Weathering The Storm

December 9, 2003
In the summer of 2003, Baylor experienced what one administrator called a "perfect storm" of crisis and controversy. As the puzzling case of a missing student swiftly crescendoed into the grim aftermath of murder and a disturbing scandal involving its men's basketball program, Baylor was faced with perhaps the harshest and most public test ever of its character as an institution. Although some crisis-response experts try to conjure up worst-case scenarios in order to assess an organization's readiness, none could have envisioned a situation that would test Baylor so mightily. For many Baylorites looking for a scriptural parallel, the first reference that came to mind was the Book of Job.
"How could a university possibly have prepared for something like this?" asked a student this past fall, shaking his head in bewilderment. It was a question that many members of the Baylor community were asking themselves, as they began to evaluate how the University had worked through such an unexpected and almost overwhelming maelstrom of events.
On July 25, the body of junior Patrick Dennehy, one of Baylor's most promising basketball players, finally was found near a gravel pit a few miles southeast of the campus, more than a month after he had been reported missing. By then, the University already had been rocked by revelations that Carlton Dotson, a fellow student, basketball player and friend, was suspected in Dennehy's death and that Dennehy's tuition may have been improperly paid. As evidence mounted suggesting that head basketball coach Dave Bliss was trying to engage in a cover-up of those payments, the shock felt by Bliss' colleagues was followed by a visceral sense of betrayal and disappointment. "I felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach," President Robert B. Sloan Jr. says bluntly.
Although on a personal level Baylor administrators seemed overwhelmed at times by the shock and sadness of what was unfolding last summer, they were able to respond collectively by relying on the University's basic core of emergency contingency plans, protocols and crisis teams to deal with each development. These systems helped them bear the brunt of media pressure, shape the University's practical as well as moral and ethical responses and to begin the badly needed process of healing for the bereaved families and for the University community as a whole.
Many in the Baylor community emphasize that although the University's Christian values made the events all that more disturbing in some ways, it was those very values that helped to steady its course in this storm. As some faculty members have observed, it was important that the University not use religion to gloss over the reality of what had happened. But Baylor would have forgone its deepest strengths, they say, if its leaders hadn't called on its religious values to help get through this "summer of discontent," as former football coach and athletic director Grant Teaff called it, adapting the words of Shakespeare's Richard III.

If there ever had been such a thing as the "Baylor bubble" -- a belief that the University somehow could remain immune to the ills and frailties of the world beyond its borders -- that notion long since had been proved an illusion by the time Dennehy disappeared from campus. "The idea of a bubble is just silly," President Sloan says. And as Martin Medhurst, distinguished professor of rhetoric and communication, puts it, "Why should sin stop at the edge of the Brazos? Baylor is part of several overlapping worlds -- the educational world, the Baptist world, the NCAA world of major college basketball. And the mathematical probability is that something is going to happen, even on a Christian campus." During the past decade, the University had to deal with previous improprieties in the athletic department, with other controversial headline-stirring issues and with the death of a number of students, usually in automobile accidents. Just the previous December, a Baylor student was alleged to have murdered his family and then set his house on fire.
"Each crisis is different," says Larry D. Brumley, associate vice president for external relations. But through the years, he explains, a kind of protocol and general plan of response have been put into place to deal with important events and issues. "We have a group of administrators on a chart that we keep with us," he says. In the case of the death or life-threatening injury involving a student, for example, there is an established procedure for notification and response. "You develop a basic foundation, but you have to be flexible and constantly reassess," he says.
When Baylor police chief Jim Doak called Brumley on June 23 to report that a student was missing, Brumley, who had been on his way to a conference in North Carolina, immediately flew back to Waco and began to pull together a crisis team. The core of the team was made up of himself, Doak, athletic director Tom Stanton, Bliss, athletic department media spokesman Scott Stricklin, Baylor general counsel Noley Bice and student life vice president Eileen Hulme. Todd Lake, dean of university ministries, was out of town but quickly became involved when he returned. Additionally, a media consultant from Dallas was contacted. "University officials were dealing with so many urgent issues," Brumley says, "we needed an outside resource who could look at things from a distance."
