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Could music students be more at risk for sexual misconduct by professors?

Vulnerable Students
July 30, 2013

Earlier this month the University of Connecticut announced it was investigating allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of a music professor. Days later came word that a music professor at the College of Charleston has resigned after that institution’s investigation into similar allegations against him.

The incidents recall a like pair of cases of alleged sexual misconduct on the part of music professors in 2002, at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin, and reports of similar events throughout the last decade. It’s unclear whether the trend is statistically significant: the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights doesn’t track reports of sexual misconduct by “type” of alleged perpetrator and, as with sexual assault in general, many cases may go unreported.

But anecdotal evidence suggests music professors, due to a mix of cultural factors and opportunity, may be more frequently involved in such incidents than other professors. With that in mind, some institutions have taken steps to mitigate the risk of professor misconduct and better protect their music students.

At the College of Charleston, Enrique Graf, a tenured professor of music who led the artist certificate program for piano, is accused of sexual misconduct involving two students there and another student at a separate institution dating to the 1980s.

The college began its investigation this winter, after a student reported sexual assault and harassment by Graf, including coerced oral sex. During the course of the investigation, the college uncovered previous, similar allegations against the pianist brought by a student of his in 1994, said Brian McGee, the college's chief of staff, as well as a 2006 e-mail sent by the then-wife of another man who said the professor had sexually abused him from ages 13 to 19 when he was a student at the Peabody Preparatory, now part of the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

The message was received by a department chair, McGee said, and reached the now-retired provost, but “we could not confirm the scope of the review done on that e-mail.” No charges against Graf have been filed.

In a report prepared for the college this year, a third-party investigator found that Graf “likely” made sexual advances toward and engaged in “unwanted and unwelcome sexual activity” with his current student accuser. It also found the allegations of abuse in the 2006 e-mail to be "true." McGee said the student involved in the 1994 case revoked his allegations after the college started an investigation, but that Graf at that time had been warned to behave “scrupulously” going forward.

The report also concludes that Graf had “likely” used marijuana, cocaine and alcohol with his students, against college regulations for faculty.

Graf resigned from the college in early June, as the investigation drew to a close and a hearing was scheduled. In the wake of Graf's resignation, President F. George Benson sent a letter to South Carolina’s attorney general, asking for advice on how to handle his “conflicting impulses”; that is, how to make public the allegations against Graf to alert institutions that would hire him without putting the college at risk with regard to libel and slander laws.

“Taking actions to inform the public about the facts surrounding an employee’s resignation would potentially serve an important public interest by allowing prospective employers to consider a significant detail of the individual’s work history,” Benson wrote. (The college released details of its investigation to Inside Higher Ed following a Freedom of Information Act request.)

Graf, in an e-mail interview, called the allegations against him “absurd, baseless and untrue.” He categorically denied any sexual misconduct, as well as any kind of sexual relationship with his accusers (Charleston bans relationships between professors and their current students, and strongly discourages relationships between professors and other students of the college).

“I have had hundreds of students, most of whom I consider close friends and cherished colleagues,” in 24 years at Charleston, he said. Most of Graf's students interviewed as part of the investigation reported no inappropriate behavior on his part.

Graf criticized the way the investigation was run. He blamed the college’s response to the allegations against him in part on administrators’ fears that they would be compared to their counterparts at Pennsylvania State University and at the Citadel, where, in recent years, leaders have been accused of not acting on early reports of child abuse by staff members or students.

The conditions of his hearing -- including that his lawyer would not have been allowed to examine witnesses – served as further evidence of the administration’s bias, he said. "It was impractical and unappealing to consider continuing my career at the College of Charleston.”

An Inquiry at Connecticut

The allegations involving Graf are similar to those involving Robert Miller, professor of music at the University of Connecticut. He is currently on paid leave as university officials comply with ongoing criminal investigations into charges that he molested children in two states several decades ago, and as the university investigates its handling of information dating to 2006 that Miller may have been a pedophile.

In the course of a preliminary internal investigation, another faculty member also said Miller was known to visit dorms and do drugs and have sex with students. The university is considering a separate investigation into those claims. Miller did not return a call for comment, and has not spoken publicly about his case. His lawyer, Bethany Phillips, did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2002, the University of Michigan paid a former oboe student $250,000 as a result of a lawsuit claiming she was sexually harassed on multiple occasions by a visiting professor. Also that year, at the University of Texas at Austin, a student filed a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights that a music professor made lewd jokes that contributed to an uncomfortable environment.

