Favoritism, HR procedures delayed response to Meehan
On April 6, 2018, Brandeis men’s basketball coach Brian Meehan was dismissed following accusations of discrimination against and abuse of members of the team. Since then, there has been an independent investigation into the inner workings of the Athletic Department, and on Sept. 4, University President Ron Liebowitz sent a 25 page summary report to the Brandeis community, the first part of two updates that will be released to the Brandeis community.
The full report contains texts and supporting materials totaling about 300 pages, President Liebowitz said in a Sept. 6 joint interview with the Justice and the Brandeis Hoot. The investigators updated the Board of Trustees throughout the investigation, and the Board received the complete report before passing it on to Liebowitz on Aug. 22. The summary, which is available to the public, is designed to protect the privacy of those who came forward to the investigators, Liebowitz said.
The summary report concludes that “over a number of years, there was inadequate supervision of Coach Meehan and a failure to address his unacceptable conduct, especially toward his players.” The report argues that a “safety net” should have protected the players facing Meehan’s behavior and explains seven ways in which the safety net failed.
Relationships between administrators
The summary documents the University’s failure to recognize the consequences of close friendships between Meehan, former Athletics Director Lynne Dempsey and former vice president for Student Affairs Sheryl Sousa. The report explains the personal connections that existed within the Athletics Department. Dempsey is credited with introducing Meehan to his wife. In addition, she was a former roommate of Sousa and officiated Meehan’s wedding. Dempsey confirmed to the investigators that she and Meehan are “close friends.” According to the report, Dempsey “repeatedly indicated that she had no reason to believe that Meehan engaged in abusive or discriminatory behavior towards his players because she had never personally witnessed it.”
“Stunning” lack of diversity
Another problem identified in the report was that the Athletics Department had “invested relatively less time and effort … in diversifying its leadership and coaching ranks.” The investigators wrote that that the resulting lack of diversity in the “backgrounds, skills, experience and talent” of the Athletics Department staff made it difficult for the department to recognize the issues it faced.
Meehan's perceived “untouchability”
The perception among the athletic community that Meehan received favoritism from both Dempsey and Sousa was cause for concern as well, according to the investigators. The report states that although Sousa and Dempsey “did not consider themselves personally biased towards Meehan,” they “failed to demonstrate to others that they had no such blind spot.” The report highlights that “without the robust efforts required given Sousa's, Dempsey's, and Meehan's personal relationships, players, trainers, and coaches were likely discouraged from complaining about Meehan, reinforcing his ‘untouchability.’”
Meehan's behavior “ignored”
The report also found that Meehan engaged in troubling behavior that was “unreported, discounted or ignored.” When the basketball team’s winning streak ended in 2014, one mother of an African American player complained to former University President Frederick Lawrence that players were being “humiliated,” according to the summary report. The player met with Dempsey, who told him that he should work harder. After reading Meehan’s negative end-of-year surveys, Sousa helped Lawrence respond to the mother’s concerns and verbally reprimanded Meehan for directing profanity toward his players, the report found. Dempsey, on the other hand, saw these surveys at the end of the year as a chance for players to “vent,” rather than expose real concerns, according to the report. Dempsey never recalled discussing the surveys with Meehan.
In 2015, another African American player met with Dempsey because Meehan cut him abruptly from the team; Dempsey responded that she could not question a coach’s decision. Dean of Students Jamele Adams requested a meeting with Meehan and Dempsey to speak on behalf of the student, but the player did not raise concerns of discrimination or harassment to Adams and no meeting took place. Therefore, the report said “The matter dropped from the Department's radar screen as soon as the player declined Meehan's unusual suggestion that the player put his questions in writing.” The player questioned whether Meehan’s decision to remove the player from the team was fair. Neither Dempsey nor Sousa saw Adams’s involvement as grounds for further investigation.
Meehan again received negative year-end surveys for the 2016-17 season, after which the team’s star player left suddenly at the end of his junior year. At the time, no one questioned him or Meehan about his departure. However, the report found that Dempsey knew that the player — who asked her, rather than Meehan, to help collect his personal belongings — did not want to engage with Meehan at the time.
A Human Resources investigation was initiated in fall 2017 to examine Meehan’s behavior. Upon the conclusion of this HR investigation, according to the report, Sousa decided that the coach had used profanities and unprofessional language with the team. She delivered a “final written warning” to Meehan following this investigation — but Meehan continued his inappropriate behavior during the 2017-18 season without sufficient oversight, according to the summary.
The investigators also discovered that assistant coaches and trainers were aware of and discussed Meehan’s treatment his players, but did not report these to senior administrators. “Silence from below reveals a Department culture that failed to encourage staffers to bring such problems to management's attention with confidence that they would be handled appropriately and without fear of retaliation,” the report notes.
Levels of command in HR
The fifth problem was that the University had “gaps, ambiguities and known problems in the Claim Resolution Procedure.” These issues were present and recognized before the HR investigation, but the review of procedures had not yet been completed. The report highlights numerous flaws in the HR process that were exposed by the Meehan case.
One concern raised by the report is that the HR investigator is able to choose who decides the consequences of an investigation. Additional problems with the process cited by the investigators include unclear policies surrounding the deference accorded to HR findings, conflict of interest concerns, not providing written reports and disclosing “preliminary conclusions” of a report to involved parties before the final decision is reached.
