Board of Regents should adopt an open meetings policy

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist

As a private institution, Baylor’s obligation to Texas law differs from that of a public university’s concerning the rules and regulations that govern open meeting policies. This directly relates to Baylor’s Board of Regents, which to this day conducts its meetings behind closed doors. Just because Baylor’s Board of Regents is not strictly bound to Texas’s open meeting laws does not mean Baylor should not adhere to them, anyway.

The Board held its first meeting of the year last Friday in the Hankamer/Cashion Academic Center. Behind closed doors, the Board discussed the implementation of Phase II of Baylor’s Pro Futuris vision, which included the Academic Strategic Plan called “Illuminate” and President Dr. Linda A. Livingstone’s future goals for the university.

In contrast, a Baylor Magazine article outlined the Feb. 17, 2017 Board of Regents meeting, claiming the Board approved multiple measures for increased transparency: “The Baylor Board of Regents adopted new bylaws at their February meeting that will improve University governance by increasing diversity among the Regents, provide voting privileges to a second-term student Regent and give the public a more complete view of Board operations and decisions.”

A statement from then Board chair Ronald D. Murff further captured the regents’ vision. “Combined with the changes we’ve already made, these actions today will make Baylor’s governance model one of the most responsive and transparent of any major private university,” it read.

In years prior, the transparency of the board was a hot topic of debate. In 2016, nearing the climax of Baylor’s sexual assault scandal, a perceived lack of transparency among the governing board motivated individuals to build a platform equipped to tackle and inspire change. The “Bears for Leadership Reform” organization, which generated a large following of Baylor alumni, donors, faculty and students in 2016, set out to “cure the culture of secrecy that surrounds the current Board,” stating further that, “There has been too much secrecy and innuendo. We do not fear the truth and demand that the Baylor Board of Regents and administration provide total transparency about these issues.”

Since BLR’s foundation, the Board has increased its transparency as a governing body, at least to a certain degree. Beginning Feb. 17, 2017, the Board began to record and release the minutes of the board meetings on Baylor’s website, in addition to releasing agendas prior to meetings. The Board also began to host news conferences after each meeting, and, according to the Lariat’s coverage at the time, designated that of the two student regents, the one serving the second year of the two-year term would serve as a member of the board with full voting rights.

The minutes of the board meetings, however, are disappointingly vague. Outlined in numbered bullet points, each category features a generalized and condensed version of that which was discussed. This is evident in, for example, the minutes for Oct. 20, 2017’s meeting, which states the meeting was called to order at 8 a.m. and later adjourned at 11:50 a.m. With only eight bullet points highlighting the topics discussed in a nearly 3-hour time span, the lack of transparency is evident. Even if the Board adopted an open meetings policy, regents would still have the ability to go into closed executive session, as they do now when documenting minutes, in order to maintain a balance between transparency and efficiency.

The minutes of the February 2017 meeting did not mention an increased intention to improve the public’s view of the Board’s operations despite a clear correlation between changes to the Board and discontent from Baylor alumni, faculty and students. However, the minutes did address “the Governance Task Force recommendations from a student standpoint, in particular the omission of the student Regents being given a vote on the Board.”

Moving forward, the Board should make every effort to promote complete transparency by opening its doors to the public in a similar manner to that of a public university, such as the University of Texas at Austin.

The University of Texas Systems website, which outlines UT’s guidelines for open meetings for governing bodies, states in clear terms: “The Open Meetings Act (Texas Government Code, Chapter 551) provides that meetings of governmental bodies must be open to the public except for expressly authorized executive sessions.” Baylor is conveniently exempt from these laws, as the act is “premised on providing full notice of public business.” Baylor, a private institution, can thus construct its guidelines for meetings according mostly to its own standards and values for transparency.

Compared to UT, Baylor lags far behind the standards for transparency demanded of public institutions. Section one of Rule 10403 of the UT Regents’ rules and regulations, which was approved 14 years ago in 2004, declares that “Meetings of the Board of Regents shall be open to the public, unless otherwise determined by the Board, in accordance with law.” In addition to mere openness and transparency, section three of Rule 10403 allows members of the public to exercise their voice and express their opinions during UT’s meetings: “Members of the public are allowed to present written and oral testimony, for a reasonable amount of time as determined by the Chairman of the Board, on any topic listed on the agenda for a Committee or Board meeting that is open to the public.”

This contrasts greatly with Baylor’s policies. Even with increased efforts to appease frustrated individuals in 2017, the Board stands firm in its decision to operate in a manner void of public witness.

Even Randy Ferguson, co-chair of BLR’s research and policy committee and former regent, told the Lariat in 2017, “We are not proposing to follow the open meeting pact that public universities have to follow.”

Interestingly, “confidentiality” is listed under the Board of Regents’ statement of commitment and responsibilities for each of its members.

After the February 2017 Board of Regents meeting, the president of Bears for Leadership Reform, John Eddie Williams, released a statement expressing his dissatisfaction with the regents’ application of the governance recommendations.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Baylor Board of Regents did not adopt more comprehensive reforms,” Williams’ statement read. “These changes are baby steps, not the real reform the Baylor family wants or deserves from its leadership in response to this crisis.”

Baylor has improved in recent years, given a number of influential factors, including an increased level of concern among Baylor affiliates. In large part, when the people raised their voices in 2016 and 2017, Baylor heard them out.

It is now February 2018, and little has changed since improvements were made nearly one year ago. The changes established in February of last year are not far-reaching enough when it comes to affirming true transparency.

The Lariat does not intend solely to criticize the institution which it ultimately relies upon and cares for. If a person truly cares about something, they will want that something to be the best it can be and to live up to high standards. Care about Baylor we do; therefore, we call upon its leaders to raise the bar of transparency and to a higher degree than once was — than currently is.

As a publication, we simply wish to exercise our freedom to call out governing bodies by means of the press, on behalf of the voices of the general public. To demand better of our leaders, especially given the failures and missteps of recent years, is not only justifiable, it is for the greater good of a people and of Baylor Nation. Transparency is not just the cry of the press; it is the cry of the public.