When Crisis Strikes Too Close

December 9, 2003

Baylor is hardly the first university to experience the murder of a student or a sports scandal, although no other institution appears to have endured both simultaneously and with such drawn-out intensity. During the 1980s, for example, according to the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, the NCAA sanctioned, censured or put on probation more than half of the universities playing at the NCAA's top competitive level. Nearly a third of professional football players responding to a commission survey taken then said they had accepted illicit payments while in college. 
Commonality, however, does not diminish the seriousness of these events. The violent death of a student or unethical behavior by coaches can severely damage the morale and reputation of a university. And as Baylor is learning, the way a university responds is a test of its character and a crucial indicator of how well the institution will rebound (see "Can Baylor heal?" on page 28). Says Martin Medhurst, who taught at Texas A&M before coming to Baylor last fall, "The response needs to match the character and culture of the university." 
The bonfire tragedy at Texas A&M that took 12 lives in 1999, though considerably different from what happened at Baylor, also was a test of institutional character, says Medhurst, distinguished professor of rhetoric and communication. "Any time there's a tragedy, there has to be a change in how you look at yourself. At A&M, I think it changed the university in making them look inward, from a 'just do it' emphasis on action to a long period of self-reflection and self-criticism." In retrospect, he says, "I think they responded magnificently." 
The response at A&M also clearly reflected its history of military-influenced ritual, myth and tradition; hence the commemorative ceremonies of grieving that were heavily reliant on the kind of observances used by the military to honor its dead, Medhurst says. And because A&M is known for its high-quality engineering program, understanding the engineering dynamics of the bonfire collapse took on great importance during the investigation. A goodly portion of the university's final report features charts and drawings illustrating in detailed fashion why and how the logs destabilized and cascaded. 
Perhaps a closer parallel to Baylor's situation occurred at the University of Maryland with the death of Len Bias, a rising basketball star with a promising future in the NBA. In 1986, Bias died of a cocaine overdose in his dormitory. He was said to have been celebrating after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. His death led to an investigation that uncovered academic shortcomings in the athletic department. A few years later, the university was sanctioned for violations involving special benefits to athletes. 
Maryland's response to that tragedy, however, differs considerably from what happened at Baylor, observes President Robert B. Sloan Jr. Although Maryland coach Lefty Driesell had been implicated by two players in an attempted cover-up of the circumstances of Bias' death, Driesell refused to resign. He remained coach for another four months and then was assigned to a different position within the university. What's more, Sloan says, "They did not self-impose sanctions, as Baylor did." 
Yet another infamous athletic department scandal happened closer to home, at Southern Methodist University, also a school with religious connections. SMU already had been penalized by the NCAA for paying players when new allegations emerged in 1985. Football players apparently had received money from boosters through a slush fund, and some members of the school's Board of Trustees knew about this activity. The ensuing investigation resulted in the "death penalty" for SMU's football program, the first and only instance of the NCAA shutting down a program. After a two-year banishment, SMU's football program was reinstated in 1989, though it has never regained its previous level of success. 
Patti LaSalle, who was editor of SMU Magazine at the time of the sanctions and who now is SMU's associate vice president of public affairs, observes that the key to dealing with such crises is "to find the facts and take immediate action. In our case, the action was sweeping. We reformed our governance system. We overhauled the athletic department, including people and programs and got new leadership." Roddy Wolper, who was SMU's director of information during that time, says that after a period of "shock and denial," the school came together quickly to deal with the problem. "It was a very destabilizing situation," he says. "But to their credit, they have emerged with a stronger feeling of community." 
Wolper, who now is at the University of North Texas, says SMU's experience might offer some lessons for Baylor. "You don't get past a situation like that very easily," he says. "It takes a lot of cooperation inside the community and a lot of commitment. You've got to make sure there's proper oversight of the athletic program and good communication. You've got to remind everyone about the school's core values." 
But, he says, "It's not the end of the world. My advice is for the folks at Baylor to take heart and emphasize what's good about the school. The public needs to know that Baylor is addressing its problems."