Forty years and almost two months after I was graduated from Baylor University, I stood outside the wrought iron gates of its president’s home. I’m talking about Ken Starr’s home. He’s the president of Baylor. The same Ken Starr who investigated President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and on the Paula Jones sexual harassment charges.
So I find it painfully ironic that it’s a series of rape scandals that brought me to Starr’s doorstep on a chilly February night. In fact, part of what I’m about to tell you, you may already know if you follow football or faith, because this started out as a football and rape story and has become a story about rape and faith—at least it has for me.
Last August, Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu made headlines as he went on trial for raping a Baylor co-ed, a young woman who was attending my Baptist alma mater on a soccer scholarship. Until Ukwuachu raped her, the woman had been a virgin.
Baylor’s in-house investigation cleared the football player of any wrongdoing, and last summer BU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett told the media that Ukwuachu would be on the field for the 2015 season. But Bennett’s plans were derailed when a McLennan County jury found the player guilty on two counts of sexual assault. He was sentenced to a mere six months in jail and 10 years’ probation. Meanwhile, the coed’s scholarship was reduced, Ukwuachu retained his, she eventually left Baylor, and he earned his Baylor degree.
President Starr issued a letter calling the rape a “tragedy” and then issued a statement saying the school was hiring an independent counsel to investigate the scandal and a Title IX coordinator to comply with federal law regarding sex discrimination and the investigation of sexual violence—a law that also requires schools to provide security, counseling, and academic help for those reporting assaults.
Head football coach Art Briles called Ukwuachu’s crime an “incident” and then seemingly moved on, as did the students, alumni, administration, and even the press. After all, it was the beginning of football season and Baylor dreamed of winning the national championship.
Then, on January 31, 2016, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” aired a report about another Baylor football rape scandal. Headlined “Baylor faces accusations of ignoring sex assault victims,” the investigation by Paula Lavigne detailed the rapes of three Baylor co-eds by star BU defensive player Tevin Elliott, a felony that happened prior to the Ukwuachu rape. Once again, virgins, scholarship students, and women athletes made up at least partial descriptions of the rape victims. Elliott was sentenced to 20 years and a $10,000 fine for two sexual assaults.
As a Baylor alumna, I was outraged. So was fellow alumna Sharon Grigsby of the Dallas Morning News who publicly begged for Starr to “end the stonewalling on rapes for sake of victims–and your school.” CBS Sports called for a stop to the stonewalling, too, while The Fort Worth Star Telegram argued that it was time for Baylor to distance itself from the Baptists.
But from Baylor—the students, the alumni, and the administration—there was silence. With the few exceptions of the previously named media outlets, there was silence from the press, too. Instead, Coach Briles began tweeting the insensitive hashtag #truthdontlie (at least insensitive to me and a few other Twitter followers who called him out for it).
That same day, which was the day after the ESPN report, Baylor starting quarterback Seth Russell announced he’d been cleared to return to the team after recovering from a potentially career-ending neck injury. To me, that came across as a calculated maneuver to switch the conversation from Baylor football rape scandal to Baylor football victory story. Apparently, that worked because Coach Briles wasn’t asked one rape question during his Wednesday, February 3, 2016, signing day press conference—at least he wasn’t on the Periscope livestream that I watched, until it was abruptly cut off.
However, buried in a nearly 15 minute podcast with Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman that was initially touted only as Briles discussing his top tier recruiting class, the coach did answer approximately two minutes of rape questions. During those two minutes, he referred to the Baylor rapes as a “societal issue” and stated that the rape topic never came up while he was recruiting high school football players. Undeniably, rape is a societal issue, but it’s also a Baylor issue.
That night, the Baylor Lariat newspaper posted a grinning photo of Ken Starr and an open letter from the BU president reciting his Title IX commitment, just as he had done after the Ukwuachu guilty verdict. There was no story, no opposing viewpoints. Nothing.
Eventually, the Lariat did do a follow-up story, with an even bigger smiling photo of Starr, again repeating his Title IX message, but also quoting three disgruntled students.
“I keep getting emails saying we care,” the Lariat quoted 2015 Baylor graduate Stefanie Mundhenk. “Their actions do not follow their words. [Starr] is not spending time to actually address the issue. He is not writing an email to me actually trying to address the issue.”
