Columns

Weinstein ’17: Sexual assault and conflict of interest

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, March 13, 2015

If the two recent cases regarding the alleged spiking of two women’s drink with GHB at a Phi Kappa Psi party and the alleged sexual assault of one of the women have conclusively proven anything, it’s that many people do not trust Brown’s disciplinary system. Two of the biggest issues in the recent cases — the University’s possible preferential treatment of the male student accused of spiking the drink and a Student Conduct Board’s finding that a different student was not responsible for allegedly sexually assaulting one of the women because her incapacitation did not allow her to provide a complete testimony — are similar to incidents that have played out at Brown before.

For example, the 1996 Adam Lack case also rested on an incapacitated student’s testimony and whether the respondent should have known she was too intoxicated to give proper consent.

In the fall of 1996, Sara Klein ’99 accused Adam Lack ’97 of sexual assault. According to Lack’s version of the story, Klein initiated their sexual encounter, stayed up late talking with him and gave him her phone number. Klein, who said she was too drunk to remember the night, claimed that she must also have been too intoxicated to give consent. Lack was first suspended and then sentenced to two semesters of probation. He sued the University, and they reached a confidential settlement.

At the time, Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn was head of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center.  In the spring 1997 issue of the campus publication “Issues,” Klawunn said men advocating for Lack “are afraid that they have already been or will be the next Adam Lack. Many men see themselves as potentially in that situation or have already been in that situation. This case has become a magnet for men who have skeletons in the closet.” On the issue of preferential treatment, The Herald reported in 2010 that in fall 1996 “the University Disciplinary Committee declined to hear a female student’s complaint of sexual assault against a male student, citing the complexity of the evidence. The male student, her ex-boyfriend, was a relative of Jordan’s royal family whose father had donated money to the University. The committee’s decision led to an investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. According to a 1997 University press release, the investigation was later dropped at the request of the parties.” 

In September 2006, Beth Dresdale ’10, daughter of wealthy Corporation trustee Richard Dresdale ’78, accused William McCormick III ’10 first of stalking her and then of having raped her.  McCormick was handed a plane ticket home by now-Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 before he was told that he had been accused of rape. Richard Dresdale emailed former President Ruth Simmons, saying he was trying to get McCormick to withdraw from the University — which he did, citing a seizure condition — rather than undergo a disciplinary hearing.  A private investigator hired by Dresdale interfered with McCormick’s advocate, assistant wrestling coach Michael Burch. McCormick sued the University and both Dresdales, and the suit was settled.

Whether or not a conflict of interest changed the outcome of any of these cases, a potential conflict of interest obviously exists. Administrators are tasked with protecting Brown’s institutional interests, including preserving the school’s reputation, encouraging donors and maintaining academic excellence. I don’t mean to insinuate that all administrators calculate their decisions in terms of institutional interest. But administrator discretion in sexual assault cases can clearly create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Given the history of mishandled sexual assault cases, both at Brown and at schools across the country, it’s time to consider taking these cases out of the hands of administrators. Students, both accused and accuser, could have more faith in the system if Brown retained independent professionals to handle these cases. Already, the University — following the interim recommendations of the Task Force on Sexual Assault — is implementing the single investigator model, in which one professional investigator gathers evidence and presents it as a book to the hearing panel, Katie Byron ’15, a member of the task force, told me.

This is a good step, but I’d rather see one investigator for each side of the hearing, and an accommodation to allow the accused to face the accuser while mitigating trauma for the complainant. Under the current system, attorneys cannot speak for their clients in the hearings — only students and their advocates can, Byron said. It may be worth reconsidering this ban. Additionally, many of the steps proposed by the activist group Act4RJ in their list of demands of the University presented at Wednesday’s protest would also make the system work better for both parties.

Going forward, administrators should refer all complaints to investigators, who should have the sole authority to decide whether the case goes to a hearing, provided the parties do not reach some other settlement. Hearings should be run not by a panel comprising a student, a faculty member and an administrator, but by a retired judge retained by the University. Students, faculty members and administrators could potentially be influenced by their institutional relationship to the University, creating the appearance of a conflict of interest.

