presidency about the independence of the alumni association being its greatest strength. Are you familiar with that?

Q    Certainly not President Sloan writing such a thing. I know Baylor presidents Herb Reynolds and Abner McCall did. Let me read Sloan’s words from what you’ve given me here: “The alumni association’s independence is the foundation of its effectiveness. If you are not independent, then your praise does not sound credible and your critique can be shut down. But when you are independent, you can be both of those with strength and credibility.”

A    I don’t believe that prior to Buddy Jones and others that anyone believed an alumni association must relentlessly cheerlead at all times, no matter what, and never raise questions. Yet that is his view of an alumni association. And that’s a legitimate view of an alumni association. But it was not the view of people at Baylor University who saw that we’re a wonderfully unique place. We are a Christian institution of higher learning. We are resisting on one hand the pull of some who want to make us more secular. There are those on the other hand who want to pull us over and make religious fundamentalists of us, like what happened at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. When fundamentalist elements of the Southern Baptist Convention took over that school, it ceased to be a reputable academic institution.

Q    Do you see yourself as the arbiter of Baylor’s philosophical future, whether it’s to be secular or fundamentalist? Is that up to you and your organization to decide?

A    Not at all. But it is a proper role of an alumni association, an engaged, loving group of people who love Baylor, to have an engaged voice to at least let alumni know what factually is going on and provide a forum for alumni to opine in an op-ed, just as you would on your editorial pages as to whether this is good or bad. And by the way, The Baylor Line never denied the Baylor administration the opportunity to have its position stated in The Baylor Line. In fact, there used to be a regular Q&A with the president of the university and Baylor cut that off under interim president David Garland when they started implementing the Buddy Jones philosophy of “Let’s put ’em out of business, let’s not engage with ’em at all, let’s marginalize ’em.” But that’s a good question. No one has ever claimed that the BAA gets to decide for people or be the arbiter of what policies at Baylor are good or bad.

Q    Let’s discuss 2013 when Baylor University and some of the leadership of the Baylor Alumni Association hammered out a proposed transition agreement. There were a lot of guest columns and letters pro and con that ran in the Tribune-Herald that summer. In a final vote, a majority of BAA members supported the deal, but the bylaws ensured that—

A    Actually, it’s a state law relative to dissolution of a nonprofit and it has nothing to do with the bylaws.

Q    But didn’t that vote send a message to BAA leaders that maybe they needed to pursue more meaningful negotiations with Baylor? I mean, it was obvious that day a lot of people wanted to get past this fight and were willing to take the transition agreement to do so.

A    I was not in the leadership of the Baylor Alumni Association in 2013 and was not a director and certainly not on the executive committee. That negotiation was undertaken by Elizabeth Coker, Collin Cox, Si Ragsdale and Kyle Gilley, so I am not privy to first-hand discussions or negotiations. I believe it is undisputed factually that Baylor University in those negotiations never offered any proposal that would have allowed the Baylor Alumni Association to exist as an entity. They demanded the dissolution of the Baylor Alumni Association as an entity. If you ask Collin Cox and Elizabeth Coker, they would confirm this. I don’t think it is fair to criticize the BAA leadership for not negotiating harder. They were given no choice.

Q    A lot of water has passed under the bridge, a lot of hurt feelings and black eyes have been incurred. In the BAA’s eyes, what is the ideal outcome to all this?

A    The ideal outcome is that Baylor honors its agreements to allow the independent Baylor Alumni Association to use its name, to publish The Baylor Line magazine and to engage in alumni outreach services. It has always been the case and remains the case that the alumni association is willing to engage in outreach and share and divide up services in a fair way with the Baylor Alumni Network. That has never been the problem in this dispute. There wasn’t actually a Baylor Alumni Network prior to Robert Sloan, but there was a separate development department and marketing department at Baylor that the Baylor Alumni Association historically worked with as a close partner. In 2007 Karla Leeper, who just left after being Ken Starr’s chief of staff, did an extensive study of alumni relations and, well, I can’t share what her recommendations were because Baylor has designated that document as confidential, so I will not share that with you. But there is an email from 2010 from Tommye Lou Davis to Ken Starr — this was at a time when Tommye Lou Davis did not yet know Ken Starr was not going to stand up to Buddy Jones — and she talked about how, “We need to work with these folks and we need to figure out what they do best and what we do best and we need to work with these folks (the BAA).”

Q    If you lose this lawsuit, what is your fear?

A    If we lose this lawsuit and we are told we can’t use the Baylor name and we can no longer publish a magazine called The Baylor Line, then our board will have to think of a number of options. One of the options would be to change our name. I don’t know what that name would be but something to where we wouldn’t have another trademark infringement lawsuit with Baylor. But it might involve publishing a magazine, being a place for alumni to discuss matters important to Baylor, just under a different name. But we’re not going anywhere.

Q    We’ve mentioned almost nothing about the alumni center bulldozed in summer 2013, supposedly to make room for this plaza leading from the west side of the river across the Brazos into McLane Stadium.

A    And there’s not a plaza there! There’s a patch of green grass where Hughes-Dillard once stood. In other words, there’s a great spot right there for a building that looks just like Hughes-Dillard and the building is an important issue. There was no reason for Baylor to demolish it. Even if they had a need, as defined in the contract, they were required to provide us a replacement. They did not do that. So in a counterclaim to Baylor’s lawsuit, we’re trying to hold them accountable to the promises that they made. It’s a priority for us.

Q    It seems you are fighting for relevancy against a university that just doesn’t want you around.

A    Aside from what it seems like, we know from their own emails that some were desperate to render us as irrelevant as they could render us. They were obsessed. We know that Buddy Jones and a few other regents did not believe that an alumni association should speak with an independent voice and raise questions.

Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.