Another university president gets fired

Baylor, Ken Starr, and a presidency derailed

The situation at Baylor University in recent months is disturbing on many levels. The university president has been fired. A winning football coach is gone as well. Too many women have faced sexual assault and the university failed to act. Beyond the horrible facts of what happened at Baylor, I see a broader trend at work here. In today’s post, I want to share a column published in TribTalk, a publication from the Texas Tribune. My research assistant, Molly Ellis, and I discuss Baylor and our research into why university presidents get fired.

Photo by Callie Richmond

As the appalling details of the Baylor University sexual assault scandal come to light, Ken Starr has learned that the path to successfully completing a university presidency is long and arduous. As higher education researchers in SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, we see Baylor as an example of a national trend — but not the one you might expect.

In a study we conducted of more than 900 university presidents at 256 Division I institutions from 1988 to 2013, we found that presidents are more likely to be fired or forced to resign now than at any point in the past 30 years.

Our study found that one in 10 presidents who left office were forced out. While athletics is a major factor (13 percent were fired because of athletics), problems working with boards (23 percent) or faculty (13 percent) are just as likely.

Across the country, private university presidents serve an average of eight years in office. Baylor’s most recent presidents have fallen far short of this mark — Starr is the third president forced out of Waco since 2005.

Clearly, university presidents are in a precarious position.

In the case of Baylor, a review revealed serious issues, including a reprehensible lack of compliance with Title IX, the federal education antidiscrimination law, and a disgraceful treatment of student victims of sexual assault.

The facts are clear: The board of regents failed to provide oversight of the university’s leadership. Starr and the university’s leadership failed to oversee the Title IX process and the football program. Coach Art Briles and the athletic department created a culture where football was above the law.

But boiling the Baylor case down to protecting athletics at all costs is too simplistic. University presidents face difficult issues on many fronts. As university leaders fight to save their jobs, how much energy remains to lead and improve their institutions? It matters that these institutions are central in educating our country’s workers and future leaders, produce research that helps our nation compete on a global stage and serve their communities in countless ways.

To be successful, presidents must support the university’s teaching, research and service missions — all while leading a winning athletic program.

But they also must balance far more than this. In a survey of presidents, the American Council on Education found that fundraising, budgeting, community relations and strategic planning occupied most of a president’s time.

In effect, being a university president is like serving as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company while running the Dallas Cowboys on the side. And too often, presidents are expected to be the CEO of an athletic department with a university on the side.

We shouldn’t be surprised when people fail at such a complicated job. Nor should we expect that simply replacing an individual would solve all of an institution’s problems.

Starr has told the story of asking for advice from a prominent alumnus shortly after taking the job. The advice: “Win some football games.” Of course, the job is far more complicated.

Baylor doesn’t just have rivals on the athletic field. The university competes for the best students and faculty, for research grants and for money from donors.

In and of itself, replacing Starr will not change the situation at Baylor. The external review identified 105 recommendations to correct the many failures exposed in this process. The institution must have strong leadership from all corners of campus to fix the problems. No president can do this alone.

Baylor will still face pressure to maintain its Baptist character, increase research activity and attract the best students possible. Whoever is charged with leading the university, Baylor’s president — like all university presidents — confronts an increasingly difficult assignment.