Baylor University regents should support a Texas Senate bill that would force them to hold open meetings because of the school’s haul of state-funded tuition equalization grants, members of Bears for Leadership Reform said in a media call Thursday morning.

Bears for Leadership Reform is an organized group of major Baylor University donors and alumni that has sharply criticized regents for their lack of transparency throughout the school’s ongoing sexual assault scandal.

“Backroom deliberation (and) decision-making” by several regents has been harmful, said John Eddie Williams, a Houston lawyer, namesake for Baylor’s football field and a leader of Bears for Leadership Reform.

Members of Bears for Leadership Reform have spoken with elected officials regarding the legislation, said Williams, former Baylor regent Randy Ferguson and alumna Liza Christian Firmin.

“(The call for open board meetings) is a core tenet of something BLR has championed from the beginning,” Firmin said.

Temple businessman and former Baylor board Chairman Drayton McLane and several former Texas lawmakers, including former Gov. Mark White, have stood by Williams and others in their call for governance reform and transparency at the university.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed the bill that would force any university receiving more than $5 million in tuition equalization grants to hold open board meetings and to better comply with state open records laws. Almost 3,000 Baylor students receive $10.4 million in such tuition grants. The University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio is the only other school that would be affected by the legislation as written.

Baylor interim President David Garland testified on the bill to the Texas Senate Higher Education Committee last week, saying the school “is trying to be transparent” regarding the scandal. He also said the board made governance changes this year, but senators appeared unconvinced.

“I don’t buy that for a minute,” Seliger said in response to Garland’s statement about Baylor not trying to cover up what has happened at the school.

Baylor has hired lobbyists to kill the bill, Williams said Thursday.

Baylor spokesman Jason Cook called that claim “completely untrue.”

Bill ‘improvements’

“Baylor has been working with staff on potential improvements to the bill,” Cook said.

“Baylor University continues to be aware of the Bears for Leadership Reform’s views,” according to a statement from Baylor on Thursday. “Today’s statements by the BLR ignore the considerable progress the Baylor Board of Regents has made to create greater visibility into the governance of the university, as well as to combat the issue of sexual assault.”

Bears for Leadership Reform has “consistently refused to acknowledge” changes in university leadership, adoption of sexual violence response improvements and the board’s passage of governance reforms expanding regent voting rights, bringing outside perspective to the regent selection process, shaking up the board’s committees and more, according to the statement.

A task force of three nonregents and three regents opted not to recommend open board meetings, citing best practices of national private universities. That decision was also based on recommendations from the American Bar Association.

“For private institutions such as Baylor, public meetings would preclude robust and frank discussion among the regents about sensitive issues such as sexual assault,” according to the statement.

Williams’ group organized in November, six months after regents fired Ken Starr as president and Art Briles as head football coach and released a 13-page summary of findings from an investigation on institutional response to sexual violence by Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP and 105 recommendations Baylor is implementing.

Williams said it would be a “terrible tragedy” if Baylor began requesting less than $5 million in tuition equalization grants to avoid hosting open board meetings, if the bill becomes law as written.

During the hearing last week, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, also raised concern about Baylor cutting its grant request, and Garland said he “fully agrees” that such a move would be troubling.

Williams on Thursday also continued public questioning of board conduct and the scandal’s financial cost to the university. A law firm report funded by Bears for Leadership Reform estimated a $223 million price tag to the university.

‘Failure of leadership’

“In our opinion, the failure of leadership described in the (Pepper Hamilton) recommendations is enough to suggest a serious breach of fiduciary responsibility on the part of leaders of the board of regents,” the group wrote in an open letter to the board Thursday. “The failure of leadership has had a profound impact on the victims of this tragedy and the reputation of Baylor. Indeed, Baylor has become the national poster child for sexual assault on campus due to the lack of proper programs, policies and procedures.

“More significantly, the board is an example of how failed leadership that operates and deliberates in secret can allow a scandal to continue to engulf a university.”

In the teleconference, Ferguson, a Bears for Leadership Reform member, said the group has received “nothing of substance” from regents responding to several open letters calling for board transparency, including a question about why board governance issues were not mentioned in the regent-released Pepper Hamilton investigation summary.

“Is this why the findings of fact came from the board itself instead of from Pepper Hamilton?” Ferguson said. “It really even begs the question: Is this intentional? Could it be an intentional cover-up just to protect certain board members?”

Baylor’s most public condemnation of the donors came in a February legal filing in a libel suit brought by an athletics staffer.

According to three influential regents, a donor told the board in a summer meeting, “If you mention Baylor’s mission one more time, I’m going to throw up . . . I was promised a national championship.”

When asked Thursday of his overall take on the filing, Williams said it was aimed at “making the regents look good.”

“I’ve considered that to be the tip of the iceberg and I considered it to be very one-sided. . . . We need to have a complete investigation that shows both sides and we can’t stop until we see all the information,” Williams said. “Maybe the board is innocent but maybe they’re guilty.”

Baylor Line Foundation President Fred Norton Jr. said the alumni group’s focus remains on reminding alumni why they love Baylor and on asking reasonable questions about major issues.

“We continue to believe that if the board of regents would decide to do the right thing and be more transparent, this legislation would not get the traction it seems to have got,” Norton said.

Bears for Leadership Reform has made its opinions known publicly and to the university, according to the Baylor statement.

“As always, Baylor’s board of regents remains open to input from across the Baylor family,” according to the statement.

Phillip Ericksen joined the Tribune-Herald in March 2015 as a sports copy editor. That November, he joined the news team. He has covered higher education, city hall, politics and crime.

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