More on the Rape Accusation at Brown

Marcella (Beth) Dresdale was the former Brown student who accused a classmate of sexual harassment and then (a week later) changed the accusation to one of rape. The classmate, William McCormick, quickly left Brown, but eventually sued both Dresdale and her father, Richard Dresdale, a wealthy Brown donor. Before the Dresdales agreed to an out-of-court settlement (reportedly after McCormick had been offered $1.05 million), the lawsuit brought to light Richard Dresdale’s aggressive involvement in the Brown procedure that minimally investigated his daughter’s claims.

The lawsuit documents and subsequent press coverage also focused on the role in the case played by Dresdale’s and McCormick’s residential counselor, Shane Reil. (Reil at the time was a Brown undergraduate; he’s now a student at BC Law School.) A few days after Dresdale filed her claim of sexual harassment, but before she alleged she was raped, Reil dined privately with the Dresdales at the home of another wealthy Brown donor.

Following the dinner, Richard Dresdale said he’d be willing to mentor Reil, who was attending Brown on a need-based scholarship. A few days later, Reil filed his report on the case, which offered a negative portrayal of McCormick. If the case had gone forward, Reil would have been an important witness, given both his position in the dorm and the apparent lack of any physical evidence to corroborate Beth Dresdale’s allegation of sexual assault.

Richard Dresdale’s mentorship offer at the very least raised the appearance of impropriety. Yet Brown officials–even after the contact was revealed, many years later–said they had no problem with Dresdale’s behavior. Jonah Allen Ward, senior associate dean of student life, told the Brown Herald that in university disciplinary procedures, “There are no specific rules regarding disclosing relationships.”

Via Facebook, I told Reil that I was struggling to find an innocent explanation for the e-mail exchanges revealed in the McCormick lawsuit. I asked him for his side of the story. He responded at some length.

Reil denied any quid pro quo between Richard Dresdale’s mentorship offer and his report in the McCormick case; he stated that he “wasn’t influenced in any way” by anyone in making his report. He also noted that the dinner with Richard Dresdale occurred when the allegation was sexual harassment, rather than sexual assault, and that the dinner conversation didn’t involve the specifics of the case.

Reil said that he would have revealed his contact with Richard Dresdale had anyone asked. (Of course, Brown administrators have made clear that in disciplinary proceedings, they won’t ask about such contact.) He conceded, in retrospect, that the Dresdale mentorship offer might raise a question of appearances, but stated that he didn’t see it that way at the time. Dresdale, he added, mentored many Brown students, often including members of the football team, and he considered Dresdale’s offer to him a “kind gesture” but nothing inappropriate.

The statement that Reil submitted to Brown consisted mostly of repeating what Beth Dresdale had told him; only a “few sentences” consisted of his (basically negative) impressions of McCormick. He had spent considerable time with Dresdale during the period in which she leveled her charges–as he would have with any student who was indicating a (non-criminal) problem with another resident in the dorm. The rest of his report included feedback from other students in the dorm about McCormick, material that a residential counselor would have been expected to supply. His involvement in the case ended completely when Dresdale made her rape allegation (though he would have been an important witness had the case proceeded to a disciplinary tribunal).

To my knowledge, Reil previously hadn’t spoken publicly about his role in the case. Regardless of how people evaluate his credibility, two significant issues remain.

The first ties into the specifics of the Dresdale case. The statements of at least two student witnesses–Julie Siwicki and Spencer Brody–evolved from slightly negative remarks about McCormick to damning portrayals. (In Siwicki’s instance, the evolution was transparent, since she inserted a highly negative paragraph into a previously-submitted, and basically neutral, e-mail.) The evolution in the two students’ statements occurred at about the same time Richard Dresdale was offering career assistance to Reil. Did similar offers to Siwicki and Brody help explain their “evolution,” or did Dresdale encourage deans to reach out to the two students for amplification? There’s no way to know.

What we do know is that Richard Dresdale told Brown president Ruth Simmons that he worked to ensure that “other students” would not “face questioning from [McCormick’s] advocate.” It’s easy to understand why a father might not have wanted his daughter to face cross-examination before a disciplinary proceeding. But why was Richard Dresdale so eager to protect other students from such questioning?

In short, knowing that Richard Dresdale had made a mentorship offer to Reil would have opened up avenues for McCormick’s advocate to question Brody and especially Siwicki, to see if any improper contact had occurred between Dresdale and these witnesses. Yet according to Brown, the university’s procedure is set up so that no witness must divulge an offer of career assistance from an accuser’s wealthy father. This Catch-22 approach all but insures that improper contact between an accuser’s family and witnesses will remain secret.

Second: even if it was wholly innocent, the Dresdale-Reil contact illuminates yet again the limited due process protections available to accused students in campus tribunals. If McCormick had been criminally charged, the discovery process doubtless would have turned up the Dresdale e-mails, and Dresdale could have been cross-examined on the witness stand as to whether he was seeking to influence potential witnesses. Quite apart from the specifics of this case, it’s not hard to imagine how some students could have been influenced by an offer of career assistance from someone like Richard Dresdale.

Yet Brown’s general counsel can still say that a university process that doesn’t order witnesses to reveal contact from an accuser’s father offers “pretty robust” protections of due process, and that he’s satisfied with Brown’s ability to give accused students “fair treatment.”

To reiterate: the procedure used by Brown in the Dresdale case (and defended to the hilt by various university administrators) predated the assault on due process in the OCR’s “Dear Colleague” letter.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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