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How Baylor's new president plans to move the school past scandal

"We are a different university than we were one, two, three, five years ago," says Baylor President Linda Livingstone, who aims to help the school move past its recent sexual assault scandal while turning it into a tier one research school.

 Linda A. Livingstone, the president of Baylor University.

Linda Livingstone's first few days as president of Baylor University were filled with reminders of the good news college sports can bring. 

The private school's first female president began her tenure at the Big 12 Conference's annual meeting, where the 10 university presidents announced that they'd be distributing nearly $35 million to each school. Then, she traveled to Oklahoma City to watch the softball team compete in the Women's College World Series. 

But when she arrived for her first full week on campus last Monday, she was met with the troubles the school's athletics department helped bring. 

The university remains embroiled in a scandal over how it handled numerous allegations of sexual assault among students, especially members of the football team. Pepper Hamilton, a law firm the school hired to investigate the issue, found that women on campus who had been assaulted may have suffered from victim blaming. Regents reported that 19 football players were involved in sexual violence since 2011. (A legal filing alleges that the number is even higher than that.) The school still faces multiple lawsuits and is under investigation by the Big 12, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and the Texas Rangers.

But in an interview last week, Livingstone remained optimistic. The former dean of the George Washington University School of Business said there is still work to do to move past the recent years of scandal, but she feels confident that the school is heading in the right direction. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

Texas Tribune: You are arriving during a tough time for the school. How much of your time in the first weeks and months do you expect to be devoted to reacting or learning about these sexual assault problems?

Linda Livingstone: It will certainly be a high priority for me in the coming years and will consume a reasonable amount of my time. It is hard to predict exactly how much. We are working closely with all the groups that are looking into these issues and cooperating and providing all the information they need. We are confident that we will get to a good place on those and have resolutions that work appropriately for the survivors of the incidents, as well as move the university into a good place. 

TT: It has been well documented that your interim successor David Garland has been focused on implementing 105 recommendations that came from Pepper Hamilton. How much do you need to go back and review that work? 

LL: All of those recommendations are what we call structurally complete. But there is going to have to continue to be significant attention paid to a number of them. There was a certain set that relate to implementing processes and procedures related to culture — and those things don't happen overnight. You put the right processes in place, the right structural support and then you have to ensure that over the long run you create a culture that it is just embedded in what you do as an institution. The bones are in place, and we are in very good shape in that regard. We just have to be very diligent to continue to stay true to the recommendations and the changes that we have made. 

TT: A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that Pepper Hamilton never produced a written report — nothing was put in writing. Who are you relying on to find out about what happened here?

LL: I met with the two attorneys who put that information together — so I had a briefing on the Pepper Hamilton findings. I have a reasonable grounding in all of those issues and will certainly gain a depth of understanding and knowledge as we go forward.

TT: I know there's a segment of the Baylor community that feels like the school was almost unfairly maligned. That there were problems at Baylor, but also problems across the country and that one school is being singled out. What do you tell people when you hear that?

LL: Clearly these issues of sexual violence are problems around the country, but we have to look at what we are doing. We hope that we are in a much better place — and we certainly are. We are a different university than we were one, two, three, five years ago. We will continue to learn and get better at these things and also hope that other universities can learn from what we have gone through. We hope that the recommendations that were provided to us can be a roadmap for other institutions. 

TT: Even before these issues came to light, there was some tension among alumni, donors and university leadership — particularly coming from the former Alumni Association. Are you working to mend some of those relationships?

LL: I am trying to do a lot of listening. To me, that is the best way to work through the challenges that we have. I sometimes use the analogy of a family. As a family, sometimes you have difficult conversations but you work through them because you care deeply about the family and the institution and you want to make it a better place. 

TT: One of the big frustrations was a feeling that certain Baylor regents were getting too involved and crossing certain lines. Do you see it as part of your job to keep them in check?

LL: The regents approved a new set of guidelines back in February, and addressed some of the issues that you are talking about. But I will say this: Joel Allison is the new chair of the board and he is going to be fabulous. He is the former CEO of Baylor Scott & White and he understands healthy governance.

I have used the term 'staying in our lanes.' We are working on knowing what those lanes are for staff and coaches and deans and knowing what those lanes are for board members — and working together to hold each other accountable to do that. 

TT: This is a return to Baylor for you — you worked as a professor and dean from 1991 to 2002. How did Baylor change while you were gone?

LL: When you drive up to campus, just the campus itself has changed so dramatically with all the new facilities. Our students have access to much better facilities, whether it is residential facilities, academic facilities or sports facilities. The student life experience, the academic experience is just much richer because of the work that has been done on facilities on campus.

I have also noticed that the university has really expanded its academic opportunities and the university has done a very good job in hiring faculty that are noted in their fields. The other thing is, Waco has become an unbelievably impressive city. It is a wonderful community, and it is attracting our students to stay. 

TT: The attention the school has gotten in recent years has been less than ideal, but nonetheless applications are up and Baylor is climbing in the rankings. How has Baylor been able to do that?

LL: The academic quality of the institution has been increasing. Our admissions have become more and more selective through the years. Our incoming class may end up being the most selective in the history of Baylor. Our retention rate is going to be right around 90 percent, which will be our highest retention rate ever. Our fundraising is going to exceed the previous year and we will be over $100 million for the sixth or seventh year in a row. This class that's coming in is going to be the most diverse ever. So the metrics are great. I attribute that to the people on campus. We have an amazing staff and faculty that are doing a great job with our students, our alumni and our friends. 

TT: What are your top priorities for the job?

LL: At a very high level, we are going to continue to strengthen the Christian mission and look at how we are embedding it through the experience students have. Tied to that is our aspiration to be a tier one research university. To do that as a Christian university is a very unique thing. 

TT: How do you define a tier one university?

LL: In the Carnegie Classification of universities, there is a category of highest research activity. We are the tier below that. So it has to do with the amount of funded research and scholarly work that your faculty is doing. And so we are working on where we are now versus where we want to be and how we move into the next tier. 

TT: What most excites you about this job?

LL: I am just excited about the opportunity to make a difference. Being a Christian university is a unique space in higher education. To have a voice from a perspective deeply grounded in values is important. The way we do education, the way we think about scholarship, matters and there needs to be a prominent Christian university doing that. 

Disclosure: Baylor University and Baylor Scott & White Health have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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