At Baylor, Charity Toward Kenneth Starr Follows Outrage

New York Times


The Baylor University Regents were outraged Thursday, and saddened, too. They could not fathom how this could happen to a fine Christian university.

Faced with a report that detailed horrible cover-ups of rape and sexual harassment by players on the university’s nationally ranked football team, faced with evidence that administrators created a hostile environment for women, and that athletic leaders “posed a risk to campus safety,” the Regents stripped Kenneth W. Starr of his university presidency.

Asterisk: In a profound act of Christian charity, the Regents nonetheless allowed Starr to retain his law school professorship and to remain as chancellor for an as-yet-to-be-determined but perhaps munificent salary.

To a secular layman such as me that sounds like cashiering a general while allowing him to keep his epaulets and continue to run your war. A Baylor representative offered a more elegant shine, telling reporters Thursday that Chancellor Starr would focus on “development and religious liberty.”

Translation: Starr will raise great bags of money for the university, and he will pray.

So many grand universities have toppled headfirst into the Big Sport ditch that Baylor’s fall registers as almost unremarkable. The University of North Carolina turned its African and Afro-American Studies Department into a grade machine for athletes; Syracuse University engaged in decade-long academic misconduct; Larry Brown, the coach at Southern Methodist in Dallas, oversaw the recruiting of a top player with frankly fraudulent grades.

And to all of this, que sera sera.

Alumni protest that pinhead reporters don’t know the whole story, that these coaches and presidents and chancellors are princely men. They always know of a university worse than their own.

Baylor takes much pride in its Baptist traditions. Its website notes that brother and sister colleges in Christ have beaten “a relentless retreat from their Christian heritage.” Not Baylor, which “holds firm” to the idea that “the world needs” a great university that is “unambiguously Christian.”

Its sports programs occasionally fall into perdition. The basketball program came undone some years back after a young forward was murdered and the coach, in an un-Christlike act, falsely accused the dead man of being a drug dealer. The football program presumably is careening toward sanctions.

But no worries: Starr was known to kneel in prayer in the locker room with his football coach, Art Briles.

When Briles recruited a troubled player, Sam Ukwuachu, from Boise State, a student publication advised that the football player was known as a fine gentleman.

That fine gentleman was later convicted of a brutal sexual assault of a female soccer player.

We in the news media are not blameless. We love finding down-home pleasures such as Coach Briles, whom we described as a turnaround specialist. “Given the timbre of his magnificent voice and his knack for telling a story, a more apt comparison for the coach might be Johnny Cash,” Sports Illustrated noted a few years ago.

That same coach took no action to protect young women even when top officials were “aware of a potential pattern of sexual violence by multiple football players.” The coach and his staff “affirmatively chose not to report” – that is, to cover up – “sexual violence and dating violence” to college administrators.

The report is delicate as to what Starr knew, or not. He is, however, central to this narrative. When he walked into Waco, he proclaimed himself a new man. He didn’t like to talk much about his time as a federal judge and special prosecutor in Washington.

He did talk endlessly about football and the joy of amateur athletics.

Early last season, my colleague Marc Tracy noted, Starr fixed his hand into the shape of a bear claw and led thousands of freshmen on a raucous charge across the football field. And he raised hundreds of millions of dollars needed to build a new stadium that calls to mind the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

Long ago, I was a political writer for The Washington Post’s Style section, and I covered the Roman circus that was Starr, Monica, the libidinous Bubba and an impeachment trial.

I recall sitting there as Starr, his blue eyes owlish, his skin pink and dimpled, sat before Congress and in a sonorous I-say-this-more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, pounced light as a cat on a scalawag president.

“The evidence suggests that the president made a series of premeditated false statements under oath. … The president, acting in a premeditated and calculated fashion, deceived the American people.”

He strove to sound morally correct, a Thomas More for the modern age taking on a reckless liege. I thought he more often called to mind a fellow who notes the lipstick on a man’s collar and files that detail away for future use.

Now I’m compelled to rethink my ungenerous appraisal. It appears that Starr notices very little.

The Baylor report found a culture of widespread and willful naïveté at Starr’s university. There was, the firm’s investigators wrote, a “belief by many administrators that sexual violence doesn’t happen here.”

Confronted with evidence to the contrary, too many administrators offered a disapproving sniff about sins such as drinking, drug use or, God forbid, extramarital sex. Administrators, the report found, engaged in “victim blaming,” focusing on a young woman’s choices rather than “robustly investigating the allegations and the alleged abuser.”

All of this Starr oversaw.

Late Thursday, the defrocked president issued a statement professing “profound contrition.” As for the Baylor University administration, it promised to “foster an even more Christ-centered culture on campus.”

And isn’t that grand?


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