In August 2015, Ken Starr, then president of Baylor University, issued a bold pronouncement to students and faculty. “By God’s grace,” he wrote, “we are living in a golden era at Baylor.”
Less than a year later, the university’s regents voted to remove Starr after six years on the job, saying he failed to act as charges of sexual assault upended the football team and swept the nation’s largest Baptist university, a place where biblical verse is carved into the sidewalks.
Starr, 73, has held many high-profile national posts, including solicitor general and independent counsel. Now he will work on the legal team defending President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial. But his tenure as president of Baylor and its 14,000 students registers as a dark chapter in his career. Young women and several former officials said in interviews that Starr ignored the women’s cries for help and that he and other top officials at Baylor failed in their responsibility to shield the women from sexual harm.
Three years ago, 15 current and former female students filed a lawsuit against Baylor, saying they had been raped or assaulted by fellow students. Their case has unearthed piles of unsightly evidence of official inaction.
“Starr presided over Baylor at a time when hundreds of young women were assaulted and Baylor’s policy was indifference at best,” said Jim Dunnam, who is a Baylor Law School graduate and former leader of the statehouse Democrats and who, as a lawyer for the plaintiffs, has taken testimony under oath from regents and former university officials.
Starr did not respond to messages seeking comment.
A prodigious fundraiser, Starr focused less on managing the day-to-day operations of the university. In “Bear Country,” his retrospective book on his time at Baylor, he compared himself to Ronald Reagan, who might come up light on numbers or specifics of a policy but had a firm commitment to first principles.
Starr also described himself as a “transparency and sunshine guy,” referring to his belief that problems should be tackled openly, and said he focused on sexual violence from the moment of his arrival on campus in 2010.
But Starr faced many complications in his time at Baylor. The university existed within a hermetic world of denial about sex, according to current and former officials there. Sex outside of marriage and with gay partners was prohibited and cause for expulsion. Drinking, too, was forbidden.
Starr pushed Baylor to embrace aspects of the modern age, taking steps to relax somewhat the policing of sexual mores and to improve compliance with federal laws, which prohibit educational discrimination on the basis of sex and demand full attention to assault claims.
Shortly after his arrival and before trouble erupted with the football team, Starr hired a consulting firm, Margolis Healy, that specializes in campus security to scrutinize Baylor’s handling of sexual assaults, which were occurring at a disturbing rate. He said in an interview with The Texas Tribune that this report found the university was complying with Title IX. And he added that sexual assault was not “endemic” to the university.
But a copy of this still-confidential report reviewed by The New York Times contradicts Starr’s claims. The often devastating text revealed that Baylor was not complying with the demands of Title IX, the code of the civil rights law that governs education.
The Margolis Healy consultants found Baylor officials had ignored federal regulations and heaped Title IX responsibilities on officials who already had full-time jobs. Deans and department chairs and counselors lacked required training in how to handle dating violence, and the report found a single “overwhelmed” investigator who could not “realistically” comply with federal law. The university’s sexual misconduct policy did not define sexual consent and focused instead on the woman’s behavior in igniting problems. The Baylor and Waco police neglected to share information and “underreported sexual assaults.”
Administrators, the report stated, resisted addressing “sex and alcohol in any way.” The report found that Baylor had sidestepped scandal “based to a certain extent on luck.”
Shortly after Starr received this report, university officials hired the school’s first full-time Title IX coordinator, Patty Crawford. In an interview, Crawford, who worked at Baylor for nearly two years, described a university run like a country store on questions of sexual assault. Regents often interfered with investigations and some faculty sulked when asked to take training.
“When I got there, Baylor, a school older than the state of Texas, did not have a single Title IX file,” she said. “There is a group of faculty and administrators who are working very hard to get across that Title IX and diversity initiative are not biblical.”
She eventually quit in disgust, but only after she established protocols and tabulated 417 allegations of sexual assault and harassment over several years, 90% of which had nothing to do with athletics.
“It was utterly overwhelming,” she said. “And football was definitely not the worst.”
She said that Starr was not among those who bridled at a federal role and that he said he wanted the school to comply with laws. But he did not shy from asserting the school’s religious injunctions. He emphasized after he left Baylor that the university’s prohibitions against premarital and gay sex were “Orthodox Christian doctrine” and “those are our values and we do not apologize.”
Baylor is one of many religion-based universities in the United States that navigate such waters, some quite successfully. The practical effect of Baylor’s acceptance of federal regulations, however, proved problematic. Three past and present female students who said they were raped by fellow students all describe a story of abandonment by officials during that time.
One of these women was a nursing student from small-town Texas come to a handsome Christian campus with grand lawns and overarching oaks. Horror came her way freshman year when, she said, she was raped. She went to a university doctor and told him: I have been assaulted and I need an HIV test. “He said, ‘OK, let’s draw your blood.’ He did not ask if I had reported this and asked nothing about it,” she recalled.
She asked a Baylor lawyer if by reporting her assault she risked expulsion for premarital sex. Maybe, she said he advised, you should remain silent and concentrate on your work.
A top student, her grades plummeted. She went to her professors and said she was raped and asked for a second chance. She said they replied: “Nurses need to be professional and you need to keep your personal life separate from your schooling and professional life.”
Finally, after several football players were prosecuted for assaulting fellow students, Starr decided in 2014 to hire a Philadelphia law firm, Pepper Hamilton, to investigate. This time, though, the move would end in his removal. Once Starr and football coach Art Briles were out the door, Baylor’s regents ordered that law firm not to write a report of its findings.
Starr publicly disagreed and called on Baylor to release a report and publicly reckon with the sweep of the scandal, even if it reflected harshly on him.
“It was contemplated there would be a report,” Starr told The Texas Tribune in a long interview two months after his removal. “I’ve been very clear that we need all of the facts.”
He argued — and testimony would later support his view — that Baylor unduly tarred its football team, though one former player is serving a lengthy sentence. Another had his conviction overturned, a decision being reviewed on appeal.
Baylor has acknowledged it had problems in the past, but in an interview in the fall of 2018, Linda Livingstone, Baylor’s current president, said her university was reborn after the sexual assault scandals that ended with Starr’s dismissal.
“We are a Christian research institution,” she said. “We recognize that there is a lot of work to do to rebuild trust.”
In November 2016, after his firing, Starr sat for an interview with television station KWTX. Its reporter asked Starr about an email that a woman who said she was raped had sent to him. It bore the subject line: “I was raped at Baylor.”
The woman had told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that he had never responded to her email.
Did you see this email? a reporter asked Starr.
Starr looked at the camera and said: “I honestly may have. I’m not denying that I saw it.”
At this point, a voice can be heard interrupting off-camera. Merrie Spaeth, whom Starr had introduced as a family friend, asked the news director not to use that part of the interview. Then she directed Starr to follow her out of the room. He returned and took a seat and changed his answer:
“I’m honestly going to say I have no recollection of that.”
With that, he turned to Spaeth — who works with a crisis communications public relations firm and served in the Reagan White House — and asked, “Is that OK?”
“Don’t’ look at me,” she instructed.
Starr turned back to the reporter and amended his answer a third time: “I honestly have no recollection of seeing such an email, and I believe that I would remember seeing such an email.”