sexual assault

Baylor Names First Female President in School History, Which Changes Nothing

Linda A. Livingston is the first woman to serve as president of Baylor University in the school's 142-year history—a history that has recently been shaped by scandal. Is a glass cliff waiting for her in Waco?

by Caitlin Kelly
Apr 19 2017, 1:53pm

Photo by Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Baylor University announced that Linda A. Livingston, dean of the George Washington University School of Business, will become the school's 15th president. Livingston will have the distinction of being the first woman to hold that position in Baylor's 172-year history. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, this historic milestone comes almost one year after the firing of Livingston's predecessor Ken Starr, as well as football coach Art Briles and the resignation of athletic director Ian McCraw, in the wake of revelations about the school's widespread, egregious failures to investigate and punish sexual assaults committed by students, and by football players in particular.

Baylor's official press release neglected to mention any of that, of course. The closest anyone comes to acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances of Livingston's hiring might be Bob Brewton, the chair of the Presidential Search Committee: "Dr. Livingstone's experience uniquely fit the profile of the dynamic faith and transformational leader which Baylor needs at this point in time in our history."

At this point in time, as the Waco Tribune-Herald helpfully summarizes, Baylor is facing "six Title IX lawsuits, a federal Title IX investigation, an NCAA investigation, an accreditation agency warning and an upcoming Big 12 Conference review."

In a way, though, Livingston's selection continues that time-honored corporate tradition of bringing in a woman to fix major fuck-ups. There's even a term for it, the "glass cliff," coined in a 2005 study in the U.K. that found that women were more likely to be named board members when companies were struggling. Virginia Rometty at IBM, Mary Barra at GM, Marissa Meyer at Yahoo, Paula Schneider at American Apparel—their names are invoked like a Biblical genealogy every time another company in crisis puts a woman in charge.

Is that what's going on in Waco? Well, maybe not. While Baylor certainly continues to face repercussions for its treatment of sexual assault victims in court, the university itself is not failing. Its ranking in U.S. News & World Report hasn't dipped a bit—in fact, it's never been higher—and the school received a record number of applications this spring.

Livingston herself appears to have all the right credentials for the job, including previous stints in Waco as a professor and dean. At the same time, though, it's not hard to see how her hiring could also serve a signal: Hark, a new, more female-friendly era at Baylor begins.

That interpretation, however, would be a mistake, at least right now. While the school has taken some action in the wake of the scandal—the aforementioned firings, hiring law firm Pepper Hamilton to investigate what happened, a new section of the school's website devoted to "the truth" (which has since been renamed and redirected to "the facts")—there are reasons to be skeptical of the school's appetite for meaningful reform. The full findings of Pepper Hamilton investigation, for example, were never released because, apparently, they never produced a written report. Bethany McCraw, who handled sexual-assault complaints as Baylor's Chief Judicial Officer, still has her job. This week's news gives no indication of a sea change underway.

"Baylor's unique culture of care and compassion – that I experienced personally from my colleagues and that I saw demonstrated among faculty, staff and students – continues to inspire and influence me as an administrator," Livingston says in the press release, which I can only imagine will be read by the school's sexual assault victims in dismay. "Continuing to strengthen Baylor's culture where faculty, staff and students are encouraged, inspired and cared for by one another is a priority."

Baylor is certainly not unique among institutions of higher education in prioritizing the security of its reputation over that of its students, nor in its failures regarding campus sexual assault. Livingston is coming from George Washington University, which is facing a federal lawsuit from a former student who alleges the school violated Title IX in failing to protect her from harassment and assault by a fellow student. Previously, GWU agreed to overhaul its procedures regarding sexual harassment and assault after a Department of Education investigation in 2011. There are currently 319 open investigations into Title IX violations at colleges in the United States, including the one at Baylor.

There are also plenty of reasons to wonder whether the federal government will continue to pursue these cases under Donald J. Trump, who himself stands accused of sexual assault by multiple women and was widely condemned for his comments about grabbing women by the pussy before the country elected him President.

So Baylor may have a new president, and she may even be historic, but right now it doesn't change very much.