There’s a huge problem with how universities deal with faculty sexual assault
Sexual assault is, as we all know, a significant problem on college campuses around the nation. While student-on-student incidents like that of Stanford University’s Brock Turner (among other notable cases) have dominated the dialogue around campus sexual assault over the past year, disturbingly enough, faculty sexual assault and university mishandling of it are a sizable problem, too, as highlighted by a new report by The Boston Globe.
The report highlights the cases of 31 educators dating from the 1970s who were able to find employment with schools again “after being accused of sexually exploiting, assaulting, or harassing students… sometimes with a warm recommendation letter in hand.” The most darkly ironic of these cases was that of Scott Backer, Wesleyan University’s former/recently-fired associate dean of students, who had been accused of sexting a 16-year-old girl while he was an assistant dean at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vermont, but managed to land a job overseeing sexual misconduct hearings at Wesleyan.
How was this even possible? Maybe the three letters of recommendation, none of which mentioned the sexual harassment allegations, the Vermont Academy wrote for Backer helped at least in part. Meanwhile, there exists virtually no explanation for how Wesleyan appears to have known nothing of a lawsuit the 16-year-old girl filed against Backer in 2011, or really anything of Backer’s past until The Globe began its investigation.
According to The Globe, Wesleyan fired him and hired a law firm to look over eight years of misconduct hearings Backer oversaw just hours after the newspaper asked about his past.
Meanwhile, University President Michael Roth is facing criticism from students for Wesleyan’s lack of transparency throughout the investigation. “Some have asked why we didn’t make all this public ourselves?” Roth wrote in a letter to the student body. “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.” Apparently, informing students of the predatory history of a man presiding over sexual misconduct hearings doesn’t quite constitute a “compelling reason.”
He continued, “I do not think it appropriate to publicly discuss a personnel matter, unless that situation was already made public,” and revised an initial version of the letter to add a noticeably missing apology for hiring “someone who had been fired for grossly inappropriate behavior and put him in a position of responsibility for dealing with survivors of sexual assault.”
In this particular case, the fact that despite his background, Backer was given the task of helping students who reported sexual assault is obviously outrageous. In fact, one student, upon learning of Backer’s past, told The Wesleyan Argus her already deeply damaged sense of safety was only worsened.
But there are plenty of other cases of academic faculty safeguarding its staff from sexual assault allegations, allowing them to move on and easily get jobs at other schools.
For example, the University of Kentucky similarly sparked outrage when it sued its own student newspaper in an attempt to hide sexual assault and harassment allegations by two students against associate professor of entomology James Harwood in August. Harwood denied the allegations and resigned, but the university attempted to keep documents involving the investigation into his conduct private, enabling him to potentially get another job at a different university.
In 1992, Rosemary Hall French teacher Bjorn Runquist was forced to resign after administrators learned of an alleged sexual relationship with a recent female graduate. The Globe reports that an administrator still wrote Runquist a recommendation, which enabled him to get a job just months later at another private school.
On top of the fact that victims of sexual assault are denied justice by universities that allow faculty to simply resign or be fired, not disclosing the allegations to future employers and writing letters of recommendation allows them to take jobs at other schools and puts even more students at risk. This lack of transparency not only enables potential sex abusers, but wholly undermines the safety of students.