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Brandeis Confronts Bigotry -- and Those Who Looked the Other Way

University demotes two high-ranking administrators after they apparently failed to follow policy in investigating and disciplining a reportedly racist coach.

September 7, 2018
 
Brandeis U
Men's basketball coach Brian Meehan with a player

For years, Brandeis University showered its men’s basketball coach, Brian Meehan, with numerable lavish, if not astounding, perks for a Division III program -- slick coaching offices, foreign road trips, a retention package. But Meehan's perquisites reflected the institutional gratitude for the Judges’ success -- he took the team to the DIII Elite Eight on multiple occasions.

It was this winning record, and Meehan’s connections with top administrators, that seemed to shield him from punishment even when players reported his verbal abuse and in some cases, racist remarks, as Deadspin detailed in April.

Months after the Deadspin piece went public, though, Brandeis has demoted two high-level administrators and severed ties with another, the university announced this week. Two university investigations concluded Meehan made racially insensitive remarks and generally mistreated his players.

Officials fired Meehan in April, too, around the time Deadspin published its report. These actions are a contrast to, for instance, Ohio State University, which admittedly sponsors a much more high-profile and lucrative athletics program, but which declined to get rid of its prominent head football coach after he was found not to have properly reported allegations of domestic violence against a former assistant coach.

The episode with Brandeis illustrates how, once again, a successful coach escaped consequences -- at least for a while -- when he was boosting the university’s athletics profile. His firing happened only after Deadspin approached the university for comment. A report commissioned and released by the university and conducted by Walter Prince and Malcolm Graham, the assistant United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts and a retired associate justice on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, respectively, referred to Meehan as seemingly “untouchable, and above the rules, even to his superiors.”

Brandeis did not respond to request for further comment. Meehan has not given interviews to the news media and refused to participate in Prince and Graham's investigation.

Meehan joined Brandeis in 2003, part of administrators’ strategy to make basketball an attraction and more successful -- and for many seasons, he did. The team was the Eastern College Athletic Conference champions in the 2010-11 season.

Then his streak slipped -- in the years following the championship, Meehan would lose a majority of his games, a stumble attributed in the investigative report to “diminished ability to gain easy admission for his preferred players” -- this point isn’t explained much further. But the team faced recruitment and retention difficulties, especially with minority players. Since 2011, the team had 20 black players, but only three of them played for the entire four years, according to a human resources investigation by Brandeis.

Perhaps this was related to Meehan’s behavior. Investigators, who combed through 30,000 documents and interviewed more than 150 people, found that Meehan’s attitude soured, and he became much harsher with his players and put his two sons on the team “despite all recommendations to the contrary” from multiple advisers.

Part of the problem came with his close relationships with the athletics director, Lynne Dempsey, and the vice president of student affairs, Sheryl Sousa. Dempsey and Sousa could not be reached for comment.

Dempsey has been demoted, had her salary reduced and was put on probation after being placed on administrative leave in the spring. Sousa resigned. A third administrator, Robin Nelson-Bailey, vice president of human resources, also was demoted and punished.

According to the report, Dempsey and Meehan were close friends -- she introduced Meehan to his wife and officiated their wedding, which Sousa also attended. Sousa and her wife traveled with the Meehan family and the basketball team on a 10-day trip to Croatia in 2012, which “reignited” the friendship, Sousa has said.

Because their relationships were so visible, there was a perceived reluctance for players and others to come forward and complain about Meehan, the report states. Neither Sousa nor Dempsey developed other channels for athletes or employees to discuss Meehan’s behavior. Both women denied having a “blind spot” for Meehan and said they did not personally witness any of his poor behavior, according to the report.

But there were clear examples of their favoritism for Meehan. Players fill out surveys anonymously at the end of seasons, and the results from 2013-14 on for Meehan were quite negative. But Dempsey never talked about them with Meehan, even though these surveys can play a significant role in coaches’ annual performance reviews.

When a black player and his mother complained in 2014 about Meehan humiliating the athletes, and later Sousa saw his comments in that survey, she gave the coach a verbal warning about profanity -- but the misconduct continued. She gave him another “final written warning” in 2017, but Sousa and Dempsey didn’t monitor Meehan any further.

Meehan was subject to a six-month human resources investigation in 2017, but that was also marred by the university’s unclear policies and procedures and Sousa’s role in it, the report said. The HR investigator was able to select a final decision maker in players’ complaints against Meehan, and picked Sousa.

Sousa did not recuse herself and said it would not be a conflict of interest. However, after Brandeis’s HR investigator found evidence that Meehan had been emotionally abusive and prejudicial, Sousa decided she wanted to make an independent decision.

She asked for a full copy of the report, which the HR representative decided to redact. After reviewing the report, Sousa continued to doubt the findings because she had never personally witnessed discriminatory behavior, nor did she believe Meehan was a racist.

“It should go without saying, however, that discriminatory and abusive behavior can be (and often is) committed covertly, especially around supervisors,” the report from Prince and Graham states.

Sousa ultimately disagreed with the HR representative and wrote as much in her final decision -- the only potential punishment being the “final written warning.” Nelson-Bailey, the vice president of human resources, had also undercut the investigation and didn’t support the HR investigator, according to the report.

But about six months later, around the time that Deadspin was about to publish its investigation, and Meehan had once again been accused by another player of color of making a racially insensitive remark, Sousa abruptly reversed her decision.

She said she had just learned the initial investigator had redacted information in the report, “that in Sousa’s view justified Meehan’s termination” -- not about his racist comments, but his treatment of injured players.

“It is important to understand that Sousa never disciplined or terminated Meehan for discriminatory behavior,” the report states.

The duo, Prince and Graham, will come fall be releasing a second report on improvements Brandeis could make to its climate and culture.

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