In June The Boston Globe contacted Wesleyan administrators with disturbing news. The Globe was investigating private secondary schools that gave good job recommendations to staff members who were fired for sexual harassment or abuse, enabling them to secure positions elsewhere. Scott Backer, then an associate dean in the Office of Student Affairs, was a target of the investigation by the Globe.
Backer had come to Wesleyan from Vermont Academy in 2007 with positive letters of rec- ommendation, which were subsequently con rmed in reference check calls. Wesleyan administrators had no hint that Vermont Academy had red him for lewd texting one of its students, who later sued Backer in a civil proceeding. Backer had disclosed none of this, either at the time of his hiring or when the suit was led in 2010. Upon learning that he had taken a position at Wesleyan under false pretenses, Wesleyan immediately red him.
“The first thing I asked when we heard this was, ‘How did we hire this guy?’ and ‘How did we never hear?’” Roth said. “I want to make sure this is clear—no one in the admin- istration—I’ll speak first for myself—thinks it’s appropriate that someone with that sort of history would be in the job. We did look, but we didn’t find what we should have, because people actively concealed it.”
Backer held a sensitive position for nine years. He helped to manage the process for handling sexual assault cases and served on disciplinary panels with other administrators and faculty, as part of a system of checks and balances that includes opportunities for appeal. He was never accused of any sexual impropriety at Wesleyan, but many of the cases involved sexual assault and Title IX matters, which presented the administration with an immediate and pressing question: Had Backer mishandled any cases? Wesleyan engaged Pepper Hamilton, a well-regarded law rm with a substantial practice in Title IX cases, to conduct a review. The firm had unfettered access to everything regarding the per- tinent cases, and after a two-month review of three years of cases, concluded that there was no evidence of mishandling.
At the conclusion of the review in August, the administration was faced with another ques- tion: when to release this news. If the investigation into Backer’s behavior at Wesleyan had shown any improprieties, Wesleyan would have immediately informed the campus community. Given that was not the case, President Roth concluded that Wesleyan would set a poor precedent by disclosing Backer’s ring and the reasons for it—a precedent that could have rami cations well beyond the immediate issue. Knowing that the Globe would publish its article, he chose to wait so that Wesleyan could respond to it and avoid setting that precedent. Roth has spoken openly about the di culty of making that decision.
Reaction from students following publication of the article was swift and highly critical. Wesleyan Argus editors-in-chief Erica DeMichiel ’17 and Jenny Davis ’17 wrote on Oct. 5, “Students have criticized the university’s failure to divulge this information immediately, as well as what they argue is the administration’s ongoing failure to adequately reform sexual assault policy and address the issue of sexual assault on campus.”
In the same article the editors reported that about 200 students and some faculty had gathered to discuss the matter, calling for both President Roth and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion/Title IX O cer Antonio Farias to step down.
Subsequently, students staged a series of protests during one of the annual Admission open houses. The actions included interruption of admission tours and a protest of a talk by President Roth to prospective students and families, according to Argus reports.
Asked by Argus editors to respond to survivors of sexual assault who are upset over the revelations regarding Backer, Roth said: “I think that dealing with the a ermath of sexual violence is hard enough, and the worst part of this episode with Scott Backer is that we are adding to the anguish that they feel. That’s one of the things I most regret about the current situation.”
Like many colleges and universities, Wesleyan has made extensive changes to its procedures and policies regarding sexual assault and Title IX in recent years, including the hiring of Farias as Title IX officer. Roth has underscored the importance of supporting survivors of sexual assault and assuring a timely hearing of complaints, but he has equally stressed the importance of having a process that’s fair to all parties. Wesleyan continues to improve its e orts to address this vital issue.
He also issued an apology in a campus-wide e-mail: “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 red 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.”
For further information and ongoing coverage, see wesleyanargus.com. Information about Wesleyan’s policies and procedures regarding sexual assault and Title IX is available on the Equity & Inclusion website at wesleyan.edu/inclusion.