Other allegations against music professors include those against Massimo La Rosa, a Cleveland Orchestra trombonist and a former guest artist at the University of Iowa. A report against La Rosa was filed with university police in 2011, but the complainant ultimately decided not to pursue criminal charges. Because charges were never filed, details of the report could not be released, a university spokesman said. "We would like to share, however, that -- for several years now -- we have had a number of policies in place that govern the management of sexual misconduct when it occurs on our campus."

La Rosa referred a request for comment to his lawyer, who declined to comment on the alleged incident.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, the female trombonist involved in the incident said she decided not to file criminal charges because the university investigation was so lengthy and involved, and she was busy working on her master's degree in music and playing recitals at the time (she has since completed her doctorate). But she said the incident was so disturbing that she sought counseling for several months.

During a private lesson initiated by La Rosa, she said, he asked her to lie on the floor of the windowless practice room for breathing exercises -- something no other instructor had ever asked her to do. La Rosa began touching the woman in ways that made her feel uncomfortable, including putting his hand up her skirt, she said, and ignored her repeated demands for him to stop. "He had me close my eyes and started kissing me and I rolled away, and I think I looked just terrified," ending the lesson, she said.

The woman said she struggled with reporting the incident and first wrote La Rosa an e-mail telling him not to take advantage of other students in that way. Eventually she told another music professor and filed a complaint with the university. "No one really wants to come forward with this kind of stuff," she said. "You don't want to damage your own career, first off, and these people -- I feel like it happens mainly with orchestral players -- are put on such a high pedestal and treated like rock stars."

La Rosa is still a faculty member at the Cleveland Institute of Music. A spokeswoman referred questions about the incident back to the University of Iowa, "where these allegations originated."

The Cleveland conservatory said it “investigated fully and resolved” additional allegations of sexual misconduct brought in 2004 by one of its students against William Preucil, a string faculty member. The Cleveland Scene reported that the conservatory paid for the woman to transfer music schools and continue her education elsewhere. An institute spokeswoman declined to comment on those claims, citing a confidentiality agreement that was part of the resolution of the case. Preucil, who is also concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, did not return a request for comment through the institute.

History and Culture

Experts attribute these alleged incidents to cultural factors within the music world, as well as the availability of more windows of opportunity.

In a piece he wrote this year for Norman Lebrecht’s blog, Slipped Disc, Robert Fitzpatrick, former dean of the Curtis Institute, traced the “sinister trend” in American music education to European conservatories, and the St. Petersburg Conservatory in particular. Historically more permissive of abuses against students, faculty from those institutions founded and staffed many American music programs starting in the early 20th century, he wrote.

“Female conservatory students were very rare in those days and the chauvinist male teachers, almost all products of the Euro-conservatory system, sometimes carried their aggressive educational strategies further to include sexual intimidation and worse toward their female pupils,” he wrote. “It’s no accident that after Curtis (nicknamed ‘Coitus’ by some in the 1930s) was open for a few years, the founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, insisted on small windows in the doors of all teaching studios, class rooms and practice rooms.”

He continued: “According to a subset of my proposed theory, this tradition of the major private teacher as an omnipotent, infallible force capable of abuse was imported to the USA primarily by these St. Petersburg refugees.... Like the Catholic Church, music schools tended to sweep their dirty little secrets under the rug.  Students were never willing to discuss the improper actions of their instructors because of fear of reprisal that could sink their career as a performer.”

William Osborne, a composer who has written extensively about gender bias in the music world, agreed that a power dynamic specific to music – where the instructor has great artistic influence over the student, as well as great ability to shape his or her future career – can contribute to increased instances of abuse. “Music teachers sometimes have a star status in the music world which can put them in a position to exploit students,” he said.

In the College of Charleston report, Graf's student accuser says that he was thinking about attending a different institution for graduate studies. When he told the professor, the student says Graf offered him an assistantship, CD recording and a recital in Graf's native Uruguay if he stayed, as well as the opportunity to finish the artist certificate program in one year instead of two. The student also says Graf had recently revoked several of those promises in an attempt to keep him studying at Charleston for his own personal gain.

