Under Starr's Presidency, Baylor Watched Golden Age Turn Sour
There may not have been a better time in history to be a Baylor Bear than Aug. 31, 2014. It was opening night for the university’s new football stadium, a $266 million palace built to house its suddenly dominant football team.
Former President George W. Bush stood at midfield for the pregame coin toss. Baylor, led by ascendant coach Art Briles, beat Southern Methodist University 45-0.
In the middle of it all was university President Ken Starr. He’d been on campus all day, strolling across the Brazos River on a new pedestrian bridge and unveiling a new statue of recent Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III outside the stadium gates. Before game time, he donned a bright yellow “Baylor Line” jersey and joined hundreds of freshmen in a sprint across the field.
That night, Starr was one of the stars. He’d been president for about four years, and the university was in the middle of a renaissance. He was beloved by students and fans. And the recent success of the school athletically and academically had people giddy. It seemed possible that a statue of Starr could one day end up on campus, too. The idea that Starr might be forcefully removed from his presidency seemed inconceivable.
But at that moment, the seeds for his removal had already been planted. Multiple school investigations of football players accused of rape had failed to lead to disciplinary action. And women who had been victims of sexual assaults on campus were frustrated by the school’s unwillingness or inability help them.
Now, Starr's tenure as president has ended. He has been relegated to the figurehead position of chancellor, and his long-term future at the university is unclear. The scandal that took his presidency, along with the jobs of Briles and Athletic Director Ian McCaw, is a jarring setback for Baylor, which bills itself as the largest Baptist university in the world. The devastated campus is reconsidering its relationship with its touted leader, while hoping the progress he helped bring remains intact.
"Tough issues and conflicts can actually serve as arbiters of bringing about a closer community and increased communication," said Vincent Harris, a prominent alumnus, GOP political strategist and friend of Starr. "That is the hope now for Baylor as the university moves into its next stage of leadership. "
Baylor was already rising when Starr showed up. Enrollment was climbing and university leaders were broadening research efforts. But the school was in turmoil, too. The two university presidents before Starr had been fired or resigned under pressure. And tension between faculty and the administration was high.
Starr arrived to some skepticism. He was best known as the attorney and former judge who tenaciously investigated President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, producing a book-length report that graphically detailed the president’s sexual encounters. But he quickly won people over. He learned the names of many professors and their family members. And he loved mingling with the students, who called him “Judge Starr.”
"Starr worked hard to calm the seas among faculty, staff and the student body," Harris said.
During his first year, he was the public face of the Baylor effort to save the Big 12 Conference, which at times seemed on the brink of dissolution. That effort was vital to the school, which received millions of dollars and major national exposure from the conference.
Secure in its place in the athletics world, the university began to thrive on the playing field. In 2011-12, the football team had its first 10-win season since 1980, and its first-ever Heisman Trophy winner, Griffin. The men’s basketball team reached the national quarterfinals. And the women’s basketball team won the national championship. That year became known among fans as the "Year of the Bear."
Success only compounded from there. The football team won its first Big 12 championship in 2013, and then won another in 2014. The wins generated pride among alumni and students, and increased interest in the university from potential applicants.
"Baylor leadership has been successful in building up Baylor for a while," said Ron Morgan, a mathematics professor. "However, my guess is that football has been the biggest part of Baylor rising."
From 2012 to 2014, the university raised a record $345 million in donations. Enrollment grew to a new high. Outside research funding doubled. And in 2015, the school’s acceptance rate dipped to 44 percent — 10 percentage points lower than just one year before — signifying a more competitive university.
Baylor also climbed in the U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings, from 80th in 2010 to 72nd in 2016.
But while football seemed to drive much of that success, it also helped usher in the university's current dark days. In June 2014, defensive end Sam Ukwuachu was indicted on a charge of raping a fellow student. He was suspended from the football team, but his case stayed out of the news. When his trial began in August 2015, it was the first of many shocking stories to emerge.
