Education, Dialogue Needed to Address Gendered Violence

Editor’s note: This article contains discussion of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Around this time last year, while walking through the Conservatory after class, I came across a note taped to the wall. The note, scribbled messily across a standard 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, accused a Conservatory student of rape. I’m still struck by the rawness of this image. My mind raced and my heart sank into my stomach as I looked at the note hanging from the dull matte walls. This was a stark and necessary reminder that — while we may not want to admit it — sexual violence very much exists in the Conservatory.

I had never thought about how issues of sexual violence and misconduct might exist in the Conservatory. This realization may seem trivial but, unlike the College, this isn’t something we really talk about. In the College, professors actively engage with their students at talks and forums and in the classroom about how we can can all work to address issues of gendered violence. In the Conservatory, however, the students and faculty may separately have conversations, but there is very little dialogue between the two groups. As a result, it often appears to students as though the Conservatory administration is unaware of these problems. This creates a culture in which posting an anonymous accusation may well be the only logical response to sexual violence — and that is terrifying. This is not the fault of a single individual, but rather a collective lack of awareness and visible effort towards addressing these issues. Beyond sexual violence, racism, transphobia, and sexism are also endemic to our insular classical music world, and their impact is amplified when they occur between students and professors.

The Conservatory has taken some important steps toward gender and racial inclusion during my time here, but problems of misgendering and racism still require attention. At the beginning of the school year, we received a form by email in which we were encouraged to submit our pronouns for class roster sheets, we have an Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion liaison, and last year, the Conservatory held a workshop on trans inclusivity. While these are all well and good as preliminary measures, it often feels as though the Conservatory is just going through the motions, and checking the boxes of how to create an “inclusive” space. This is insufficient and superficial. It’s not enough to have a one-time email survey if professors are still going to use deadnames; it’s not enough to have a liaison if we aren’t going to hold forums or workshops more than once every two years; and talking about trans inclusivity isn’t enough if my classmates are still denied their basic human rights.

During my freshman year, I was required to attend a four-hour Preventing and Responding to Sexual Misconduct training about consent and how to recognize and help prevent sexual misconduct. I certainly don’t think that a one-time workshop is enough, but it would be a great place to start. While there are, on occasion, similar workshops offered for faculty members, these should be required on a more frequent basis. This isn’t to say that many professors don’t put a lot of thought and care into these issues, but it’s essential that we all take an active and continuing role in educating ourselves and helping to positively shape our community. Even just a basic introduction to these issues could give faculty the skills and language to better navigate the power inherent to their positions and the relationships they have with their students.

From sexual assault, to misgendering of students, to unqualified sexism, these issues are not only present but, for many students, a normal part of their education. Very recently — and the recency of this certainly speaks to the privileges I have as a white man in the world of classical music — I came to the realization that every musical space I’ve ever been in has been subject to rumors and allegations surrounding teachers and professional performers. This includes Oberlin. Not only are these issues very real, but students are also dreadfully unfamiliar with the resources available to them. Many of my classmates are unaware that we have an Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion liaison, and I worry that, if a student wanted to report any sort of incident, they would have no idea where to even start. Some of this is certainly up to students to educate themselves, but it’s important that the administration play an active role in the dissemination of information and visibility of resources available to the student body.

This past March, famed conductor James Levine was fired from the Metropolitan Opera in the wake of allegations of sexual assault and harassment going back nearly 50 years. Once considered one of the greatest American conductors, Levine was deified by those who played under him. He was infallible, untouchable, and could do no wrong in the eyes of the Met administration despite being the epicenter of rumors and allegations for, again, nearly 50 years. This sort of deification of artists and leaders is dangerous, and often leads to gross displays of misconduct that are only addressed years later — if ever. In academic settings like Oberlin, this phenomena happens with professors, and cultivates an environment dominated by ever-widening power asymmetries that are all too easy to disrespect — even if inadvertently. It’s unreasonable to leave this to students to silently endure. It cannot be left to those being harmed to stand up to their aggressors. In conservatories and orchestras across the country, there are professors and performers who, much like Levine, have been at the center of controversy for years. It’s time we say something — we cannot continue to silently bear witness to such behaviors.

Oberlin holds an important place in the framework of American conservatories. It is not only a renowned musical and academic institution, but also one with a strong tradition of social progressivism and inclusion. When Levine was fired from the Met, it provided a wonderful opportunity for the school to use its platform to make a statement — at least to the Oberlin student body, if not nationally. This statement could simultaneously acknowledge these widespread problems, condemn Levine’s actions, and call to action institutions that neglect these issues. Unfortunately, aside from a New York Times article that circulated on Facebook for a few days, there has been very little public discussion of what happened. Levine’s firing was a big deal. It should be — and perhaps already has been, in the case of Charles Dutoit — a catalyst for the dismantling of patriarchal hierarchies and predatory behaviors that have become almost normalized. Oberlin should use its platform as a way to instigate these conversations and invoke real change across the country.

April is Oberlin’s first-ever Consent Month, so this is the perfect time to start these conversations. PRSM and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion have organized many events to raise awareness and understanding of what sexual misconduct looks like on our campus — including events specifically for faculty and staff. My hope is that we can bring many workshops like these to the Conservatory that deal with Conservatory-specific issues on a more frequent basis. These are really wonderful resources and should be fully utilized by every member of the Conservatory community. This isn’t only about educating faculty, but about empowering them to have a sense of ownership over the impact they have on their students.

The student body wants to have these conversations. We know they aren’t always easy, but we need to see that they’re willing to invest serious time and energy into working with us to address these very real issues. We need to see that these conversations are happening. In a myriad of ways, the relationships we have with our private instructors define our time at Oberlin and beyond, and it’s important that we all have the awareness and knowledge necessary for cultivating a more loving and inclusive learning environment.

It simply isn’t enough to be a great artist. The student body needs to do a better job understanding that our professors are not omniscient and all powerful, and the administration needs to provide better education and more accessible resources for its students and staff in order to mitigate these abuses of power. The personal and artistic investments and contributions that most of Conservatory faculty offer should not be understated, and I have no doubt that many members of the administration are well aware of these concerns. Despite this, there remains a subset of professors and staff that either consciously contribute to or are dangerously unaware of the roles they might play in perpetuating these problems in our community. It is essential that we do not become calloused — if someone as visible as Levine can avoid his reckoning for so long, I am deeply worried that many of my classmates will be subjected to the same sort of behaviors and never have a way out.

It’s time we all looked inward and examined how we talk about sexual misconduct. We have an obligation to ourselves, to administrators, and to future generations to address the sexualized violence and gross misuses of power that have become normalized in classical music culture. Oberlin Conservatory has the power to set an important precedent and standard for how musical organizations engage with issues ranging from sexual misconduct to sexism and transphobia. We’re certainly ahead of the curve in many ways, and I’m grateful for the work that has already been done, but we have further to go. The note I found in that stairwell represents a musical culture that has decided to prioritize the needs of antiquated language, power hierarchies, and teaching practices over the safety of its young people. I am anxious and excited to begin having these conversations, and to begin creating a culture in which every student feels safe and welcome to fully express themselves exactly as they are. Let us, together, take the first steps toward that end.