By Rewon Shimray | Staff Writer
Matt Burchett, Baylor’s director of Student Activities since 2008, was recently accused by anonymous sources in at least two national publications of being a “mole” at sexual assault vigils on campus in 2016.
Those unnamed told PR Week that Burchett tried to shape the group’s public statements, pretended to help plan vigils about sexual assault, and shared insight to school officials.
Burchett spoke to The Lariat Thursday and denied doing anything improper at those vigils, in February and June of 2016, that were held at the time of Baylor sexual assault cases undergoing investigation by the Pepper Hamilton law firm.
The events were planned for sexual assault survivors and supporters to bring awareness of the issue on campus and to express the views of organizers. The event planning was initiated by 2007 Baylor graduate Karen Petree, who did not respond to The Lariat’s request to comment on the accusations. The Baylor Feminist Group, a non-chartered student organization, also helped plan the event.
The term “mole,” which has been repeatedly used in articles published by DeadSpin, Inside Higher Ed and KCEN-TV is most widely understood to define a person who secretly infiltrates an organization and acts as a double-spy.
Jason Cook, Baylor’s vice president for marketing and communications and chief marketing officer, said Thursday that the characterization of Burchett has been “outlandish and frankly unfair.”
“Using inflammatory words such as ‘infiltration’ and ‘mole’ is unfair to Matt as a professional, but also to our institution,” Cook said. “If we were to want to engage in such nefarious activities — which we do not — the last individual we would pick would be a Ph.D. administrator who wears a bowtie. Burchett’s intentions are very clear when he interacts with students.”
Claim 1: Shaping Public Statements
PR Week’s anonymous sources said “Burchett also tried to shape the group’s public statements, encouraged it not to say Baylor ‘failed’ the survivors or Baylor ‘failed’ to create a safe environment.”
The messages Burchett suggested edits for were cards to be distributed to the university president and attendees of the event. Burchett said part of his job is to “provide appropriate guidance to help students realize that vision or craft their messaging” to achieve three objectives: what they wanted people to walk away having heard, felt, and seen.
He said his impression of the spirit of the vigil was to have a peaceful gathering, “not to incite or to create any level of significant disruption.”
“The input I was providing was trying to meet that objective that the students wanted to accomplish,” Burchett said. “I always bookended those comments, those recommendations, with, ‘I will support you no matter what direction you go… Whatever you choose, my job is to support you.’”
Baylor 2018 graduate Caroline Grace worked with Burchett as the It’s On Us president last year. She collaborated on projects with him including the “What Were You Wearing, Waco?” event, a project that required six months of planning, which sought to display the diverse outfits that sexual assault survivors wore at the time of the incident.
“He never stopped me from what I wanted to do; he just encouraged me stop to think if that was the right move in the long term — not for Baylor, but for the message that we wanted to deliver to the students. I can see how quickly that is a fine line,” Grace said. “Someone who is maybe more hard at heart, if someone else is telling them how to get something done, that can very easily be seen as a push-back or take that as a hindrance to justice.”
Burchett said the intent is to always remain “content neutral” in Student Activities.
“Our [Student Activities] office has chosen not to put on programs as an office, meaning every single thing we do is coordinated by a student organization and led by student leaders, which is different than most Student Activities offices across the country,” Burchett said.
He explained the ideal relationship between the Student Activities office and student organizations is having students lead the way and the office serving to advise to help them accomplish their vision.
Claim 2: Pretended to Plan
Another claim made was that Burchett would “pretend he was helping them organize vigils and demonstrations [about] sexual assault.”
All student organization holding an expressive activity, an event seeking to express views, must be registered with the Department of Student Activities at least 24 hours in advance, according to the Policies and Procedures for Baylor Student Activities.
Burchett said he was informed of the first vigil within that 24-hour window of the event, and quickly coordinated with the appropriate offices “to ensure that student event is realized to the fullest potential of the students’ vision,” per standard operating procedure.
“I felt as though I had done that with both of the vigils, where I attempted to understand exactly what the students were trying to accomplish, support them in that vision and coordinate resources appropriate given the time frame we had available,” Burchett said.
The vigil in June 2016 featured a walk from the Albritton House to George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Burchett said he provided resources for the event, including contacting the Baylor Police Department, Marketing and Communications and Parking Services. The presence of these resources helped ensure students’ safety and closed Third Street. He said he also engaged representatives from the Counseling Center and Spiritual Life present to meet spiritual and emotional needs as well.
BFG president Fort Worth senior Julieth Reyes said Dr. Kevin Jackson, vice president for student life, and the Counseling Center provided meaningful emotional support for sexual assault survivors. Reyes said they were able to talk to survivors “on a personal level rather than a Baylor level.”
As the director for Student Activities, part of Burchett’s job is to act as a liaison between student organizations and the administration offices. Grace said event-planning could often feel slow because major decisions had to go through several members of administration before they were approved.
“A mediator is the only way that [Burchett] could be seen as limiting or putting in his voice or slowing down the process. Those things would be kind of inevitable with any administrator we worked with,” Grace said.
Grace said the planning of the “What Were You Wearing, Waco?” event was dependent on Burchett’s help to “navigate the bureaucracy,” find resources and ensure that the project was seen to completion.
“He always ended up following through in the way that it needed to be followed through,” Grace said.
Claim 3: Passed Information to Administration
The unnamed sources claimed in the online articles Burchett would “befriend” groups to share what he learned to school officials, the communication department and then-Baylor’s PR firm Ketchum.
Lori Fogleman, assistant vice president for media communications, said in a formal response that Burchett shares information “back and forth to ensure such events are safe and provide a platform for the students to communicate their message.”
Reyes did not agree with Grace, saying she felt as though Burchett attended events as a “gesture to appease students” as well as to “gather reactions and feelings of survivors” to help inform the Baylor emails to sexual assault survivors.
Reyes said few survivors in the vigil had direct contact with Burchett. She said it felt “superficial” to have an administrator she was unfamiliar with come to the highly personal event.
She claimed the only outreach survivors received from Baylor were “formal, unpersonalized emails” with “consolatory sentiment under a Christian guise,” but they never received a formal apology for how sexual assault cases were mishandled nor any direct outreach.
“I think in the long run — not just from him, but anyone high up Baylor administration — what most of us want is having a more direct relationship with him,” Reyes said. “Administration is so big, and they have so many things to do. We do realize that, but this is a big issue that has gone on since I’ve been here, before I’ve been here, and it’s continuing now. So I think it’s worth their time of day to make a larger effort.”
Burchett said although he has advising relationships with some students, he mostly communicates via email to coordinate events. He said the extent and depth of his involvement in student events depends on the individual event and his business schedule, but he has some involvement in hundreds of student events each year. Along with overseeing student involvement with over 330 organizations, Burchett also handles campus programs, Baylor Chamber of Commerce, Student Foundation and Waco Hall.
“My commitment to students, and making sure those students are served well on campus is really deep, and it’s certainly a part of who I am as a professional,” Burchett said. “All in all, I’m imperfect and I know that. Every time we plan an event, we look back and see what we could have done better.”