It appeared, as has been shown at universities across the country, a winning football team and money generated from the game are more important than lives irreparably shattered by brutal, felony, criminal rapes … that is until one missionary’s kid boldly blogged “I Was Raped at Baylor and This is My Story.”
In detail, Stefanie Mundhenk, the same 21-year-old who had complained about Starr to the Lariat, outlined in her blog her claim that her virginity had been ripped from her when she was reportedly raped by a fellow BU student, who was not an athlete, how Baylor’s administration had failed her repeatedly after she had reported her alleged rape, and how the administration had accorded her alleged rapist considerations that she’d been denied.
Her account included her experiences with administrators and president Ken Starr, with whom she’d met face-to-face to describe her rape and who, after hearing her story, said he’d get back to her. So far, he hasn’t
Mundhenk’s blog post went viral and inspired students and alumni to take to social media and say enough is enough. Laura Seay, another Baylor graduate, created “An Open Letter on Responses to Sexual Assault at Baylor University.” Nearly 1700 students, alumni, parents, grandparents, friends, and even a few faculty signed the letter.
In the meantime, Mundhenk had created a Facebook event, Survivors’ Stand, which was to be a candlelight and prayer vigil—Baylor students’ form of a protest—to support survivors of sexual assault and to politely and respectful call attention to the administration’s apparent lack of support for sexual assault victims. As Mundhenk wrote on the event’s Facebook page, “Baylor University’s Administration repeatedly promises justice to students raped at Baylor and fails to provide it. Ken Starr repeatedly issues emailed platitudes while students still suffer.”
Unlike Mundhenk, the Elliott rape victims didn’t get a meeting with Ken Starr, even though at least one of them sent the Clinton investigator an email with the subject line, “I was raped at Baylor.” Starr didn’t reply to it. If only she’d been raped by a Democratic president rather than a star Baylor football player …
“Policies outlined in Baylor’s Title IX compliance documents are inconsistently followed, and, at times, ignored altogether,” Mundhenk wrote on Facebook. “Perpetrators are repeatedly allowed to go free due to these shortcomings. This makes our campus unsafe. In order to demonstrate our demands that Baylor find a solution for these issues, we will meet outside of Ken Starr’s home at 9:30 pm this Monday, February 8th for a brief candlelight vigil. If you are a sexual assault survivor, or know a sexual assault survivor, or have been affected by this breach in justice in any way, please come, stand with us, and light a candle. We hope to show in a visible way just how much rape affects us, those we hold dear, and our community in a peaceful effort to incite change.
That’s why 40 years after I was graduated, I was standing in front of Ken Starr’s home. As I wrote in my book Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality, “I once counted up how many of my friends had been raped or molested. I want to say the number was nine out of ten.”
In fact, Saey’s open letter and Mundhenk’s event stirred so much fervor among students and alumni that mere hours before Sunday’s Super Bowl kickoff, Starr issued another open letter, this one to the Baylor Nation, rather than just the students, reciting what he’d said in the fall and earlier in the week and more times than that—the Christian university was taking steps to deal with campus rape and comply with Title IX.
Rather than appease students and alumni, it offended. “That’s pathetic,” Britta Spann wrote on Facebook. Shaney Swift, also on Facebook, said Starr’s words sounded “like the language of someone who sees sexual violence as wrong but has little to no actual understanding of its dynamics.”
Swift’s words rang in my memory as I stood across the street from Starr’s home and chatted with a smiling gray-haired woman. She told me she was a Baylor graduate who worked in Student Affairs and was there to support the students—who really our needed prayers. She emphasized to me that the male and female students needed our prayers because it was hard on both.
In my mind I shook my head at her words, until I reminded myself that men are raped too and convinced myself that that was what she was referring to. But the longer we talked, like Swift did about Starr, I wondered if this woman had ever really met a rape victim, if she’d sat with their mothers as they worried and wept with their children, waiting for their STI, HIV, and pregnancy tests, if she’d held them through panic attacks, hugged them when they couldn’t sleep at night, calmed them through their nightmares.
And to be honest, for the past week I’d wondered how Baylor would have reacted if any of these women had become pregnant. Would this Baptist university want them to have abortions? Would it pay their medical bills? Would it pay for their counseling?
