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President Liebowitz releases summary report of independent investigation

An independent investigation into the Brandeis athletics department found that there was insufficient supervision of Basketball Coach Brian Meehan and a failure of the interdisciplinary process to address his discrimination and abuse of the basketball team players, according to a 25-page summary report President Liebowitz released Wednesday, Sept. 4. The independent investigation and subsequent report began after a drawn-out Human Resources investigation of Meehan, who was fired over the allegations April 5 of last year.

Vice President for Student Affairs Sheryl Sousa resigned the same day the report was released. Lynne Dempsey—the Brandeis athletic director who was placed on administrative leave—and Vice President of Human Resources Robin Nelson-Bailey have both been demoted, placed on six month probation, removed from a supervisor role—meaning they have no authority over individuals, staff or students—and had their salaries reduced.

Jeffrey H. Ward, who was formerly athletic director at Bowdoin College, has replaced Dempsey as an interim athletic director. Larry Lewellen, who was recently hired as an advisor in HR, will become interim vice president for human resource. Ward and Lewellen will review Dempsey and Nelson-Bailey’s work after their probation to determine whether or not they will continue to be employed by the university.

Karen Muncaster, the vice president of the Rabb School of Continuing Studies, will become interim vice president for student affairs, according to Liebowitz’s email announcement. A national search will begin for all three interim positions, including the newly created position, vice provost for student affairs, which will replace the vice president position. The search will begin in early January of next year, and there will be a focus on increasing the diversity of the athletic department, according to an interview with Liebowitz.

A second report from the independent investigators will offer recommendations to improve the university’s policies and procedures on discrimination and harassment complaints and will assess the culture of Brandeis. It is expected to be given to the president in early November, according to Liebowitz.

The report, which was concluded at the end of August, detailed the process of the investigation and the series of missteps that lead to a lengthy HR investigation of basketball coach Meehan and his eventual firing. It described the special perks afforded to Meehan and holes in the “administrative safety net” including the close relationship between Meehan, his direct superior Athletic Director Lynne Dempsey and Sousa, a lack of diversity in the senior athletics department and outdated policies that contributed to the flaws in the athletic department.

According to the report, Sousa, Dempsey and Meehan’s personal relationships as well as faulty administrative policies contributed to the drawn out HR investigation. Dempsey introduced Meehan to his wife and officiated their wedding, which Sousa attended. Sousa, however, described her relationship with Meehan as more of a working relationship as she began to transition out of the athletic department, according to the report.  

The report also described several special privileges Meehan had, including team trips to foreign countries, specially made coaching offices, and a retention package, which made the coach seem “untouchable.” It describes his behavior as “unacceptable conduct towards his players and others associated with the team… He would yell, swear and make denigrating remarks.”

The report continues to describe how, as the team’s fortunes worsened, so did Meehan’s behavior. The independent investigators discovered evidence that assistant coaches and trainers were aware of Meehan’s behavior, even though the senior leadership was not.

The original HR investigation of Meehan began in 2017, but complaints had been made against him before then. As early as 2014, the mother of one African American player complained to then Brandeis President Lawrence about Meehan’s behavior, and Sousa verbally warned Meehan against using profanity. According to the report, Meehan’s inappropriate behavior continued.

Another player met with Dempsey in 2015 after he was cut from the team, and Dean of Students Jamele Adams intervened on behalf of the student to try to arrange a meeting with Meehan and Dempsey. In 2017, the basketball team’s star player left the team after his junior year season, and the report describes him as “unwilling to engage directly with Meehan at this time.”

The report describes the 2013-2014 and 2017-2018 survey results of the basketball team as “quite negative” and “highly negative” respectively. Dempsey did not discuss these results with Meehan, and the surveys themselves were viewed by Dempsey as an opportunity for players to vent, according to the report.

HR received complaints against Meehan in May of 2017 from a group of students. HR investigated through the summer, according to emails obtained by the magazine Deadspin. Michael Rosbash (NBIO) advised Meehan during these HR hearings. Sousa made a final determination in October of 2017, according to the emails.