In order to deal with the media onslaught during the peak period of ever-deepening suspicions and an ever-widening criminal investigation, the Baylor Law School provided a room to be used as headquarters for the media. The Baylor telecommunication department helped in setting up telephone lines and meeting the needs of television crews. "It was an enormous, all-consuming undertaking," says Stricklin, who worked closely with Lori Scott Fogleman, director of media relations in Baylor's public relations office. In addition to fielding and referring the constant stream of media requests, staff members worked with administrators to try to keep all of the Baylor community informed of the latest developments through e-mails and postings on the University's Web site.
The core crisis group met every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, though the composition of the group changed as events transpired. The team had to prepare administrators for hard questions from the media, Stricklin says. "The thing we kept saying was that we can't give easy answers. We wanted to be sure we were dealing with facts," he says. Unfortunately, they weren't always getting straight answers from one of their team members -- Bliss -- though they didn't know it at the time, Stricklin says. When improprieties in the men's basketball program were uncovered by the investigative committee, leading to the resignation of Bliss, the composition of the crisis team changed. Stanton also resigned at that time, accepting responsibility for what had occurred on his watch as head of the athletic program. The committee had not -- and still has not -- found any evidence that he knew about the violations.
"The news cycle is so fast and so continuous," says Stricklin, who recalled that the 20-hour days seemed to stretch out without relief in sight. It was a regular occurrence to walk out of a building and see multiple cable networks lining up their background shots, or a correspondent from People Magazine buttonholing a student or someone from "America's Most Wanted" wandering the campus. For those so closely involved, the situation would have taken on a surreal quality if it hadn't simply been so grim, sad and exhausting. During July alone, media director Fogleman reports the University received hundreds of queries from media all over the world.
"First and foremost, our concern was for Patrick Dennehy's family," Brumley says. "I know the family was frustrated with us at first because of the lack of information, but unfortunately, in such a mysterious situation, we didn't have much information to give them." Communications with the family improved when Lake returned to campus and he and missions director Steve Graves established a close relationship with Dennehy's mother, Valorie Brabazon, and stepfather, Brian Brabazon.
As the media attention intensified, the crisis team worked ceaselessly to provide answers -- a nearly overwhelming endeavor given the relentless demand. Stricklin recalls: "We'd get calls asking us to respond to X, and we'd never heard of X." In retrospect, says Stricklin, who now works at the University of Kentucky, "I'm proud of the work we did. I don't know if you can actually feel good about something like that, because it was such a terrible thing for everyone involved. But I think we were as effective as we could be."

In late July, as word began to come out about possible NCAA infractions by the men's basketball program, another Baylor response team went into action.
The Compliance Investigation Committee is a standing committee at Baylor that can be activated by the faculty athletics representative upon receipt of information that, if true, would establish a major violation of NCAA rules by the University's athletic department. Its three appointed members -- Bill Underwood, Mike Rogers and David Guinn -- all faculty members of the Baylor Law School, had previous experience in such investigations, including having dealt with serious violations in 1994, when Herbert H. Reynolds was president of the University. "We look at the committee as being proactive," says committee member Underwood. On July 25, a day after the panel began its investigation, the committee hired former Austin mayor Kirk Watson '78, JD '81, as its outside counsel.
The committee shifted into overdrive, with its members practically setting up residence in their offices, working late into the night seven days a week, Underwood says. Their mandate, as Guinn describes it, was to "investigate thoroughly, get to the truth and cover up nothing." It was a mandate similar to the one they had received a decade earlier from then-president Reynolds. "Sloan, like Reynolds, asked that we be thorough and that we call it as we see it," Underwood says. "Both Reynolds then and Sloan now recognized that the only way the University was going to come through this was to demonstrate integrity and to correct the problem."
About two weeks into their investigation, committee members determined there indeed was a basis for the allegations being made regarding improper tuition payments on behalf of Dennehy. It also had uncovered evidence of improper tuition and housing payments being made on behalf of a second student-athlete. They considered the initial evidence grave enough to bring their findings to the attention of Sloan, even though other parts of the investigation had yet to be completed. One of the primary reasons for their urgency, and for a quick response, was the dilemma facing Baylor's other basketball players, whose careers might be negatively affected by what had happened. In a bitter irony, the committee's initial report to Sloan came just a day after the president and Bliss, along with several others from Baylor, attended Dennehy's funeral in California.