Graf said he and the student had a "falling out."

Additionally, Osborne said, opportunities to travel out of town with students to music festivals and other daily one-on-one interactions make for more windows for such exploitation. In Graf's case, his student accuser alleges that one incident of assault occurred during a trip to Paris following a music festival in Italy. Graf only reserved one hotel room with one bed, according to the investigative report.

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, referred to reports of sexual misconduct in the music world not as a trend, but rather a "historical problem." 

The history of the discipline is full of consensual instructor-teacher relationships, to the point of cliché, he said. And while the overwhelming majority of musicians are ethical people, he said, that precedent -- combined with the fact that musicians frequently must touch their students for instructional purposes -- leaves both pupil and teacher more exposed to potential abuses of the relationship.

Putting Policies in Place

At Curtis today, Bok’s windows remain. Roberto Diaz, president of the Philadelphia-based institution, said in an e-mail it has a “zero tolerance” policy for inappropriate behavior by employees or students, and all allegations of sexual misconduct would meet with “immediate action.” Numerous services, including counseling, are available for students in the event of a formal complaint, he added.

The College of Charleston already has changed its music program policies in light of the Graf case. Students aren’t allowed to practice one-on-one with faculty in rooms with locked doors or blocked windows, McGee said.

With more students coming forward with allegations of misconduct, Botstein said he'd heard of music instructors videotaping lessons to protect themselves. While that's going "too far," he said, he advocated that institutions have clear, objective standards for professor and student conduct. And because the instructor-teacher relationship is more complicated when the student is an adult, he said institutions might consider explicitly training and empowering students to "head off" romantic advances. (Anything more aggressive or violent requires a third-party intervention, he noted.)

"The abuse of the student-teacher relationship is not something to be recommended under any circumstances," he said. "But let's say you're [an adult] student and your piano teacher is overly friendly and you're feeling uncomfortable, or he does something vaguely inappropriate, like invites you to coffee at 11 p.m. As adults, you need to be trained to say, 'I admire you as a teacher and a pianist, but...' "

La Rosa's accuser said she "kind of" agreed with that idea, but that it was also a university's responsibility to fully investigate the instructors they're inviting to work with students. Glass practice room doors and a custom of recording lessons also could be effective deterrents for inappropriate behavior, she said. The female trombonist, who hopes to become a professor, plans to record her own one-on-one sessions.

Daniel Swinton, senior executive vice president at the NCHERM Group, a law and consulting firm that advises schools and colleges on safer schools and campuses, said that it’s difficult to speculate on which departments may be more prone to instances of sexual assault by faculty, since it’s so underreported as a crime in general.

But faced with allegations, he said, institutions have an obligation to take “reasonable and targeted” measures to stop the harassment or abuse, prevent its reoccurrence and remedy its effects. For example, he said, if an institution receives allegations of harassment occurring in closed-door meeting with students, it's reasonable and targeted during an investigation period to prevent that faculty member from having such meetings.

Other best practices to prevent and stop professor sexual misconduct include having an easy means of reporting, such as through an online system; having department-level discussions on sexual assault and harassment; and dedicating a web page to those issues, with listed resources for the student, friends and family, Swinton said.

The accused perpetrator should be suspended while the investigation is pending and, in other cases or if the professor returns to campus, the student accuser should be allowed to switch course schedules to avoid forced interaction with him or her.

In both UConn’s and College of Charleston’s cases, early warnings of child abuse also were seemingly ignored. Swinton said that although they didn’t contain information about students at those colleges, “institutions have an obligation to investigate the matter.” Allegations of child sexual abuse must be shared with law enforcement officials, as well as the institution’s Title IX coordinator.

The female trombonist said she advised students who have experienced professor misconduct to speak out. Since 2011, she said she's heard of other musicians whose aspiring careers have been "ruined" by such incidents. They don't report what happened but remain so disturbed that they eventually give up their instruments, she said.

"I can't imagine living everyday and not coming forward to tell someone, while [the perpetrators are] still living their lives, and nothing's changed for them -- while they're still sitting in the back of a prestigious orchestra playing concertos," she said.

 

 

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