Dez Wells Saga Reveals Misplaced Priorities of Xavier Disciplinary Process

Posted by Chris Johnson on August 30th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

When Xavier announced earlier this month the expulsion of star guard Dezmine Wells, the move seemed rash and awfully premature. At the outset, the school was reticent to release any specific details and we were left to assume Wells’ dismissal was completely within bounds, that his actions were heinous and severe enough to warrant such decisive punishment. XU termed Wells’ transgression a “severe violation of the Code of Student Conduct”, but claimed “federal privacy law restrictions” prevented a more thorough explanation. CBSSports.com’s Jeff Goodman reported the incident involved sexual misconduct, which put Wells – who, in the immediate aftermath of the allegations coming to light, didn’t respond to the school’s actions – in a particularly bad light. As XU’s best returning player, Wells’ actions damaged not only his own reputation but his former school’s prospects on the court next season. Several developments over the past week and change have shifted the tenor of that narrative.

The specious allegations against Wells gave XU all the evidence it needed to expel him (Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images).

An Ohio grand jury exposed the XU conduct board for its hasty litigation process, essentially claiming that the suit was improperly adjudicated in a way that violated the basic tenets of the American judicial system. Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters officially denounced the XU’s criminal charges and called its disciplinary process “seriously flawed.” XU in response held firm to its protocol and refused to back down after the grand jury’s ruling. The school reiterated its stance on Wells’ actions under the contention that its ethical and disciplinary standards differ from those of the American justice system, and thus covered itself against criticism from the suspicious eyes of nuanced legal officials like Deters. In a statement released to ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil, XU justified its retributive protocol:

The process used by the Xavier University Conduct Board is the standard used in American universities. The XU Conduct Board heard evidence that may or may not have been heard by the grand jury. After the Conduct Board reached its decision, the matter was considered and upheld by an appeal board of members of the student body, faculty and staff and is final.

As external pressure mounted, the more skepticism and doubt hung over XU’s punitive guidelines. Next Merlyn Shiverdecker, Wells’ attorney, threw his hat into the ring by calling out the university on what he viewed as “self-serving gobbledygook.” From O’Neil’s report: “I think they were committed to the process and not the fairness of the outcome. Dez Wells got thrown under a bus because of their commitment to the process.” At a glance, Shiverdecker’s statement can be read as a textbook defense of his client. After all, his job is to clear Wells’ name, not shine a criticial spotlight on the school’s litigation process. But his words may well have achieved both actions. As it turns out, XU reached an agreement with the Department of Education last month to reform its handling of sexual misconduct cases after several incidents in which the university’s proscribed disciplinary measures were deemed insufficient. The investigation prompted substantial turnover in XU’s Student Life department, including the forced removal of Dean of Students Luther Smith. With federal judicial bigwigs analyzing XU’s every move in these sorts of cases, it should come as no surprise that Shiverdecker questioned the University Conduct Board’s “process” in dealing with Wells’ alleged sexual impropriety. The more layers that get peeled back, the more it seems XU was pouncing on the slightest hint of sexual misconduct in an attempt to validate its newfound protocol amid severe federal scrutiny – much less reviewing Wells’ case with an objective and morally equitable process.

We finally got Wells’ take on the situation Wednesday afternoon, when he spoke with Goodman in surprisingly benign tones. Wells understood the severity of the accusations and the university’s resultant concern to resolve the matter. The question he raised – a question shared by other interested observers and a fair one at that – is whether the university’s involvement with federal judicial administrators influenced their decision.

I didn’t think the process was fair. I went into it as guilty and having to prove my innocence instead of them having to prove that I was guilty. I feel like everyone rushed the process and panicked. They went with a gut feel. I understand the severity of the accusations. Rape is one of the highest felonies in the world, but I think they just panicked. I do think what happened at Xavier affected what they did with me.

The school’s actions have weathered challenges from an Ohio grand jury, Wells’ attorney and, at least to a small degree, Wells himself. XU never approached the situation with an impartial mindset. From the moment word broke of potential sexual wrongdoing – actions that, according to Wells, were consensual – the Conduct Board set its sights on proving federal administrators it could crackdown, and do so with urgency. This was about setting a precedent for future cases involving sexual impropriety, about making a statement that would resonate at the highest levels of federal judicial oversight. That Wells – arguably the school’s most prominent athlete, and an integral piece of XU’s mission to keep alive its seven-year NCAA Tournament streak – stood as the subject of severe allegations, earned fairly or not, was an added bonus. Expelling a prominent and widely revered member of the XU community like Wells is as strong a statement as any in dispelling any notion of loose enforcement with sexual infractions cases. The university needed a test case to substantiate its compliance with federal mandate; Wells proved the perfect target.

If there’s a positive takeaway from this morass of legal cobwebs, it’s that Wells walks away with his reputation somewhat intact. He will forever be linked to allegations of sexual assault, and that stigma may never be completely erased. But Wells can move on to his next basketball destination with the satisfaction of having bypassed the critical and lawful – as opposed to the Conduct Board’s shoddy and impartial investigative procedure – inspection of an Ohio grand jury. Plus, Wells seems to be winning in the court of public opinion, too, which is often just as (or nearly as) important as the official legal outcome. The bruising 6’5’’ guard now faces the unfortunate reality of finding a new school and sitting out the customary transfer year when playing for Xavier was all he ever wanted in the first place (“I didn’t want to play anywhere else except for Xavier and Coach (Chris) Mack,” Wells told Goodman). According to ESPN senior college basketball recruiting analyst Dave Telep, Wells has already made his way to Lexington and plans to spend the next few days taking to UK head coach John Calipari. He’s also expected to take trips to Memphis and Maryland, with a decision coming as early as Monday. If you’re forced to leave your school of choice, hitting the secondary re-recruit market with that decorated selection of schools in hot pursuit isn’t necessarily a worst-case scenario. Wells will make a fantastic addition to any of the aforementioned programs. But it’s hard to come away thinking Wells got a fair shake, all things considered. XU proceeded on impulse, a hastily-concocted course of action guided by the single objective of making good on federal orders. Wells took the brunt of the punishment from the school’s unilateral legal mission. All we can hope is that he withstands this considerable setback, gets back on his feet and continues a promising college hoops career at another program.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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