Dean’s denial ignites debate about his reputation

By Stephen Neukam and Lauren Minore

Westminster Choir College (WCC) Dean Marshall Onofrio, in a Nov. 6 statement, emphatically denied denigrating the college’s alumni and suggested that student impressions to the contrary tarnished his reputation. However, a number of students interviewed by The Rider News stated that Onofrio specifically called alumni “xenophobic” in their opposition to the failed sale of the school to a Chinese company.

Students also claimed that he misrepresented or negatively portrayed the Westminster Foundation, which has two pending lawsuits against Rider to oppose the sale or consolidation of the choir college.

Onofrio’s statement, published on the university’s public digital and social media sites in response to a Nov. 6 Rider News article, generated dozens of comments from students, parents and alumni on WCC’s public Facebook page — many in praise of the dean, but others highly critical of his leadership and his decision to air the issue in such a public forum, generating negative attention for WCC and Rider. 

A statement from Dean Marshall Onofrio:On Nov. 6, The Rider News published an article in which a student claimed I…

Posted by Westminster Choir College on Wednesday, November 6, 2019

This account of Onofrio’s history with students, faculty and alumni is based on 12 interviews with WCC students, alumni and current and former faculty with first-hand knowledge of his interactions with students and colleagues and were willing to speak to reporters without anonymity. It also relies on a statement signed by 13 WCC students.

In a closed-door meeting with WCC students in Princeton last semester, Onofrio referred to those who opposed the sale as “xenophobic,” according to a number of the school’s students. 

Junior voice performance major Sarah Engel recalled distinctly that the dean used the term “xenophobic” and said that Onofrio encouraged students not to listen to alumni and to focus on their studies. 

“Dean Onofrio has advised us repeatedly to ignore the alumni in any situation and to keep going on with our business and not listen to what they have to say or their input,” Engel said.

A number of students also reported that the private meeting with students at WCC was not the only time Onofrio had made that claim. On Nov. 8, a group of 13 WCC students issued a signed statement that they personally heard Onofrio call alumni Facebook groups “xenophobic.”

Onofrio justified his use of this term, saying that there were numerous cases of individuals who disparaged China in the midst of the proposed sale.

“Particularly during the Kaiwen transaction, there were repeated public examples of statements and actions that denigrated China, Chinese people, and most disturbingly, Chinese students,” Onofrio said via email Nov. 12 in response to questions from The Rider News. “I include in my role as dean the responsibility to call out behaviors that are inconsistent with Rider values or my own personal integrity. I can only imagine how the Chinese and Chinese-American students at WCC and/or the entire Rider student population felt when certain individuals described all Chinese students as spies on social media.”

Onofrio declined to comment further when asked if he could provide specific examples of those statements and actions he said he observed, and how those differed from critiques of the Chinese government and the lack of free speech and academic freedom in China. 

Senior music education major Michael Martin said he agreed with Onofrio’s assessment that some opposed to the sale were xenophobic.

“I don’t think that [Onofrio] was necessarily wrong to condemn people for being xenophobic,” said Martin. “I don’t really think that that was necessarily the wrong thing to do.”

However, the statement signed by 13 WCC students said Onofrio had an “often hostile way of speaking about alumni groups and the several lawsuits against Rider University.”

Onofrio stated on Nov. 6, “I hope that all members of the greater Westminster community with whom I have interacted over the past 13 years would attest to the respect I have continually shown to all constituents.” But beyond Onofrio’s comments about those opposed to the sale, both before and after Onofrio was appointed dean, a number of faculty and students complained about Onofrio’s demeanor.

Professor of Music Theory and Composition and Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Assistant Grievance Officer Joel Phillips told The Rider News that in a private meeting with Provost DonnaJean Fredeen in 2015, he reported four complaints he had received about Onofrio.

Phillips said for years he served as the Westminster campus grievance liaison for the AAUP, and more recently, the associate grievance officer, and added that the complaints he brought to Fredeen all came to him in this “official” capacity. 