On Aug. 8, Bliss was interviewed by the investigative committee concerning evidence of rule-breaking tuition payments to players. Sloan and committee members say that Bliss admitted the allegations and expressed remorse for his actions. Within hours, he submitted his resignation. "Obviously, there was nothing Bliss could do about what had already transpired, but as I listened to him that day, I thought that he made a genuine decision to begin trying to do the right thing," Underwood says.
In a press conference later that same day, Sloan announced that Baylor was instituting a new procedure for drug testing. The decision was based on a determination by the committee that positive drug test results inadvertently had not been forwarded to campus disciplinary authorities by the athletic department on at least one occasion. The athletic department, he said, would be removed completely from the drug testing protocol, and tests would be conducted at the Baylor Health Center. He also placed the men's basketball program on probation, effective immediately, for a period of not less than two years, including a ban on participation in postseason competition during 2003-04. Sloan also announced that Baylor had offered the remaining scholarship basketball players a release from their scholarships and that he was asking the NCAA to waive its rule that players transferring within Division I schools sit out one year before being eligible to play again.
The following Monday, Sloan met with basketball team members and their parents. What had been scheduled as a one-hour meeting stretched into 21/2 hours. Sloan went straight from the team's locker room to meet with a crowd of waiting media, where one of the prevailing questions was about the University's decision to release players.
The implications of that announcement became clear when several of Baylor's top players chose to leave for other schools. "It's going to take us years to get back to our full quota of scholarship players, but I don't regret it," Sloan says. "We asked ourselves, if we were the father of one of those boys, what would we want? That's the golden rule. We thought they would at least want the freedom to be able to leave."
For some observers, it was that decision that most demonstrated the essence of Baylor's character. "Doing unto others as you would have others do unto you is a typical Baylor response," Watson says. Also typical of Baylor, he adds, "is acting with dispatch and holding itself accountable."
The University acted quickly in hiring a new basketball coach, Scott Drew, and a new athletic director, Ian McCaw, both with sterling credentials. Larry Lyon, dean of Baylor's Graduate School, says, "You can have all the rules in the world, but you've got to have individuals with integrity to carry them out." Part of the University's accountability, though, also meant making other changes. Drayton McLane, chair of the Board of Regents, says he was determined that the University take some "big steps toward making sure we have a tighter and more aggressive supervision of the athletic department."

Of all Baylor's departments, university ministries probably was best prepared to deal with the emotional and spiritual repercussions of last summer's tragedy. When Lake took over as its dean several years ago, the department began expanding its grief counseling programs for students and their families. "There were 18 students who died during my first 18 months at Baylor," he says. Most of those were from automobile accidents. "We still lose a number of students in the course of a year."
In determining how best to provide comfort to the bereaved families and to the University community, he says, "We learned by doing. Every life is unique, and every death is unique. But we've learned through experience what's most helpful." Following a death, he says, "we not only get in touch with the student's family, we contact roommates, friends and groups that they may have belonged to. We'll call a special meeting of those groups, and that becomes the initial place for people to share stories and memories." For memorial services in the student's hometown, the University sends representatives and often charters buses so students can attend. In addition, Baylor has a two-year follow-up program that involves frequent contact with the family. In many cases, says Judy Maggard, director of the Baylor Parents League, the contact becomes an ongoing connection that lasts indefinitely.
Baylor's well-established program for dealing with the bereaved is fairly unusual, according to Rosa Cintron, a professor at Oklahoma State University. "Many universities simply don't have a plan or a protocol to deal with death," says Cintron, the co-editor of a forthcoming book called Death of a Student: Realities and Guidance for a Caring Campus. "Most colleges are unprepared because as a society, we're unprepared, particularly for the idea that students who come to the university so full of life and dreams might never fulfill those dreams."
