As university after university follows the OCR’s mandate to lower the threshold for evaluating campus sexual assault claims–and thereby to increase the likelihood of convictions from false accusations–it’s worth keeping in mind cases in which even the pre-“Dear Colleague” procedure broke down. Caleb Warner’s is one such case; William McCormick’s is another.
I’ve written about the McCormick case previously; the then-Brown freshman was accused first of sexual harassment and then sexual assault by Marcella Dresdale, daughter of Richard Dresdale, a major Brown donor who founded Fenway Partners, a $2.1 billion equity firm. Richard Dresdale appeared to have improperly influenced Brown administrators–who aggressively moved to get rid of McCormick before he even encountered Brown’s accuser-friendly disciplinary system. McCormick transferred to Bucknell, but subsequently filed a suit against the Dresdales and against Brown; the suit was settled out of court.
Now the Brown Spectator–with considerable original reporting–has laid out the most comprehensive coverage to date of the case. In a searing, 3,279-word article, Spectator editor Ryan Fleming uses interviews and documents from the since-settled lawsuit to try to piece together what happened in a case that had no witnesses and no physical evidence that even Brown’s lax standards deemed admissible. The central players in this tale were not Marcella Dresdale or William McCormick but instead various Brown administrators, who all but ceded their authority to Dresdale’s father, and the students’ Brown-appointed residential counselor.
Fleming’s article uses Brown’s own reports to show that Marcella Dresdale’s story dramatically changed over the course of a week–from an allegation that McCormick was stalking her and behaving creepily to a claim of a violent rape. Dresdale did not seek medical attention after the alleged rape, nor did she file a report with either the campus police or the local police. The Spectator also uncovered fascinating e-mails from students who allegedly witnessed exchanges between Dresdale and McCormick–e-mails that “evolved” in such an awkward fashion that a representative who believed in McCormick’s innocence would have had a field day in cross-examination. (One student, Julie Siwicki, simply inserted a damning portrayal of McCormick in between two paragraphs of a previously submitted e-mail that didn’t seem to help Dresdale’s case.) Perhaps such awkwardness was why Dresdale’s father worked so hard, as he told Brown president Ruth Simmons in an e-mail, to avoid a hearing and thereby enable his daughter “and the other students to avoid having to . . . face questioning from [McCormick’s] advocate.”
Given the above, it might seem that even by the OCR-mandated preponderance-of-evidence standard, McCormick would have been found not guilty. Yet Fleming’s article (as well as an older report from The Herald) convincingly suggests the opposite–that if a hearing had taken place, McCormick quite likely would have been found guilty, in no small part because of the role of the students’ residential counselor, another Brown undergraduate named Shane Reil. Reil’s role shows how easily college judicial processes can be corrupted–at least if the corruption conforms to the preexisting ideological or financial interests of the college administration.
Raised by a single mother from western Massachusetts, Reil came from a very different world than did the Dresdales. According to a video testimonial he did for Brown, Reil’s father died when he was very young; at 14, he started working as a part-time dishwasher to help pay his family’s bills. He said that even with Brown’s financial aid package, he never could have attended the university but for a special scholarship (intended to help the school’s neediest students) set up by liquor magnate Sidney Frank. Given his ambition (he wrote that he wanted to be GM of the Boston Red Sox) and the limited contacts his upbringing left him, it’s understandable how Reil might have seen in Richard Dresdale a figure worth cultivating.
In handling the case, Reil almost behaved as if he wanted to create the appearance of a conflict of interest. In an e-mail to her father, Riel admitted that he was “becoming very close” to Marcella Dresdale–calling into question his objectivity regarding any claims that Dresdale was making. Oddly, when she changed her story from sexual harassment to rape, Marcella Dresdale elected to have Reil inform Brown officials of the details of the alleged assault.
Reil was “becoming very close” to Marcella Dresdale off campus, as well. Three days after Dresdale filed her sexual harassment claim–and four days before she changed her story to sexual assault–Reil spent an evening with the Dresdales, having Chinese food, watching football, and playing pool at the home of private equity manager Habib Gorgi.
In a subsequent e-mail to Richard Dresdale, who he described as a “mentor,” Reil expressed eagerness to get together again–he’d even, he said, be happy to cook. (Did he make similar offers to less wealthy parents?) Marcella Dresdale had told him, he wrote, that her father “would not mind helping me to straighten out a path for my future.” Richard Dresdale quickly replied–to an undergraduate he had first met only days before–that he would be “happy” to consult with Reil later in the semester.
If McCormick hadn’t withdrawn from Brown and instead had pressed his case through Brown’s disciplinary procedures, Reil would have been a critical witness in the hearing–the supposedly neutral, older student who could testify as to exchanges between Dresdale and McCormick and who could provide neutral character evaluations of the duo. Instead, of course, he was “becoming very close” with Marcella Dresdale and seeking out her father for career assistance.
It’s little surprise that Reil (who seemed to have no professional training in either psychology or counseling) gave a statement to Brown officials damning McCormick as “emotionally eccentric” and “a tense individual who is prone to anger.” In this statement, he did not reveal his plans for Richard Dresdale to serve as his mentor or to help straighten out a path for his future.
Reil, who has just completed his first year at Boston College Law School, declined comment to The Herald; he did not respond to a request for comment that I sent to his Facebook page.
Incredibly, according to Brown’s senior associate dean of student life, Jonah Allen Ward, the behavior of neither Reil nor Richard Dresdale violated university procedures. In an e-mail to The Herald, Ward asserted, “There are no specific rules regarding disclosing relationships.” It would be hard to imagine a more damning admission regarding the inability of campus judicial procedures to protect the due process of the accused than a statement that a key witness–much less the residential counselor to the students in a sexual assault case–doesn’t have to reveal that he had secretly met with the accuser’s father to seek career assistance.
And remember: the Dresdale case preceded the OCR mandate that universities lower their threshold for finding students responsible for sexual assault.