-- WACO, Texas -- Prominent Baylor alumni and donors advocated for reforming the school's board of regents and demanded transparency from university leaders Thursday, while deflecting questions about football and whether the group would advocate for the return of former head football coach Art Briles.
"Bears for Leadership Reform" drew about 350 people for its launch event in a small auditorium whose windows looked directly at McLane Stadium, the Baylor football stadium named for one of the reform group's prominent founders, Drayton McLane -- a former chairman of the board of regents and former owner of the Houston Astros.
Another 30,000 reportedly streamed the rally online from the group's Facebook page.?
Attorney and alumnus John Eddie Williams told the crowd that it was time for "transparency and accountability" in the university's governance and got into specifics, noting that the regents don't provide their contact information on the school's website, issue copies of their rules, publicize how they vote on issues or release meeting minutes.
"In a perfect world, the regents would be up here addressing you today," Williams said, drawing loud applause and shouts from the crowd.
Also on Thursday, Regents chairman Ron Murff posted a letter on the university's website addressing some of the recent criticism of the board.?
"Since our announcement in May about Baylor's systemic failures under Title IX, there have been continual requests from the Baylor Family for more transparency and information. Rather than stay silent, the University's senior leadership recognized that the Baylor Family deserved to know more about the magnitude of the problem and about the reasons why we responded so forcefully to the Pepper Hamilton findings," it read.
"The Board of Regents determined we simply could not allow a campus environment to continue where reports of sexual assaults were minimized, rationalized and mishandled within the University. We needed new leadership for our administration, our athletics department and our football team," it continued.
Murff's letter also noted that the university announced the creation of a new Governance Review Task Force to "assess and recommend improvements in how the governing board can improve its practices, procedures and selection process."
Williams dismissed the university's task force at the rally, saying, "The best way to make a great idea die, is to give it to a committee," invoking a round of laughter from the crowd.
Former Texas Gov. Mark White, also one of the founders, said he blames the board of regents for the school's failure to implement the guidelines issued in a letter sent to colleges and universities in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Education on how to carry out Title IX, the gender equity law that requires schools to investigate allegations of sexual violence.
"They ignored that letter. They treated it as though it didn't matter. As a result we went for years not taking care of the needs of people who were sexually assaulted on this campus," he said. "It was not confined to the athletic department. ... It is a Baylor problem, not an athletic problem."
Although speakers at the event Thursday did not mention football or Briles in their opening statements, McLane and some other founders of Bears for Leadership Reform have been highly critical of the school's firing of Briles in connection with the Pepper Hamilton law firm's investigation into sexual assault complaints at Baylor.
On Thursday, McLane said he wanted to see Briles' "honor restored" but that he has not seen evidence -- either way -- to say whether his firing was justified.
"We are here to do the will of God. To do the right things and to be strong Christians, and to have a powerful influence," McLane said to the crowd.
McLane -- and the other speakers, many of whom are large donors -- were asked if they would withdraw their financial support until the university met their demands, to which White pointed out a recent $18 million gift that McLane had given to the school's nursing program.
Williams, who said it was "unknown" whether or not the recent controversy would affect his giving,?followed up by asking, "Do you want happy donors, or do you want reluctant donors?"
When a reporter asked if there was support for reinstating Briles, a smattering of people started to clap as Williams interrupted and said he didn't want to lose focus.
"Our focus is not on athletics. They may be a symptom of the problem, but we don't know. The buck stops with the board," he said.?
In his letter posted Thursday, Murff noted that many have second-guessed decisions made by the board, and he went on to address Briles specifically, stating, "I need to make clear that, as brilliant and successful as Coach Briles was, he will not be returning to Baylor. This change in leadership was not based on any single incident, but on the weight of the information presented to us and a pattern of poor decisions over a range of disciplinary issues, not just sexual assault. The internal system of discipline operated by the coach was not in line with the University's mission and obligations."
Briles' daughter Staley Lebby attended the event and said that while her father's firing may have indirectly prompted the movement, she said the focus is on overall reform and greater accountability by the university's leadership overall.
"This group, Bears for Reform, that's not their mission. That's not their goal. They don't have that in the back of their minds. 'Let's hire a new board and hire Coach Briles back.' To me, that's not at all close to what they want to do. They want to see change at the top and they want to see truth and honesty from the board of regents," she said.
"Get the truth from the board of regents. I don't think that's asking a lot. I don't think that's hard. There's been a lot of skirting around it, a lack of transparency, a lot of 'pretty words' being used and a lot of things that they're hiding," Lebby said, "and them going to big news outlets and media outlets instead of coming first and talking to Baylor Nation and the alumni like they've asked them to do for the past six months, honestly hurt a lot of people's feelings."
Lebby also handed out a flier promoting the #cabCARES campaign, which is a fundraiser her father is leading to raise money for a local advocacy center for crime victims and children. According to the flier, Briles has made an initial undisclosed donation to start the campaign and will match up to $8,500 of donations made to represent the "8.5 years I was a Wacoan and the head football coach at Baylor."