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Brandeis basketball coach fired, Liebowitz announces independent investigation

By Celia Young and Hannah Schuster

Section: News

April 13, 2018

Brandeis fired its head men’s basketball coach, Brian Meehan, based on multiple reports of discriminatory and unprofessional behavior, President Ron Liebowitz announced last Thursday, April 5. The next day, Liebowitz acknowledged shortcomings of the investigation into Meehan and said Brandeis would undertake an independent review of this case and the procedures involved.

He stated that university processes had “moved slowly and opaquely, and ultimately inadequately.” Lynne Dempsey, the Athletics Director, was also placed on administrative leave, according to this second email.

An article on Deadspin.com, published hours after Liebowitz announced Meehan’s firing, detailed claims about the coach and several team members’ dissatisfaction with Dempsey’s response to issues and with the handling of formal complaints they reported to the Office of Human Resources last spring.

Brandeis has retained two attorneys unaffiliated with the university to conduct a review of the procedures used in the Meehan case and for Brandeis investigations and grievance procedures in general. 

“Anyone accused of committing an offense on this campus—student, faculty, or staff member—is entitled to a fair investigation and due process. This can take time,” Liebowitz said in the second email on April 6. “In this case, the process did not work the way it should have for the students who filed complaints. This cannot and should not happen again.”

The investigation will start by examining how the HR investigation into Meehan proceeded and expanding from there to wherever, said Liebowitz in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot and The Justice. They may expand into “all of our grievance processes and procedures,” whether that means HR investigations or any Title IX process, Liebowitz said. The two outside attorneys are former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Walter Prince, now a partner at a Boston law firm, and the Honorable R. Malcolm Graham, a retired justice from the Massachusetts Appeals Court, who works with the dispute resolution provider, JAMS.

The two investigators will have “total access” to documents including those from prior grievance proceedings. Liebowitz named a point person to provide Prince and Graham with documents, to avoid going through any top administrators. The investigators will report to the Board of Trustees, as opposed to the administration, to ensure it is fully independent, said Liebowitz on Monday at an open forum for members of the community. 

Liebowitz has, following the announcement of the investigation, established a website with the investigators’ contact details and instructions on how to speak with them or provide information. The investigators will be on campus from April 11 to April 13 in Goldfarb Library Level 2, Room 69-34, though students can also meet with them in their Boston offices.

The website also contains information about how to file general misconduct reports at Brandeis.

HR first received complaints against Meehan after a group of students filed a report last May. The fact-finding phase of the process—where HR investigators conduct interviews and review documentary evidence—continued through most of the summer, according to emails obtained by Deadspin and posted online. During that time, Professor Michael Rosbash (NBIO) acted as the advisor to Meehan throughout his HR hearings. 

Sheryl Sousa ’90, the Vice President for Student Affairs, made a final determination in the case the week of Oct. 16, according to published emails. Her decision resulted in a disciplinary action taken against Meehan, according to Liebowitz, though the university cannot disclose what this punishment was. Meehan was still coaching the team after this point.

Following the HR investigation, Robin Nelson-Bailey, the vice president of Human Resources and acting Title IX investigator, also told the players she could not specify what action the school took, according to a team member quoted in the Deadspin piece and another who spoke with The Hoot.

According to Liebowitz, a new complaint brought against Meehan last week prompted Brandeis to place him on “immediate administrative leave” and to undertake a “thorough examination and review of the prior incidents.” A formal investigation of the new complaint has not been completed, but Meehan’s firing was based on both the earlier investigation and new complaint. 

Liebowitz spoke to the role of the external investigators, saying, “They will be charged with reviewing our systems, climate and culture of handling complaints, and will recommend actions and changes, including those related to personnel.” 

Liebowitz hosted a town hall meeting for the community on Monday discuss the situation and answer questions. Students expressed disappointment in Brandeis’ handling of this complaint and called for administrators to seriously address racism on campus. 

Speakers also expressed concern about measures taken in the interim, before the conclusion of a long external investigation, to ensure complaints are handled appropriately.

“On the more short term, we are right now thinking about ways in which to make more… opportunities for folks to come forward,” Liebowitz responded. He acknowledged that Brandeis had done an “inadequate” job of clarifying procedures to report complaints.

Liebowitz identified Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas as a point person for students with questions about how to file a complaint. He will act as a go-to person and guide for students as they move through university processes. If required, Brimhall-Vargas will receive additional staff to support these efforts, said Liebowitz.

Members of the basketball team allege that Meehan engaged in “preferential and discriminatory treatment, unprofessional behavior and racially biased harassment,” according to Liebowitz and the players. 

Examples of racist remarks include telling a player he would “ship [him] back to Africa” and telling a player wearing the white side of a jersey that being white was a “dream come true,” according to Deadspin. Players also accused Meehan of giving preferential treatment to his sons, who are on the basketball team, according to Deadspin and interviews with The Hoot.
One member of the basketball team said he thinks it is time for a “culture shift” on the team, and he hopes both the assistant coaches and a new hire can achieve this.

Students interviewed for the Deadspin article claimed Dempsey was unresponsive to concern about Meehan. She is open to review in the external investigation and being on administrative leave assures the investigation will advance without her influence, said Liebowitz.

Liebowitz described Meehan’s actions as “abborhent and unacceptable,” in his second message, on Friday. He further acknowledged students’ dissatisfaction with the speed and transparency of the investigation process. 

During the town hall meeting, many students voiced their dissatisfaction with the initial HR investigation of Meehan. In an interview with The Hoot, Rosbash, Meehan’s advisor, also expressed his frustration with the HR process, calling it “mediocre.” 

Rosbash described the HR investigators as “not very competent…[and] not very responsive,” emphasizing that he requested the investigation be conducted more quickly. Rosbash attended all meetings between HR and Meehan, which lasted between two to four hours at a time, but were spread out over several months. Emails uploaded by Deadspin show basketball players reaching out to HR employees throughout the fall semester, requesting updates on the status on the investigation. 

“I am deeply disturbed by these complaints. I want to be absolutely clear: At Brandeis, there is zero tolerance for discriminating against any student, staff member, faculty member, or visitor because of their race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or any other aspect of their identity,” said Liebowitz, who directed community members to review Brandeis’ non-discrimination policy and to be aware of the processes for reporting discrimination or harassment.

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