More importantly, the judge will deliver a finding of fact and recommended sanction. If the University chooses not to implement that sanction, it should be obligated to provide a reason, and both sides should be given a chance to appeal. While independent professionals won’t get every case right — no system ever will — they would remove one potential conflict of interest from the disciplinary process. That’s a system we can all have more faith in. Students, both accuser and accused, deserve that.


Duncan Weinstein ’17 has a conflict of interest: He knows people who have been complainants and respondents in sexual assault cases. He can be reached at 
duncan_weinstein@brown.edu.

 

  • guest

    There is so much focus on punishing sexual assault. If we give more expensive tickets for speeding, will that reduce traffic accidents? In practice, research has shown that driver’s education reduces accidents in the long run, and so speeding tickets often entail traffic classes. A proactive approach is more effective than a purely punitive one.

    Why not more discussion on ways we can reduce the risk of sexual assault/rape?

    • Greek Alum

      Bad analogy. The proper analogy is how we should determine if speeding occurred – I mean maybe the highway wanted the driver to drive that fast. Does it remember telling the driver to slow down?

    • Sam Davidoff-Gore

      In this case, the focus is not necessarily on punishing sexual assault but rather holding the university accountable for the terrible job it did (I don’t think anyone disagrees that the University screwed up majorly). There are conversations happening not only about punishing sexual assault, which is important, but also about how to better educate the community and how to create safer spaces. I don’t know about all of the initiatives going on, and many of them are grass roots; however, programs such as SAPE are working extraordinarily hard to help create a safer community. But if the University doesn’t handle cases of sexual assault properly, it sends a message to the community that undermines the efforts to educate against sexual assault. It’s all connected.

      • guest

        Right, and I’d rather see those conversations on the pages of the BDH, and bring those discussions about safe spaces to the forefront. This is a good step. Regardless, the University has already mishandled previous cases, the examples of which are cited by the author himself.

  • Greek Alum

    I like where your head is at Duncan. If the judge is being paid by the university though, won’t he or she still have a conflict of interest? I guess you could set up like tenure works though, right? If I understand the concept of being tenured correctly: that basically protects professors from being fired by the university for stating opinions the university doesn’t like. Would definitely need this judge’s position to be protected from ruling in ways the university didn’t like.

  • Guest

    “…In the spring 1997 issue of the campus publication “Issues,” Klawunn said men advocating for Lack “are afraid that they have already been or will be the next Adam Lack. Many men see themselves as potentially in that situation or have already been in that situation. This case has become a magnet for men who have skeletons in the closet…”

    I find this particularly troubling, especially because Adam Lack was eventually exonerated. After an administrator makes public comments such as these, what student would want to stand up for an accused student who he/she truly believes to be innocent? To label anyone who supports an accused student as a man who has “skeletons in the closet” is simply intimidating, overly generalized, and factually unsupportable.

    As Ms. Klawunn is now in charge of the office handling sexual misconduct cases, it seems that the same views expressed in that statement might pervade the Office of Student Life. In the comprehensive article written by Ryan Fleming about the McCormick case (http://brown-spectator.com/2012/05/a-universitys-shame-how-brown-betrayed-one-of-its-students/), Fleming states that that the only dean who was privately sympathetic to McCormick told McCormick’s advisor “We are all afraid for our jobs.”

    Any sort of intimidation against one side or the other by university officials, if proven, would be morally inappropriate. Just my thoughts.

    • Klaw Mi

      I have always known that Klawunn is no good. If she is afraid for her job, let us unburden her. A university leader is expected to act with conviction about what are right. But of course it is prerequisite that they have the intellect for telling what those right things are. All these leaders do at Brown University is to cover their butts. They are stupid, crass, and immoral. They make me sick.