Sousa's conflict of interest
Sousa’s appointment as the ultimate arbiter of the 2017 HR investigation created a major conflict of interest. The HR investigator was aware of Dempsey’s personal relationship with Meehan and deemed her inappropriate to be the decision maker, but assumed Sousa would be appropriate. Sousa was conscious of her close ties with Meehan, but felt she could still be impartial. According to the report, “Meehan told another coach that although he was under investigation and had been ‘found guilty,’ Sousa was ‘taking care of it.’”
Weak claim resolution procedure
The seventh failure in the safety net was the flawed Claim Resolution Procedure. Principal HR investigator Linda Shinomoto initially suggested to the complainants that the issue could be resolved in a few weeks, which former vice president of Human Resources Robin Nelson-Bailey knew was unrealistic.
The investigation found evidence of “discrimination and emotionally abusive conduct,” but it did not find any evidence that Meehan favored his two sons, members of the basketball team.
Sousa requested a written report to make her own independent decision as to how to discipline Meehan. Her final report was redacted for privacy reasons for the people who came forward, Liebowitz said in his interview.
Instead of supporting Shinomoto, Nelson-Bailey did not trust the findings of the report and made this clear to Sousa. Nelson-Bailey requested a written report and helped edit drafts of it. Sousa disagreed with Shinomoto’s findings, and then-Vice President of Student Affairs Andrew Flagel offered to draft a written decision for Sousa to look at. Her final decision “tracked” the draft from Flagel, but she also emphasized that this message was his “final warning.”
Although the preliminary findings of the 2017 HR investigator were set to be released to students, Flagel delayed the disclosure. The investigators acknowledge that Flagel may have done this to save Meehan's or the University's reputation, but criticize the delay as “an unwarranted variance of the process. … Such deviations inevitably raise concerns about potential manipulation, concerns that may never be laid to rest.”
In the Sept. 6 interview, Liebowitz said that this case was not related to the departure of Flagel, which was announced in an Oct. 30, 2017 email from Liebowitz to the University.
Meehan’s abusive behavior continued into the 2017-18 season. After Deadspin released its April 5, 2018 article describing Meehan’s behavior, Sousa “had just learned that the HR investigator had redacted material information from the previous HR investigation report that, in Sousa's view, justified Meehan' s termination for demeaning comments and his treatment of injured players — not discrimination — at the conclusion of the 2017 HR investigation.” Therefore, “Sousa never disciplined or terminated Meehan for discriminatory behavior.”
After examining these holes in a safety net that should have protected students, the report concludes that “this lamentable series of process failures involved many at Brandeis.” The independent investigators found that “in the months leading up to the ultimate decision to terminate Meehan's employment, the interests of the student-athletes appear to have been subordinated to the goals of having a winning basketball team and protecting the institution (or a long-term colleague) from harmful accusations.” The report states that the players did not deserve to wait for a six-month-long process to address Meehan’s actions.
When asked about the University’s HR policies, Liebowitz said, “We, as an institution, bear some responsibility in not being up to speed on all of our policies and procedures and protocols.”
Investigators issue recommendations
Following the investigation, Sousa resigned as vice president of Student Affairs, and Nelson-Bailey and Dempsey both received six-month probationary periods in their new roles, after which they will be re-evaluated for continuing employment.
Nelson-Bailey was demoted and will now work on “special projects” in HR. This may include transferring some of HR’s work over to the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and reviewing policies and procedures in light of the independent investigation, Liebowitz said in the interview.
Dempsey also received a demotion and now oversees Gosman Sports and Convocation Center’s facilities operations, Liebowitz said. She does not have a supervisory role, and nobody reports back to her.
The interim Athletics director will be Jeffrey H. Ward, the interim vice president for Student Affairs will be Dr. Karen Muncaster and the interim vice president for Human Resources will be Larry Lewellen.
Title IX reporting and adjudication is being moved to the new Office of Equal Opportunity; this new office will able to hear any complaint of harassment, discrimination or bias related to the University’s non-discrimination policy, and will report back to the ODEI and Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas.
Additionally, HR non-discrimination and harassment policies and procedures are in review. Liebowitz and senior managers that report to him are undergoing extensive training in diversity, equity and inclusion, according to the Sept. 4 email.
The ODEI will offer instruction throughout the University to address complex topics such as race and diversity, and will partner with the Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center for bystander training and creating programs for upcoming orientations, according to the email. The ODEI’s director of education, training and development, Dr. Allyson Livingstone, and PARC’s director, Sarah Berg, will be available as resources throughout the year on campus. During the 2018 orientation, they offered bystander trainings that specifically focused on racial justice interventions and sexual assault prevention.
Additionally, the University website has launched a new page called “Support at Brandeis” that clarifies support and reporting mechanisms for the University community. There are now multiple channels to report community concerns, as opposed to only one avenue which left room for bias. The "support" website offers links to resources that are in place for all members of the Brandeis community. There is also a "report" website that provides the basic steps for reporting discrimination or violence on campus. In addition, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has a redesigned website that summarizes what steps have been taken to help to improve the climate of the University and the continued progress made. This site will be updated as improvements are made.
Liebowitz met with the Athletic Department along with University Provost Lisa Lynch on Sept. 5. Liebowitz said, “It was an opportunity to talk about the state of the Department, where we go from here, what we are doing to support them.”
—Jocelyn Gould contributed reporting.
— This article was updated to specify that Jocelyn Gould contributed reporting.