Baylor University will initiate legal action against the Baylor Alumni Association in an attempt to stop the group from continuing to use the university’s name and trademarks.
In a May 19 letter to the association’s board of directors, Baylor President and Chancellor Ken Starr wrote that the university is “preparing the appropriate course” to bar the BAA from continuing to act as an official alumni organization for Baylor.
The action stems from a lengthy battle between Baylor and the BAA over the alumni group’s independent status. The relationship was further severed after the association did not approve a transition agreement last fall that would have dissolved the organization’s independent charter and allowed Baylor to assume all alumni outreach and communications.
“Over many months, we have clearly and repeatedly communicated the possibility of the exercise of the university’s legal rights in the absence of an appropriate plan of action from the association,” Starr wrote in the letter. “Because we cannot shrink from doing our duty to serve all Baylor alumni; to guard against demonstrable confusion about the university’s alumni program; and to protect the integrity of Baylor’s good name, we have determined, with great sadness, that the time has come for us to move forward.”
In a written response to Starr dated May 30, former alumni association President George Cowden III charged that Baylor repeatedly has impeded the BAA’s efforts to continue its operations, including demolishing the Hughes-Dillard Alumni Center, which had been the BAA’s on-campus headquarters since 1978; locking the association’s staff out of offices they were using at Baylor’s Clifton Robinson Administrative Tower in December; and previous legal notices announcing Baylor’s intent to sever licensing agreements with the association.
“Despite these and a raft of other obstacles to our continued operation, our all-volunteer group of dedicated Baylor alumni continues to press forward with a steadfast hope for an inclusive, transparent exchange of ideas,” Cowden wrote in the letter.
The letter from Starr was written days after the BAA printed a new issue of its alumni magazine, The Baylor Line, a name Baylor also purports to hold trademark rights over.
That issue was themed “The Real Story” and gives the BAA’s account of the origins of its contentious relationship with the university.
Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said the letter was not in response to the issue, but instead stemmed from ongoing frustration at the BAA’s slow progress toward redefining for themselves a role that’s consistent with its historic charitable purpose and with its own governing documents.
Fogleman said about 50 percent of members surveyed after the Sept. 7 vote on the transition agreement were in favor of reorganizing into a foundation that primarily raises scholarships for students, for example.
“We allowed time for the development of a plan that, unfortunately, nine months later, we’ve received no such proposal from the association, nor does the association seem any closer to bringing forward such a proposal,” Fogleman said. “The university remains profoundly saddened and disappointed that the association’s been unable to agree to a constructive course of action going forward.”
The university previously ordered the group to cease using its name by Dec. 8, a notice issued in response to the failure of the transition agreement.
The agreement was negotiated between members of Baylor’s board of regents and a small group of association leaders over 10 months, though the full details of the document were only revealed to the alumni group’s full board of directors and membership in May 2013, when it was announced publicly.
The agreement garnered 55 percent of the votes cast by the 1,499 members who participated in the vote, which had to be conducted in person at Waco Hall on Sept. 7, in accordance with the group’s bylaws.
But the BAA’s bylaws required a two-thirds majority for any measure to pass.
Baylor subsequently notified the group that it was terminating licensing agreements with the BAA that allowed the group to act as the university’s official alumni association and to use “Baylor” in its name and activities.
The BAA has argued that those agreements are granted to the association “in perpetuity” and that Baylor does not have the right to void them.
Newly elected BAA President Keith Starr, who is no relation to Ken Starr, said the organization still plans to continue operating as the Baylor Alumni Association, and that the group is hopeful Baylor will honor the original licensing agreements.
“Nobody that I know of from the alumni association is looking for a fight with Baylor,” Keith Starr said. “We love the university. Nobody would serve on the alumni association board or assume a position of leadership within the alumni association if they weren’t committed to the university.”
The BAA elected new officers and board members this weekend at its membership meeting.
The group also is soliciting online input from members this summer on three options for the organization’s mission: solely raising money for scholarships to Baylor students, focusing only on alumni communications and outreach, or being equally dedicated to both functions.
The association’s board of directors will evaluate the feedback and bring a formal recommendation for the full membership to vote on later this fall.
Keith Starr said the BAA has remained open to continuing to work with the university on a compromise.
“The best result would be a truly negotiated resolution of the differences between the organizations,” he said. “I can’t control what the university does, all I can do is be sensitive to what the members of the alumni association want to do with our organization, in accordance with the agreements that we have with Baylor.”