The players who complained were not told what action the school took, according to a team member quoted in a Deadspin article and a Hoot article.

At the end of the HR investigation, Sousa, who was appointed as decision maker, determined that there was merit to the allegations of profane, inappropriate and unprofessional language. She then gave Meehan a final written warning. But despite this warning, according to the report, “there appears to have been no closer oversight by Dempsey or Sousa in the 2017-2018 season. Just as had occurred after Sousa’s 2014 verbal warning to Meehan, his inappropriate behavior continued.”

The principle HR investigator, Linda Shinomoto, found that the evidence supported Meehan’s “discrimination and emotionally abusive conduct” but did not find favoritism to his two sons, who played on the basketball team at the time. At Sousa’s request, Shinomoto provided a written report of their findings but redacted it to protect the identity of the students and witnesses and any information that would identify them.

The HR investigator planned to disclose these findings to the students but was delayed by then Vice President of Student Affairs Andrew Flagel, which the report describes as a deviation from normal procedure possibly motivated by a desire to “save Meehan’s or the University’s reputation” that did “raise concerns about potential manipulation.” Sousa ultimately disagreed with the findings of the HR investigator and drafted a written decision with Flagel that gave Meehan a final written warning.

His behavior, however, continued. “There appears to have been no closer oversight by Dempsey or Sousa in the 2017-2018 season,” said the report. “Just as had occurred after Sousa’s 2014 verbal warning to Meehan, his inappropriate behavior continued.”

Sousa ultimately fired Meehan after Deadspin published an article detailing Meehan’s behavior and new allegations against Meehan came to light. According to the report, Sousa said that the HR investigator had redacted important information from the HR report that justified Meehan’s firing for “demeaning comments and his treatment of injured players,” not discrimination.

The report describes Nelson-Bailey as providing little support to the HR investigator and undercutting their findings to Sousa. Nelson-Bailey initially asked for a written report and was involved in editing multiple drafts of said report.

Nelson-Bailey has been re-assigned to special projects in HR, such as reviewing policies and procedures as a result of the independent investigation and moving some HR work over to the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion. However, her role has not been finalized.

The independent investigators report also found that a lack of diversity in the Athletics Department may have contributed to the department’s difficulties in recognizing and addressing discrimination.

The investigators offer a series of recommendations at the end of the report, including disciplining the HR and athletics department leadership involved and repairing administrative procedures, such as an undiverse athletics department, perceived favoritism, outmoded or unclear policies, conflict of interests and problems in the claim resolution procedure.

Brandeis has also already instituted several reforms, including creating a reporting website where students can find out how to report discrimination or violence. There is also a new “Support at Brandeis site” which offers support resources to all members, faculty, staff and students, of the Brandeis community.

Brandeis will also establish an Office of Equal Opportunity to make it simpler for complaints to be filed, and Brandeis is currently searching for a director of this office. This office will receive “any complaint of harassment, discrimination or bias related to anything covered in Brandeis’ non-discrimination policy, and it will oversee complaints from students, faculty and staff,” according to Director of Media Relations Julie Jette. Liebowitz also plans to expand diversity equity and inclusion training that the president himself and his senior team are undergoing.

The investigators periodically checked in with the Board of Trustees during the independent investigation. Students from the basketball team as well as the swim team came forward to the president and the investigators. Liebowitz received it after the Board of Trustees, on Aug. 22, and spoke with the investigators to clarify the report. He also met with the Athletics Department Wednesday, Sept. 5 along with Provost Lisa Lynch. “It was an opportunity to talk about the state of the department,” said Liebowitz. “We asked them what could we do to support them.”

The report is a summary of a full report of 129 pages of text, but with its supporting documents, it is fully 300 pages. This report was not shared, as it discloses the identity of students who came forward. The investigators reviewed over 30,000 documents throughout this process.

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