Hiring a female president isn't a catch-all for Baylor's sexual assault problem

Baylor University

Baylor announced the hiring of a new female president this week.

Baylor University hired its first female president amid a flood of sexual assault scandals that has brought about several high-profile firings. Dr. Linda Livingstone, dean of the George Washington University School of Business, will become the 15th president of Baylor starting June 1.

She succeeds interim president David Garland, who took over for Kenneth Starr in May 2016. Starr eventually left the university in August, capping a string of departures that included head football coach Art Briles, who was let go in May 2016, and athletic director Ian McCaw, who resigned that month after overseeing sports since 2003. (As Vice Sports' Caitlin Kelly notes, the associate dean for student conduct administration and chief judicial officer, Bethany McGraw, still holds her position and is named in a lawsuit in which she's accused of telling a student there was "nothing [she] could do" about a rape allegation against a player.)

The question stands: Will Livingstone's hiring change anything?

On its face, this could be seen as a positive development. A constant refrain whenever issues of violence arise in sports is simply, "Hire more women," the idea being that a more diverse set of voices and decision-makers would cut through the insularity of institutions that boast homogeneous leadership and are content to do things how they've always been done.

This isn't just conjecture; there's a ton of research supporting the notion that having women in leadership helps an organization run better. This report from the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that, of 22,000 global firms surveyed, the profitable companies saw a 15 percent rise in profitability from increasing their share of women in C-suite positions from zero to 30 percent. Moreover, as Title IX and higher education experts would tell you, reforming the entire culture of an institution must start at the top.

The solution isn't quite that simple, however. It's not just about hiring a woman -- it's about hiring the right woman, and making sure she has the leeway to make significant, disruptive changes. Thus far, Baylor's and Livingstone's public statements regarding her hiring have given us no indication for how she plans to handle sexual assault cases -- and that in itself is a problem. The press release announcing the decision mentions religion 11 times, stressing the school's commitment to its "Christian mission." Not once does it mention how protecting students from violence fits into this mission, the very failure around which is why Baylor was in need of a new president in the first place.

Livingstone's own comments, few as they are, have also been troubling. According to Inside Higher Ed, on Tuesday's press call she "would not address sexual assault reporting specifically and refused to definitively say that a student found guilty of sexual assault should be expelled from campus." Rather, she and chairman of the board Ronald D. Murff steered the conversation toward "the institution's religious roots and the optimism over Livingstone's tenure."

While it's understandable that, from a public relations perspective, Baylor wouldn't want to wade into the murky waters of its fraught history dealing with sexual assault at this moment, it doesn't bode well for the commitment to reform that the messaging around its new president is wrapped up in avoiding the subject altogether, or that she would herself avoid addressing it head-on.

Given these statements -- or lack thereof -- it seems that anyone following this story would see her hiring and wonder what, if any, impact she would have on the future of Baylor's sexual assault policy, especially given that the university currently faces "six Title IX lawsuits, a federal Title IX investigation, an NCAA investigation, an accreditation agency warning and an upcoming Big 12 Conference review," as noted by the Waco Tribune-Herald. (It should be noted that the press release announcing Livingstone's hiring directly references her "deep expertise in accreditation issues.")

Her hiring is also suspect, given the current trend of putting women into situations that are tenuous at best, in the wake of huge scandals that either needed a swift change in leadership or would doom to failure anyone in that role, a situation known as the "glass cliff." Depending on whom you ask, Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer, GM's Mary Barra, IBM's Ginni Rommety and HP's Meg Whitman are just a handful of female executives who are either considered to be scapegoats, pariahs or saviors in their respective companies.

In some of those cases, we've seen executives make ill-advised decisions, possibly out of self-preservation or internalization. For example, there's been speculation that Barra and GM paid for awards for positive publicity following the scandal involving faulty ignition switches that resulted in the recall of millions of vehicles and more than 100 deaths.

But we've also seen that, when things are so broken within the organization, the women in charge tend to get blamed for past failures and are given a shorter leash to prove themselves -- or at the very least, are much less shielded from criticism when things go awry under their watch. The 2014 GM recall occurred less than a month into Barra's tenure as CEO and five years after the company declared bankruptcy and received a bailout. After a slew of Congressional hearings and a $900 million settlement, we now know that GM had first detected the defect in 2001, 13 years before Barra took over.

Barra still holds her position as CEO, but overall, second chances are hard to come by, and these failures can be used to justify an aversion to hiring more women in the future.

But it's also insulting to automatically assume that Livingstone is simply a "gender hire," given both her professional experience and her familiarity with Baylor. She has served as the dean of George Washington's business school since 2014, and was dean of Pepperdine's business school for 12 years before that. Earlier in her career, she worked at Baylor for 11 years, from 1991 to 2002, rising to associate dean of the Hankamer School of Business, as well as serving on the Faculty Athletics Council.

According to Inside Higher Ed, she said she desires to speak more in-depth on the issues at hand in the future and asked about the pending lawsuits during her interview process, so let's see what she actually does with the time she has. Let's see if we get strong statements on her planned approach to sexual assault policy in the coming months before she officially takes over in June, when we can and should expect strong action.

All this is to say that, while Livingstone's hiring can be taken optimistically, as a nod to the need for the sweeping change in Waco that could be facilitated by a woman in charge, the jury's still out on whether that's the case right now. Here's to hoping that she has free rein, as well as the impetus, to fire and hire the right people to properly comply with Title IX investigations, to understand students' needs and to not prioritize sports over safety and security.

And here's to hoping that she ultimately serves as a model for other schools around the country to follow suit and hire women who will get the job done.

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