A bill under consideration by the Texas Senate Committee on Higher Education would force Baylor University and one other private university to hold board meetings open to the public.
The bill, authored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would require private colleges and universities receiving $5 million or more in state tuition equalization grants to hold themselves to the same open meeting standards as public institutions’ governing boards.
Baylor received $10.4 million in the state grants for the 2016 fiscal year, according to data provided by the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, a nonprofit association for Texas private higher education institutions.
The University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio is the only other private school in Texas that got more than $5 million in tuition equalization grants, at $7.3 million.
“It occurred to me that all institutions receiving public money have some public responsibility for transparency,” Seliger said. “At the same time, I think the fact that private institutions and the prerogatives they have as private institutions, not state institutions, deserve some protections, and that’s why the bill is very, very narrow in terms of the institutions it may include.”
Seliger, who is chairman of the higher education committee, also said the safety of young Texans is a concern of lawmakers.
“When you look at the situation there regarding Title IX and whatever considerations of Title IX by the board of regents in the protection of young Texans, I think there is a real interest in the state of Texas in that,” Seliger said. “So yeah, Baylor’s involved in this.”
In May, Baylor regents reported a “fundamental failure” in Title IX implementation and a football program operating “above the rules.” President Ken Starr, head football coach Art Briles and athletic director Ian McCaw left the university amid the fray.
More allegations of sexual violence and mishandling of complaints have been made in six Title IX lawsuits the university faces. A suit filed Jan. 27 alleges female students were “used to engage in sexual acts with the (football team) recruits to help secure the recruits’ commitment to Baylor.”
On Jan. 30, Seliger tweeted, “Baylor situation demands strong, able leadership ASAP. An apparent mess, this search needs proceed, so a great university isn’t harmed perma.”
The university spokespeople declined comment, saying the university does not comment on pending legislation. Data provided by Baylor shows that, of 27,778 Texas students who receive tuition equalization grants, 2,943 students attend Baylor.
Seliger said he “seriously doubts” schools would slash state funding requests to maintain private board meetings.
The bill was filed Feb. 24, a week after Baylor’s board approved governance reforms based on a months-long review process by three nonregents and three regents.
The task force reported to the board that “open meetings would risk unnecessarily disclosing competitive information and detract from the free and open exchange of views and robust dialogue that are necessary to fulfill regents’ fiduciary duties.”
That task force also found that few leading, private institutions hold open board meetings.
Houston lawyer John Eddie Williams, the namesake donor of Baylor’s football field and law school library, has said regents should open their meetings to the public.
“It’s somewhat sad that the Legislature would have to get involved to try and force our regents to have full disclosure of what goes on,” Williams said. “One would think that (regents) would do the right thing without the Legislature having to get involved. We are encouraged by all efforts that would result in open meetings, which we think is the right thing to do.”
Williams leads Bears for Leadership Reform, a group of prominent donors and alumni critical of the board’s handling of the scandal. The group includes former Texas Gov. Mark White and Temple businessman Drayton McLane.
Bears for Leadership Reform members and lawmakers have not had discussions about the bill, both Williams and Seliger said.
Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, said tuition equalization grants go to students who are mostly low-income or first-generation college students, not directly to Baylor. If the bill passes and Baylor opts to drop the grant money to avoid open meetings, students would bear the brunt, he said.
“That’s the party that will be bruised in this,” Anderson said. “What would happen is those students just wouldn’t go to Baylor.”
The bill also states boards would have to publish governing documents on a website, including bylaws, codes of conduct, confidentiality agreements, conflict of interest policies or operating procedures.
Baylor regents launched a website last month that includes the board’s certificate of formation, university bylaws, guidelines for board operations and a statement of commitments and responsibilities, along with meeting minutes and agendas.
The bill is not Seliger’s most important legislative priority this session, but he hopes it reiterates to universities the importance of Title IX protections, he said.
“Maybe what the openness and transparency issues might show, in the determinations of a board of regents, is maybe they’ve learned something,” Seliger said. “Because at this point, I don’t know if there’s any evidence of that.”