Baylor University regents are the sole target of proposed legislation that would force open board meetings upon private universities receiving at least $9 million in taxpayer-funded tuition equalization grants for low-income, first-generation college students.

The original draft of the bill called for schools receiving more than $5 million in such grants to conduct open board meetings — thus affecting Baylor and the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, which accepts $7.3 million.

After a contentious hearing at which Baylor’s interim President David Garland testified, the bill was adjusted to only affect the world’s largest Baptist university, which accepts $10.4 million in tuition equalization grants.

“The reason this was done in the first place is to address things at Baylor,” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, the bill’s author and chairman of the Texas Senate Committee on Higher Education. The committee has approved the bill.

Seliger has said the public deserves greater transparency from a university that accepts such an amount of state money. He has also said the state has a “real interest” in the safety of young Texans — including the victims of the school’s sexual assault scandal.

If the bill passes and Baylor begins requesting less state money — sacrificing more than $1 million in tuition for students – Seliger said he would look for a remedy in the next legislative session in 2019.

‘Draw attention’

“Mainly, it would draw attention to something Baylor doesn’t want to be brought to attention,” Seliger said. “If somebody goes to great lengths to avoid any openness and transparency, it will lead people to believe there’s something to hide. And clearly, to this date, there has been.”

In a statement, the university declined to discuss Baylor’s course of action should the bill become law.

“Baylor has continued to have conversations with members and their staffs regarding the open meetings provision of SB 1092, as private institutions do not have the legal and statutory protections that public universities have as state entities,” the statement said. “We are also concerned that forcing board meetings to be open to the public will have the unintended consequence of chilling the free and open discussion that boards of private, nonprofit corporations find essential in executing and refining their religious, education and charitable mission and direction. We are working to educate members on these key points as the legislative session continues into May.”

If passed, the law would go into effect on Sept. 1. Baylor regents will hold two board meetings before then. In the bill updates, Seliger wrote in a two-year “sunset,” placing a Sept. 1, 2019 expiration date.

“If I were to guess or project what was going to happen, it would be that the board of regents and body of alumni will find this so advantageous to them, this bit of transparency, that it won’t need to be law,” Seliger said. “So the state needs to involve ourselves as little as possible, in fairness of private institutions, unless there’s a state interest in those functions.”

Of 27,778 college students in Texas who receive tuition equalization grants, 2,943 attend Baylor, according to data provided by the university.

“Many of these students come from underrepresented backgrounds, and the TEG enables them to attend mission-driven universities such as Baylor with additional benefits to the state of Texas,” the Baylor statement said.

Baylor has monitored the bill alongside the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, a nonprofit association that aims to help lawmakers on issues related to private universities.

ICUT President Ray Martinez testified on the bill last month with Garland. The hearing quickly became an opportunity for senators to scold the university on its handling of the scandal — details of which are still being revealed in developing lawsuits.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who also represents Waco, intends to vote against the bill. Birdwell, who does not sit on the higher education committee, attended the bill’s hearing last month.

In an email, Birdwell said the bill “sets a dangerous precedent to allow state government to monitor and micromanage the affairs of these institutions.”

“Senate Bill 1092 mandates a lose-lose scenario, forcing an independent institution to either surrender their private rights and autonomy or to severely limit the number of young Texans who would elect to use their TEG funds to attend the university,” Birdwell said. “The highly-publicized sexual assault scandal at this university warrants the highest level of scrutiny from law enforcement and the judicial system — period — but stripping away the rights of a private entity does nothing to remedy the issue.”

The Baylor Line Foundation, an alumni group with a tension-filled history with the university, released a statement this week proposing a town hall meeting with regents if the bill passes the Senate.

“Because the regents collectively have steadfastly refused to acknowledge those among their membership who bear responsibility in some part for these tragic events, they have no one to blame but themselves for alumni, community and state leaders and reporters continuing to demand answers,” Baylor Line Foundation President Fred Norton, Jr. said in the statement. “As a result of their own silence, the regents have failed to accomplish their primary duty: to preserve, protect and promote our beloved university.”

Gray’s column

The statement came in response to a recent Tribune-Herald guest column written by Baylor Regent Cary Gray, who is chairman of the board’s governance and compensation committee.

Gray wrote that public and private universities “are fundamentally different under the law.”

“Public schools . . . enjoy sovereign immunity,” Gray wrote. “This protection, which originated in English common law, holds public institutions and their representatives legally harmless while they are conducting the public’s business — formulating policy, debating issues and spending taxpayer money. There is no such protection for private universities, and private university boards like Baylor’s rarely if ever hold public meetings.”

He also pointed to best practices provided by the Association of Governing Boards advising vigorous debate, and he wrote that issues related to the sexual assault crisis would have been discussed in executive session.

“Further, if private university boards did hold public meetings when considering long-term plans for tuition, faculty compensation, new programs, campus development or almost any action a board is required to approve, its competitors for new students and faculty who do not hold open meetings would unfairly benefit,” Gray wrote.

A task force of three regents and three nonregents that studied board governance practices rejected the idea of open meetings. The board is implementing other recommendations from the task force meant to improve transparency and community trust.

Bears for Leadership Reform, an organized group of high-profile donors, has also been outspoken in its support for the bill. On Friday, the group that includes Baylor’s football field namesake John Eddie Williams urged Baylor supporters to contact their state senators to vote for the bill.

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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