Former Special Prosecutor Ken Starr would rather be known as "Uncle Ken." That's how he refers to himself around Baylor University students in Waco, Texas, where he has been president since 2010. But for Starr, who very nearly took down Bill Clinton and helped uncover the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, history seems to have a way of repeating itself. Once again, he is trying to oust a liberal icon for alleged sexual misconduct with a subordinate. This time around his target is noted leftist Baylor professor Marc Ellis.
This morning, the Starr administration began a three-day dismissal hearing that was the culmination of a year-long investigation into Ellis's alleged misdeeds. The tenured professor and director of Baylor’s Center for Jewish Studies is a leading critic of Israeli policies toward Palestinians, which earned him a spot in conservative author David Horowitz’s book The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.
Ellis is charged with sexual misconduct, which at Baptist-affiliated Baylor is a far-reaching category indeed. The school’s faculty handbook, which notes that "human sexuality is a gift from the creator God," defines sexual misconduct as “sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest, adultery, fornication, and homosexual acts."
The details of the charges against Ellis have not been fully disclosed, but the events under investigation date back nearly a decade, to when the complaining witness was Ellis's graduate assistant, a fortysomething Ph.D. student who became a “close friend of Marc’s," as Ellis's lawyer, Roger Sanders, puts it. After completing her Ph.D., the woman came aboard as a Baylor faculty member. According to a letter sent to Starr by the American Association of University Professors, in March 2011 the woman filed an EEOC complaint of sexual harassment against Ellis. The Starr administration offered a settlement in exchange for Ellis's departure; Ellis declined. And so the Starr administration opened a wide-ranging investigation, phoning just about everybody who's ever known Ellis, trawling for what Baylor institutional lawyers called "abuse of authority.”
Ellis has argued that Starr, a conservative evangelical Christian, intends to "remake Baylor in his own image." The professor's supporters, led by Cornel West and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, launched a petition urging Starr to "stop persecution against Prof. Marc Ellis.” Not everyone at Baylor agrees. "I can understand withholding judgment. I can understand presumption of innocence. But I don’t understand presumption of persecution," said Professor Barry Hankins, a colleague of Ellis’s in the history department. He chided West and friends for "rushing to Ellis's defense" without knowing the facts.
Baylor officials swear up and down that Starr has had nothing to do with the investigation of Ellis and had no role in approving the charges. But university bylaws give Starr the final say after the judiciary committee gives its recommendation. Ellis and his lawyer, Roger Sanders, provided New York with three additional pieces of evidence to support the claim that Starr is pulling the strings:
- According to Ellis, on June 29, 2011, during Ellis's first meeting with Baylor lawyer Doug Welch, Welch said Starr had “tasked” him to proceed with charges.
- According to Sanders, during his first meeting with Welch on July 1, 2011, Welch told him that both Starr and Baylor Provost Elizabeth Davis had authorized the charges.
- Sanders provided to New York a July 25, 2011 e-mail exchange between Sanders and Welch regarding students who were scrambling to rework their fall schedules upon hearing of the last-minute cancellation of Ellis's classes. In the e-mail, Sanders proposed that Starr meet with Ellis (and the lawyers) to discuss the canceled classes because "when we first met you traced the approval of this process back to the President"; Welch's response does not dispute that characterization. Instead, Welch replied, "While ultimately, Judge Starr will have to approve any settlement, he will not meet on this matter."
With the trial set to begin on Monday morning, nostalgia fans who are eager to relive Clinton’s televised impeachment hearings shouldn’t get their hopes up: As with most higher education judiciary proceedings, the Baylor hearing is a closed-door affair, lending it the air of a secret tribunal. University policy mandates "substantial evidence" that "the factual allegation more likely occurred than not." This raises more than a few questions: Are the witnesses testifying under oath, creating the opportunity for the perjury traps that tripped up Clinton? What's the penalty for lying? Why is this case being tried within the campus judiciary system instead of a real court with a judge? Why was Ellis suspended before his hearing? "These proceedings are confidential," came the e-mail reply from Julie Springer, the lawyer representing Baylor's twelve-person faculty-dismissal committee.
To be fair, confidentiality also serves to protect potential victims from character assassination and the public glare that makes many women hesitant to bring complaints to the authorities. There will be no tell-all Starr Report this time. Still, the lack of transparency strikes an eerily familiar tone: Working in secret with minimal accountability was Starr’s modus operandi as Special Prosecutor during the Clinton administration.
In these next few days, Baylor's twelve-person faculty-dismissal committee will hear testimony and ultimately tell Starr whether they think Ellis should be fired. Then Starr will get to decide whatever he wants.
Ellis can appeal Starr's decision with Baylor's Board of Regents, which is chaired by Neal T. "Buddy" Jones, one of Texas's top lobbyists. Jones has said that the Regents initially had their doubts about Starr, but "we literally fell in love with him."
One would think Starr's latest investigation would be prime watercooler talk around Baylor's campus, but several faculty members told New York that no one is exactly straining their necks to peek inside the closed-door hearing. They are kind of over Ken Starr, conservative lightning rod. He’s just President Starr now. As one faculty member put it, "This is apparently considered a much bigger deal on the Internet."
Meanwhile, just in case the historical echoes of the Ellis case weren’t deafening enough, a notable nemesis from Starr's past has decided to intervene.
Last week, Susan McDougal — the former Whitewater partner of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who served 22 months in jail for refusing to answer questions about the president in front of a grand jury — e-mailed Ellis's lawyer, Roger Sanders, to extend her sympathies. "I know how unscrupulous and dangerous a man Kenneth Starr can be," she said. "I pray that you will be able to unmask him and his cohorts."