Liebowitz releases second report into campus climate

Liebowitz releases second report into campus climate

November 30, 2018

President Ron Liebowitz released a second report from independent investigators who were tasked with examining the Brandeis athletics department and the larger climate of campus. The report was issued after former Brandeis Men’s Basketball Coach Brian Meehan was fired last year over allegations of discriminatory and abusive conduct against African-American and Jewish players.

The report found that Brandeis, as a small institution, relied on personal relationships more than formalized policies and these relationships “undermine the chain of command, complicate feedback and separate problems from the people designated with the responsibility for handling them.”

It further found that a “widespread anxiety” over coming forward with complaints, a lack of diversity and poor management contributed to the poor handling of the HR investigation into Meehan.

“The Meehan matter, for example, was marked by misplaced institutional loyalty, a lack of diversity, disruption caused by turnover, fear of retaliation (warranted or not), a reluctance to confront and handle problems directly, and process shortcomings that had been on administrative agendas for years but could never rise to the top without a crisis,” the report read.

Meehan was investigated by the Office of Human Resources department in 2017, but the investigation took over seven months, drawing concerns and frustration from the players on the team. After the allegations against Meehan were published in a Deadspin Magazine article, President Liebowitz announced on April 6 that Meehan had been fired and that independent investigators would examine the athletics department and the culture of Brandeis as a whole.

The two independent investigators, former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Walter Prince and retired Massachusetts Appeals Court Justice the Honorable R. Malcolm Graham, interviewed more than 150 faculty, administrators and students and more than 30,000 documents for their investigation.

The report was divided into three parts: investigating Brandeis’ response to complaints of discrimination and harassment, a review of Brandeis’ policies and disciplinary procedures and finally, investigating how Brandeis’ climate and culture contributed to Meehan’s actions and how the climate can be improved.

Though the report states that Brandeis’ emphasis on personal relationships is often a positive part of the culture, it described a perception that “people trump policies.”

“As administrators and faculty explained, people just ‘don’t report people they like,’” it read. “Coach Meehan, for example, eventually came to be viewed as ‘untouchable,’” it continued.

The investigators found a “widespread anxiety” about lodging a complaint at Brandeis. Almost all witnesses interviewed by the investigators asked to remain as anonymous as was practical, and the report identified instances of bullying experienced by junior faculty, graduate students and staff.

The report cited confusion over complaint policies and concerns over retaliation as reasons members of the Brandeis community were afraid to come forward but emphasized that the investigators had interviews, not “hard data” on retaliation.

“There is a pervasive sense that institutional loyalty and a fear of potential retaliation discourages complaints,” read the report.

Throughout the investigation into Brandeis’ culture, the investigators’ own experience found a “widespread reluctance to come forward,” among the community.

“Relatively few underrepresented minority students or faculty members approached us in the first instance,” the report read but clarified that the investigators received more outreach after receiving assistance from Student Affairs and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

The report details quotes and testimony from anonymous faculty, staff and students about the culture of Brandeis, citing feelings of “alienation, isolation, cynicism, frustration, bullying, and mistrust—often among students of color,” and discusses diversity within Brandeis organizations.

The report compared the “stunning lack of diversity” the investigators found in the athletics department to a similar lack of diversity in the President Management Council (PMC), which has only one person of color out of between 20 and 25 members.

In an email to the student body, Liebowitz announced that administrators reporting directly to him are undergoing diversity, equity and inclusion training. The PMC will also participate in “six three-hour training sessions through the spring, with each member also undergoing an individual three-hour session as well,” read the email.

It also discussed diversity within the Board of Trustees. “Finally, administrators and faculty members knowledgeable about board governance all agree that diversity, equity and inclusion do not appear to be particularly pressing issues for Brandeis’s Board of Trustees unless there is an episodic crisis or it drives curricular change,” the report read.

There is no Board member or committee focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion and little racial diversity in the Board itself, according to the report, though there is a committee that searches to increase Board diversity.

In an email to the student body, Liebowitz announced that the Board of Trustees spent five hours discussing the report with the investigators during its two-day retreat. They discussed ways the Board and the administration can “play a more responsible and effective role in advancing progress on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” according to the email.

The Board also, in a unanimous vote and a resolution, said that “Brandeis should be a community that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive,” according to the email, which emphasized that the board was willing to hold itself and the university accountable and recruit more people of color.

The report found a “deep and wide acceptance of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion among the administrative ranks, deans and students. There is notably less consensus, however, among the faculty.”

It described some faculty members’ thoughts on diversity, saying that some feared focusing on diversity could cause “‘quotas’ Brandeis was founded to oppose,” and others feared that Brandeis’ Jewish roots could be lost with an increasingly non-Jewish population—roots that were integral to the identity of Brandeis, the investigators found.

It also focused on student thoughts on diversity, describing a lack of a feeling of belonging by African-American students, due to microaggressions, feeling singled out in the classroom or for comments on their attire or behavior. But it also emphasized that other factors, including socioeconomic status, can isolate minority groups and that minority students largely supported Brandeis.

In addition to a lack of diversity, the report explained that difficulties executing reforms, not ideas for reforms themselves, were a large problem. Chronic underfunding—which was described by a faculty member in the report as holding Brandeis together with “bubble gum and string”—little investment in proactive training, heavy burdens on faculty and administrators and poor recordkeeping and documentation presented problems for executing initiatives.

“We surmised that Brandeis administrators rarely have time to look for problems that do not register actual, repeated complaints,” the report read. It stated that Brandeis’ administrators often have to focus on “triage” and leave “little time for proactive risk management.”

The investigators proposed a list of goals to adjust complaint policies and procedures at Brandeis, which include having a consistent and clear process, support for those parties and witnesses in the process, ways to address potential conflicts of interest, training for investigators, realistic timelines, recordkeeping and protocols for information sharing.

But the report focused less on reforms, saying, “It would be presumptuous for us to make recommendations on widespread challenges in higher education that are well on their way to being addressed by thoughtful administration and faculty experts at Brandeis, as we detail below.”

It emphasized that Brandeis had been updating its complaint processes even before the H.R. investigation into Meehan and highlighted the university ombuds, a peer mediation service that works particularly with graduate students and the new streamlined complaint website. It also
cited the new Office of Equal Opportunity, which will reevaluate infrastructure and processes at Brandeis.

This office will house all Title IX related functions, which are currently under H.R. and Student Affairs, according to the report. Two employees investigating and managing Title IX investigations will move to this office.

The report also emphasized the increase in full-time faculty of color since 2015, increased outreach to graduate students of color and gave an overview of programs that exist to help minority students. In an email to the student body, Liebowitz also announced that when recruiting for senior positions, the search firm used will be required to produce a diverse pool of qualified candidates.

The report concluded by saying that “Not one of the problems we identified is unique to Brandeis. But this institution is in a unique position to address them now” and praised Brandeis’ transparency in releasing and issuing this report.

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