  • Fraga123

    If someone is the alleged victim of a violent crime, he or she should go to the Police.
    Problem solved.

    • Survivor ’15

      Well, that’s not a problem solved. A criminal case potentially taking years would not have alleviated my PTSD due to seeing him every day. I couldn’t afford to lose a semester or two of tuition. What I needed wasn’t him behind bars, it was him off the campus. And a university process can do that. They have a purpose when they’re not being horrifically mishandled.

      • Fraga123

        A university process is unconstitutional and conducted by amateurs. You’re a moron if you think that is a solution.

        • ’09

          So when the university expels someone for academic dishonesty or having drugs (assuming no criminal case) is that unconstitutional too?

          • Fraga123

            At a state university, if those actions were taken without basic due process provisions, yes, and the student would likely win if he or she sued.

            See Dixon v. Alabama Board of Education.

          • future jd

            Brown is not a state university.

          • Fraga123

            Private universities still have basic, Constitutional due process standards to live up to.

          • ’09

            The case you cited ruled that it’s ruling specifically only applies to public schools. Just as the 4th ammendment doesn’t protect brown students from brown entering their dorm rooms, there is no constitutional right to due process at a private school.

          • Fraga123

            So Brown can declare alleged rapists automatically guilty and the university can mete out specific accelerated punishments for black men accused of rape? Interesting.

          • ’09

            Brown has a non-discrimination policy so punishing black students differently from non black students would give black students grounds for a lawsuit.

            I do believe Brown could set its misconduct burden of proof low enough to allow an accusation alone to be sufficient for a guilty verdict though if it wanted. I believe Title IX simply only requires that it not be higher than preponderance of evidence but has no minimum.

          • Fraga123

            I think the issue is that private schools can only. Be litigated against if they do not follow the “contract” described in their description of how they mete out judgement in proceedings against students, but Constitutionally can do whatever they want.

      • Survivor ’15

        You’re also operating under a few incorrect assumptions here: university proceedings are not determining whether rape legally occurred. They’re determining whether a violation of the Student Code of Conduct occurred. They can also only deliver sanctions up to expulsion. Even if they are exploring potentially illegal events, they are not and never have been in the business of determining legality.

        Also, I don’t appreciate being referred to as a moron. I know the process inside and out.

        • Fraga123

          When an amateur kangaroo court makes judgements based on little to no due process or rules of evidence, the word “process” should perhaps not be used, moron.

  • Fraga123

    These patriarchal notions of presumption of innocence and the need for professionals at a hearing boggle the mind. Let’s listen to the feminists and women’s studies departments for guidance, ok?

    • Student ’15

      If you knew anything about the current revision of policies and anything about the activism on campus, you would know that inclusion of more professionals is on everyone’s demands. Even those godless liberal feminists you seem so threatened by.

      • Fraga123

        Complete nonsense, but keep the faith, sexist pig.

  • John Doe

    This is an incendiary work of fluff that implausibly connects events of the past with the present. There is no substantive conclusion other than those actions happened, and only publicly provokes agony for all those involved parties. Mr. Weinstein, what is the purpose of kicking up unrelated dirt? Because you dug around and exposed semi-known facts about past cases and connected individuals? Congratulations. We all know there is institutional failure in college-led procedures across the country, but don’t use the ghosts of the past for the purpose of your weaseling personal agenda.

    • ’09

      Wait, what? We know colleges are bad at this but don’t use evidence of colleges being bad at this in an article about a proposed theory of how to make colleges not bad at this?

  • Alum ’14

    Awesome article — I think this is one of the first pieces out of the Herald (at least recently) to strike a balance between A. advocating for much needed reforms in campus sexual assault policy and B. recognizing the need for a fair process, rather than one that simply demonizes and punishes every defendant regardless of guilt.

    On top of that, your reliance on facts to paint a concrete picture of Brown’s history with sexual assault policy grounds your policy recommendations in reality, rather than within unjustified abstractions.

    Really nice work!