Despite Title IX saying that universities must provide sexual assault victims with counseling, according to Stefanie Mundhenk, they didn’t provide her with counseling. They sent the working student and daughter of missionaries off campus for $100 an hour counseling that she had to pay for herself.
I asked the gray-haired woman if she thought Ken Starr was hearing what the students and alumni were saying. Adamantly, forcefully, she stated yes, he always hears. She emphasized this wasn’t a protest, and it definitely wasn’t a protest against Ken Starr, it was a prayer vigil for the students.
For me, a Baylor graduate, class of 1975, it was a protest and it was a protest against Ken Starr.
I didn’t say that to the gray-haired woman, who was no longer smiling. I just noticed that as our conversation continued and as we talked more about Ken Starr and I mentioned Art Briles, former Baylor head football coach Grant Teaff, and former Baylor president Abner McCall, and wondered aloud if the rape scandals would have been handled differently by Teaff and McCall, the gray-haired woman appeared to be getting antsy. She tried to change the subject by saying that Starr’s home used to be McCall’s. And soon after some of her Student Life co-workers circled widely around us and strolled into Starr’s long driveway, she walked off to join them. At that I thought, They must be big shots to walk into his property, because we’d been instructed to stay off private property.
So as I still stood across the street from Starr’s home, an editor for a conservative Christian publication walked up to me, and I asked him why students, alumni, parents, and Baptists seemed to ignore the rapes perpetrated by star Baylor football players, but finally took action when Mundhenk’s blog went viral. It’s because she’s a missionary’s kid and used her real and full name, he said. He also said other people had told him rape at Baylor was the school’s worst kept secret and this was the tip of the iceberg.
He and I eventually meandered onto Starr’s driveway to join the Student Life employees and others who were gathering for the vigil. A Baylor graduate of the 1970s offered me a candle and explained she was there to let students know they’re heard and cared for. Standing with her was a 29-year-old Baylor freshman, who said this was her second time to be a Baylor freshman because 10 years ago she’d been sexually assaulted at Baylor and had to drop out of school, just like two of the three in the ESPN report had done. But unlike them, she complimented Baylor’s current treatment of her, while offering specific kudos to the school’s newly hired Title IX coordinator, Patty Crawford, the only Baylor employee who has spoken with the press.*
By 9:30 PM, more than 200 people had gathered in the chilly night air—students, alumni, and Baylor employees. Men and women. Children and puppies. And the press.
Mundhenk stood before them, her back to Starr’s home, her eyes watching the flickering of the lighted candles. As she spoke, she accidentally called the vigil a protest, then quickly corrected herself.
I looked toward Starr’s home, a U.S. flag flying on one column, a Texas flag on the other. The home’s shutters were closed, but light seeped out. I watched to see if there was even one blink of a shade, someone in the house wondering what was going on, caring, as the Student Life staffer had told me.
I saw nothing.
Outside there was silence and prayer. There was the soft singing of “This Little Light of Mine,” during which I again looked at Starr’s home and still saw only the seepage of light through closed shutters.
Fifteen minutes later, cars stopped as the crowd walked across the Baylor campus to the school’s Truett Theological Seminary. As we passed a campus policeman who blocked traffic for the procession, a Baylor student turned to him and said, “Thank you.”
We walked into the seminary’s chapel. Students filled the pews. Press sat in the back. A young woman walked up to the pulpit. “I am a senior set to graduate this May,” she said, “and I am here to tell you that today I reported my sexual assault to Title IX.”
Any audience member who had been staring down at his or her phone or keyboard looked up. She’d been assaulted, she said, on a May Sunday morning in 2014. “That’s more than fifty-five million seconds of hell. So why did I not report it until now?”
She was afraid, she explained. “With our past treatment of sexual assault victims, I believe I had several reasons to be afraid.” Her first reason, she said, was that she didn’t know she’d been assaulted, because her assault hadn’t fit her “preconceived notion of rape with a dark alley and a stranger dressed in black.” She hadn’t screamed. She didn’t go to the hospital. She didn’t get a rape kit. She went to her dorm room and took a shower. In other words, she behaved a like rape victim. And she “obsessed over the fact that [she] had said no to him numerous times.” Only months later, after reading the survival stories of other rape victims and realizing their stories felt familiar, did she consider that she, too, had been assaulted.
