This article has been the collaborative effort of kitab, Maya, and wilk.
Last night, the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe published the latest installment in their “Private Schools, Painful Secrets” series detailing New England private schools’ repeated mishandling of reports of sexual misconduct and assault involving administrators. The Globe article, titled “Educators accused of sexual misconduct often find new posts,” exposed more explicitly that one of these administrators turned out to be Wesleyan’s own former Associate Dean of Students, Scott Backer.
The Globe team focuses on how the lack of public accountability at private schools allows offenders to “rewrite their pasts,” going on to hold positions at other institutions. Administrations keep quiet to avoid scandal, more concerned with image than the wellbeing of their own and other students. The article makes little mention of our own administration, however.
Interested in structures of accountability at Wesleyan, we looked into the timeline of Backer’s employment and his role in the institutional structures already in place for reporting and adjudicating sexual misconduct. What we found suggests that there are very few processes by which student and faculty complaints about administrative conduct can be heard or taken seriously.
That Wesleyan employed an offender for eight years–despite accounts from students that he was not doing his job properly–and then failed to be transparent about his “departure” from the university is an example of a broader pattern. The problem is larger than Scott Backer.
First, let’s review the Spotlight article. As the team wrote,
“Officials at several schools that unwittingly hired teachers with a history of misconduct allegations were dismayed, when contacted by Globe reporters, to learn of their staffers’ pasts. A Wesleyan spokeswoman, Lauren Rubenstein, said administrators had no idea that its associate dean of students, Scott Backer, had been dismissed by Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vt., in 2007 and later sued by the former student whom he allegedly propositioned. The case was settled out of court in 2011.
“Had we been aware of this, Mr. Backer never would have been hired,’’ Rubenstein told the Globe in an e-mail in July. She added that Backer had received letters of recommendation from two deans at Vermont Academy and its athletic director.
Hours after the Globe inquired about Backer’s past, Wesleyan fired him and promptly hired a law firm to review about eight years of misconduct hearings that Backer participated in. The review concluded he handled those hearings properly, according to Wesleyan. Backer did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Stanley Colla, the recently appointed interim head of Vermont Academy, said the 2007 recommendations were “unauthorized letters’’ but declined to elaborate.”
Scott Backer had been a presence on Wesleyan’s campus for almost ten years before his departure over the summer. After being fired from Vermont Academy in 2007, he was hired almost immediately by Wesleyan for the 2007-2008 school year as the Assistant Dean of Student Services. Since this was apparently only a year-long appointment, in July 2008, the university changed his position to “a permanent appointment as Assistant Director of Student Life [who] will continue to work directly with the Student Judicial Board and also assist the Dean of Students with co-curricular programming initiatives.”
So, Backer had already been at Wesleyan for three years when he was sued in 2010 by a former Vermont Academy student for the sexual misconduct which led to his firing from VA three years prior. Somehow, while still working at Wesleyan, he managed to attend settlement hearings in Boston until the case’s final settlement in 2011, all while the administration remained ignorant of their dean’s involvement in a sexual misconduct lawsuit.
Two years later, in August of 2012, Backer was appointed as the Interim Associate Dean of Student Academic Resources. For the 2013-2014 school year, he then assumed his most recent position as Associate Dean of Students, which he held until this past year. As far as we know, it was in 2012 that Backer began overseeing Title IX cases.
On May 6, the Boston Globe published the first of several pieces in its “Private Schools, Painful Secrets” series. In a dropdown menu embedded in the text of the article, readers could view cases and allegations by selecting a school. Unless you were looking through every one of the dozens of lawsuits linked in the dropdown menu, you wouldn’t have found any names. On selecting “Vermont Academy,” Backer is referred to only as “an adviser and teacher at the school.”
Yet in the lawsuit, which is hyperlinked as the blurb’s source, the name of the defendant is no secret.
The Globe’s second piece in the series, “The Unexpected Price of Reporting Abuse: Retaliation,” was published on July 21 (after Backer had already been fired) and offered a similar dropdown menu but still did not mention Scott Backer by name as the defendant in question.