"One thing we've learned is the importance of responding as quickly as possible," Lake says. "We've found that it's best to hold memorial services as soon after the death as possible." But in the case of Dennehy, the weeks of uncertainty precluded swift action. Lake and his staff simply had to deal with each development as it came and to try to reach out to Dennehy's family in each stage of their suffering. Sometimes that meant just trying to help them with practical matters. For example, when the Brabazons arrived in Waco in late July, Lake and Graves rented a U-Haul truck and helped them remove their son's possessions from the apartment he had shared with Dotson. "We spent a day and a half packing up," Lake recalls. Maggard joined the effort as well, offering the prayers and support of fellow parents. Stanton, who was still athletic director at the time, took the Brabazons to the places on campus where their son had spent time.
During that visit, the Brabazons still were holding out hope that their son was alive, but while they were driving the truck back to their home in Nevada, they received a call telling them their son's body had been identified. Later that night, Sloan sent an e-mail to the entire Baylor community telling them, "Our worst fears have been realized."
Lake, Sloan and McLane were among the Baylor representatives who traveled to California in August for the funeral held in Dennehy's hometown. Officials decided it was best to wait until students returned to campus, however, for Baylor's memorial service. Held in the chapel at the University's Truett Seminary on Aug. 28, the service was a defining moment in the unfolding events that would mark Baylor for years to come.
It was here that the Baylor community could glimpse the full measure of what had been lost, where the lingering sense of scandal was replaced by an old theme and an old tragedy: the unfairness of an individual of great promise dying young. It was here that Dennehy, recalled in touching vignettes by those who knew him, became far more than a name in a headline or the subject of an editorial. As Dennehy's fellow team member Matt Sayman put it, "This is all for Patrick."

A week later, during a "spirit rally" for Baylor and the Waco community held at Floyd Casey Stadium, comedian Bill Cosby offered a further bit of wisdom on how Baylor might begin to heal. After playing a beautiful rendition of Schubert's "Ave Maria" by the great Marian Anderson, which brought a flood of tears, Cosby sent the audience into gales of laughter over his experiences in sending a less-than-dutiful daughter to college. Cosby, who had called Sloan a few weeks earlier to volunteer his services, then urged students not to hide their problems, but to share their troubles with their parents. And he urged the University to carry on with its main business of educating students.
"I think Bill Cosby established the right tone for how to respond to a tragedy like this," says Thomas Hibbs, dean of Baylor's Honor College and distinguished professor of ethics and culture. "There was the emphasis on memory and honor and prayer, and then he broadened it with the need for the community to move forward. There are dangers for the University on both sides. On the one hand, you don't want to forget too quickly. But there is also the danger of getting trapped in the past and allowing a single set of events, no matter how horrific or evil, to obscure the thousands of other stories about Baylor."
As the school year got under way, faculty members expressed relief that the students were back on campus, bringing their optimism, their youthful resilience and the sense of normalcy that comes from young people wearing backpacks and strolling to class under towering oak trees, cell phones pressed to their ears. "Just having them back helped us start the healing process," one professor says.
The students themselves, not surprisingly, had questions about how the University had handled the situation. "I think crisis reveals character," says junior Jeff Leach, student body president. "I've heard that when a boat gets a hole in its side, it's not the hole but the panic inside the ship that causes it to sink. I think the Baylor leadership realized that they could sit here and panic or they could step up and take action. They said, 'We can get to the bottom of this, find the problem and fix it.' And that was the right thing to do."
Nevertheless, as students and professors alike have observed, the healing process will take years. Part of that process, observes Lyon, a professor of sociology, is for the University to try to redefine itself and move on. "There is no one single thing, but there are hundreds of things that Baylor can do over the years," the dean of Graduate Studies says. "We should look to see where we fell short, and we should continue to make the University a better place by any measure."
Chris Scott, a senior political science major who works with Leach in student government, says he hopes that Baylor's response to these events will be regarded in future years as a useful example of how a Christian institution can respond to tragedy. "I think it's similar to the way we think about the Book of Job," he says. "I don't think the theme is about bad things happening to good people. I think it's about what God's people do when bad things happen."

Are you looking for more News?