Content warning: This article discusses issues of sexual assault involving current and former Wesleyan students, faculty and staff.
It has been more than 24 hours since keys were due to ResLife for all who aren’t seniors or people who are working for senior week. Campus is much quieter and there are 96% fewer parents on campus today than there were yesterday.
In anticipation of the frenzy of move out day, a collection of students have taken this time to bring light to some of the issues surrounding cases of sexual assault at Wesleyan. At several prominent locations around campus (Music House, Community Engagement House, WestCo, and Hewitt), banners were hung reading “Reject Sexual Predators Emboldened by Institutional Power.”
These banners evoke the posters from February that similarly called to “reject sexual predators.” These posters had the names and faces of three Wesleyan professors (Michael McAlear, David Schorr, and Andrew Curran) that have been named in accounts of sexual harassment of students and other faculty members.
Last week’s news of Scott Backer‘s arrest was troubling to so many in the greater Wesleyan community and renewed calls for greater transparency and more avenues for justice in the sexual misconduct judicial process. Two survivor support circles open to both survivors and others were organized last week, one on Monday night and another on Tuesday night. During these support circles, Scott Backer’s mugshot was projected onto walls of Olin and North College (see image below). Many shared accounts of lack of care for survivors on the part of the administration. In both circles, several students reiterated the need for student action to bring about accountability.
Saturday’s banners and campaign seem to be directed specifically to parents on move-out day, and focused on Wesleyan’s handling of reported incidents of sexual harassment by faculty members. A flyer that was distributed to parents retold the story of a student account of sexual harassment by a faculty member that originally appeared in a 2012 Wesleying post entitled “Wesleyan is Great, Unless a Professor Sexually Harasses You.” The flyer states:
Tenured professors are difficult to fire and a media storm on administrator or faculty predation is a nightmare. So the administration does not prioritize student safety when students explicitly express feeling threatened, instead suppressing accounts and demanding confidentiality. We know that student and faculty complaints do not necessarily lead to serious investigations, and so we are asking parents to call administrators and demand that these issues be addressed so that we don’t have any more incidents like Scott Backer.
In addition to calling attention to administrative neglect of stories of harassment in the faculty, the flyer also addressed administrative mishandlings of the student judicial and reporting processes. On the back of the flyer, an account compiled by Karmenife Paulino ’15 details how Scott Backer and other committee members allowed testimonies about a rapist’s character during a sexual assault hearing, a violation of Wesleyan’s policies. The account is part of a larger campaign started by Karmenife called #exposewes, in which she collects submissions from survivors who believe their case was mishandled at Wesleyan:
— Lisaspliffson (@Lisaspliffson) May 16, 2017
Since last Monday’s news, several other alumni have also been sharing stories on social media of administrative mishandling of sexual misconduct hearings during the time in which Scott Backer was overseeing Title IX and sexual misconduct judicial processes.
In the wake of the news of Scott Backer’s arrest, the Wesleyan Artifex published an anonymous account from a survivor that drew parallels between the administrative treatment of their perpetrator and the administration’s sidelining of survivors’ accounts of Scott Backer’s gross mishandling of their reporting process:
Both my rapist and Scott Backer are men empowered by systems that encourage their violent misogyny. Both men were empowered by the dangerous negligence of the Administration.
Certainly, there is still a widespread lack of trust in administrative reporting and judicial channels. While the consultation from the Victim Rights Law Center brought light to this lack of trust and other important shortcomings in the current setup, kitab‘s analysis of the report is still relevant and shows that building adequate reporting policies and structures will take time and genuine effort on the part of the administration:
The suggestion is that students work better with the administration, be nicer, use a toolkit made by people with more effective strategies. To me, this kind of recommendation indicates a failure to take at least some students seriously, as well as fundamental ideological differences. Many of the student activists I know have very little faith in administrative solutions; if they are interested in restorative justice models, it’s usually not as a supplement to official processes. These “support mechanisms” for student activists seem designed to suppress actions that the administration doesn’t want, in favor of more acceptable forms of activism in line with Wesleyan’s image.
Overall, I think the VRLC’s recommendations are relatively good. Certainly, our investigation and adjudication processes should be more clearly defined and that information should be accessible. People should be better trained to do their jobs within the system. Still, reports like this are more or less in keeping with standard administrative lines on these issues: more transparency, more input, better organization. The administration tends to pat itself on the back for willingness to change, before soliciting help from student and faculty committees to enact that change.
And, while this consultation was a direct result of student action and anger, it still feels as though these recommendations are immaterial and not being acted upon. Despite the recommendation from VRLC that Antonio Farias give up his title as Title IX officer to Debbie Colucci, he is still listed as the Title IX officer in numerous places on the Wesleyan website and seems not to have ceded this position. Further, with so many accounts from current students and alumni surfacing on social media of mishandling of their hearing and reporting process during the tenure of Scott Backer, the declaration that Pepper Hamilton found “nothing amiss” in the review of years worth of case files still rings hollow.
To me, these words from our October post “Beyond Scott Backer: Accountability at Wesleyan in the Sexual Misconduct Judicial Process” still hold truth, especially in light of the Wesleyan community’s response to the news of Scott Backer’s arrest:
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.
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.
The remaining structural problems in the sexual misconduct judicial process for both students and faculty seem to be a large reason why student activists continue to take action outside of administrative channels, preferring to speak with parents and prospective students directly on this issue.
Here are images of the banners that were hung around campus and the flyer that was distributed to students and their families:
For further reading:
- [CONTENT WARNING] Scott Backer Arrested in West Hartford for Soliciting Minor on Yik Yak
- Posters Call to Reject Sexual Predators
- University Plans to Conduct Title IX Assessment with Victim Rights Law Center
- Responding to the Victim Rights Law Center’s Report on Wesleyan’s Title IX Policies
- Prefrosh Open House: A Day of Student Protest
- Beyond Scott Backer: Accountability at Wesleyan in the Sexual Misconduct Judicial Process
- Fisk Posters Call Out Administration
- From the Argus: “Letter to the Editor: Faculty Sexual Harassment Cases Require Independent Review” (10/31/2016)
- From the Hartford Courant: “Wesleyan Settles Professor’s Sexual Harassment Lawsuit” (9/14/2016)
- From the Argus: “Professor Files Complaint Against University in Federal Court” (2/26/2016)
- Here’s How the Administration Treats Students with Emotional Support Animals
- Wesleyan Is Great, Unless a Professor Sexually Harasses You