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Did Baylor Plant a Mole in Campus Anti-Sexual Assault Groups?

A Baylor University administrator is being accused by anonymous critics of having insinuated himself into campus groups protesting the school’s handling of sexual assault claims, then using his position to pass on to school officials and others information on the groups’ protests and other plans.

The charges first surfaced in the publication PRWeek in its coverage of the long-running controversy over a Title IX lawsuit claiming numerous sexual assaults by members of the Baylor football team and the school administration’s response. The dispute has cost the jobs not only of the football head coach and athletic director, but also of the chancellor, former special counsel during Bill Clinton’s impeachment investigation, Kenneth W. Starr.

Specifically, critics allege Baylor’s director of student activities Dr. Matt Burchett worked closely with campus groups advocating for survivors of sexual violence, helping plan events, such as vigils and demonstrations, to publicize the issue, even advising on the wording of the groups’ public statements. Email correspondence showed Burchett frequently kept other university officials and a public relations firm retained to advise on “reputation management” apprised of what he had learned about the groups and their plans while working with them.

A spokesperson at the private Baptist-founded university in Waco, Texas denied Burchett acted inappropriately, maintaining his job required him to stay in close touch with campus groups and to facilitate their “expressive activities.” Campus groups were under no obligation to accept any advice Burchett offered, a school spokesperson added.

Baylor is facing a Title IX lawsuit filed by 10 unnamed students, who claim the school failed to adequately respond to their complaints of having been sexually assaulted. The incidents complained of date back as far as 2004; the most recent occurred in 2016.

Word of Burchett’s possible double role — befriending and advising campus activists while also sharing what he learned with campus officials — appeared in the public relations publication after Burchett gave a deposition (which has not yet been publicly released) in the Title IX lawsuit. School representatives say they do not believe students were responsible for the leak.

Counsel for the Title IX lawsuit’s plaintiffs says the university’s public relation strategy has been to portray its Title IX problems as solely related to its football team, and not to broader failures on the part of its administration.

Members of the school’s football team have figured in several scandals. In 2015, a former defensive end was convicted of sexually assaulting a member of Baylor women’s soccer team, and sentenced to six months in a county jail. In 2014, another defensive end drew 20-year sentences on each of two convictions for sexual assaults of Baylor students. A third defensive team player is scheduled to face trial this December on a rape charge based on a 2016 incident.

This July, the school settled, for an unannounced payment, a Title IX lawsuit brought in 2015 by a former member of its women’s volleyball team that she had been gang-raped by football team members in 2012, during a party at an off-campus apartment. During the lawsuit, it emerged team officials received reports on the incident, no one at the university reported it to the school’s judicial affairs office or to police.