A Texas Senate panel on Wednesday lambasted Baylor University over its recent sexual assault scandal and pondered taking the dramatic step of requiring the private university to comply with state open records laws.
At a Senate Higher Education Committee hearing, senators peppered Baylor's interim president, David Garland, with questions about whether the university worked to cover up or failed to properly respond to numerous accusations of rape by football players and other students. Senators also questioned why some people who appeared to be involved in the scandal have been allowed to keep their jobs or administrative titles at the school.
Garland pushed back against those complaints, saying the school is "trying to be transparent."
"We were not trying to cover up what happened at Baylor," he said.
Senators weren't convinced.
"I'm sorry, but I don't buy that for a minute," Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told Garland, repeating himself for emphasis. "I don't buy that for a minute. I think that is exactly what was going on."
Garland had come to the Capitol to testify against a bill filed by Seliger, who chairs the Higher Education Committee. The bill seeks to require any school that receives more than $5 million in Tuition Equalization Grants from the state to comply with state open records and open meetings laws. Only two schools in Texas meet that threshold — Baylor and the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
Seliger said the situation at Baylor "is exactly why this bill was filed."
But while the open records bill was ostensibly the main focus of the hearing, the conversation soon veered to broader frustrations. Senators asked why the law firm hired to investigate the scandal for the university, Pepper Hamilton, never produced a written report. They asked why the administrator in charge of judicial proceedings at the school — Bethany McCraw — remains in her job, even though her office had failed to take action against numerous male students accused of rape. And they expressed suspicion about whether there had been full transparency regarding the involvement of Baylor's board of regents in the scandal.
"I love Baylor University — a lot," said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who is a graduate of the school. "But I have been extraordinarily disappointed and very sad about all that has gone on."
Garland argued that the breadth of Baylor's response to its problems is unprecedented. But his testimony at times frustrated senators and other people in the room. At one point, he said he had been hired to implement the recommendations made by the Pepper Hamilton firm. But he acknowledged that he still didn't know all of its details of what it found.
Senators answered by arguing that the lack of a written report made it look like Baylor was trying to prevent information from being made public. Garland said he disagreed, saying it might have taken six months more to produce a report in writing.
"What they wanted to do was take action as quickly as possible," he said of the board. Left unsaid was that Pepper Hamilton worked for eight months prior to giving its report verbally.
Senators also questioned whether the university's board of regents was covering up its involvement in the scandal, noting that Pepper Hamilton had recommended changes to how the board governed itself. Garland said he didn't think that Pepper Hamilton's recommendations weren't in response to a board coverup, but that "coaches could go directly to regents and get special considerations."
Baylor has been under the spotlight since August 2015, when football player Sam Ukwuachu stood trial over the rape of a fellow student. During Ukwuachu’s trial, testimony revealed that the university investigated his case but decided not to take any punitive action. Ukwuachu was found guilty, but now faces a retrial after an appeals court overturned the verdict.
Since Ukwuachu's trial, many more stories of lax handling of allegations of sexual assault have come to light. In a lawsuit filed in January, attorneys for one victim claimed that 31 football players were responsible for 52 sexual assaults from 2011 to 2014. And Pepper Hamilton found problems throughout the university — not just the football team. Very few students accused of sexual violence were punished, and at times administrators engaged in “victim blaming,” the investigators found.
Baylor is seeking to dismiss the lawsuit that includes the allegation of 52 rapes. Nonetheless, the university has admitted that it had many problems. Its regents have claimed that 19 football players were accused of sexual assault. Investigators hired by the university have recommended 105 policy changes at Baylor. So far, the school says, more than 85 have been implemented.
The proposed open records law, advocates said, would allow for more transparency about what happened and who is to blame. In 2015, lawmakers passed a law requiring that police reports from private university police departments be made available to the public. But senators said they were frustrated that a loophole in the law seemed to have emerged. If the police department shared the record with school administrators first, it became protected from release by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Baylor initially used that loophole to block some records from being released, but a university spokesman said Wednesday that the school stopped that practice last summer.
Seliger's bill would broaden what universities had to release to include virtually all governing documents that didn't include private student information or other confidential information. But the bill would only apply to those who met the $5 million threshold for Tuition Equalization Grants, which are given to private schools by the state to offer to low-income students. A handful of other schools fall right under that threshold.
The panel left the bill pending at the end of the hearing, which came to an abrupt end as the full Senate was set to convene.
Ray Martinez, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, called the proposal unprecedented, and warned that it would allow the schools' competitors to find out information about their strategies and policies that could affect recruitment.
But former Democratic Senator Don Adams, who helped write the state's open records laws in the 1970s, told the committee that "all the squirming that you saw up here and all the reticence is familiar to me." Public universities had similar concerns back then in his time, but none of their fears came to fruition.
"The act has worked," he said.
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Disclosure: Baylor University and the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.