1980 Playboy controversy reached climax with Lariat firings

The entire Baylor Lariat staff resigned in March 1980 after disagreeing with the administration over their choice to expel women who posed for playboy. The board chose an entirely new editorial board in order to open the paper back up. Photo from Baylor digital archives.

By Matthew Muir | Copy Desk Chief

In January 1980, Playboy photographer David Chan’s planned trip to Baylor was generating a low rumble. By March, it snowballed into a controversy which made national headlines and left a gaping wound in Baylor’s Department of Journalism.

Having previously completed features on “Girls of the Pac 10” and “Girls of the Ivy League,” Chan set his sights on the Southwest Conference, which included Baylor at the time. Chan had already visited the University of Texas – where he interviewed more than 350 women – and Texas A&M when he confirmed his intent to come to Baylor.

Dr. Doug Ferdon, a former chair of Baylor’s journalism department, said he thought Playboy saw an opening in Texas as societal values shifted.

“Most places like Waco and Huntsville, two places where I’ve taught, they became wet [loosened restrictions on alcohol] around 1974 … and I think that had something to do with it, the loosening of standards after the 1960s,” Ferdon said. “I think this Southwest Conference issue of Playboy was an attempt for them to move into Texas.”

From the outset, the Baylor administration viewed Chan and Playboy with apprehension. W.C. Perry, then the dean of student affairs, said in a Jan. 28, 1980 statement that the administration “would be concerned about” students posing for nude photographs, and would “want to talk to [Chan] and find out what he has in mind.”

By Feb. 1, 1980, Baylor President Abner McCall had said any student who posed nude for Playboy would face disciplinary consequences. Perry added actions would not be taken against any students who posed clothed. A Playboy spokesperson told the Baylor Lariat that Playboy would assist any student model with legal aid if they faced disciplinary action.

Ferdon thinks politics led McCall to take a harsher stance than he otherwise would have needed.

“Baylor was in the midst of a struggle between the fundamentalists … and the [conservatives],” Ferdon said. “The fundamentalists wanted to take over Baylor, and they didn’t succeed but they were doing a lot of things to try at that time. So it forced Abner McCall to be even more strict than he needed to be.”

Lariat editors soon made their views clear. In a Feb. 19, 1980 editorial penned by editor-in-chief Jeff Barton, city editor Barry Kolar and assistant city editor Carla Wood, the three editors said students should make the decision whether or not to pose for photos based on their own morals, not “vague threats of sinner’s scorn” or the supposed “crumbling of society [or] the downfall of the West.” They also criticized the politics of McCall’s stance.

“Conservative politics are an omnipresent fact of life lately, and that theological politicking also presents perhaps the strongest rationale against posing – the not-so-subtle threat of unpleasantness from an encircled administration,” the editorial said. “It is disappointing that the administration perceives this more as a rallying point for fundamentalist support, than as a chance to exercise restraint and demonstrate its independence from the Criswellites [fundamentalists] of the world.”

On Feb. 21, 1980, McCall was unhappy with coverage of the Playboy saga. He took “especially strong exception” with the editorial, which he felt was contrary to Baylor’s Christian commitment and encouraged students to disregard university policy and pose for Playboy. In a meeting, he told Lariat editors they could continue to cover any news stories, so long as they were the “right kind” of news stories. McCall also suggested future editorials focus on less serious and less controversial topics.

Because Baylor is a private university, these weren’t empty requests to be ignored. Dr. Sara Stone, former chair of the journalism department, said The Lariat deals with restrictions that papers at public schools generally won’t have to face.

“Understand that Baylor is a private school and as such the president of the university is the publisher of the paper,” Stone said. “Free speech at Baylor is not exactly free speech at a public university.”

Barton appealed to Student Congress, asking the body to make the administration reconsider the decision. He also lobbied for Baylor’s policy on Lariat content to be made public. On Feb. 22, 1980, another editorial ran, this one signed by Barton, Kolar, news editor Cyndy Slovak and 23 other staff members.

“We voted to quit Wednesday night, [Feb. 20] to walk out. We have not left this newspaper, obviously, but that does not mean we are happy or content,” the editorial said. “We are not.”

The full-page editorial revealed a staff exasperated by what they called “wholesale censorship,” and it refuted the idea that the Playboy coverage was an attempt to undermine the university’s values.

“We often disagree with the president, and when we do, it is because we have an honest difference of opinion with his policies – not because we have any dislike for Dr. McCall as a man,” the editorial said. “As for Baylor? We have criticized many aspects of the school in the past – not because we have any disagreement with its ideals – but with the way some have chosen to interpret and carry out these ideals. President McCall, for his part, argues that we do not have the right to interpret or even question these ideals.”

McCall fired back on Feb. 25, 1980, saying in a statement “if any student editor or reporter sincerely feels that he or she cannot work within the policies herein set forth, he should resign from the Lariat staff.” McCall also called the editors’ behavior “deplorable” and stated that Baylor was within its rights to have final say on what content was published.

