Bill Whitaker: Baylor alumni, donors and now state lawmakers ramming university regents’ door

Last week Bears for Leadership Reform joined calls to legally force Baylor University to throw open the doors of its long-cloistered regents meetings. The group of BU alumni, donors and past regents formed amid controversy over Baylor’s questionable handling of sexual-assault cases and governance decisions. And now it has backed state legislation that would use Tuition Equalization Grants to strategically strike at embattled Baylor leadership.

Admittedly, Bears for Leadership Reform chose a bizarre way to do this, calling on regents to support the legislation. That’s like asking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to support transparency regarding his use of chemical weapons. But then requests for transparency over many months have come to little while matters have worsened.

“Every week we’re seeing new accusations, new leaks,” BLR President and major Baylor donor John Eddie Williams said. “It’s a drip-drip-drip of bad news with no end in sight. We find ourselves in a situation where we have a Texas Rangers investigation [of Baylor] in Waco, we have Title IX investigators [from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights] on campus, we have the accreditation agency looking into issues at Baylor, we have several bills in front of the Texas Legislature calling for open meetings and then we have lawsuits where the depositions and discovery should begin soon and even more lawsuits possible on the horizon….”

Now ongoing calamity at Baylor is fueling a gutsy legislative proposal to end closed governance meetings there and elsewhere. That can’t make Baylor too popular among private universities. As shrewdly written, the bill requires such transparency only of Baylor — Texas’ oldest continually operating institution of higher learning — and University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, which just happened to fall within the legislation’s narrow and punishing parameters. But that could well change.

Last month’s Senate Higher Education Committee hearing was ostensibly focused on state Sen. Kel Seliger’s bill demanding private universities and colleges accepting more than $5 million annually in Tuition Equalization Grants have governance meetings open to the public — in short, Baylor and UIW. However, the hearing quickly became an inquisition over Baylor’s handling of its sexual-assault controversy, all directed at its interim, low-key president, David Garland, whose explanations were peppered with nervous reminders he was not privy to the Pepper Hamilton law firm’s now-infamous oral presentation of its investigation to regents. He mentioned he was on sabbatical during much of the time in question.

From the outset, Seliger has made clear his legislation is all about Baylor regents’ reluctance to furnish sufficient accountability for their actions in matters directly involving students and public safety. Criticism focused not only on regents’ May 2016 decision to remove a winning head football coach, athletic staffers and a popular president after the Pepper Hamilton report but also on whether other officials contributing to the scandal were still working on campus. Key thrust: Regents’ closed-door meetings had contributed mightily to Baylor’s widening problems.

“If these meetings had been open to the public in the past,” Seliger thundered, “maybe some of the things we read about today might not have taken place….”