Baylor University's Board of Regents has fired its head football coach, and its president will soon resign, amid allegations that the world’s largest Baptist university has continuously mishandled -- and sought to suppress public discourse about -- sexual assaults committed by its football players and other students.
The president, Kenneth Starr, will remain at the university as its chancellor and a law professor, though the terms of the arrangement are still being discussed. In a statement released Thursday, Baylor admitted that the university mishandled a number of reports of sexual violence and that coaches and staff reinforced a perception that football was above the rules.
“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus," said Richard Willis, chair of the Baylor Board of Regents. “This investigation revealed the university's mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students. The depth to which these acts occurred shocked and outraged us. Our students and their families deserve more, and we have committed our full attention to improving our processes, establishing accountability and ensuring appropriate actions are taken to support former, current and future students.”
Earlier this month, Pepper Hamilton, a law firm the university hired to investigate how it has handled allegations of sexual assault, presented a lengthy oral report to the board summarizing its findings. The report placed blame for the mishandling of several sexual assault cases on the university’s president and other administrators, and the board urged Starr to resign this week.
The university on Thursday released its "findings of fact" from the Pepper Hamilton investigation.
"Pepper found that Baylor’s efforts to implement Title IX were slow, ad hoc, and hindered by a lack of institutional support and engagement by senior leadership," the statement said. "Pepper found that the university’s student conduct processes were wholly inadequate to consistently provide a prompt and equitable response under Title IX, that Baylor failed to consistently support complainants through the provision of interim measures, and that in some cases, the university failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potential hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, or address its effects for individual complainants or the broader campus community."
The statement said that the firm "found examples of actions by university administrators that directly discouraged complainants from reporting or participating in student conduct processes, or that contributed to or accommodated a hostile environment." In one instance, the university said, "those actions constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault."
The findings also cited "specific failings within both the football program and Athletics Department leadership, including a failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player, to take action in response to reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, and to take action in response to a report of dating violence."
The head football coach, Art Briles, and the university’s athletics director, Ian McCaw, were singled out in Pepper Hamilton's verbal report presented to the Board of Regents earlier this month, with sources saying the board considered them to be “on the chopping block.” Briles on Thursday was suspended "with intent to terminate," the university said. McCaw was placed on probation by the board, but not fired. Other athletic officials and administrators were also fired or sanctioned, as well, the board members said in a media call Thursday, though they declined to say how many employees were disciplined.
No written report was prepared by Pepper Hamilton ahead of Thursday's announcement.
The university's summary released Thursday noted that there were several instances in which "football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct." The football program, the summary stated, operated its own "internal system of discipline," that "resulted in conduct being ignored or players being dismissed from the team based on an informal and subjective process."
According to sources familiar with the investigation, Pepper Hamilton found that Starr, as president, encouraged a culture of second chances, while providing little oversight to the athletic department and the football team, and failed to move the university toward complying with Title IX, the federal antidiscrimination law that dictates how colleges should investigate and adjudicate cases of campus sexual assault.
Baylor hired its first full-time Title IX coordinator in November 2014, three years after the U.S. Department of Education told colleges to do so. Prior to that, the coordinator position was assigned to various senior administrators, the investigation found, "each of whom already had a full profile of professional responsibilities" and who lacked the necessary training. When Baylor did finally hire a Title IX coordinator, the university "underestimated the level of infrastructure and resources" the office would need.
In a statement Thursday, Starr apologized "to those victims who were not treated with care, concern, and support they deserve," but added that he was not aware of "any of the allegations regarding interpersonal violence" until 2015, at which point he recommended the board commission an external investigation.
"To be sure, this has been an exceedingly difficult time for the university family, especially so for the victims of sexual violence and their loved ones," Starr said.
'Win Some Football Games'
Starr is a renowned judge and lawyer, having argued nearly 40 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and served as independent counsel during the investigation that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Starr became president of Baylor in 2010. When Starr first took the job, he said last year, he visited Fred Cameron, a prominent lawyer and former member of the university’s board, and asked him for advice.
“Win some football games,” Cameron replied.
Starr took the advice to heart and threatened legal action against the Southeastern Conference and Texas A&M University when that university decided to leave the Big 12 Conference, a move that many at the university feared would break up the league and leave Baylor without a big-time conference home. Texas A&M ultimately bolted for the wealthier SEC, but Starr’s threats are credited with helping give some of the other waffling Big 12 teams enough pause that they decided to remain with the league.
Meanwhile, Briles was already revamping the long-stagnant football team. In 2010, he led the team to the Texas Bowl, finishing off the Bears’ first winning season in 15 years. A stream of successes followed, culminating in the construction of a new $266 million stadium to house the team.
The success and higher profile of the football program have, university officials assert, helped Baylor raise $400 million since 2012 to support a flurry of construction and other projects around campus, including a new building to house the business school and a $100 million scholarship initiative.
“As we would say in Christendom, it’s like an early rapture,” a member of Baylor's board said in 2012. “We spent 40 years wandering the wilderness. I hope this is our exit.”
