Wracked by a scandal over mishandled sexual assault complaints that has already brought down its president and football coach, Baylor University on Friday announced appointment of a task force to begin implementing 105 recommendations made by an independent law firm.
The Pepper Hamilton investigation found a “fundamental failure” by the university to uphold federal Title IX requirements on addressing sexual assault and led to the firing of head football coach Art Briles and President Kenneth Starr, who remains a law professor at the school.
The damning report came after the sexual assault convictions of football players Tevin Elliott and Samuel Ukwuachu in 2014 and 2015. The cases raised questions about whether Baylor was properly investigating sexual assault allegations, and in particular whether the university was protecting football players. Pepper Hamilton's report has not been publicly released, but a statement issued by the Board of Regents last month noted failings across the university and the athletics department and raised concerns about the "tone and culture" within the football program.
The sexual assault task force “will build on improvements to the University response to sexual violence made in recent years,” focusing on Title IX, athletics, public safety, counseling and advocacy, the school said in a statement. A second new group, the Spiritual Life and Character Formation Task Force “will provide long-term strategic direction for the renewed focus on the distinctive mission of the University,” the school said. Both task forces will be supported by an “action team,” headed by Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Reagan Ramsower, which will oversee 17 “implementation teams” comprising faculty, staff and administrators.
“Let me assure you all that we are deeply sorry for the harm done to students in our care,” interim president David Garland wrote in a letter posted online. “Even during the course of Pepper Hamilton's investigation, we began adopting improvements to our processes, and now we are pursuing the other improvements remaining in the recommendations.”
The recommendations, divided into 13 categories, include making Title IX obligations “an institutional priority,” changing the culture of the football team, holding athletes “accountable to the same standards as all Baylor students,” increasing resources for the Title IX office and conducting surveys on campus climate.
Title IX is the federal law banning discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational institution that receives federal funding. It requires universities to provide resources for victims of sexual violence and have an established procedure for handling such cases so it can provide an avenue for victims of sexual violence to bring civil suits against their universities. The Pepper Hamilton report found that the "University's student conduct processes were wholly inadequate to consistently provide a prompt and equitable response under Title IX."
The task force announcement comes as fallout from Baylor’s sexual assault scandal continues. On June 2, the executive committee of the university’s alumni association, the Baylor Line Foundation, called on the Board of Regents to release the full Pepper Hamilton report, claiming that the summary released by the board “falls far short of the level of transparency that the Baylor Family — and the people directly affected — deserve.” In a June 3 letter, Garland rejected those calls on the grounds that the full report was delivered orally to the regents.
Meanwhile, Baylor faces a Title IX lawsuit from a student who was sexually assaulted by former football player Tevin Elliott. On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the student’s lawyer, Alex Zalkin, questioned why Briles is the only coach Baylor has fired.
Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, said the task force’s attention to addressing campus climate seemed positive. The challenge, she said, would be implementation. Friday’s press release did not include information about dates the task forces will meet or deadlines for it to make recommendations.
“A task force, that’s very general,” Onyeka-Crawford said. “I would be very concerned if a lot of time went by and there wasn’t a timeline or any kind of procedure for implementing findings.”
Malinda Gaul, a national board member of the American Association of University Women, graduated from Baylor in 1979 and the law school in 1982. She saw Friday’s announcement as an imperative for the school.
“With the damage this has done to the university, to the athletic program, to relations with the alumni, I don’t think they have any choice,” she said.
Gaul believes that at least some of Baylor’s problems are common nationally. The AAUW, she said, has been working to get in touch with Title IX coordinators at universities across the country but often finds no single coordinator exists or that ensuring compliance with Title IX is one of many duties assigned to an administrator. Baylor’s Title IX coordinator, Patty Crawford, began work in November 2014. Before that, The Texas Tribune reported, Baylor said Title IX responsibilities had been handled by “a variety of individuals.”
“[Universities] have got to take this more seriously,” Gaul said. “There’s a law out there that says you’re supposed to have a coordinator, and they’re not implementing that.”