Based on the information we’ve gathered, details of Backer’s past only came to light at Wesleyan in June after reporters at the Globe contacted the administration to ask about their knowledge of his misconduct at Vermont Academy. Nevertheless, the administration waited four months to be transparent with students, faculty, and alumni about the reasons for which he was fired. The first direct news of Backer’s firing came to students missing this piece of information, despite that the administration was aware of the situation and of the fact that sooner than later, the Globe would be publishing their findings, directly linking Scott Backer to VA and Wesleyan.
Yesterday’s article suggests that Backer was fired within hours of receiving the Globe’s questions. Throughout the summer, however, Wesleyan administrators made reference only to Backer’s “departure.” A July 6 Wesleyan blog post lists Backer with fourteen other employees leaving the university. In an all-campus email titled “Staff Changes in Student Affairs” sent out on August 3, Dean of Students Rick Culliton said only the following:
“I’m writing to let you know about several staff changes taking place in Student Affairs this summer. Scott Backer, who had served as the Associate Dean of Students, left his position in June and we are currently interviewing candidates to fill this important position in my office. The search committee is enthusiastic about the finalists and we are working with a number of students who are on campus this summer and are meeting with the candidates during campus visits. We hope to have this position filled by the beginning of the academic year and will update the community as the process moves forward.”
Only this morning were we explicitly informed of the reason Backer “left.” Though it contains no mention of yesterday’s article, Dean Whaley’s most recent email to faculty, staff and students on campus references Backer’s termination from Vermont Academy for “inappropriate conduct,” confirming the Globe’s story:
This was the first time that Wesleyan learned of this matter. As part of the hiring process, Wesleyan received positive reviews of Mr. Backer in written references from and phone interviews with senior administrators at Vermont Academy. Likewise, no information was revealed in the background check. Had we been aware of this information, Mr. Backer never would have been hired.
So now what? Backer has been replaced by his predecessor, Dean Kevin Butler, who was rehired by the university in August to fill the vacant position and now holds the title of “Associate Dean of Student Life.” But does Backer’s departure change the painful reality of students and faculty navigating the sexual misconduct judicial process?
The structures in place at Wesleyan for reporting sexual assault or misconduct are labyrinthine at best — while researching how to report these kinds of conduct violations, we found the university website(s) to be out of date in several instances. The page naming the chairs and tri-chairs of various Title IX committees is out of date, still listing Nikita Rajgopal ‘17 as the SART intern (currently Lex Spirtes ‘17) and Claire Wright ‘16 as a chair on the Student Advisory Committee. The health services assault reporting form still lists Scott Backer as one of the deans to report to (as of 10/2/2016). Many of the links in the ‘newly redesigned’ Student Affairs website that purport to have more information are broken.
Information about the Office of Equity and Inclusion can be found in two different places within wesleyan.edu—equity.wesleyan.edu was created in May 2016, supposedly to consolidate this information and provide a source for timely updates from the OEI, but most information about the OEI staff and responsibilities is still hosted at wesleyan.edu/inclusion.
Information overload aside, if you want to report an incident, you have essentially three options: report the incident to the Middletown Police Department, with or without assistance from Public Safety, take your report through the administration, or report online anonymously, which does not result in an investigation but does include the report in “Wesleyan data.”
As outlined in this flowchart, you may file a detailed report to any class dean (all SART trained), any dean in the Office of the Dean of Students, Title IX Officer, Antonio Farias; or Public Safety. Filing a detailed report and pursuing sexual assault charges against another student can result in a judicial hearing with an administrative panel [“rather than by the SJB (a change in policy that occurred in spring 2008)”] composed of two male and two female administrators, one of whom is always a representative of the Office of the Dean of Students (Rick Culliton or Scott Backer) to ensure that protocol and procedure is followed.”
There is an online formal incident reporting form through which you can report a variety of shit, including sexual assault or misconduct. A dropdown menu allows you to select the type of incident you’re reporting, and sexual assault/misconduct likely falls under either “Title IX Gender-Based Sexual Misconduct” or “Non-Academic Conduct.” This reporting form requires a host of details about your perpetrator, including their WesID number, and “as much detail as possible” in the incident description. To list the name of your perpetrator, under “Involved Parties,” you would presumably put their name in the “Subject” field, indicating that they are the subject of your complaint.
