By Keira Feldman, Religion Dispatches
“… the investigation consisted of “sort of announc[ing] to people, ‘Here’s what Marc [Ellis]’s guilty of. Now tell us what you know about him.’”
The rabbi began, “I have a special blessing-slash-prayer for Judge Starr.”
Early September 2010: fresh from a five-year stint as Dean of Pepperdine Law School, Baylor University’s newly anointed president Ken Starr celebrated the High Holidays with his Jewish colleagues. A former federal judge, though best known as independent counsel overseeing the Whitewater investigation and the Monica Lewinsky affair, Starr’s name is often accompanied by “Clinton nemesis,” or “yes, that Ken Starr.”
Here was a conservative, evangelical Christian taking the helm of a Baptist school at a Days of Awe-themed luncheon at Baylor’s Center for Jewish Studies. Starr’s host at this portrait of pluralism was Professor Marc Ellis, renowned Jewish theologian and vociferous critic of both Israeli policy and the American Jewish establishment.
“May you live to see your world fulfilled,” the rabbi continued, smiling at Starr, who sported a silk tie in Baylor’s official colors, green and gold. “May your destiny be for worlds still to come.” By the next Rosh Hashanah, in the fall of 2011, the Starr administration had stripped Marc Ellis of his teaching duties and effectively shuttered his Center for Jewish Studies. An internal Baylor University investigation was underway, the charges cloaked in secrecy.
Ellis, a tenured professor described as “deeply thoughtful and courageous” by the late Edward Said, will face a three-day dismissal hearing this March. Speaking on condition of anonymity, several faculty members with firsthand knowledge of the proceedings confirm that Ellis is being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct (or “misuses of God’s gift” as the faculty handbook has it). According to Baylor policy, misconduct is defined as “sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest, adultery, fornication, and homosexual acts.” And so Ken Starr enters his golden years.
It’s unclear what exactly Ellis is on trial for, as neither Baylor nor Ellis would comment on the record about the nature of the charges. (One clue: no criminal charges have been filed against Ellis.) Roger Sanders, Ellis’ lawyer, says Baylor’s lawyers told him the internal process mandates nondisclosure, though Baylor spokesperson Lori Fogleman disputes this, telling RD that the charges can only be released with Ellis’ written permission.
Sanders says the investigation hinges on “bogus allegations.” One can only hope the result will not be another 336-page Starr Report—the $40 million product of the independent counsel’s four-year investigation, for which the beleaguered Monica Lewinsky was interrogated over 20 times. “‘You’re a pervert, Ken Starr,’” Lewinsky’s father once said he’d like to tell the former independent counsel.
In late November Cornel West, feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and other luminaries launched a change.org petition addressed to Starr, which has thus far gathered over 5,000 signatures. The petition asserts that the controversy “looks more and more like a persecution to silence a Jewish voice of dissent.”
“The charges,” reads a petition update, “are about ‘abuse of authority.’…Many of us were contacted several times by institutional lawyers who tried to persuade us to tell them examples of ‘abuse of authority’ he has exercised.”
According to Sanders, the investigation consisted of “sort of announc[ing] to people, ‘Here’s what Marc’s guilty of. Now tell us what you know about him.’” Fogleman claims no knowledge of the investigation’s procedures and declined to recommend officials who could answer questions about it.
As Ellis sees it, Starr, who “holds unassailable credentials in the American evangelical community,” has launched the investigation in order to replace him with “a different kind of Jew”—namely, “a right-wing, Israel-loving Jew that would cement [Starr’s] reputation with the right wing, like [Alan] Dershowitz.” (Fogleman says Starr has nothing to do with the investigation, which itself has “no relationship” to “Dr. Ellis’ positions on Israel and Palestine.”)*
Building the Tabernacle in the Midst of Sinai
In November, during an American Academy of Religion panel honoring his work, Ellis noted that in his thirteen years at Baylor, previous presidents “were protective.” Ellis was their token dissident. “Taking me down is a signal of what the Administration can do,” he told RD. “If President Starr intends to remake Baylor in his own image, I will be his first public academic freedom test.”
Sanders claims that the Starr administration has singled Ellis out. “They have treated Christians differently than they have treated Jews,” he said. In order to address this allegation Ellis has recently filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the Baylor administration alleging anti-Semitism. In his writings, Ellis has long put forward a two-pronged argument: anti-Semitism still exists, and it is not anti-Semitic to speak out against what he terms “Constantinian Judaism”—Jews in America, Israel, and elsewhere who are “intent on enabling empire [and] collud[ing] with other powers to keep everything as it is.”
Baylor’s spokesperson said that she’s not aware of any EEOC complaint filed by Ellis. Asked to comment on Sanders’ allegation of disparate treatment, Fogleman laughed a moment, followed by “Oh gosh. Um.” After a 10-second pause, she said she’s unsure whether she’s “in a position to be able to characterize anything like that.” She then asked for the question to be repeated and paused another 10 seconds before returning to the script, calling Baylor an “open institution.” (As a private university, Baylor maintains policies against hiring Muslims, gays and lesbians, Mormons and anyone who is not a Jew or a Christian by Baylor’s definition. In a recent Washington Post op-ed titled “Can I Vote for a Mormon?” Starr concluded he would not use church attendance as a litmus test this November.)
“With Ken Starr as the president now, Baylor is really looking to clean house,” one faculty member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RD. “Finally they have a president who is accessible to the broader business community and can bring in lots of money.” In his first year at Baylor, Starr raised nearly $35 million of the $100 million 3-year goal he’d set upon arrival.
