Bay­lor pres­i­dent on edge of clas­sic glass cliff

School’s first fe­male pres­i­dent leads an or­ga­ni­za­tion in cri­sis

The Dallas Morning News - - VIEW POINTS -

Bay­lor Univer­sity, the coun­try’s largest Bap­tist univer­sity, has named the first woman pres­i­dent in its 172-year his­tory. Linda Liv­ing­stone takes over from in­terim pres­i­dent David Gar­land, as fall­out con­tin­ues from the school’s cam­pus rape scan­dal, which in­cludes ac­cu­sa­tions that the school cov­ered up as­saults by mem­bers of its foot­ball team.

Former Bay­lor Pres­i­dent Ken Starr was pushed out last year over his mis­han­dling of the mess. Now Liv­ing­stone will be in charge of clean­ing it up.

Liv­ing­stone’s his­toric ap­point­ment is a rather ex­treme ex­am­ple of a phenomenon known as the glass cliff: the ten­dency of women to be ap­pointed to lead­er­ship only when an or­ga­ni­za­tion is in cri­sis.

The phrase was coined in 2005 by two re­searchers in­trigued by a Bri­tish news ar­ti­cle that ob­served that com­pa­nies with more fe­male board mem­bers seemed to per­form worse on Bri­tain’s top stock in­dex. Was it re­ally true that “com­pa­nies that de­cline to em­brace po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” are su­pe­rior? Ac­tu­ally, the re­searchers found, it’s not that women are bad for busi­ness, but that busi­nesses tend to em­brace women only when times are bad.

Glass cliffs are ev­ery­where once you start to look for them, in both pol­i­tics and busi­ness. Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron, who called the ref­er­en­dum that de­liv­ered Brexit last year, and Boris Johnson, its top pro­moter, left the chaos they cre­ated to Theresa May. Chief ex­ec­u­tives in­clud­ing Mary Barra, Marissa Mayer and Meg Whitman were all in­stalled in times of tur­moil.

A 2013 anal­y­sis of chief ex­ec­u­tive transitions in For­tune 500 com­pa­nies found that men of color and women were sig­nif­i­cantly like­lier than white men to be­come CEOs when firms were per­form­ing weakly; if the firm con­tin­ues to flail, then white men are likely to re­place them, a phenomenon re­searchers call the “savior ef­fect.”

Bay­lor re­ally needs a savior, man or woman. Its cur­rent trou­bles started in 2015, when a former Bay­lor foot­ball player was con­victed of rap­ing a stu­dent. Dur­ing that trial, it emerged that the school had in­ves­ti­gated the star player but never pun­ished him. Sev­eral sim­i­lar cases soon be­came pub­lic.

At least five women said that a dif­fer­ent Bay­lor foot­ball player had as­saulted them be­tween 2009 and 2012, for ex­am­ple. A damn­ing in­de­pen­dent re­port com­mis­sioned by the col­lege in 2015 prompted Starr’s de­mo­tion and the fir­ing of foot­ball coach Art Briles.

Bay­lor’s re­li­gious char­ac­ter makes its predica­ment even thornier. Its faith-based con­duct code, which forbids drink­ing and pre­mar­i­tal sex, may have in­hib­ited women from com­ing for­ward to re­port as­saults in the first place, for ex­am­ple.

Sev­eral women ac­cused the col­lege of threat­en­ing them by say­ing they would tell their par­ents what they had been do­ing at the time of their al­leged as­saults. Other women re­ceived al­co­hol vi­o­la­tions af­ter making sex­ual as­sault re­ports, de­spite a school pol­icy that al­lows for amnesty in such cases.

Bay­lor stu­dents do not need to be re­li­gious to at­tend, but the univer­sity still calls it­self “un­am­bigu­ously Chris­tian,” and it be­longs to a con­sor­tium of evan­gel­i­cal col­leges. In that con­text, Liv­ing­stone’s ap­point­ment looks like even more of a high-wire act. A large 2014 study of evan­gel­i­cal non­prof­its and col­leges found that women make up just 16 per­cent of top lead­ers in those set­tings, com­pared with 40 per­cent of CEOs in sim­i­lar sec­u­lar set­tings.

The Bap­tist tra­di­tion is not known for its em­brace of fe­male lead­er­ship. But with ex­pe­ri­ence in both Divi­sion 1 sports and cri­sis man­age­ment, Liv­ing­stone seems as pre­pared as any­one for the job. She was a pop­u­lar fac­ulty mem­ber at Bay­lor in the 1990s, and she most re­cently served as busi­ness school dean at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity.

Bay­lor alumna Laura Seay, a gov­ern­ment pro­fes­sor at Colby Col­lege, told me that pro­gres­sive alumni seem heart­ened by Liv­ing­stone’s ap­point­ment, in part be­cause her back­ground is in academia rather than pol­i­tics or preach­ing. Seay notes that Liv­ing­stone has her work cut out for her, how­ever: She’ll have to raise a lot of money to cover the le­gal set­tle­ments on the horizon, and she will have to take a firm hand with an un­usu­ally en­trenched lead­er­ship struc­ture.

“The in­evitable de­cline in Bay­lor’s foot­ball pro­gram that’s go­ing to hap­pen this fall won’t help with that steep chal­lenge,” she added.

Steep in­deed. It sounds some­thing like a cliff.

COM­ING SAT­UR­DAY: Why I chose to at­tend Bay­lor de­spite the sex­ual as­sault scan­dal. Can't wait? Read it online at dal­las­news.com/opin­ion.

Ruth Gra­ham is a contributor to Slate, which first pub­lished this col­umn. Email: ru­gra­ham2 @gmail.com

File Photo

Pa­per cutouts near Bay­lor Univer­sity’s stu­dent cen­ter on Jan. 30 rep­re­sent 52 acts of rape be­tween 2011 and 2014 al­leged in a law­suit. Now the univer­sity has named its first woman pres­i­dent.

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