A complaint eventually gets to either the Dean of Students or the Assistant Dean of Students, i.e. Dean Rick or Dean Backer (now Dean Butler). Whoever receives the complaint becomes the one to mediate between the complainant and respondent, while the other dean serves on the administrative panel in order to ensure that protocol and procedure is followed. This protocol and procedure, according to the Student Handbook, is outlined in “the Code and the Discriminatory Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy” with the following exceptions:
A respondent will not be permitted to read statements submitted to the dean’s office until his/her own statement has been submitted. The student will be provided with information related to the alleged violation to have sufficient notice and understanding of the charge(s) to be able to respond.
(a) A respondent will not be permitted to read statements submitted to the dean’s office until his/her own statement has been submitted. The student will be provided with information related to the alleged violation to have sufficient notice and understanding of the charge(s) to be able to respond.
(b) A student bringing a complaint of sexual misconduct or assault may participate in a hearing without physically appearing before the board through the use of speakerphone or via similar means. Alternatively, the complainant may be present in the same room, but shielded by a screen from the respondent.
(c) The respondent and the complainant will not be permitted to directly question one another in the hearing; however, each is permitted to submit questions they would like the panel to consider asking during the hearing. Questions must be submitted to the Office of the Dean of Students by the end of the business day prior to the hearing. Each student will be provided an opportunity to make an opening statement, present witnesses, answer questions from the Administrative Panel, and make a closing statement.
(d) Both students will be informed of the outcome of the hearing and those sanctions which are relevant to the complainant, as determined by the dean of student’s office.
(e) Both parties will be provided an opportunity to appeal the decision of the Administrative Panel to the vice president for student affairs based on the following grounds:
- Violation of fair process
- New evidence that was not reasonably available at the time of the hearing
- Procedural error (if the error adversely affected the outcome of the hearing)
The grounds for appeal are particularly noteworthy, because, as it currently stands, the only recourse one has if one feels a case has been mishandled is to appeal, which involves prolonging what is already a difficult and painful process. It is not clear what constitutes a violation of “fair process,” and if that includes failure to follow exceptions (a) through (d) listed above. It’s also unclear what if any proof is required to call for an appeal on any of these grounds. Finally, it seems to suggest that an appeal is only granted if procedural error (which may or may not be distinct from “fair process”) might have changed the outcome of the hearing. As I read it, this means that, were I to file a complaint, and, say, be forced to sit in a room with my assailant, my only grounds for appeal–again, a process that would require me to repeatedly explain my assault–would be if that encounter potentially changed the outcome of the hearing.
In this morning’s email, Dean Whaley reassures us that Backer’s tenure at Wesleyan has not affected any of the cases he was involved with:
As you may be aware, in his position here at Wesleyan, Mr. Backer managed case flow for student conduct cases. He served on, and frequently led hearing panels. Wesleyan has in place a system of checks and balances (other team members, panel members, and appeal rights) to ensure all cases are adjudicated fairly and properly. In an abundance of caution, we engaged Pepper Hamilton, a nationally renowned firm with expertise in campus discipline and Title IX issues to conduct a review of cases handled by Mr. Backer. The auditors completed their review and reported no concerning issues or impropriety.
For many of us, ourselves included, this is hard to believe. Informal student accounts attest to Backer’s failure to follow procedure when it comes to, say, preventing victim-blaming. Such failures make the already difficult (and very possibly traumatic) experience of reporting one’s experience of assault or harassment even worse. There is also a history of Backer being incompetent and not following procedure on non-Title IX-related issues. Perhaps the strangest account of Backer’s irresponsibility, however, is the following paragraph from a 2014 lawsuit filed against Wesleyan, in which plaintiff John Doe sued the university for failing to provide him with an “expected standard of due process” during judicial procedures regarding allegations of sexual misconduct made by three different Wesleyan students. Citing the university’s desire to make him into a “sacrificial lamb” and claiming that his reputation was ruined because of these misconduct charges, John Doe and his lawyers explain in the body of the lawsuit that Scott Backer falsely represented the seriousness of his case, leading him to believe that he could still participate in WSA meetings.
Backer’s dismissal of the seriousness of John Doe’s transgressions is especially troublesome given the information indicating that he himself has a history of promoting and perpetrating online harassment, sending “lewd texts” to his victim at Vermont Academy. An additional irony: the only reason we have a public record of Backer’s comments is that a perpetrator of sexual harassment, upset that he faced any retribution for his actions, sued the university for, for once, attempting to do its job.
