Baylor Line Foundation President Fred R. Norton Jr. ’80, JD ’83, released a statement today in response to a guest column in the Sunday Waco Tribune-Herald by Baylor regent Cary Gray opposing an effort by the Texas Legislature to impose open meetings on Baylor and selected other private universities.
There’s an old adage that when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. With that in mind, we suggest that someone take the shovel out of Cary Gray’s hands.
Mr. Gray, a member of the Baylor Board of Regents (BOR) and chair of its Governance and Compensation Committee, wrote a Sunday op-ed in the Waco Trib in opposition of Senate Bill 1092. That bill, which was sponsored by Kel Seliger, the Republican chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, would require private schools that receive more than $9 million in taxpayer-funded tuition equalization grants, to hold open regent meetings, or risk losing those grants. The bill would allow the regents to deliberate in executive sessions (as state schools are permitted to do) for reasons such as consulting with attorneys, discussing gifts or donations, and discussing protected information about a student.
The tone of an op-ed that likens alumni frustration to “noise” is unfortunate given the positive bump the Regents got last week with its naming of former Baylor professor Linda Livingstone as our next President. We received a number of notes from members with variations on the theme that their feelings of frustration were giving way to optimism because of the choice. We hope that this op-ed doesn’t undermine that.
Mr. Gray makes a passionate argument against the bill, arguing that the Baylor Board of Regents has cleaned its own house with more than 30 reforms that BOR Chairman Ron Murff has claimed “make Baylor’s governance model one of the most responsive and transparent of any major private university.”
Mr. Gray fails to acknowledge that this debate is raging in the halls of the Texas Legislature because of Baylor. It’s being described in the press and at the Capitol as one of the “Baylor Bills” both in terms of the target and the catalyst. In fact, Mr. Gray insinuates that there’s an easy workaround to the bill – more executive sessions. That indicates a startling lack of accountability for what has happened over the past year – and a startling lack of empathy for what frustrates many members of the Baylor Family.
Because the regents collectively have steadfastly refused to acknowledge those among their membership who bear responsibility in some part for these tragic events, they have no one to blame but themselves for alumni, community and state leaders, and reporters continuing to demand answers. As a result of their own silence, the regents have failed to accomplish their primary duty: to preserve, protect, and promote our beloved university.
Mr. Gray ignores a number of facts as he lists the reasons why this is a bad bill. He fails to mention that the BOR’s “Findings of Fact” does not name a single regent with whom Pepper Hamilton found fault, despite the fact that Pepper Hamilton’s own recommendations raised significant concerns about the BOR’s role in the response to sexual assaults and the need to correct still-unspecified “governance issues.” He also fails to acknowledge that nobody from the Board of Regents was willing to step up when invited to the Baylor Line Foundation’s Town Hall on Governance Reform to discuss the proposal they would pass in secret a few days later.
We really won’t know for a couple of years whether these governance changes achieved the stated objective of meaningful reform or were just a smoke screen for the status quo, but it doesn’t mean the discussion should just stop while we wait for that day.
Throughout our 158-year history, The Baylor Line Foundation (formerly the Baylor Alumni Association) has stood for open dialogue, asking reasonable and respectful questions of leadership, and preserving the timeless values of Baylor’s founders. We want to remind alumni why they love Baylor, and we are frankly concerned that Mr. Gray’s op-ed will serve only to remind alumni why they distrust Baylor’s leadership.
Mr. Gray seems to be saying that deliberations held in the bright light of day increase an organization’s legal risks. The current crisis might indicate that the opposite is true. Baylor seems to be where it is because decisions regarding Title IX compliance and responses to sexual assault, and decisions that perpetuated a culture of concealing unpleasant truths were made in the darkness of the boardroom, resulting in the university facing a litigation tsunami.
Mr. Gray raises valid points about why private boards should not reveal their decision-making processes, but he fails to recognize that those boards also must accept responsibility for their actions and results. The Board of Regents has refused to do that, resulting in understandable suspicion, frustration, anger, and yes, even greater exposure to legal risk.
There’s an old story about a man who is on his hands and knees under a street light. He was asked what he was looking for and he said, “My car keys.” When asked where he lost them, he said, “Over there,” pointing across the street. When he was asked why he was looking here, he answered, “Because the light is better on this side of the street.”
Mr. Gray’s column shines a light on the wrong place. In the absence of true accountability – finally answering the question of “which regents knew what when” – he should be focused on whether there need to be changes to the board rather than on urging a “no” vote on the open-meetings bill. It is entirely fair to ask whether this legislation addresses the right problem. Is the problem about the need for more transparency or is it about how we select our leaders and the way we choose to “lead” ourselves? Perhaps Mr. Gray actually is making the case that an “open meetings” law fails to address the fundamental flaw in our governance structure.
There are those who don’t advocate open meetings. But many of those people also believe that the entire Board should resign and be replaced by people who truly understand the mission of the University. We urge everyone in the Baylor Family to call their representatives and express their personal opinion and/or publish a comment on this website or on the Waco Trib’s website where Mr. Gray’s op-ed appears.
We also invite Mr. Gray and his fellow regents to stand up in front of the Baylor Family and explain why we should trust them and why we should stand against this bill. If he agrees to participate, we will host this Town Hall in the next few weeks and arrange for it to be live-streamed across the state. We will invite the sponsors of the bill. We will do all we can to ensure respectful and fair dialogue. And Mr. Gray will have the opportunity to clearly explain why the Baylor Family should trust that the recent reforms go far enough to assuage public concerns.
We welcome your thoughts and hope you’ll urge the regents to agree to a dialogue on the topic.
FRED R. NORTON Jr. ’80, ‘JD ’83
President, Baylor Line Foundation