The first complaint Phillips said he reported to Fredeen was an occasion in which Onofrio is said to have yelled at a faculty member when she refused to change the agreed-upon workload schedule. 

The second complaint Phillips said he reported in the same meeting was an incident that involved a dispute between a different faculty member and Onofrio.

“The issue was an important matter of principle for her, even though it was relatively minor. I was appalled by the verbally abusive way he treated her and told him so at the time,” Phillips said in an interview. “During the discussion, [Onofrio] countered each argument we made, changing the rationale for his refusal each time until finally, he blamed the problem on [the faculty member.]”

After the meeting, one complainant confided in Phillips that she found Onofrio’s behavior both “intimidating” and “threatening,” according to Phillips.

Phillips said the faculty member ultimately dropped her complaint and took a job elsewhere.

Phillips said he also discussed two other complaints with Fredeen that were “similar in substance and outcome.” 

“In each of these cases, following actions the complainant had perceived as abusive or threatening, I told the person of their right to file a complaint under the University’s anti-harassment policy,” he said. “Each person declined for the same reason: fear of retribution. Their reluctance to file an anti-harassment complaint meant the behavior might continue unchecked, which is why I spoke with [Fredeen] in the first place.”

Phillips declined to identify the four complainants to The Rider News without their permission. 

Onofrio, however, said, “This is the first I am hearing of these allegations. I do not believe I ever have been verbally abusive to any member of the Rider community. The workload process is prescribed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and we follow that process. Until and unless specific details are provided, I cannot comment further.”

Onofrio declined to answer a specific follow-up question from The Rider News asking if the provost contacted him about the 2015 complaints.

Phillips said he never received any follow-up after his meeting with Fredeen. 

“However, following the departure of Dean [Matthew] Shaftel, Fredeen promoted Onofrio to dean of [Westminster College of the Arts.] Since that time, I have dealt with further reports of intimidation of faculty members by the dean,” Phillips said. “As with the previous examples, the complainants were informed of their rights, but would not file an anti-harassment complaint for fear of retribution.” 

Fredeen declined to comment on the protocol following allegations of this nature or any action taken following Phillips’ reports, but also did not deny the existence or substance of these complaints about Onofrio. She maintained that Onofrio conducts himself with professionalism. 

“While we do not comment on personnel discussions, I have many years of experience working with Dean Onofrio and always have found that he comports himself with the highest level of professionalism and integrity,” Fredeen said. “President [Gregory] Dell’Omo, Dean Onofrio, and I have embraced an open and transparent communication process as we move forward in the transition of WCC to the Lawrenceville campus.  It is unfortunate that a small group of individuals feel the need to attack those communications.”

More recently, in a July 2019 incident, which was also reported to and confirmed by Phillips, Cataloging Librarian of Talbott Library and Assistant Professor I-Librarian Joshua Henry said he felt “uncomfortable” after a heated discussion with Onofrio, and subsequently had a conversation with a member of the university’s Human Resources Department about the incident. 

Henry said he attended two meetings on the Princeton and Lawrenceville campuses on July 1, the day that the cancellation of the sale to Kaiwen Education and the consolidation plan were both announced. 

During the first meeting on the Princeton campus, Henry said that after a number of specific questions were asked about how the consolidation will happen in a year, he became upset when he noticed Onofrio’s “comical” tone in response to some of the community member’s questions. 

“All of [Onofrio’s] answers started with a joke,” Henry said. “[It seemed that it] wasn’t serious to him… that upset a lot of us.”

Henry said he next attended the Lawrenceville meeting in order to have a conversation with Onofrio detailing his concerns. 

“I wanted the time to talk to [Onofrio] after that meeting to tell him that a lot of us did not appreciate his tone,” Henry said. 

Henry said when he approached Onofrio, he told him that he understood that he was trying to “break the tone” of the serious conversation, but also said he and his colleagues did not appreciate his comical remarks. 

Henry said Onofrio replied with a more serious answer about the working groups designated to aid in the transition to the Lawrenceville campus, until the conversation became more heated as they began “speaking over each other.”

