Baylor President Replaced, Football Coach Fired Over Botched Sexual Assault Cases

05_26_Baylor_Briles_Starr
Baylor University said on May 26 it would fire its head football coach, Art Briles, pictured here in 2011, and replace its president, Ken Starr, following an investigation into its Title IX practices. Mike Stone/REUTERS

Baylor University is replacing its president and firing its prominent football coach following an investigation into the school's handling of sexual assault cases. The private university of 16,000 students in Waco, Texas, announced the personnel changes and investigation findings on Thursday.

David Garland, dean of Baylor's Theological Seminary, will take over as interim university president for Ken Starr, the school said. Starr, who served as U.S. solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush and is widely known as the Whitewater prosecutor who led an investigation that unearthed the Monica Lewinsky affair that nearly resulted in Bill Clinton's removal from office, will remain at Baylor as chancellor and continue teaching at its law school.

Head football coach Art Briles has been suspended, and the school said it plans to fire him. Briles had held the position since 2008, during which time he led his team to win two Big 12 Conference championships.

Last fall, Baylor appointed an independent firm to review its handling of several Title IX cases. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs, including sexual violence and assault. That investigation, the school said Thursday, brought to light "a fundamental failure" to implement the law.

"We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus," Richard Willis, chairman of the Baylor Board of Regents, said in a statement. "This investigation revealed the university's mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students."

"We are deeply sorry for the harm that survivors have endured," Ron Murff, chairman-elect of the Board of Regents, said in the statement.

The investigation found that "the university's student conduct processes were wholly inadequate to consistently provide a prompt and equitable response under Title IX," the school said. "Baylor failed to consistently support complainants through the provision of interim measures; and in some cases, the university failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potential hostile environment, prevent its recurrence or address its effects."

The school also said the investigation found that university administrators' actions "directly discouraged some complainants from reporting or participating in student conduct processes." In one case, that action "constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault."

Actions by the athletics department and football program were especially egregious, investigators said, "including a failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player and to a report of dating violence." There were also "concerns about the tone and culture" inside the football program regarding student misconduct.

As the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has gained attention in recent years, due in part to 2011 Department of Education guidance on how schools should handle Title IX cases, several colleges have set up independent investigations, often under pressure. In April, Kenyon College in Ohio said it would appoint a firm to audit its Title IX policies and procedures after an open letter by an alumnus prompted widespread criticism.

Andrea Pino, director of policy and support at End Rape on Campus, a survivor advocacy organization, says Baylor's response is unprecedented. "You rarely do ever see some type of concrete action," she says. "I really hope that it sends a very clear message that this is going to happen to other football programs, it's going to happen to other universities, unless they look at this issue much more seriously before a scandal breaks out on their campus."

Particular attention has been given to sexual assault cases involving student athletes. In a recent study, researchers found that rape reports to law enforcement by college-aged people increase by 28 percent on football game days.

"I do think it's an athletic problem, and I do think it's a big football problem," Pino says. "These players have power that is just simply not equal to most other students on campus. You have athletes who generate millions of dollars for their institutions."

Some college athletes, including a Yale basketball player and a football player and wrestler at Colorado State University-Pueblo, and have filed lawsuits or threatened to sue over what they say were wrongful accusations and school sanctions.

Several criminal cases involving sexual assault reports at Baylor had cast unwanted attention on the religious school, said to be the world's largest Baptist college. In 2014, two former Baylor students who said they were sexually assaulted testified in the trial of a football player, Tevin Elliott. The court found him guilty of sexual assault and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

One of those former students filed a federal lawsuit against Baylor in March, accusing the school of mishandling her sexual assault report.

"I think that this is a big step in the right direction," says Alex Zalkin, one of the attorneys representing that former student. "I did not think that they would take the step to fire Art Briles given his success and the amount of money he has made for that school. So I think that's a good thing. I'm a little disappointed that it took a ton of public pressure and mounting public pressure to get it done."

Zalkin says the investigators' points about the football team are consistent with the complaints his client has made. "With this institution in particular it is unquestionably a football issue," he says. "I think that report paints the football program as pretty out of control with respect to how its players treat females and the amount of knowledge" the staff had about that treatment.

He says his client is happy with Thursday's announcement, though her case is ongoing.

A petition to reinstate Starr has garnered nearly 2,000 supporters. "Over the past six years, Judge Starr has ushered in a new era of success. We believe he will continue to do so going forward in his current role," the petition says.

In Thursday's announcement, Baylor said it also sanctioned the athletics department director, Ian McCaw, and dismissed additional unidentified administration and athletics employees. It added that the investigating firm issued recommendations, including that Baylor review its interpersonal violence cases going back three years.

Baylor President Replaced, Football Coach Fired Over Botched Sexual Assault Cases | U.S.