Campus Reform | Prof defends music theory against white supremacist claims, then gets demoted. Now, he's suing.

Prof defends music theory against white supremacist claims, then gets demoted. Now, he's suing.

A professor at the University of North Texas is suing the university after it allegedly violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The university removed the professor from the academic journal he co-founded at the university, and stripped funding from the Center for Schenkerian Studies, which he ran at UNT.

A University of North Texas professor is suing the university after it retaliated against him for a symposium of articles published in the academic journal he co-founded.

The lawsuit alleges that the University of North Texas violated Timothy Jackson's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by removing him from the academic journal he co-founded after publishing a symposium of articles some students and faculty found to be "racist."

The university's action stems from an incident in November 2019 in which Philip Ewell, a professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York delivered a speech entitled “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame” at the Society for Music Theory (SMT). Ewell then published a paper based on this talk, in which he describes himself as “a Black person - the only associate professor who self-identified as such in the 2018 SMT demographic report - but … a practitioner of what I call ‘white music theory.’”

The lawsuit states that “Ewell complained that “music theory is white” because whites account for 84.2% of the membership of the Society for Music Theory and 93.9% of the associate and full professors in music theory.” 

Ewell, in his paper, went on to denounce the late Jewish music theorist, composer, and teacher Heinrich Schenker as “an ardent racist and German nationalist,” and claimed that “our white racial frame seeks to shield Schenker from unwanted criticism.” He also criticized Schenkerian scholars, accusing them of “Schenkerian apologia - in which White persons severed Schenker’s racist convictions from his music theories in order to promote Schenkerism.”

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Born in 1868, Schenker battled anti-semitism throughout his life from those in Germany as well as his colleagues in music. Soon after his death, his wife, family, and many of his students were persecuted during the Holocaust and punished to death.

Shortly after Ewell published his paper, Jackson and the editorial staff of the journal he co-founded, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies at UNT,  created a plan to host a symposium in response to Ewell’s address and publication. The journal called on members of the Society for Music to write papers in response to this topic. The submissions were published on July 24, 2020, and included a variety of views including 15 pieces that were favorable toward Ewell, and several others that were critical.

Jackson’s letter was among the submissions. Jackson was critical of Ewell and accused him of misquoting Schenker’s writings in a way that “falsifies or misconstrues their meaning.” 

Jackson also pointed out that Ewell refused to acknowledge Schenker as Jewish and a victim of anti-Semitism. Schenker wrote often about the rise of Nazi Germany and how it “forced him to change his views of race.”

Ewell claimed, in his paper, that Schenkerians and their methodology have deterred Black people from entering the musical theory field. However, Jackson disagreed on this point, arguing that “a fundamental reason for the paucity of African American women and men in the field of music theory is that few grow up in homes where classical music is profoundly valued, and therefore they lack the necessary background.”

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The publishing of the symposium led to Ewell's supporters calling on UNT to censor and fire Jackson. The chair of the music theory department at the University of Michigan, one school at which the Society of Music Theory's leaders work, circulated emails to staff encouraging their support. 

Five days after the symposium, according to the lawsuit, the SMT Executive Board issued a letter of condemnation stating that “the conception and execution of this symposium failed to meet the ethical, professional, and scholarly standards of our discipline. Some contributions violate our Society’s policies on harassment and ethics."

Graduate students at UNT also sent a statement to the university that called for the dissolution of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies and demanded that the school hold accountable anyone involved in the publication. The students called out Jackson in this letter, writing “specifically, the actions of Dr. Jackson—both past and present—are particularly racist and unacceptable.”

At least 18 faculty members of the UNT Division of Music History, Theory and Ethnomusicology signed a letter endorsing the commands from these graduate students. 

On July 31, 2020, the same day as the endorsement letter from faculty, John Richmond, the dean of the college of music at UNT, issued a statement announcing a formal investigation into the Journal and UNT press, according to the lawsuit.

After the Ad Hoc Panel issued its report, the UNT Provost Jennifer Cowley wrote a letter to Jackson instructing him to submit a plan to address the panel’s recommendations by December 18, according to the lawsuit. However, more than a week before this deadline, Benjamin Brand, the history, theory, and ethnomusicology division chair, removed Jackson from the journal and informed him that university funding for the journal and Center for Schenkerian Studies would be halted.

The lawsuit outlines four demands for judgment, including a request that the court declare the university and its administration to be in violation of Jackson's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. 

The second request is to prevent the members of the Board of Regents along with their employees from taking any adverse action against Jackson in response to his symposium. The third and fourth requests consist of awarding Jackson with damages authorized by the law, and other relief that the court deems proper.   

Michael Thad Allen, the lead attorney for Jackson, told Campus Reform that “Timothy Jackson’s goals have been consistent from the beginning, and that is to express academic freedom without fear of retaliation from those who disagree. UNT has failed to protect these rights and has allowed this situation to progress, forcing Jackson to file this suit.”  

Campus Reform reached out to the university for comment but did not receive a response.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Abbyystreetman