“He squared his shoulders and stood about 2 inches from my face,” Henry said. 

In an interview with The Rider News, Henry paraphrased what he said Onofrio told him: “I didn’t understand the type of pressure [Onofrio] was under, he had been working for the past two years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to save my job and everyone else’s job and he had been attacked and his family had been attacked.”

Henry said he was trying to give Onofrio “somewhat the benefit of the doubt,” given that it was toward the end of a long day of meetings, but even if that was the case, he felt uncomfortable with the incident. 

Henry said he did not file a formal complaint but made the Human Resources Office aware of the situation.

Onofrio declined to reply when asked by The Rider News if he had been contacted by Human Resources. 

Students also said that at a “Pizza with the Dean” meeting this semester, Onofrio claimed that the Westminster Foundation had never reached out to the university. In a subsequent follow up with the foundation, these students said they were shown emails to the school as evidence that refuted Onofrio’s claim.

In one letter that the Westminster Foundation provided to The Rider News, from June 17, 2019, it requested that the university end the sale and work with the foundation to “develop a relationship that would benefit both institutions,” after threatening to “fully and firmly litigate” if the transaction was not ended.

Junior voice performance major Gabriel Woods said he believes that the dean “lied to his face,” and said Onofrio was “abrasive” at times during the meeting.

Onofrio told The Rider News he remembered saying that he was not familiar with any communication from the Westminster Foundation that contained specific proposals of collaboration.

“I recall that I said I was not personally aware of any direct contact from the Foundation involving a concrete offer. I am aware that on a small number of occasions the Foundation has reached out to threaten litigation unless we do as they demand,” Onofrio said.  

Thomas Faracco, former associate professor of voice, current president of WCC alumni council and 1971 alumnus of WCC, however, said his relationship with Onofrio was very friendly and that they shared a “good working relationship.” 

Nonetheless, Faracco detailed an experience with Onofrio that he said “very much surprised” him, which occurred during an October 2017 public forum, or “teach-in,” as Phillips described it.

According to Faracco, reporters from local newspapers including the Trenton Times and the Princeton Packet were invited to attend the event. 

“During the actual forum… as I was speaking to a student, I looked over at the doorway and there was a reporter from the Princeton Packet… and he was waving at me and I just continued [talking] and then I noticed he wasn’t there anymore,” he said. 

Faracco said he began receiving phone messages from that reporter, saying that he was in Onofrio’s office being interrogated, but he could not physically leave the room because of how many people were there. 

“Afterwards I spoke with him and he said he had never experienced something like that in his [career] as a reporter,” he said. “I actually wrote an email to Marshall [Onofrio] because I was so upset that that happened.” 

Faracco’s email, obtained by The Rider News, urged Onofrio to provide information on the campus policy he claimed was the reason he could not let the reporter into the event. 

“As a faculty member of Westminster and Rider, I always strive to have a balanced approach when confronted with issues. ‘Always consider you might be wrong’ is a quote that guides my thinking,” Faracco said in his email to Onofrio. “After yesterday, I don’t think I can continue in that mode… I think the actions that were taken yesterday are despicable, and if this is a foretaste of how the administration will work under the new buyer, I will continue to do everything in my power to make sure the real stakeholders in this institution are aware of what’s going on.”

When reached by The Rider News, the reporter, who is no longer with the Princeton Packet, declined to comment.

Just as public comments posted on Westminster Choir College’s Facebook site both praise and criticize Onofrio, some current students are similarly torn between conflicting perceptions of their dean.

Engel said she liked Onofrio personally, citing how “funny” he is and that she personally found his demeanor “very polite and very cordial.” However, in his professional capacities, Engel expressed that many students and faculty distrust him.

“I think his reputation with the student body was tarnished well before [The Rider News] story was released,” said Engel. “I think he is realizing two years too late.”

The statement signed by 13 WCC students concluded: “students feel they cannot trust their administration, have heard the Rider Administration tell lies to students about third parties, and students feel they’ve been intimidated from speaking out to reporters and alumni groups.”

Additional reporting by Tatyanna Carmen.

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