*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
WACO — A former governor, a former football coach and the wealthy booster for whom Baylor University’s new football stadium is named were among prominent alumni who gathered near campus on Thursday to plead for reform at their private school. Baylor has been rocked by scandal for more than a year over how it has handled allegations of sexual assault against football players and other students.
“We are brokenhearted about the women who have been harmed over the years because of the neglect in part of our leaders to take care of that problem,” said former Texas Gov. Mark White, who graduated from Baylor in 1962.
They focused most of the blame on one group: The university board of regents. The board needs more transparency and needs to stop micromanaging the school, the boosters said.
“They cannot keep running it like it is their own small, privately-held company,” said Emily Tinsley, a former Baylor regent who graduated in 1962.
Hours after the meeting, board Chairman Ron Murff released a letter to the "Baylor Family" defending the board's actions. He said the regents have tried to be forthcoming about what happened and have tried to work to "not allow a campus environment to continue where reports of sexual assaults were minimized, rationalized and mishandled within the University."
The group of boosters calling itself Bears for Leadership Reform gathered at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame museum, which is across the Brazos River from the Baptist university’s football stadium. Hundreds of alumni and donors showed up to express their support.
Legendary football coach Grant Teaff, who led the Bears from 1972 to 1992, opened the meeting with a prayer. Former football player Rell Tipton accused the board of poor decision-making. And wealthy donor Drayton McLane, whose name adorns the stadium, called for more details of the scandal to be released.
“We need to determine what are the real facts,” McLane said. “Were the right decisions made by the board?”
The group stopped short of calling for a formal removal of board members, though some speakers seemed to hint that they’d like to see that. Instead, they called for more transparency and for the release of more information from an investigation commissioned by the school into how the school handles allegations of sexual assault.
Baylor has been in turmoil since August 2015, when football player Sam Ukwuachu was convicted of raping another student. During his trial, it was revealed that Baylor investigated the allegations against Ukwuachu but took little action other than suspending him from the football team while his trial was pending.
Similar other cases soon came to light, and football coach Art Briles and university president Ken Starr lost their jobs in May after a long investigation.
Some Baylor football fans were enraged by Briles’ ouster, saying he was being blamed for a university-wide problem. Baylor regents have since said that 19 football players had been accused of sexual assault since 2011. And the law firm Pepper Hamilton, which was hired by the school to investigate the school’s policies and practices, said unnamed football coaches met with women who said they were assaulted by football players, but that the coaches didn’t report those accusations to anyone else at the school.
John Eddie Williams, a Houston lawyer and Baylor donor who led Thursday’s meeting, said he found Briles to be “a man of great integrity.” But the group didn’t state an opinion about whether he should have been fired.
“Our focus is on the leadership at the board level,” he said. “That is where we need to focus.”
One of the problems, Williams and other suggested, is that the Baylor community doesn’t know all the facts about what happened. The Bears for Leadership Reform group called on the university to release more details about what was in Pepper Hamilton’s final report. Baylor officials said there was no final written report, but the boosters said Thursday that they want to see notes or slides used to brief regents on Pepper Hamilton’s findings.
In his letter, Murff made the board's position clear: Briles is not coming back.
"This change in leadership was not based on any single incident, but on the weight of the information presented to us and a pattern of poor decisions over a range of disciplinary issues, not just sexual assault," Murff wrote.
Later, he added, "To Art’s credit, he took responsibility for this in discussions with the Board of Regents and in a national media interview."
The boosters also called for more transparency in how Baylor is governed overall. The board should publish meeting agendas and minutes, disclose settlement agreements that the university has signed in relation to this scandal and host regular meetings with the press and the university community, the group said.
The boosters said the calls for change were urgent, but they stopped short of saying they’d cut off their donations to the school if changes weren't made.
“You give because you love Baylor University,” McLane said.
Baylor officials weren’t present at the meeting, and university officials didn't immediately return messages seeking comment. But on Wednesday the school did announce a task force “that will review and recommend improvements in the Board’s practices, procedures and selection process.”
“This Task Force will work alongside the Board’s Governance and Compensation committee that has already led the implementation of substantial changes,” Interim President David Garland said in an e-mail to the campus community.
But Murff noted that Baylor regents had given interviews to national publications and television shows in recent days.
"Rather than stay silent, the University's senior leadership recognized that the Baylor Family deserved to know more about the magnitude of the problem and about the reasons why we responded so forcefully to the Pepper Hamilton findings," Murff wrote. "As a result, we decided to be more forthcoming about what we learned while always being mindful of the victims of sexual assault, particularly maintaining their confidentiality."
Read more about Baylor here:
- The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is investigating Baylor University's handling of sexual violence reports on campus.
- The ongoing scandal at Baylor creates a range of legal liability for the school.