c/o Commonwealth of Massachusetts

c/o Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Scott Backer, former Associate Dean of Students, was fired by Wesleyan within hours of a press inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct during his time at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, according to a report by The Boston Globe‘s Spotlight Team. Published on Oct. 1, The Globe report details how several private high schools and universities unwittingly hired professors and administrators with a history of sexual misconduct.

In 2007, Backer was dismissed from Vermont Academy after allegedly “propositioning” a 15-year old former student with a multitude of text messages, according to The Globe and court documents. That same year, he was hired by Wesleyan as assistant dean of students. The suit was settled out of court in 2011, before Backer was promoted by Wesleyan over the summer of 2012. In 2014, Backer won a Cardinal Achievement Award for his work completing a federally mandated campus crime report. 

According to Lauren Rubenstein, Wesleyan’s director of communications who is currently on maternity leave, the University had no knowledge of the reasons behind Backer’s dismissal.

“Had we been aware of this, Mr. Backer never would have been hired,’’ Rubenstein wrote to The Globe in an e-mail in July.

Though Vermont Academy fired Backer over allegations of sexual misconduct, two deans from the prep school wrote letters of recommendation supporting him when he applied to Wesleyan. Newly hired interim Head of Vermont Academy Stanley Colla explained that the 2007 endorsements were “unauthorized letters” but refused to elaborate, according to The Globe.

Upon learning from The Globe about Backer’s past, Wesleyan promptly dismissed him.

“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 report from The Globe’s Spotlight team reads. “The review concluded he handled those hearings properly, according to Wesleyan. Backer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.”

According to court documents, the plaintiff in the case against Backer published her interactions with him on Facebook to third parties.

In a blog post published Sunday, President Michael Roth ’78 reiterated that Wesleyan had no prior knowledge of Backer’s behavior at the Vermont Academy and explained the rationale behind the University’s hiring a firm to investigate.

“Since as Associate Dean he sat on and often chaired panels dealing with sexual misconduct, we hired an independent firm expert in these matters to review his performance,” Roth wrote. “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.”

On Monday, Oct. 3, Roth sent a follow-up email to his Sunday blog post. Writing the subject line “An Apology,” Roth continued on to express dismay at Wesleyan’s hiring of Backer.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

Many students and alumni, however, quickly reacted on social media, with multiple individuals expressing outrage over Wesleyan’s hiring of Backer and a lack of disclosure concerning the full circumstances of his dismissal over the summer.

“How can you trust an institution that doesn’t do a background check on its employees?” asked a student who preferred not to be named. “At what point are we going to consider that we shouldn’t have straight white men in this position anymore?”

The student also expressed concern with Wesleyan’s lack of transparency about Backer’s firing.

“Were they never going to tell anyone?” she asked. “They just replaced him in June. We have to find out through a press release? Why not send out a message in solidarity with survivors who had to be around this gross dude?”

Another student who also declined to give her name noted Backer’s many years of taking decisive action in cases that had profound effects on students’ lives.

“[There were] years of him being in charge of all these cases,” she said. “How do you account for that?”

Having just returned from Bejing in an interview on Monday amid widespread outrage, Roth expressed empathy for survivors and regret over Backer’s tenure.

“I think that dealing with the aftermath 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 some of those people feel,” he said. “That’s one of the things I most regret about the current situation.”

  • AR ’18

    Inexcusable. Both the hiring itself, and the subsequent cover-up (which goes beyond insensitive). How many months did they have this little response ready?

    No administrator with knowledge of this should be employed on Monday – Roth included.

  • sbr 14

    Dude was such a fucking douchebag, not surprising at all that he also has a history of sexual misconduct. Adios, asshole.

    • disqus_LJH92ylDNO

      Amen. Technically, isn’t it a bit sexist to call him a douchebag?

      • DavidL

        deliciously so.

  • GD Klein

    Another example of administrative mismanagment in the Roth administration. Time for a campus-wide administrative review.

    George Devries Klein,’54

  • Straight white guy

    “Should have straight white men in this position anymore?” Spot on. How evil are straight white men! Classic Wesleyan moonbat.

  • htor leahcim

    The fact that Wes administration did not disclose anything to its community immediately subsequent to Backer’s firing is sickening, and a perfect illustration of the mix of arrogance and cowardice that seems endemic to Roth and his cabinet’s “leadership.” So clueless – even from a purely self-serving standpoint, one would think that they would want to get out ahead of this. (Of course, I expect a blustery blog post over the coming days from Roth and Farias reminding us all of their steadfast commitment to equity, safety, blah blah.) The board should go HAM on this shit, but I expect they won’t because Thi$ Is Why was so successful and ousting Roth would be bad for business. Shameful.

    • DavidL

      How successful was “This is Why?” They raised a large amount of money, or at least large for a Wesleyan campaign. But look at how long the campaign took. And consider whether a lot of what was supposedly part of a special fund raising campaign was probably achieved by cannibalizing gifts that otherwise would have been part of annual giving anyway. Wesleyan is still far behind its supposed peers in total endowment, and even further behind in endowment per student. There are some very wealthy sources of possible funding among Wesleyan graduates that were not significant participants in the campaign. The bottom line is that Wesleyan is still at a great financial disadvantage compared to many of its competitors. When Wesleyan levels that playing field, it will be more than a self proclaimed success.

      • htor leahcim

        I agree completely – good points.

  • Speechless

    NOW we get a campus-wide email?? Are you kidding?

  • disqus_LJH92ylDNO

    Really good vetting. Really proud of the school. A series or discrete inquiries would have flushed this out.