“This has been very biblical,” Starr boasted to the Texas Tribune in September 2011. “How did the ancient Israelites build the tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai? Well, they all pitched in.” Starr is said to roam the grandstand at football games, imploring spectators to donate to Baylor Nation, the school’s alumni fund. In a region defined by its generations-old football rivalries, a decade ago Baylor was a disgrace, widely seen as an unworthy member of the Big 12, a conference that includes Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas.
But today, Baylor’s star is on the rise. In April, the Big 12 schools signed a television contract with Fox Sports worth over $1 billion. Over the summer, Starr met with architects and drew up plans for a new $250 million football stadium. At the moment Baylor is the only Big 12 school lacking its own on-campus facilities. In December, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III won the Heisman trophy, college football’s top honor. “I know my role,” Starr told the New York Times. “Keep the donors and alumni happy.” Thanks to the Heisman, Starr noted, “People’s levels of happiness is already manifesting itself in gifts.”
“I think there is big money behind it,” hypothesized another faculty member. “I don’t think the [local] Jewish community is driving this—like ‘get rid of Ellis and we’ll give you money’—but I do think it would open up possibilities.” Remaking Ellis’ Center for Jewish Studies into a “pro-Israel” center, the faculty member added, could help Baylor attract grants and donations at a national level. “Marc is just in the way.” Given the growing popularity of Christian Zionism in the U.S., it’s just as likely, if not moreso, that conservative Christian donations might be easier to elicit with Ellis out of the way.
According to Baylor’s policy for tenured faculty, grounds for dismissal include: “Failure to perform assigned University duties in a competent manner”; “Repeated failure to comply with University policies”; “Gross abuse of trust in faculty-student relationship”; or “Misconduct involving moral turpitude, conduct constituting a felony under state or federal law, intemperance in the use of alcoholic beverages or use of illicit drugs, or other conduct clearly inconsistent with the standard of conduct generally expected of a teacher in a university sponsored by Baptists.”
Baylor’s sexual misconduct policy advises that faculty members are to be treated in a “redemptive manner,” with “constructive forgiveness” underlying all proceedings. “Here’s where the hypocrisy comes in,” noted one faculty member. “Certain people will find redemption [from Baylor]—and others will not.”
The American Association of University Professors, a de facto union, is not pleased with Baylor’s actions and believes the administration may be denying Ellis due process. RD has acquired a redacted letter addressed to Ken Starr from Gregory Scholtz, the director of the AAUP’s department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance. Dated December 15, 2011, the letter notes that Baylor’s suspension of Ellis prior to “a final decision by the hearing committee” is a violation of AAUP regulations. (Baylor’s spokesperson claims no knowledge of the AAUP letter.) In an email, Scholtz told RD that Baylor provost Elizabeth Davis did respond to the AAUP on December 22, 2011. “Without getting into detail, I can say that the Baylor administration has chosen not to accept the position that we set forth.”
Similarly, on February 6th, the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) released a statement expressing “grave concern” that Ellis’ “removal from his teaching and administrative duties without a hearing…may be motivated by Professor Ellis’ views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
While noting that the information was based on information provided “primarily” by Ellis, the AAUP letter provides a timeline for the Starr administration’s investigation. On March 4, 2011, it says, a Baylor faculty member filed an unspecified complaint “against Professor Ellis (now settled) resulting in an investigation by the administration and its offering him a ‘tenure buy out,’ which he declined. We understand, further, that on November 16, four months after the July 15 notification, the chair of the Faculty Dismissal Committee notified Professor Ellis that the administration was seeking his dismissal.”
Ellis’ lawyer declined to discuss the nature of the complaint, but he did note that the female faculty member who filed it was “a former close friend of Marc’s.” According to Sanders, Ellis tried to intervene in a dispute between the woman and members of a student group, an effort that backfired. As Sanders tells it, the resulting bad blood led the faculty member to file a complaint against Ellis—which the Starr administration then used as a pretext to open a freewheeling investigation. Ellis added, “They are exaggerating the charges to the point where they don’t even believe it.” (Neither the faculty member nor her lawyer responded to requests for comment. Furthermore, Baylor would not say whether the school had received permission from the woman to release the charges.)
In a speech at the American Academy of Religion in November, Cornel West said the academic climate of the past half-century has been one in which a “prophetic figure” like Ellis has been underappreciated and marginalized. “When the chilly effects of the Ice Age, with its hardened hearts and coarsened consciences, begin to melt, his work will surface in a powerful way,” West intoned. “They will say, ‘Brother Marc Ellis was our friend, he was our truth-teller, he was our witness-bearer.’” And they may also say he followed in Clinton’s footsteps.
“Why did all of this have to happen?” Starr told author Ken Gormley years after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, recalling his feelings as he watched the impeachment proceedings on TV. “Why did we get to where we are? This is all so unnecessary.”
Ultimately, the Clinton investigation sullied Starr’s reputation and effectively nixed his lifelong dream of serving on the Supreme Court. (A small consolation may have come two weeks ago when Starr presided over a mock Supreme Court session at the University of Houston.) A fifth generation Texan who paid his college tuition by very successfully selling bibles door-to-door (“He was so personable and so likable,” remembered a co-salesman), Starr has returned home to the Lone Star state. At Baylor University, on the banks of the Brazos River, on a campus endowed with its own bear sanctuary, Judge Starr reigns supreme. In all likelihood he will have the final say over Marc Ellis’ future.