Students

Baylor’s Admission of Major Mistakes on Sexual Assault Sends Shock Through Its Community

May 26, 2016

Rod Aydelotte, Waco Tribune Herald, AP Images
Baylor students and alumni held a candlelight vigil in February, one of several such events intended to draw attention to the university’s response to sexual assaults on the campus. Baylor’s decision to demote the president and fire the football coach on Thursday left activists feeling as if their voices had finally been heard.
As thunderstorms erupted and heavy rain pelted the campus of Baylor University on Thursday, faculty and staff members, students who had dispersed for the summer, and scattered alumni reacted with shock and resignation to explosive findings that described a "fundamental failure" to protect sexual-assault victims on the Texas campus.

In a conference call that was briefly interrupted by a power outage, members of the Board of Regents announced their decision to strip Kenneth W. Starr of his position as president but allow him to remain as chancellor and a law-school professor. One day after many people were speculating that the president would be out and the football coach in, the tides had turned and Art Briles was the one being sacked.

Mr. Starr, while being relieved of the day-to-day operational duties that come with the presidency, agreed "in principle" to remain as chancellor, a position that includes fund-raising and other external functions that he has held along with the presidency since 2013. The details of that position are still being negotiated, Mr. Starr said in a statement circulated on Twitter:

The board also sanctioned Baylor’s athletics director, Ian McCaw, and put him on probation.

Among those who welcomed the board’s admission — of "mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive, and caring environment for students" — was Cailin J. Ballard, a junior who contended in a blog post in February that she was raped in her dormitory room in October 2013.

The investigators’ conclusion that Baylor authorities sometimes responded in ways that sounded like blaming the victim resonated with Ms. Ballard, who asserted that the campus police had faulted her for drinking and attending a fraternity party.

"I found myself nearly shaking with awe while reading this article," she wrote in an email after reviewing a summary of findings from an investigation by the outside law firm Pepper Hamilton LLC, which Baylor’s board hired last fall. "This, this is what I have been waiting for in the years that I was ignored and silenced."

Demoting the president was appropriate, she said. "Though Starr did a lot for Baylor, he still failed to maintain one of the most important jobs a president offers: the safety and protection of his students. With these new actions, I already have less anxiety about starting school again in the fall, knowing that FINALLY our voice was heard, and sexual assault was not something to be taken lightly."

Those feelings were echoed by students who organized prayer vigils and protests this year.

The findings, and the university’s reaction to them, "have sent a powerful message to survivors of sexual violence, and to all women on Baylor’s campus, that they are believed, their stories are heard, they were wronged not only by their rapists, but also by their university," Natalie R. Webb, a doctoral student in religion, wrote in an email.

"Acknowledgment and repentance are important first steps. I pray that the leadership follows through on the recommendations given in the report and that Baylor Nation can stand in solidarity with the many brave survivors who have shared their stories, regardless of the cost," she wrote.

Stefanie Mundhenk, a 2015 graduate of Baylor who wrote a detailed account of being raped at Baylor in March 2015 and how the university had responded to her complaint, took to Twitter to express her feelings:

Most of the focus on sexual assaults at Baylor has been on athletics because many of the cases involved football players, two of whom were convicted of their crimes.

But the alleged perpetrators also included the president of a fraternity and, in Ms. Mundhenk’s case, a fellow member of her mock-trial team.

After her case was dismissed for lack of evidence, the alleged rapist graduated and was allowed to work in an office near where her academic-program office was located, Ms. Mundhenk wrote.

During the lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful complaint process, she wrote, she "felt more like a nuisance than a person whom a crime had been committed against."

Laura E. Seay, a 2000 graduate of Baylor who posted an open letter criticizing its response to the assaults, said Thursday’s developments marked "a sad but important day" for the university.

“These are important steps toward repentance for the mistakes of the past and a better future for the Baylor family.”
"I’m glad that the regents have chosen the path of transparency and accountability," Ms. Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College, wrote in an email. "These are important steps toward repentance for the mistakes of the past and a better future for the Baylor family."

Mr. Starr’s supporters seemed pleased that he would be staying on, although in a reduced role.

Vincent Harris, a 2009 Baylor graduate who started a petition that attracted nearly 2,000 signatures of support for Mr. Starr, called him "a huge asset to our university and someone who can and will continue to bring a huge benefit to our community during this time of transition."

He said that it appeared earlier in the week that Mr. Starr was going to be held as a scapegoat for others’ wrongdoings at Baylor, but that by allowing the facts to emerge, the board showed that the crisis had come about because of "the sins of many."

The news that Mr. Briles was being fired as football coach prompted this tweet from one of his players, Kedrick James, a standout tight end:

He was described by ESPN as a key member of the 2017 recruiting class, and ESPN speculated that other players who had taken to social media to complain about the popular coach’s dismissal were likely to follow his lead.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.