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Starr: Sexual Assault at Baylor Not "an Endemic Problem"

Former Baylor University President Ken Starr pushed back Saturday against the notion that the school — or its athletic department — has systemic problems with its handling of sexual assault allegations.

Ken Starr, former chancellor and president of Baylor University, was interviewed by Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 24, 2016.

*Clarification appended

Former Baylor University President Ken Starr pushed back Saturday against the notion that the school — or its athletic department — has systemic problems handling sexual assault investigations, and called for release of more details of the independent investigation that concluded otherwise.

“I'm going to resist the issue, or the characterization, that there was an endemic problem,” the university’s former president and chancellor told Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at the Texas Tribune Festival.

In one of his few extensive interviews since leaving Baylor in the wake of a sexual assault scandal involving football players, Starr acknowledged scattered problems with the way the Baptist university handled women who reported instances of sexual assault. But he suggested that the school was grappling with the same challenges as universities across the country — based upon what he said was his limited information.

“I’m not privy to all the facts,” Starr said, echoing that refrain several times during the interview.

Starr called for the release of more details of a university commissioned report, whose executive summary released this summer, concluded that Baylor had "failed to consistently support" students who reported sexual assault and "failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potentially hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, or address its effects for individual complainants or the broader campus community." 

So far, Baylor has resisted calls for the release of the full report, and Starr said his disagreement with the Board of Regents over that issue contributed to his decision to leave the university. 

He also accused ESPN and other media outlets of distorting the university’s image through what he called inaccurate or misleading reporting.

"Baylor is doing extremely well this year, and the faculty is in a very good place,” he added.

Starr also offered full-throated support for Art Briles, Baylor’s ousted head football coach. He suggested that Briles did not deserve to be fired — and was the victim of inaccurate news reporting.

"There's this meta-narrative out there, and you're echoing it because it's your job,” he told Smith. “And then there's reality."

“I have great confidence — to this day — in Coach Briles,” Starr said. “If there was a question of integrity, you fire the person for cause. Art Briles was not fired for cause.”

For years, the former U.S. judge and solicitor general was best known for his zealous investigation of former President Bill Clinton’s sexual encounters in the 1990s. During his more recent tenure as Baylor’s president, Starr — a beloved figure on campus — oversaw a renaissance on the gridiron and hardwood as the Baptist university poured millions of dollars into its athletics programs.

But now he is out, and the university is still answering questions about a scandal that grabbed national headlines this year: Multiple reports chronicled little or no university action after football players were accused of rape.

In May, Baylor regents removed Starr from the university's presidency but allowed him to continue as chancellor and law professor. By mid-August, he had stepped down from those roles. The scandal also ended the Baylor careers of Briles and athletic director Ian McCaw.

An investigation by the law firm Pepper Hamilton report found Baylor ill-equipped to respond to rape allegations. According to its summary, investigators found "examples of actions by two 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 report said, "those actions constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault."

On Saturday, Starr acknowledged shortcomings — mainly poor training — related to how some employees handled initial reports of sexual assault.

"When a victim or survivor comes in, [she should] be treated with dignity and respect,” he said, adding that he was "disappointed" that it didn’t happen in every case.

But Starr — who said he is writing a book about his time at Baylor — rejected the notion that Baylor’s problems with sexual assault were widespread.

“There is a huge cultural and societal problem of interpersonal violence,” he said. “I think Baylor is held to a very high standard, so if there’s a departure from that standard, we’re going to be sought out.”

Starr added that bystanders could have prevented the assaults, and Baylor “should have done more on bystander intervention.”

He also suggested that alcohol largely contributes to such violent acts. 

“My encouragement to students is don’t go to these off-campus parties,” he said. 

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Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Starr's in-depth interview at the Texas Tribune Festival was not his first since leaving Baylor.

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