Screengrab of Texas Tribune Fest interview with Evan Smith and Ken Starr

Evan Smith interviewing Ken Starr at the Texas Tribune Fest.

photo: The Texas Tribune

Baylor University does not have an "endemic problem" with sexual assault — or so says the school's former president.

On Saturday, September 24, Baylor's former president Ken Starr appeared at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, Texas. During a keynote interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith, Starr denied that Baylor or its athletic department mishandled sexual assault allegations. 

"I'm going to resist the issue, or the characterization, that there was an endemic problem," Starr told Smith.

Starr’s comments come 13 months after Texas Monthly reported that Baylor, a private Baptist university, failed to properly investigate a sexual assault involving a football player with a history of being violent toward women.

Neff Hall at Baylor University in Waco, Texas

Neff Hall at Baylor University in Waco, Texas

photo: Flickr/Ken Lund

In the nine months that followed, numerous former and current students came forward with their own stories of how Baylor mishandled their own investigations. Then in May, the university's board of regents determined that  Baylor displayed a "fundamental failure" to properly investigate sexual assault cases.

Starr’s blatant denial that Baylor has a problem is particularly disturbing, given that the independent investigators made 105 total recommendations for Baylor to rectify the issue. 

The university removed Starr as president in May and he stepped down from his chancellorship and law school professor position by August. Yet, continued the rest of his keynote with a feigned interest in righting Baylor's wrongs.

While Starr did acknowledge a few of Baylor’s key issues, such as poor training for reporting sexual assault, at least eight of his keynote statements painted him as an ignorant administrator whose still refusing to see the truth:


Baylor doesn't have a "cultural insensitivity" to interpersonal violence.

Starr said Baylor doesn't have an endemic problem with sexual assault.

Smith replied that he knew of between six and nine cases where the university failed to properly investigate sexual assault allegations. So what would qualify as an endemic?

Starr said he didn't see an "endemic" as a set number, but as a climate of "cultural insensitivity" to interpersonal violence. He then said that Baylor doesn't practice "cultural insensitivity."

If a university trying to dismiss all six Title IX lawsuits against them doesn't signal a climate of cultural insensitivity toward rape, I'm not sure what does.


Starr took issue with policing off-campus sexual assaults.

In Starr’s eyes, protecting all students is not so simple. In the interview, he discussed the difficulties of being responsible for off-campus rape.

"Part of the frustration that we have, Evan [Smith], in higher education is that so many of these episodes, indeed all of the episodes of note in my own experience, occurred off campus. They're off campus, they're not university sponsored, yet Title IX says that we — or, as interpreted by the Office for [Civil] Rights — that we have that responsibility," Starr said. "And think of the implications of that. How do you do that? How do you police that?"

By the way, Title IX treats both on-and-off campus sexual assaults equally.


Starr said former Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu — whose been convicted of second-degree sexual assault — is a good man with a troubled past.

Starr refuted the accusation that former Baylor head coach Art Briles let Ukwuachu on to the team knowing of his reportedly violent past at Boise State University.

Though Starr could have acknowledged the fact that Ukwuachu did sexually assault a woman under the school's watch, he also humanized the former player by making the athletic department inculpable. Starr asserted that Ukwuachu transferred to Baylor because he was "depressed" and "unhappy," and needed to stay "closer to home."

News reporters and judges alike have a history of humanizing rapists and focusing on their futures as a way to lessen the gravity of their crimes. Starr's explanation of Ukwuachu's circumstances comes off as an attempt to overshadow his alleged history of physical abuse.


Starr thinks Briles is an "honorable, decent man" who has been "characterized unfairly" by the mainstream media.

Meanwhile, Briles apologized for having "made some mistakes" during a televised interview with ESPN on September 7.

Baylor fired Briles in May after the investigation's found that the football program failed to properly investigate sexual assaults involving football players.

"I made mistakes. I did wrong, but I'm not doing this trying to make myself feel better for apologizing," Briles said during the interview. "I understand I made some mistakes. There was some bad things that went on under my watch. I was the captain of this ship. The captain of the ship goes down with it.”


Starr implied alcohol is the problem.

"Every case I saw involved off-campus, and the excessive use of alcohol. And that is in the area — when we want to look forward the reporters would do well to say, 'OK, what can we do about this culture...of binge drinking?' It is happily less prevalent at Baylor but it exists...and my encouragement to students is, 'Don't go to these off-campus parties. Just don't go to them.' I wish [my successor] could shut them all down."

However, treating alcohol-fueled parties as the cause of sexual assaults only serves to treat the symptom instead of the problem. Targeting assault risk reduction is not the same as focusing on primary assault prevention.


Starr thinks the Dear Colleague letter suggestions under Title IX are "an abuse of power, [and] abuse of authority."

In April 2011, vice president Joe Biden and secretary of education Arne Duncan released the Dear Colleague letter. The letter is a directive for key Title IX guidelines for colleges, such as designating campus Title IX coordinators and enforcing procedures for handling sexual assault.

Yet, Starr said he believes the Title IX "pendulum has swung much too far" in favor of complainants. Because schools being held accountable for poorly treating sexual assault survivors really is going "too far."


He also disagrees with the results of the independent investigation.

Starr said he has a "fundamentally different" perspective from the results of the investigation and doesn’t believe Baylor failed to properly investigate sexual assault. However, Pepper Hamilton, the firm that conducted the investigation, asserted that Baylor's Title IX efforts weren't enough. 


Starr simply doesn't know all the facts, and neither do we.

At several points in the interview, Starr opted to skip questions because he didn't know the facts. 

Starr claimed he didn't know Ukwuachu allegedly choked a former girlfriend while he attended Boise State University. He also didn't know Baylor didn't treat some survivors with "dignity and respect." After all, the Baylor Board of Regents have yet to release all of this vital information to the public.

When Starr left Baylor, he called himself the captain going down with his ship. If his ideologies about campus sexual assault have permeated Baylor as deeply as they have affected the lives of multiple survivors, there's no telling how many crew members will need to jump ship to rectify Baylor's mistakes.