The university had investigated Ukwuachu's case, but issued no punishment, Texas Monthly reported in August. His victim, meanwhile, transferred.
Then, in a series of articles in 2016, ESPN reported that multiple other women reported being sexually assaulted by Baylor students or athletes and had found little support from their university. Five women said that football player Tevin Elliott raped or attempted to rape them.
In a series of public statements and letters to the "Baylor Nation," Starr expressed concern.He said the school had hired a law firm to conduct an in-depth investigation.
"We must always be vigilant to ensure that our processes – particularly those associated with the safety and well-being of our students – are not only robust and comprehensive, but entirely beyond reproach," he wrote.
But critics argued that he seemed to be evading blame. Starr stressed that universities are in some ways hamstrung in how they can handle sexual assault investigations. At one point, he said, "it is also important to acknowledge why we may not have known more than we did.”
That was infuriating to victims' advocates, who noted that federal law requires schools to investigate allegations of sexual assault. With Starr's history of investigating Clinton so aggressively, the claim that there was little he could do seemed ironic, they said.
Meanwhile, in private, Starr was saying that changes needed to be made. In December 2015, he met with Baylor student Stefanie Mundhenk. Months earlier, she had reported being raped by a student on her pre-law mock trial team. The school opened two investigations, but no action was taken. Mundhenk was outraged over how her case had been handled.
Some school employees were non-responsive or took weeks to respond to her e-mails, she said in an interview. Investigators complained about being too busy, she said. In the middle of one investigation, an employee from the school’s human resources department asked her for permission to allow her alleged attacker to return to work, she said.
At the December meeting, Starr told Mundhenk he would review her case and “fix this,” she said. He said he’d get back with her in the spring, she said.
But by February she was fed up. She detailed her frustrations in a viral blog post, which generated more than 150,000 views. The next day, she received a letter from Starr.
“I took your words and your concerns to heart,” he wrote, adding that one of her suggestions for improving the investigative process had already been implemented. Other changes were being reviewed, he said.
“I understand that these prospective steps cannot alter your experience, or the outcome in this case, which is final under university policy, but I trust that you will see in them some positive aspect to your choosing to share your perspectives with the office of the president,” he wrote.
Mundhenk’s story, along with others, led to numerous calls for Starr’s firing. At first, Mundhenk wanted Starr to stay, saying she believed he was the only person who could fix the system at Baylor. But as time progressed, she became more frustrated.
“I am not even close to thinking Ken Starr is the only issue at hand,” she said in an interview last week.
Shakeup at Baylor
On Thursday, Baylor broke its silence. The report conducted by the outside law firm determined that Baylor “failed to consistently support” students. At times, administrators discouraged women from coming forward with complaints. In cases involving football players, coaches or staff sometimes met with the victims and then didn’t report the allegations to anyone else at the university.
Overall, Baylor was making its students less safe, the report said.
The scandal was enough for Briles to lose his job and Starr to be reassigned. And suddenly, the national story of a private university out-punching its weight was replaced by one of a Christian school whose outsize ambitions caused it to lose its moral compass. Fair or not, that storyline will take time to recover from.
“I hope the very sad current events don’t taint the whole university,” said Morgan, the mathematics professor.
The school could also face legal liability. Some rape victims have hired lawyers or sued the school. And the university's actions in the past week — releasing a damning report, firing top personnel — might have provided a roadmap for litigation, said Christina Mancini, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies issues related to sexual assault.
"The fact that the board of regents acted so swiftly indicates some culpability of the university," she said.
Meanwhile, Starr's future remains unclear. On Thursday, Baylor regents noted his chancellor job has no "operating responsibilities inside the university." The last Baylor president to move to the job of chancellor, Robert Sloan, left the school the next year.
On Thursday, Starr said in a statement that he had agreed “in principle” to his demotion and planned to remain happily a part of the “Baylor Nation" — for now.
“Despite these dark days, I remain resolved to join hands with the Baylor family to continue to build the university as we carry out its distinct mission in Christian higher education,” he wrote.
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.