Uncovering decades of abuse

(Casey Tin / The Michigan Daily)

By Sammy Sussman / IRW

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NEW YORK — At the beginning of my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, I wrote a column for The Michigan Daily, UM’s student newspaper, about the overwhelming lack of diversity in classical music and the question of separating artists from their artwork. I study classical music composition; at the time, I was a classical music critic for The Daily. “It is time for those of us that have benefited from or been indifferent to classical music’s discriminatory practices to note and challenge these practices,” I wrote.

Days after this column was published, a friend of a friend reached out with a news tip about alleged sexual harassment by a department chair, youth program director and former associate dean in UM’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. I soon heard from a second source that this was not the first rumor to surface in the music school about this individual.

Though The Daily had no dedicated investigative reporting team, we had a robust staff of news editors willing to support students as they pursued investigative stories. A week after receiving this tip, I began working with senior news editor Maya Goldman on my first piece of hard news.

I spent the next four months contacting many of the professor’s former students after finding their names in the music school’s historical recital programs. I contacted students whom the professor taught between 1981-1989 at the North Carolina School of the Arts and 1978-1980 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

In the end, I spoke with eight brave survivors of alleged sexual harassment, misconduct and assault who were willing to go on the record with their allegations against the professor. Though only one of these survivors was willing to be named, we felt this anonymity was justified: The survivors ranged from a tenured college professor to a young pre-college student who attended a summer program between 2013 and 2018.

I also found evidence that at least one of these allegations was reported to a University of Michigan employee around the time that the professor joined the university’s faculty. “I heard this guy is a scumbag,” a source recalled telling the UM employee. “That’s all in the past,” the employee responded.

On Nov. 30, 2018, I reached out to the professor and UM’s public affairs office for comment on my reporting. The professor was put on leave a week later. His belongings were removed from his office and he was removed as department chair. Three days later, my article was published. 

The Daily continued to pursue tips about this professor’s alleged four decades of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault at three academic institutions. Two months later, we reported that a UM interim dean was emailed in October 2017 about an allegation of “statutory rape” against the professor. It took UM’s police department and Title-IX office over a year to respond to the sender of the email. The professor in question resigned from the university later that month.

This past October, I woke up to an email from a Department of Justice assistant district attorney: The professor had been indicted on two sex crimes charges stemming from his alleged actions in the early 2000s. The Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice later published a photo of his arrest along with a public tip line for information about his alleged abuse.

Though the professor’s court appearances have been postponed because of the pandemic, his trial is scheduled to commence this fall. Three years after I first started reporting about his alleged sexual misconduct, I plan on ending my student reporting career by covering the professor’s criminal trial for The Daily.

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