The rise in stature of Baylor’s football program under Briles and Starr is frequently described as “meteoric,” though it also concerned some on campus, who worried that a university so focused on football could lose sight of its Baptist and academic mission.
In 2012, a Baylor linebacker was arrested and later convicted of sexual assault. At the player’s trial, other witnesses said he had raped them as well. The victim in that trial is now suing the university, alleging that officials already knew of at least some of the other assaults committed by the player.
In 2013, Samuel Ukwuachu -- then a freshman all-American at Boise State University -- was dismissed from that university’s football team for “violating team rules” after a drunken dispute with his then girlfriend ended with the player putting his fist through a window. The woman later alleged that Ukwuachu hit and choked her. Just weeks after he was dismissed, Ukwuachu transferred to Baylor to play football there.
That October, Waco police received a call saying that Ukwuachu had sexually assaulted a fellow student. The victim, a soccer player at Baylor, testified that she screamed “no” as Ukwuachu raped her in his apartment after homecoming.
In June 2014, Ukwuachu -- who still had not played a game at Baylor -- was indicted by a grand jury on two counts of sexually assaulting the female student. Even then, the football team’s defensive coordinator said he expected Ukwuachu to play that fall. Ukwuachu was found guilty of sexual assault last August. He was sentenced to six months in jail and 10 years on probation.
Sexual assault is a famously underprosecuted crime, yet not only did local law enforcement officials move forward with the case, they successfully charged and convicted Ukwuachu. Meanwhile, according to a Baylor official who testified during the trial, the university never held a campus hearing because there was not enough evidence to move forward. In August 2015, Texas Monthly published an article raising questions about whether Baylor officials knew of Ukwuachu’s previous violent behavior.
Over the next several months, ESPN published a series of reports detailing a number of other sexual and physical assaults seemingly kept quiet by the university and committed mostly by football players. In one case a female student said she was twice physically assaulted by a Baylor football player. In another, a woman told police a football player threw her against a wall.
In a 2011 assault case involving two football players, according to ESPN, local police pulled the case “from a computer system so that only persons who had a reason to inquire about the report” would be able to find it.
The rape allegations are not limited to the football team. Earlier this month, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported that a Baylor tennis player is also under investigation for sexual assault and that a Baylor fraternity president was indicted on four counts of sexual assault after an incident in February. Earlier this year, a Baylor student named Stefanie Mundhenk published a widely shared blog post about her own experiences being raped and reporting the assault to the university.
"I'm tired of a Christian university not having a passion for the hurting, and covering it up to maintain a glossy image," Mundhenk wrote.
The news that the board was ousting Starr this week prompted nearly 2,000 people, mostly Baylor alumni, to sign a petition demanding that he remain president. Vincent Harris, the Baylor graduate who created the petition, said by asking for Starr's resignation, the Board of Regents was just "removing the easiest scapegoat." Some who signed the petition also defended Briles.
"I want to say that college football is a sport of second chances," one alumnus wrote. "I hope this scandal at Baylor University does not change that. For every football player that uses a second chance to commit assault, there are 500 other players using their second chances to become responsible men."
While another signee noted that Christianity also values second chances, legal experts and victims’ advocates argue that the concept is not the safest way to prevent sexual assault from occurring on campus.
In 2007, a former student received six-figure settlement from the University of Georgia after she was raped by a basketball player who had been previously dismissed from a community college where he had allegedly sexually assaulted two women. In 2009, the Arizona Board of Regents agreed to pay a former Arizona State University student $850,000 after she was raped by a football player the university had already expelled once for groping and exposing himself to women. The student had returned to campus at the request of a coach, and then raped the woman in her dorm room.
Those lawsuits haven’t stopped some institutions from continuing to bring or keep players with troubled pasts on their teams.
In August, a former Vanderbilt University football player who was charged with five counts of aggravated rape transferred to play football at Lane College. Another player allegedly involved in that same case transferred to Alcorn State University, a team that already included a registered sex offender.
The University of Oregon faced a lawsuit last year when it allowed an athlete to play for its basketball team after he was previously accused of sexual assault at Providence College. The player was then suspended from Oregon after he allegedly assaulted a female student there. He has since transferred to yet another institution. Two other players who were also suspended for their alleged involvement in the Oregon assault have transferred to play basketball elsewhere.
Last season, the University of Oklahoma’s football roster included a player who was charged in 2014 with punching a woman and breaking four bones in her face. In defending his decision to keep the player on the team, Bob Stoops, Oklahoma’s head football coach, espoused the importance of second chances.
"Second chances appeal to our sense of fairness and justice," Dionne Koller, director of the Center of Sport and Law at the University of Baltimore, said. "The problem with the 'second chance,' as it is commonly used in sports programs, and was seemingly used at Baylor, is that it appears to be more about privileging and protecting those in power, and not about promoting greater justice. A culture of 'second chances' where issues this serious are going on is really about avoiding bringing those responsible to justice. In this sense, the 'second chance' sends a message of entitlement -- that those in the athletic power structure are above the rules."
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