President Roth Emails an Empty Apology to Wesleyan Community for Hiring Scott Backer, Misses the Point

I really don’t think there’s “nothing amiss.”

mroth

Yesterday, President Michael S. Roth posted about the revelation that former Associate Dean of Students Scott Backer had been fired from Vermont Academy in 2007 for sexual harassment and misconduct, as exposed in a Boston Globe article published Saturday night. Then, this afternoon, he sent out an email announcement to all members of the Wesleyan campus community realizing that he had never apologized for the situation.

With a subject line reading “An Apology,” Roth’s email expressed guilt and a feeling of responsibility for Backer’s presence at Wesleyan, but both in his original blog post and in his subsequent email, it’s obvious Roth hasn’t really been listening to what students, faculty, staff, and alumni have been saying (or read our editorial).

Almost hilariously, he limits the scope of our outrage simply to Backer’s initial hiring in 2007 and to his leadership position in university misconduct proceedings, ignoring community concerns about administrative opacity, inefficacy, and general shadiness. So I have some stuff to say about his blog post and so-called “apology.”

Let’s start with Roth’s original blog post, shall we? He gets to covering the university’s ass in only the second paragraph:

Many are asking why Wesleyan didn’t know about his misconduct when Mr. Backer was hired back in 2007. Upon learning of the Globe‘s investigation, I initiated a review of the hiring process; the background check performed at the time didn’t turn up anything relevant. We have long since strengthened those checks. Of course, no check at the time would have turned up a yet-to-be filed civil lawsuit against Mr. Backer.

A couple questions.

1: If you’ve long since strengthened those checks, why not maybe do background checks on your admins more than only when they’re initially hired?

Having to undergo background checks every five years, for example, isn’t unreasonable, and that would have revealed the lawsuit against Backer and Vermont Academy by 2012, the year he was placed in a position of power in Title IX hearings. I mean, of course you didn’t know about this in 2007, although some Wesleying commenters might disagree. But you could’ve definitely known about it even four years ago.

2: Why didn’t the university disclose anything about his firing before we had to hear about it from the fucking Boston Globe?

I think that yes, many people are asking why Wes didn’t know about Backer’s past, and this question has mostly been answered. He hadn’t been sued yet. Vermont Academy and Backer himself went to great lengths to cover everything up. And?

None of this erases the fact that the administration made explicit decisions to shield students, alumni, and faculty from the truth of your actions until they just couldn’t anymore. Maybe y’all were praying that the Globe article would get buried in our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and we just wouldn’t notice?

Let’s continue:

I should stress, though, that Mr. Backer never had sole authority over cases. He was part of a process involving several people and appropriate balances. Nonetheless, we turned to the law firm Pepper Hamilton, who most consider the best firm in the country for these kinds of issues, to investigate cases with which Mr. Backer was involved. We were very relieved to learn that they found nothing amiss.

Uh?? What the fuck? “Nothing amiss?” Nothing amiss despite that students have been complaining about Scott Backer’s failure to do his job basically since he was hired? 

Also, you mean to tell us that a law firm was able to pore through four years worth of records in two months and decide that everything was chill? Right in time for the school year? I mean, I’m sure they shuffled a bunch of papers and all, but did they contact survivors that had to deal with Backer in that time frame? That couldn’t have happened within two months, let alone yielded a memo that there was “nothing amiss.”

Roth continued, kind of sort of not really trying to answer my second question:

Some have asked why we didn’t make all this public ourselves? Although I did inform the leadership of the Board of Trustees and the Cabinet, after much deliberation I decided that it would have been wrong to discuss publicly why we had fired an employee unless there was a compelling reason to do so. If Pepper-Hamilton had found something problematic in Mr. Backer’s work at Wesleyan, that would have been a reason to bring this to the attention of the campus. Unlike Vermont Academy, Wesleyan has created an employment record that includes termination for cause for Mr. Backer. But I do not think it appropriate to publicly discuss a personnel matter, unless that situation was already made public. That has happened today, which leads me to write now.

Now I have to ask—is eight years of student complaints not enough of a “compelling reason?” Complaints not only about Scott Backer’s performance, but those of Dean Rick Culliton, Dean Antonio Farias, and Dean Mike Whaley alike? Why, precisely, would it have been “wrong to discuss publicly why we had fired an employee” given that they knew this shit was going to come out eventually? The Globe literally contacted them with the premise of running a story. And this was back in June.

Sure, you put the reason for his firing in his employment record, hopefully keeping other institutions from hiring the guy without knowing he sent lewd texts to a then-16-year-old student, but you still didn’t want to tell us about it unless you had to?

Roth’s statement only solidifies a long-held belief that the administration communicates with us on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, despite saying they’re trying their very bestest to be transparent. They have to know how slimy it all looks right now. Openness about the situation from the outset, and taking some form of responsibility for Backer’s presence on campus before this information was published in a major news outlet could at least have made them look less slimy. But for some reason, that’s… not what the administration thought.

So, realizing that some people are maybe not totally on board with his portrayal of these events, within a day of posting his original blog post, President Roth sent an all-campus announcement as follows:

Dear friends,

I’ve been reading comments, blogs, and listening to students who are reacting to the news concerning Scott Backer, former Associate Dean of Students. I realize that in the blog post I wrote yesterday upon returning to campus, I neglected to say the most important thing: I am sorry. I apologize that the university hired someone who had been fired for grossly inappropriate behavior and put him in a position of responsibility for dealing with survivors of sexual assault. The university did not know his past, but we needed to know. We failed at that, and I apologize for the pain this has caused members of our community.

I know conversations will continue about this subject in the days and weeks to come. Student Affairs, CAPS, and the Office of Equity and Inclusion all have resources available.

We can and will do better.

Yours truly,
Michael Roth

This email apology, at least to me, is pretty meaningless. How, precisely, will you “do better”? What, precisely, are the resources available? Are you just going to say “oh, we’re going to change!” until the media frenzy blows over? Administrative statements seem like the equivalent of fixing the drip in your kitchen faucet while ignoring the fact that your house is literally about to crumble.

With a solid eight first-person singulars as well as a self-citation in the second sentence, Roth makes it about him, and fails to address the structural deficits that Backer simply embodied.

Also, the repeated use of the phrase “inappropriate behavior” by you in your blog post and email, and by Dean Whaley in his announcement email is despicable. Inappropriate behavior would be waltzing into your Monday office hours and calling you a bumbling idiot. Why are you all so afraid to use the phrase “predatory harassment” or something that more accurately describes Backer’s conduct?

I’m sure the man is being sincere, but I think this is just another example of administrators saying what they think we want to hear, making promises for some vague kind of change, while failing to acknowledge how irreparably broken everything already is.

  • Oh Please

    Maybe they didn’t tell you immediately because nothing they could have done would have prevented you from bitching with your self righteous faux-outrage.