Kenneth Starr and the Baylor Sex Scandal

06/03/2016 01:14 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2017

Baylor University, the country's largest Baptist university and a bastion of Christian values, has just been denounced in a blistering report by the University's Board of Regents for "mishandling" -- covering up might be a more apt description -- credible allegations of horrific sexual violence against female students, especially alleged assaults by members of the football team. The Board of Regents said it was "shocked," "outraged" and "horrified" by the extent of the acts of sexual violence on the campus, which covered years 2012 through 2015, and the failure of the University to take appropriate action to punish violators and prevent future violations. The Board issued an "apology to Baylor Nation," fired the football coach, and "transitioned" (the Regents' term) Baylor's President, Kenneth Starr, to the role of Chancellor. Starr also was allowed to retain his lucrative Chair and Professorship of constitutional law at Baylor's law school.

Since then, Starr, "as a matter of conscience," relinquished his position as Chancellor. According to Starr, "We need to put this horrible thing behind us. We need to be honest."

Reading carefully the text of the Board of Regents "Findings of Fact," and also reading between the lines, one has to conclude that Starr may have gotten off very easy. History can be paradoxical, and perverse. Recall that Starr was a ruthless prosecutor whose unsavory tactics nearly brought down a U.S. president for engaging in minor sexual transgressions with a White House intern. But, according to the Board of Regents Report, Starr, as the University's president, implicitly condoned or was deliberately indifferent to much more serious violations of federal law, particularly Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act. The report does not criticize Starr directly, but as head of the University, Starr had to know at least some of the details of the emerging scandal.

Assuming Starr knew this, the report suggests that Starr failed to direct officials to properly investigate numerous cases of sexual violence on the campus, failed to have his subordinates address and eliminate an ugly environment where sexual violence was tolerated, had to know that students were discouraged from reporting or participating in student conduct processes, and in one instance may have been aware of retaliation against a student for reporting a sexual assault. Although many of these alleged assaults were committed by athletes on Baylor's nationally-ranked football team, no action was taken by the university although university officials knew about the allegations. In assessing Starr's and the University's culpability, it should be noted that at the time of the Board of Regents report, Baylor was already subject to several Title IX lawsuits, and the media had been exposing piecemeal the emerging scandal. The Board of Regents did act, but it appears belatedly, and only after Starr and Baylor failed to act.

The irony here, indeed the hypocrisy, is clear. Recall that Starr was appointed a Special Prosecutor by a group of conservative Republican judges to investigate then-President Clinton's sexual peccadillos with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Starr conducted his investigation with feverish zeal; critics claimed he was using his vast prosecutorial powers as a partisan "hit man." He secretly taped conversations between Lewinsky and a co-worker, sought to record conversations between Lewinsky and Clinton, tried to force Secret Service agents to testify about Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, and used his grand jury's inquisitorial powers to coerce testimony, including that of President Clinton. Starr's investigation led to Clinton's impeachment.

As Baylor's president from 2010 to 2016, the vexing question is the level of Starr's culpability for the "shocking," "outrageous," and "horrendous" sex scandal. What exactly did Starr know? The allegations of sexual violence on the campus were rampant and notorious, especially by the football players. Starr had to know something about the extent of the University's response to the complaints, and most likely the failure to address these complaints properly. Indeed, there were several Title IX investigations by the Justice Department at the time that Starr must have known about. Moreover, there are plenty of egregious examples of sexual violence on the campus that had to have been reported. In one egregious case, an All-Big 12 football player was accused in 2013 of sexual violence against a student. Although Waco police contacted university officials, nobody in the university investigated the case until two years later, after a Title IX investigation was underway, and media reports highlighted the case. This was after several other Baylor football players were indicted and convicted of sexual assaults. It was only then that the University hired an outside investigator. Notably, the headlines also prompted a public outcry, and a candlelight vigil at Starr's residence.

The Board of Regents Report describes the breadth of the independent investigation into the university's failure to properly address the University's dereliction. The investigators interviewed numerous University officials, but there is no mention whether they interviewed Starr, and if so, what he may have said. Starr may have denied knowledge of the extent of the allegations of sexual violence on campus, but is it credible that the president of a university was not aware of these allegations, especially in light of the multiple Title IX lawsuits? Starr may have claimed to be unaware of the repeated failures of university officials to investigate these complaints, but is that contention credible? Starr presumably had to know that aggressively investigating these allegations -- indeed, as aggressively as he investigated the sexual misdeeds of President Clinton -- might have interfered with his intensive multi-million dollar fundraising efforts to build a new and lavish football stadium, which opened in 2014. And Starr may have believed that getting too deep into the mud of the roiling sexual scandal would undermine the public perception of Baylor's "Christian commitment within a caring community" -- again the Board of Regents' description -- as well as compromise the heroic efforts of the Baylor football team to win a national championship.

So Starr is no longer the university's president. To be sure, it's a demotion of sorts. He was allowed to keep his Chancellorship, which he just relinquished, but he still gets to keep his Chair and Professorship at the Law School. One might think this is not a very harsh result, certainly not if Starr knowingly violated federal law, or by his deliberate indifference allowed serious criminal conduct to take place at the university he led.