    • Guest

      Really? A series of discrete inquiries? And of course if they do that with a candidate that has no background issues and they don’t hire him/her, then Wesleyan is open to legal/privacy issues. Then you’d be up in arms about the administration being big brother and invading personal privacy. There aren’t a lot of things I agree with the administration on, but they handled this appropriately.

      • Guest

        You know, I think we would all be fine if Wesleyan conducted more stringent background checks on the administrators presiding over sexual assault hearings. That seems like a reasonable expectation.

        And no, conducting a background check does not expose the school to “legal/privacy issues.” But, God forbid if it did. Why protect your students if you might get sued?!?!?

      • Guest

        I don’t believe the job he initially was hired for included the sexual assault hearings. Having been a hiring manager at large corporations there are legal and privacy issues. Regardless of the legal piece what you’re saying is some rights have to be given up for the protection of someone else’s right?

      • Guest

        I lost track of your argument about rights, but ultimately Wesleyan is an educational institution (not a corporation), and purports to be on the cutting edge of social justice. As such, it should always prioritize the welfare of its students (especially those most vulnerable) over its legal exposure or bottom line. End of story.

      • Guest

        I agree with you that Wesleyans first responsibility is to the students.

      • Guest

        So I did do some discrete checking and confirmed he was a total douchebag while at Wesleyan and a fervent Roth acolyte.

  • disqus_LJH92ylDNO

    Where is the rest of the complaint? Just page one? What gives?

  • 0

  • Maria I

    Given the criminal nature of Mr. Backer’s behavior and his demonstrated poor judgement, Wesleyan University leadership has a moral -and perhaps legal- obligation to thoroughly review and revise all of the decisions Mr. Backer made during his tenure at the University. In particular, those decisions and reports he made that may have affected the students’ reputation and future career aspirations. Wesleyan current and past students should be encouraged to submit for review and possible dismissal any such reports.

    • DavidL

      It’s not at all clear that Backer’s conduct at Vermont Academy was a crime. Nevertheless, as noted above, I do not trust Roth’s rosy appraisal of the results of the Pepper Hamilton report. Just how did Pepper Hamilton conduct the review and what exactly did they say? Is Cerm’s statement above that Backer was abusive and arbitrary based in fact?

      If I were a student who had been sanctioned or dismissed in a procedure during Backer’s tenure (and not just a matter in which he was directly involve) I would be considering my options.

      Note also that the lawsuit against Backer, a public document, was filed in 2010. Was he moved into handling sexual harassment cases after that? Just what kind of vetting and training do Wesleyan personnel get before they get such assignments? And why was this guy hired as a Dean in the first place? His experience was at a second tier boarding school. Did he have any special accomplishments or qualifications? Can’t Wesleyan attract higher level employees? And who was responsible for vetting this man? Will there be any consequences to that failure?

      Wesleyan is asking its students to be highly accountable for everything they do. It would be nice if the people who run the school were also subject to stringent accountability.

      Would Wesleyan ever have disclosed this if he Boston Globe had not written its story? How is Wesleyan any better than the schools cited in the story that hid adverse facts?

      • htor leahcim

        “Can’t Wesleyan attract higher level employees?” Unfortunately, no – salaries for non-academic staff are not competitive and Wesleyan often settles for 2nd, 3rd, or 4th choices.

      • Ralphiec88

        Wait, wasn’t there just an Argus article claiming that they were overpaid? Which is it?

  • CERM

    Not only did Scott Backer participate in illicit sexual behaviors, but he was an administrator in charge of penalizing students for sexual misconduct. His moral compass was corrupt and as such his behaviors while at Wesleyan should be reviewed. Let us not forget his email privacy mishaps while he was in charge of the students with disabilities. He harassed many students not just in the sexual manner. He rarely emailed (made sure not to have an electronic record), but instead would call or ask you to come in to his office to discuss an issue. He was insidious in the ways he would talk to you – victim blaming and accusatory prior to SJB hearings. He disregarded facts given and would use his authority to change sanctions. He would send public safety to your dorm room in the middle of the night for interrogations. The Wesleyan administration has protected him, and used his word during prior appeals. This is not about better background checks, but rather about going back and looking at WHO our administration really is and are they trustworthy people… they trusted and believed in Backer despite the NUMEROUS student complaints of his harassment.

  • DavidL

    I would love to see the Pepper Hamilton report, though probably no one ever will. We don’t have the actual conclusions of counsel, nor do we have information or the specific nature of their task, how much access and information them had or exactly how they phrased their conclusions. As a lawyer of long experience, I suspect that “nothing amiss” is an overstated paraphrase of what they found. Given the confidential nature of the proceedings in which the Dean was involved, the passage of time, the obvious inability to interview all involved and other factors too numerous to list, it’s hard to believe that Pepper Hamilton would have rendered such an unqualified conclusion as “nothing amiss.” “Nothing amiss that could be detected within the scope of their review” is all they could possibly say. Without knowing the scope of the review, Roth’s self serving synopsis of the “conclusions” is not very comforting.

  • DavidL

    The lesson is not to avoid straight white men in these jobs. The lesson is to hire better people, vet their past performance carefully and do better evaluations of their performance at Wesleyan. Wesleyan needs outstanding people in jobs like this, not mediocrities and not persons evaluated based on their gender or ethnicity.

  • GD Klein

    Michael Roth’s blog post and follow-up email clearly show that he failed to do his due diligence when Mr. Becker was reviewed and hired. This again speaks to his administrative incompetence which requires a performance review.

    George Devries Klein ’54

    • Zikahead

      Yet in academic rigor the due diligence required to make any statement must be thoroughly researched to respect author provenance. Ironically standards are not so high in the area of academic administration according to the Boston Globe piece.