“Historically and legally freedom of the press has always been freedom of the publisher,” McCall said.

Journalism chairman Loyal Gould backed McCall, promising to “terminate anyone who does not conform” to standards for the publication.

Texas newspapers like the Waco Tribune-Herald and Houston Chronicle flocked to cover the unfolding events, and wire services kept the Lariat phone ringing off the hook in search of updates. News was spreading around the country, with publications like the Lantern at Ohio State University picking up on the story which started as “a flap over women possibly posing for skin shots.”

Students organized a show of support outside of Pat Neff Hall on the morning of Feb. 27, 1980. Between 50 and 100 students attended.

In protest, the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter canceled an event which would have brought prospective journalism students to Baylor. In an interview with KWTX, McCall said students who were deterred by Baylor’s actions should not bother coming to the university.

“These students who, because of policies like this, don’t want to come to Baylor – I’d much prefer they go someplace else,” McCall said. “I’d prefer some of these students here that don’t agree with the policy to go elsewhere.”

These comments further inflamed tensions. Slovak said McCall “obviously” wanted the Lariat staff to quit, but she “wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.”

Student Congress voted 20-1 to support McCall and the Baylor administration on Feb. 28, 1980. One congressman, John Cullar, affirmed McCall’s sentiment that freedom of the press meant freedom of the publisher. Cullar also accused The Lariat of only publishing favorable letters and not ones disagreeing with the editors’ stance.

On Feb. 29, 1980, now long removed from talk of the planned Playboy photoshoots which jumpstarted the whole debacle, Barton, Kolar and Slovak wrote one more editorial defending themselves and criticizing the university’s position.

“If there’s one thing we can probably all agree on, it’s that the press coverage of the past week hasn’t done Baylor’s reputation too much good,” the editorial said. “Whatever the motives or sincerity of the administration’s reaction, Dr. McCall’s recent statements will be perceived by much of the nation as small-minded and provincial.”

It was almost harsher. Shortly before publication and without consulting the editors in advance, Lariat adviser Ralph Strother removed a section which said “we hope the time has come when the student body will no longer accept the smugness of Dr. McCall’s interpretations. We hope the (Feb. 27) protest is a sign that students are tired of the arrogant position taken by the administration.”

When the editors objected to the last-minuteedits, Strother recommended firing Barton, Kolar and Slovak.

Dr. Don Williams, a journalism professor who had written a letter in support of The Lariat staff, handed in his resignation to be effective at the end of the semester. Williams called McCall’s and Gould’s treatment of the editors “childish and bullying.”

On March 3, 1980, Baylor’s Board of Publications voted unanimously to fire the three editors. Publication of The Lariat was suspended for three weeks. The Baylor Line magazine reported roughly 200 students gathered to protest.

17 members of The Lariat’s staff soon resigned in protest. Williams was told by Gould he would not finish out the semester. Another professor, Dr. Dennis Hale, resigned after Williams’ sacking, saying he opposed the “whole series of events.”

Two editors and the president of Baylor’s chapter of the professional journalism society all had their scholarships canceled. Barton called it “vindictive.” Gould said the withdrawal of a scholarship fund was a significant contributor. McCall later described the controversy as “kind of like a wart on my toe.” Ferdon said it’s a blemish on an impressive legacy.

“McCall was probably … the greatest president Baylor ever had because he took them from being a college to a university and put a vision forward,” Ferdon said. “But that was one instance where I think he got caught in internal politics as much as anything.”

McCall did, however, share that he’d received hundreds of letters and phone calls voicing support for his actions by the time the Lariat resumed publication on March 26, 1980.

Ferdon and Stone both came to Baylor to teach in 1982 — not long after the fracas, but eons on the scale of college life. While not often talked about, the aftershocks of the scandal still reverberated around the journalism department.

“When I was finishing my doctorate and Baylor was one of the schools I applied to … I had people say to me ‘You don’t want to go to Baylor, that’s a terrible place. They censor their students, they censor their publications, the First Amendment doesn’t exist there,’” Stone said.

Stone also mentioned the professors who resigned.

“I personally side with all those people, I think it was wrong,” Stone said.

Baylor was kicked out of a couple of collegiate press groups in the wake of the spring 1980 controversy. Ferdon said he was thrust into the role of a “guinea pig” trying to get Baylor back into these groups as the department moved on.

“When I came we were already into the next things,” Ferdon said. “We were going forward rather than looking behind. We were trying to rebuild the Lariat’s status.”

Long after the dust settled, Chan’s Playboy feature was published. About 80 Baylor women had been photographed. The preliminary photos were not taken in the nude, and if Ferdon’s secondhand information is correct, none of the Baylor women completely disrobed for the final portraits either.

“I never really saw a copy of the Playboy,” Ferdon said. “But people who have told me that the Baylor girls were wearing … they weren’t wearing a lot of clothes, but they were wearing clothes.”