In the weeks, months and years ahead, college sports fans, sexual-assault victim advocates, Baylor boosters, athletic champions, law professors and higher education experts will dissect and debate the widespread mismanagement at Baylor University concerning an alarming run of sexual assaults, Baylor’s indifference and even hostility toward some student victims and, finally, a winning, nationally acclaimed football program that allegedly devolved into one of dangerous entitlement and insularity. Baylor critics and defenders will no doubt spin elements of the saga to extraordinary degrees, especially in the absence of certain crucial facts.
Yet this much is beyond dispute: After what must have been a shocking and dismaying briefing of a sweeping review of Baylor’s protocol for preventing sexual assaults and appropriately handling them when they did occur, Baylor regents stepped up and assumed their responsibilities in a gravely decisive way. Some may fault the regents for not acting sooner, but their actions now at least confirm the seriousness and scope of outside experts’ findings.
Among those findings: Failure to support complainants alleging sexual assault, including failing to identify and eliminate hostile environments in which complainants might be placed after alleged attacks (for example, a classroom the accused and accuser might share); directly discouraging some complainants from reporting or participating in student conduct processes; failure by football program and athletic department leadership to root out and address obvious problems; and, in one instance, administrative retaliation against a student for reporting sexual assault.
The toll is jaw-dropping: Celebrated head football coach Art Briles? Out. Athletic director Ian McCaw? Sanctioned, placed on probation and left to restructure the football and athletic programs and probably a lot of astonished athletes. Cerebrally engaging and popular Baylor President and Chancellor Ken Starr, the campus’ most eloquent cheerleader? Demoted to chancellor only and left to continue teaching law, religious liberty and the Constitution at Baylor Law School.
And while regents decline to offer specifics, other administrators and athletic program officials have been dismissed. Yet others who remain will find their job descriptions and duties tightened and their protocols revamped, to be ignored at their professional peril.
More important than the heads now rolling: the broad yet detailed restructuring of Baylor into what regents and surely students, parents, faculty and this community hope is a model campus when it comes to preventing sexual assaults and ensuring Baylor does everything it can to bolster student victims’ education, health and state of mind at this resolutely Christian university of more than 15,000 students.
Regents with whom we’re acquainted understandably have taken great pride in Baylor’s tremendous strides in recent years — not just the football program but groundbreaking research at the remarkable Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative; the fiercely interactive Baylor School of Social Work; and a nationally ranked law school whose pro bono work benefits everyone from undocumented immigrants working and living in Waco’s shadows to area veterans who sometimes feel left behind by their country.
In the end, however, Baylor proves that universities great and small risk much when they take their eyes off athletic programs allowed to gyrate out of orbit because of their own head-spinning success. Universities great and small risk much when they ignore societal problems such as the disturbing incidence of sexual violence. And Baylor critics would do well to remember what experts continually tell us: This is a huge problem at universities and colleges nationwide — and Baylor is hardly the first to be stung because some key officials mishandled such volatile situations.
Baylor is not to be blamed so much for failing to prevent all rapes and other forms of sexual violence among its charges — though it certainly has a more pronounced role to play in that regard — but rather in failing in colossal fashion to strike the proper balance in compassionately and constructively supporting sexual-assault victims, even while ensuring that the rights of the accused are also protected. It is by no means an easy equation to balance and justify, but we should all expect more of a presumably enlightened university leadership.
At the same time, it’s relevant to remember that, while regents this week are forthcoming in addressing systemic failures in administrative and athletic corners of Baylor and highlighting steps to implement remedies recommended by the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton, it’s impossible at this point to know just how certain figures in all this failed. In fact, it’s impossible at this point to know whether some were even aware of problems before the controversial trial and conviction of former Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu last summer unleashed a whirlwind of claims and charges of impropriety, in turn triggering an exhaustive, unsparing, nine-month Pepper Hamilton campus-wide review.
This much we must accept for the moment as we hope for the future of one of Waco’s most precious and increasingly useful assets: Just as the scourge of sexual assaults amid administrative failures and shortcomings at Baylor University took a heavy toll on victims as well as many of the accused, Baylor’s long overdue overhaul will claim many other victims, including the unwitting, the indifferent and those who cavalierly and foolishly chose to look the other way while matters only worsened.