When confronted by one of his harshest critics, Baylor President Ken Starr — a man who admittedly struggles to fight his own temper — didn’t blow me off but rather gave me a hug.
He did not avoid the questions but instead encouraged more of them. The embattled president of the largest Baptist school in the world said on Thursday morning: “I am in favor of transparency. Stand up, take your medicine if you made a mistake.
“As [former New York Mayor] Fiorello LaGuardia once colorfully said, ‘When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.’ So if we made mistakes, let’s live up to them, let’s own them and then correct the situation.”
A report Thursday by the Waco Tribune-Herald that former Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman is under investigation by the Waco Police Department for sexual assault had not come out by the time of the interview with Starr. Oakman graduated in December and completed his final year of eligibility last year. He has not been arrested and Baylor said it will cooperate.
This report came several hours after Starr’s first public comments since the Baylor rape scandal broke in August.
This is all he had to do from the beginning and, while nothing can change the past, some public discourse would have created the perception of compassion rather than the appearance of a callous and unsympathetic administration. The latter is not a complete portrayal of the many people in charge at Baylor.
There has been limited visible leadership from Baylor when it had the perfect guy — Uncle Ken (that’s what he asks that students call him) — to handle it. People want to know they are important and to be validated by something more than an email.
Other than a few press releases and emails, Baylor has remained quiet about allegations that it bumbled the cases of Baylor female students reporting being raped by football players. The case involving defensive end Sam Ukwuachu ended with the defendant sentenced to jail in 2015 and the accuser reaching a settlement with the school.
ESPN’s Outside the Lines later brought to light Baylor’s handling of cases involving former player Tevin Elliott. One of his accusers filed a lawsuit against the school last month saying Baylor was indifferent to the victims and did not follow Title IX protocol for female students reporting sexual assault. The Baylor board of regents, athletic director Ian McCaw and football coach Art Briles are named in the suit.
In the past few months, Baylor has established new programs and created new staff positions to address Title IX concerns. What it has not done is talk about any of it, even when students held a vigil outside of Starr’s house in Waco.
On Thursday morning in an exhibit hall at Will Rogers Memorial Center, Starr was the guest speaker before hundreds of people at the 29th annual Christian Prayer Breakfast Fort Worth/Tarrant County.
He spoke eloquently about his impressive career for about 30 minutes. Afterward, a group of 40 people followed him into a smaller room for a Q&A session.
I paid $40 for a ticket to listen to Starr, and was not expecting a chance to speak to him. When given that chance, after introducing myself, I asked him the same question I asked Briles in August: Are my criticisms and those of many others valid or off base?
To Starr’s credit, he asked the event organizer to allow this public discourse, even though he was not expecting it.
“There is some incomplete in understanding. You won’t be surprised by that. Greater context, I would say,” he said. “By the way, I think criticism is very important. I think accountability is very important for all of our institutions, public and private. I always welcome criticism.”
If anybody understands perception, criticism and public scrutiny, it’s Ken Starr. If anybody gets it, it’s a man who received death threats and was kicked around as the chief investigator of former President Bill Clinton.
Politics aside, Starr has the intellect, vocabulary and empathy to acknowledge pain, suffering and mistakes. He could have done this back in August 2015 and, while it is impossible to appease everybody, it would have painted a more positive portrait of accountability and action.
Starr does not need the permission from media people to talk to concerned students, or their parents or a reporter. He’s the president of Baylor University and with that title he has the power to make that call. He does not need the approval of a media relations staff that has misguided him through this ordeal.
I asked him why he has been reluctant to speak publicly about the allegations against his school.
“That’s a very, very fair question. When the accusations emerged in the wake of the Sam Ukwuachu case, which you have opined on — welcome to the First Amendment ... that’s good for all of us, whether we agree or not,” Starr said. “We retained, and I think you know this because you are a very smart reporter. Observant.”
(Well played — always be nice, even if you hate their guts.)
“We retained [the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton to investigate]. In our view, we cannot and should not [address it]. That is the guidance we have gotten from outside counsel. You simply cannot,” he said.
“Quite apart from FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). And you know the mutual litany, ‘We can’t talk about this and we can’t talk about that.’ That is the fundamental reason — we are waiting for the Pepper Hamilton report, which is to report to the board of regents —we are being very cautious about what [we] say.”
As to when that will be finished, Starr said, “It should be done pretty darn soon.”
Then Starr again waved off the organizer who was trying to get me to shut up.
My last question was why would Baylor be reluctant to release the Pepper Hamilton report in its entirety.
“That’s coming from Pepper Hamilton’s advice. That is both FERPA related and ... experts in the field,” he said. “You have to be very careful about the timeline and what you say publicly about specific cases. But we’ll see. I should also say that Pepper Hamilton, the buck stops here, that I recommended that Pepper Hamilton be retained by the board [of regents], the ultimate fiduciaries. So Pepper Hamilton is reporting to the board to preserve its independence because presidents get fired. The independent report will go to a special committee of the board of regents.”
Then he said he is an advocate for transparency, and said if the report says Baylor made a mistake, it will need to own it and correct it.
Baylor does not have to do what Pepper Hamilton suggests; Baylor is the client.
Ken Starr can’t do anything about the past, and Baylor is trying to correct it. But he should have said all of this back in August.
Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.