Her second reason she didn’t report it was because she feared no one would believe her—it would be a he said-she said situation, which is exactly what ESPN’s OSL reported that Baylor chief judicial officer Bethany McCraw had told one of Tevin Elliott’s rape victims, after—according to the rape victim and ESPN—McCraw had said the university and coach Art Briles knew of six women who had reported that Elliott had raped them. And because it was a he said-she said situation, Baylor couldn’t do anything about it, McCraw purportedly said. To ESPN, McCraw denied that she’d said that, but she refused to say what had happened.
The student talked on in that seminary chapel, detailing her fears and reasons and reactions, until she summed, “I am here to beg Baylor, please don’t let my case fall through the cracks. Please don’t ignore the victims. Please don’t let anyone else feel afraid and alone at this school. Please let us know how you as a Christian university are going to lead the way through this cultural epidemic of assault.”
In that Baylor chapel, the crowd erupted into applause and then stood, still applauding.
The next morning I woke and thought about the night’s events and the people that were there, particularly the Student Life employees. Mundhenk emailed me and said she’d seen Kevin Jackson there. He is the Vice President of Student Life and the man who denied her sexual assault appeal.
I went online, to Baylor’s Student Life page, and I studied the staff’s photos. I recognized Elizabeth D. Palacious, Dean for Student Development, and David Murdock, Associate Director of Judicial Affairs. They were there in front of Ken Starr’s home. Palacious and I had exchanged a few words. Murdock had been one of the ones who had circled far from the gray-haired woman and me.
Then as I continued to study the Student Life pages, I saw Bethany McCraw’s photograph, the woman ESPN and an Elliott rape victim had said couldn’t do anything to help because it was a he said-she said matter. I studied McCraw’s gray hair, her smile, her biographical sketch. With all my heart and soul, I believe that’s the smiling gray-haired woman who told me Ken Starr always hears and who said she was there to pray for the students, both the women and the men. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t believe Ken Starr hears, but I do believe the gray-haired woman is right on one thing—both victims and assaulters need our prayers.
Rape and Faith
On Tuesday, February 9, 2016, the day after Survivors’ Stand, Ken Starr issued another statement saying, “We hear your voices loud and clear.” He still has not met—or agreed to meet—face-to-face with students, alumni, or press and answer their questions. He still has not offered an apology for Baylor’s lack of response to sexual assault victims.
And that’s why this story has become a matter of rape and faith for me. Because of rape, I have lost faith in my alma mater, Baylor University, its administration, including its coaching staff, and its board of trustees.
I have found faith in the nearly 1700 students, alumni, parents, and brave faculty who signed “An Open Letter on Responses to Sexual Assault at Baylor University.” And I have found faith in those courageous students who stood in that Baylor chapel and applauded when they heard the words, “I am here to beg Baylor … please don’t ignore the victims.”
They are the ones who make me proud to be a Baylor Bear.
I wrote this blog on Tuesday, February 9, 2016, but didn’t post it until late Friday afternoon, February 12, 2016. About the time I did make it public, Baylor announced that it was implementing changes to deal with sexual assault. Fellow Baylor alum and Dallas Morning News columnist Sharon Grigsby wrote about the changes, calling them baby steps, but positive baby steps.
I agree with Grigsby that they are positive baby steps. But I still believe that Ken Starr must stop hiding behind press releases and open letters and must stand before the students and say in-person, “I’m sorry. The administration, the Board of Regents, the Baylor coaching staff, and I messed up. We let you down. From the bottom of my heart, I apologize.” And he must say that in-person and in writing to the rape victims of Baylor University, too.
I’m betting my alma mater’s attorneys won’t let him to do that. And that’s a shame.
♦ ♦ ♦
* The day after Survivors’ Stand, the 29-year-old, second-time Baylor freshman, who’d been raped the first time she enrolled at Baylor, sent me an email. On February 13, 2016, she gave me permission to publish that email. In part, here is what she wrote:
“As for my perspective, I’d like to expound upon it if I may between us. Upon further refection, especially after last night’s event and it sinking in that I am not just one or even one of a few, I am not sure I can say how much better I think it’s gotten. Yes, it has gotten better than it was before, but it being better now compared to what it was isn’t saying much, and better doesn’t necessarily mean adequate. I apologize for the lack of decorum in this; I am really hurting.”