BY HANK REICHMAN
Did that headline grab you? I had intended to title this post “The Ironies of Ken Starr,” but someone tweeted something like the above and I couldn’t resist stealing the idea for my title. It’s out of date anyway, because today Baylor University announced that Starr will resign as university president while retaining his more formal position as chancellor (I’m incredulous that a school could have BOTH a president AND a chancellor!). At the same time Baylor moved to fire head football coach Art Briles and “sanctioned and placed on probation” athletic director Ian McCaw. The moves came amidst a growing controversy over the school’s alleged failure to address (if not near-complicity with) a series of sexual assaults by student athletes.
Starr, of course, gained fame (or, depending on your point of view, infamy) as the independent prosecutor who for years pursued “Javert-like” (as more than a few accounts have put it) former President Bill Clinton for his alleged misdeeds starting with Whitewater through the Vince Foster suicide on down to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In that role Starr earned something of a dubious reputation as a national scold, with his seemingly obsessive focus on the private sexual behavior of a public figure. Having failed to find any criminal wrongdoing, Starr, himself a religious conservative, retreated to a more modest role as dean of the Pepperdine Law School and then in 2010 to a position leading Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Waco, Texas. And for the past six years few outside of Waco have paid much attention to him.
But then, just yesterday, the New York Times ran an article reporting how Starr was now touting Clinton’s post-presidential “redemption” and offering regrets for his previous hounding of him. Referring to his investigation as “the unpleasantness” and calling Clinton “the most gifted politician of the baby boomer generation,” Starr recently told an audience that the former president’s “genuine empathy for human beings is absolutely clear. It is powerful, it is palpable, and the folks of Arkansas really understood that about him — that he genuinely cared.”
But even as the Times reported these words readers could be excused if they thought them more than a little self-serving. For Starr was now, for the first time in years, making headlines of his own, and once again there’s a sex scandal — and this time Starr simply stood by as it unfolded below him at the institution where he was allegedly in charge.
When Starr first took the Baylor job, he visited Fred Cameron, a prominent lawyer and former member of the university’s board, and asked for advice. “Win some football games,” Cameron replied. Starr took the advice to heart. In the next few years the Baylor football program would enjoy what many called a “meteoric” rise. The team had its first winning season in 15 years, went to a bowl game, and built a $266 million stadium. But in 2012 a Baylor linebacker was arrested and later convicted of sexual assault. At the player’s trial, four other witnesses said he had raped them as well. The next year, according to an account in Inside Higher Ed,
Samuel Ukwuachu — then a freshman all-American at Boise State University — was dismissed from that university’s football team for “violating team rules” after a drunken dispute with his then girlfriend ended with the player putting his fist through a window. The woman later alleged that Ukwuachu hit and choked her. Just weeks after he was dismissed, Ukwuachu transferred to Baylor to play football there.
That October, Waco police received a call saying that Ukwuachu had sexually assaulted a fellow student. The victim, a soccer player at Baylor, testified that she screamed “no” as Ukwuachu raped her in his apartment after homecoming.
In June 2014, Ukwuachu — who still had not played a game at Baylor — was indicted by a grand jury on two counts of sexually assaulting the female student. Even then, the football team’s defensive coordinator said he expected Ukwuachu to play that fall. Ukwuachu was found guilty of sexual assault last August. He was sentenced to six months in jail and 10 years on probation.
There were quite a few other instances too, reported by ESPN and others. In response the Baylor trustees hired a law firm, Pepper Hamilton, to investigate. Earlier this month the firm presented a lengthy oral report to the board summarizing its findings. The report sources said placed blame for the mishandling of several sexual assault cases on the university’s president and other administrators.
Today the university released the “findings of fact” from the Pepper Hamilton investigation. “Pepper found that Baylor’s efforts to implement Title IX were slow, ad hoc, and hindered by a lack of institutional support and engagement by senior leadership,” a statement said. “Based on a high-level audit of all reports of sexual harassment or violence for three academic years from 2012-2013 through 2014-2015, Pepper found that the university’s student conduct processes were wholly inadequate to consistently provide a prompt and equitable response under Title IX, that Baylor failed to consistently support complainants through the provision of interim measures, and that in some cases, the university failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potential hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, or address its effects for individual complainants or the broader campus community.”
The statement added that the firm “found examples of actions by 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 university said, “those actions constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault.”
The findings also cited “specific failings within both the football program and Athletics Department leadership, including a failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player, to take action in response to reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, and to take action in response to a report of dating violence.”
Pepper Hamilton noted that there were several instances in which “football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct.” The football program, the summary stated, operated its own “internal system of discipline,” that “resulted in conduct being ignored or players being dismissed from the team based on an informal and subjective process.”
“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus,” said Richard Willis, chair of the Baylor Board of Regents. “This investigation revealed the university’s mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students. The depth to which these acts occurred shocked and outraged us. Our students and their families deserve more, and we have committed our full attention to improving our processes, establishing accountability and ensuring appropriate actions are taken to support former, current and future students.” Of course, one has to wonder where the board was when they were blithely singing the praises of the school’s football renaissance. “As we would say in Christendom, it’s like an early rapture,” one member of Baylor board said in 2012. “We spent 40 years wandering the wilderness. I hope this is our exit.” Ha!
I won’t go into further detail about the findings of the Pepper Hamilton report, but suffice it to say that it thoroughly documents what Chris Newfield, in a tweet, called “a new low post-Penn State in admin coverup of #sexualassault.” Indeed, the report reads like a guide to how not to handle Title IX. However, it’s not only sexual assault, but also big-time athletics that’s involved, which means that Ken Starr and Baylor have managed to call further attention to not just one but to two of the biggest scandals in academia: the bungled treatment of sexual assault and harassment, documented in many places including AAUP’s recent draft report on “The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX” (a final report will be published next month) as well as the increasingly scandalous expenditure of public funds and student tuition dollars on extravagant and wasteful competitive athletics programs, decried on HBO Sports recently as an “athletics arms race” by two AAUP leaders. For example, Coach Briles, according to USA Today, in 2014 received nearly $6 million in total compensation. That’s a lot for covering up violent sex crimes.
Although the “findings of fact” documents a university-wide “failure to prioritize, recognize, implement and resource Title IX” and calls to task an “inadequate institutional response to sexual violence under Title IX/VAWA,” no specific reference is made to Starr. But according to sources, the law firm told the board that it was Starr, who “as president, encouraged a culture of second chances, while providing little oversight to the athletic department and the football team, and failed to move the university toward complying with Title IX.”
Given Starr’s lengthy and intrusive probing of Bill Clinton’s sexual activities, his willingness to provide “second chances” to a football program apparently filled with misogyinistic abusers will appear deeply ironic and his come-uppance for it poetic justice. But this is not a happy tale. As former Baylor student Stefanie Mundhenk, whose blog post about her experience as a victim of sexual assault went viral earlier this year, helping call attention to the scandal that has now erupted, told the Houston Chronicle, “There is no celebration on my end. Just grieving and mourning. I never wanted to be right. At times I lost my faith that I was. I am thankful that the truth has finally come out. May justice continue to be served.”