Again, trivializing harassment is not a problem limited to Backer. In an interview with Wesleying published last February, survivor Karmenife Paulino-Arias ‘15 called attention to the administration’s patronization, specifically calling out Dean Farias and Dean Rick. On the North College staff, she said,
“I really just think that they should all be gone. In order for it to be a safe space there are all these changes that need to be made, and I don’t see them. Until the administration really starts – wait, no, until some people in North College are fucking out of here, like Dean Rick [Culliton], Dean [Antonio] Farias – like the fact that he’s the director of title IX is so fucking scary to me. I tell survivors all the time, if you have to meet with him, bring somebody. Bring somebody because if you’re alone with him, he will dead ass patronize you and ridicule you, and victim blame you. He told me that if anything happens to anyone in Eclectic it’s my fault! He said that to me. And then I told him that he didn’t give a fuck about rape survivors, and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘It’s funny you say that, because we are the ones who expelled your rapist, so if anything you should learn to be grateful.’”
So. Where do we go from here?
Should we dispute Pepper Hamilton’s findings? Should we fight to reopen all the cases? Not necessarily. Given the issues at every level of the judicial structure, more hearings won’t necessarily improve matters. What’s clear, though, is that there is very little in place to ensure that procedure and protocol are followed, which is to say that the Dean or Assistant Dean of Students–whoever fills those roles–is doing their job.
There doesn’t appear to be any process by which procedural error can be reported other than appealing the decision. Even if such processes exist, information about them isn’t available, which effectively prevents complainants from making use of them. That an appeal would be made, not to mention granted, seems unlikely given what we know about reporting statistics at all, which means that most procedural violations are probably not even recorded, much less followed up on. If and when appeals are made, there’s no guarantee that those appeals would be any less painful for survivors than the original proceedings.
Undergraduate students aren’t the only ones suffering from this lack of accountability. Many of the links on the various Wesleyan web pages link to the “One Policy: Discriminatory Harassment and Sexual Misconduct” document, which suggests that the University is at least attempting to treat sexual misconduct similarly among students, faculty, and staff alike. However, the flowchart for sexual misconduct against faculty members is unclear and also doesn’t match the description in the faculty handbook. It’s not clear to us how similar this is to the process for students, not to mention grad students, who aren’t mentioned at all. The convoluted nature and opacity of these processes are hugely problematic, as is the difficulty of forming support and information networks. The possible differences between the way faculty, graduate and undergraduate cases are treated further precludes such networks. If we as a community seek greater accountability, we have to be able to talk to each other about our experiences with the administration, regardless of our relationship to the university.
In the midst of our frustration, we find ourselves remembering the words of Karmenife:
I want to show people that if you, if everybody just started taking the time to do this shit, to ask questions and really start holding people accountable – so much would change. The whole onus for change would no longer be resting on the shoulders of the people who are suffering from this. I was a survivor, and having to be the one to always call people out… all the shit that I did last year like the speak outs, the flyers, meetings with Roth, meeting with Farias; even though those were issues I was passionate about, those weren’t necessarily things I wanted to do. I didn’t want to speak with Roth. I didn’t feel comfortable at the speak outs, I did not feel like telling a whole fucking lot of people about everything that happened to me. I don’t like hosting all that shit about Eclectic everyday on my Facebook page. I don’t like doing this shit – but I do it because I have to; because who else is going to do it? Who else is going to hold these people accountable?
On the institution’s terms, there isn’t a way for us to hold them accountable. What we can do, however, is think structurally. We can follow Karmenife’s lead and make sure that survivors aren’t the only ones asking questions and demanding answers. We can go to the town hall meeting on Tuesday and keep thinking critically about who runs Wes. We can remember: it’s not just Scott Backer.
Editor’s note: The comments section of this post will remain enabled, but the Wesleying comments policy stands. Comments with direct personal attacks and/or naming students directly involved in these cases whose identities are not already public record will be promptly removed and the user banned. If you have any further comments or concerns, please email editors[at]wesleying.org
[This comment policy was edited on 10/2/16 at 7:35PM by kitab to reflect that some identities we chose not to disclose are already public record. This update was discussed and agreed upon by editors.]