Reports that Baylor University’s board of regents had voted to fire former Bill Clinton prosecutor Ken Starr due to his handling of a sex assault scandal rocketed around political circles Tuesday, but the allegations were equally big for a different reason: Baylor is the world’s largest Baptist university.
The reports about Starr were explosive among many evangelicals — Baptists in particular — because they tap into a couple of the most basic contemporary debates at religious schools. What is the impact in 2016 of the honor codes many religious schools have around sexual behavior? Secondly, is there a conflict between being a religious school and trying to be a major athletic powerhouse?
Baylor University spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said in an email, “Ken Starr is president and chancellor of Baylor University,” the Associated Press reported, which also noted a separate statement by the university that said Baylor’s governing board is reviewing a report on how the school handled reports of rape and assault by football players.
The school maintains a status as one of the nation’s most visible, ambitious Christian universities. Some say Baylor is for evangelicals what the University of Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons; that is, their flagship.
For such religious schools, the question is how to balance the country’s encouragement of sexual assault victims to come forward with campus rules that restrict sexual behavior and, as a result, often inhibit open discussion. Baylor’s sexual conduct policy says it expects students to express sexual intimacy “in the context of marital fidelity.”
“This raises questions about whether serious religious universities can take part in sports at the highest levels,” said Terry Mattingly, a columnist who is part of a prominent family of Baylor graduates and who founded a journalism center at the Council for Christian Colleges and University. “It could make it harder to talk about it.”
On Starr’s watch, the school is accused of failing to respond to rapes or sexual assaults reported by at least six women students from 2009-2016, my colleague Cindy Boren wrote Tuesday. Although the problem of sexual assault at the university goes beyond the football team, at least eight former Baylor football players have been accused of violence against women over the last eight years and Coach Art Briles and Athletic Director Ian McCaw have received increasing criticism.
Tuesday’s reports about Starr come a few weeks after the eruption of a scandal at Brigham Young. At least a dozen current and former students there reportedly said they were investigated or disciplined for violating the school’s honor code in connection with reporting sexual abuse.
Boz Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor who now advocates and investigates sexual abuse in religious communities, said faith-based schools “are just beginning to sort out” questions of how to separate the question of possible abuse with issues around rule-breaking.
“Faith-based schools have the added dynamic where they attract students who come from backgrounds where any sexual activity outside marriage is really frowned upon. So at faith-based schools you see a greater reluctance to come forward to report the crime versus at a secular school. Throw that on top of, ‘Oh, I was violating the conduct code,’ and the poor victim — they’re not even out of the hole before they report,” he said.
Baylor had just come through a very divisive period of thinking about the role of religion on campus. When Starr came in 2010, the school had just set itself on a path of trying to go from merely being a respected Christian university to a top-notch research school — while still maintaining a strong Christian identity. But what that meant wasn’t completely clear and a source of intense debate.
Baylor had long worried about this. In 1991, the school revised its charter to loosen its ties with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, in order to guard against “being taken over by fundamentalists,” said Barry Hankins, a history professor at Baylor who studies U.S. Christian culture. In the early 2000’s, Baylor was engulfed in similar debate as evangelicals became deeply associated with right-wing politics.
Until he came to Baylor, Starr was best known as the special prosecutor who investigated former president Bill Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky during his time in office. When Starr was selected to run the school, controversy broke out. First, he was the first non-Baptist leader of Baylor; he belonged to the Church of Christ. Second, Starr was at the time deeply associated with the GOP.
“People were apoplectic that we were hiring this person in the Clinton case,” Hankins said.
Hankins and others said Starr within a couple years became non-controversial — and loved by many at Baylor. He was seen as a good peacemaker between different Christian camps as well as those worried about Baylor’s culture changing if it became too globally ambitious academically. The former Pepperdine Law School dean and D.C. figure became a prolific fundraiser and was credited with raising the school’s profile significantly.
Major Baptist leaders Tuesday weren’t saying much, noting the investigation isn’t done.
Asked for comment, the Baptist General Convention of Texas directed The Post to a story on the website of a major state Baptist news organization.
“David Hardage, the convention’s executive director called for prayers ‘for healing, restoration, redemption and harmony’ in the wake of incidents of sexual violence at Baylor University,” the Baptist Standard reported. “‘Honestly, I wish such a call had come from the board or regents or the administration,’ Hardage wrote on his Facebook page May 23 — one day before multiple news sources reported Baylor’s regents fired Ken Starr as university president.”
Washington Post Staff writer Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.