In his July 12 column in the Waco Trib, Baylor President Ken Starr joined the public discussion about the Baylor Alumni Association’s decision to share documents with its membership that demonstrate the extent to which a few Baylor leaders tried to marginalize and formally dissolve the BAA.
It is important to note that these business e-mail communications are part of the public record in the lawsuit that Baylor filed, in which Baylor seeks to avoid its obligations under the contracts that give the BAA its name and right to publish the Baylor Line magazine without university interference, and that require Baylor to replace the Hughes-Dillard Alumni Center, which Baylor needlessly demolished in 2013.
In our view, it has been difficult to find common ground due to the university’s hypersensitivity to even respectful questions about its policies and decisions — dating back to the Robert Sloan presidency. Even a cursory reading of the documents indicates a vendetta being pursued by a few leaders angry that their agenda had been questioned. They want the Baylor Line gone because in exercising our independent voice we have occasionally raised issues that some leaders found uncomfortable — respectful questioning that is healthy for a university community and that is guaranteed by a perpetual agreement signed by visionary leaders who were not afraid of other viewpoints.
We take issue with four primary points that President Starr makes in his guest column:
• Unfair characterizations: President Starr complained of “unfair characterizations” without identifying any characterization he believes to be unfair. The BAA is willing to let readers judge Baylor’s leaders based on their own words and deeds. The e-mails show more than what President Starr called “heat and frustration of a moment.” The e-mails demonstrate a calculated, years-long effort to put the BAA out of business. On this topic of unfair characterization, however, President Starr takes time in his column to praise his board of volunteer regents and seems to suggest that we’ve criticized their efforts to lead the university in the right direction. That is categorically not true, beyond our concerns that they let former regent chairman Buddy Jones and others pursue their crusade against the BAA for far too long.
• Courtesy, respect and hospitality: President Starr wrote that he has long encouraged his team to embrace the “pivotal words” of “courtesy, respect and hospitality” in their interactions with the BAA. Baylor administrator Tommye Lou Davis used these same words in her June 26 letter to the Trib, which President Starr described as a “heartfelt” apology. But we wonder if that phrase is intended to be more of an iron fist than a velvet glove, a public relations strategy rather than a plea for restraint. In the e-mails that are part of the public record, Ms. Davis uses the phrase in a very different way in a June 26, 2011, e-mail to President Starr’s chief of staff Karla Leeper. Discussing Buddy Jones’s demand that President Starr assign the BAA’s homecoming tent to a location far from the main tailgating area, the vice president for alumni relations writes, “I have been saying to Buddy when he calls re tailgating that we are making progress (‘putting the BAA out of business’) with the strategy of courtesy, respect and hospitality.”
• Healing old wounds: President Starr writes of his efforts to bring healing to old wounds dating to 2010 when he came to Baylor. But he fails to mention he authorized Baylor’s general counsel to send the BAA a letter on May 31, 2013 — the day after BAA leadership signed a transition agreement setting up the Sept. 7 vote — unilaterally terminating all agreements binding Baylor and the BAA and promising to take additional action if the membership did not vote to dissolve. In our view, demanding total capitulation right after completion of a negotiation is a strange path to healing.
• Change in conscience: Back in 2010, President Starr wrote in an e-mail to his own chief of staff that he “will not be able, in conscience, to carry on a policy of in effect waging war within the Baylor family.” It has been pretty well documented what path university leaders have taken in the four years since that message — a systematic effort to continue breaching provisions of long-standing agreements, demolition of the Hughes-Dillard Alumni Center (and refusal to honor the agreement by replacing it), threats to sue in the midst of negotiations and finally the decision to cast aside its legal and moral commitments and sue the association for allegedly harming the brand.
We respectfully challenge President Starr to show us any proposal in which Baylor offered to heal old wounds other than by requiring the complete dissolution of the BAA or the termination of Baylor’s agreements with the BAA. Otherwise, what he describes as seeking “healing,” “common ground” and a “fair resolution” seems much more like demanding total capitulation.
Most universities understand that their role is to expose students, faculty and alumni to different points of view and foster intelligent discussion. We agree, and our love for and loyalty to Baylor obligate us to speak up when we disagree with administration policies from time to time. Unfortunately, Baylor’s leaders have often acted as if theirs is the only view and that you must trust that what they are debating behind closed doors is in the best interest of Baylor’s students, faculty, staff and alumni. We feel that transparency, not secrecy, is truly in Baylor’s best interest, and we feel that our duty is to exercise the “independent voice” that was guaranteed in our written agreements with the university.
Healing and common ground will not come to the Baylor family without some give and take. We have been told by some that we should “surrender” and do what the university wants because we are beholden to them. These voices, like those of some university leaders, speak of this as a war that requires surrender. We take issue with that. You can love the university — which we do — but not love the actions of certain leaders to impose their will, pursue a vendetta or silence an independent voice that asks only for the ability to ask reasonable questions and encourage respectful debate. We believe that what we’re defending is important. We defend transparency. We defend the right of alumni to have a voice in the dialogue about what is best for Baylor. We stand for the very simple proposition that Baylor should honor its commitments.
So we will take President Starr at his word and ask him to schedule a meeting with us and come to it with the goals he outlines in his letter. We think we deserve this after 156 years of loyal service. Let’s come out of that room with either an agreement or a statement of each side’s final offer so that the Baylor family can see which party is truly seeking compromise and which one is trying to dictate the terms of an unconditional surrender of important principles. Whatever happens, we all want what’s best for Baylor.
Tom Nesbitt, president of the Baylor Alumni Association, is a Waco native, 1994 graduate of Baylor, 1998 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law and an Austin employment lawyer.