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Accrediting committee recommends no punishment for Baylor over sexual assault scandal

The Pat Neff Hall at Baylor University on Feb. 15, 2017. (Photo by Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune)

by Matthew Watkins | The Texas Tribune

Baylor University appears poised to keep its accreditation after a special committee investigating the school's handling of sexual assault on campus recommended no punishment last week.

The recommendation is not final; the full commission that handles accreditation still has to vote in December. But the preliminary news is good for the university, which had received a warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges last year.

Accreditation is serious business for universities. Losing it can have major effects on schools' reputations and the ability of their students to get federal financial aid.

"We are certainly pleased with the findings of this special committee, as they confirm the significant actions Baylor has taken in response to the issue of sexual violence and the transformation that has occurred on our campus in a short time," said President Linda Livingstone, who took over the top job at Baylor after the warning was issued.

The accrediting agency chose to investigate Baylor after seeing a document produced by the Baylor Board of Regents outlining the its mistakes in addressing sexual assaults by students. The scandal began to unwind in 2015, when football player Sam Ukwuachu was convicted of raping another student. That conviction was later overturned, and the case is currently pending on appeal.

During Ukwuachu's trial, it was revealed that the alleged victim reported the rape to school officials but no disciplinary action was taken.

Soon, numerous similar stories emerged, and Baylor hired the law firm Pepper Hamilton to investigate. After a months-long review, university regents reported widespread mishandling of allegations of sexual assault by students — not just in cases involving football players. Employees may have engaged in victim-blaming, and efforts to respond to sexual assault cases were "slow, ad hoc, and hindered by a lack of institutional support and engagement by senior leadership," the school said.

Football coach Art Briles was fired, and Baylor's president, Ken Starr, was reassigned and eventually left the school.

The accrediting agency was looking into three main issues: Whether the school was operating with integrity, whether it provided proper student support programs and promoted a safe learning environment for students, and whether the school's chief executive had full control over the school's athletics program.

The committee, which included four university leaders from across the country and a commission staff member, appeared to find that the answers to those questions were all yes, and it cited numerous changes in procedures, governance structure and personnel since the scandal broke. Baylor officials have touted those moves for months, saying that the school implemented 105 changes recommended by Pepper Hamilton.

The accreditation committee informed Baylor of the news in a letter dated Oct. 13. The letter included a statement: "The findings of this visiting committee represent a preliminary assessment of the institution at this time; final action on the report rests with the Commission on Colleges."

If the commission accepts the committee's recommendation, it will close an important chapter in the scandal for Baylor. But several other investigations against the school are still pending: The National Collegiate Athletic Association has confirmed that it is investigating the school and the Big 12 Conference is withholding 25 percent of its revenue distribution to Baylor pending a review of how it governs its athletics department.

Multiple students or former students are also suing the university.

Disclosure: Baylor Univesity has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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