By Stephen Neukam
In 2017, Brea Heidelberg was on track for tenure at Rider. She was the first Black woman in her department in the School of Fine and Performing Arts. She was expecting a baby. She was getting closer to some of her professional and personal milestones.
But Heidelberg left Rider after allegations that she was likely the victim of discrimination.
Heidelberg, a former assistant professor of arts administration, walked away from the university in the aftermath of a public feud with other faculty in the school — a dispute that culminated in a Title IX investigation.
The investigation found it “more likely than not” that at least four faculty, two of whom still teach at the university, discriminated against Heidelberg on account of her race and/or gender, according to a conclusion memo by a third-party investigator.
The professor’s story depicts a Title IX process that Heidelberg argued is deeply flawed and designed to protect the university from legal trouble rather than root out and punish misconduct. It also portrays a toxic structure in Rider’s School of Fine and Performing Arts (SFPA) that is dominated by white men who are resistant to change and work to stomp out claims of harassment.
According to the investigator’s report, in the fall of 2016, the department voted unanimously for Heidelberg’s tenure. However, when she and a fellow faculty member voted against another professor’s tenure, the report found that five faculty members most likely changed their vote for Heidelberg in retaliation.
The report found that at least four professors most likely acted in discriminatory ways, including stereotyping on account of gender and changing their vote with a racial motive. In one instance, the report points out how four professors referred to Heidelberg as “flippant” in a letter against her tenure. Due to the toxic environment, Heidelberg altered her teaching schedule and moved her office location. None of the four professors responded to a request from The Rider News for comment.
Eventually, after a prolonged process, Heidelberg received tenure after other faculty in the school stepped up to support her case.
Heidelberg said the stress of working at the university was causing complications with her unborn baby’s heartbeat. She decided to leave behind years of professional progress and depart from the school.
“I got tenure and decided to leave because the institution had become so toxic and so hostile that I could not imagine staying,” said Heidelberg.
Heidelberg considered further legal action and after meeting with a lawyer was told that she did have a case but that it would be costly, lengthy and difficult, and at seven months pregnant, she had another job offer at a different school.
Former students of Heidelberg spoke highly of the professor. Nicole Dvorin ’17 said that Heidelberg’s curriculum was “tough but fair” and that “[she] gave me a leg up and allowed me to stand out against competition.” Ariana Albarella ’16 said that Heidelberg was “an integral part of who I am today when it comes to my career.”
While Heidelberg found a position at Drexel University, where she was ultimately granted tenure, the memory of her experience and power structure that manifested it remained.
Faculty are bound to secrecy in Title IX cases — although the report found it more likely than not that there was discrimination, it is unclear whether any disciplinary actions were handed down at Rider. It’s a dynamic that Associate Professor Justin Burton finds particularly troubling.
“This process is just a train heading down the tracks into a dark tunnel that it never comes out of,” said Burton, speaking about the general Title IX procedures.
Heidelberg said Burton was initially the only ally in her case. Burton said he has been advised by the university’s legal counsel not to speak about her investigation, and declined to do so to The Rider News.
Burton said that in general, the Title IX process is designed to exhaust accusers, putting them through burdensome processes, veiled in secrecy, that never reach the light of day — a dynamic that stifles conversation and transparency about the flawed culture of the school.
“Nobody wants to find out that they are the bad guy,” said Burton. “The power imbalance, I think, encourages or incentivizes dismissal or denial. I think that both the union and the administration contribute to this … this is all universities’ problem.”
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen did not respond to questions about Heidelberg’s investigation or concerns regarding the Title IX process. Instead, she said, “the University investigates all reported allegations of violations of our Anti-Harassment and Non-Discrimination Policy thoroughly and impartially, takes all such reports seriously and takes appropriate actions to address violations and prevent recurrence.”
The structure of the investigations opens questions about possible inquiries into allegations of misconduct brought forward by students in Rider’s School of Fine and Performing Arts in recent months. The claims prompted the university to hire an outside firm to sift through the allegations, which could serve as a precursor to investigations.
The students’ allegations revealed claims of misconduct ranging from racial insensitivity and sexism to body shaming and inappropriate relationships. The claims were presented to the faculty and university in a 44-page document, comprising submissions from current and former students.
While the claims surfaced only recently, seeds of mistrust and abuse in the school can be found in a letter that Heidelberg wrote as a part of her tenure dossier in January 2017, in which she says she helped students navigate “having their skin tone mocked during a theater class;” “not having their issues with ‘fitting in’ understood even when they seek help from administrators;” and “being marginalized by faculty for mental health issues, physical ailments and relationship issues.”
As both alumni and current students come forward with allegations, Dvorin and Abarella said they were aware of misconduct in their time at the university.
“I definitely can recall instances of inappropriate conduct both experienced personally and witnessing or hearing about it secondhand,” said Dvorin.
According to two current students in the school, it is expected that several students and alumni will go forward with formal complaints against faculty.
While concerns stand about the ability of the university to properly address misconduct, Burton said that the students who have raised accusations and organized resistance have the character to withstand the draining investigatory processes.
“They’ve fully blown me away,” said Burton. “I don’t have the words to describe how courageous it is. To stand up to the people that have mistreated you who have power over your grades and power, to an extent, over your career.”
Caption: Brea Heidelberg’s experience at Rider raises questions about the Title IX process, just as the university preps for possible investigations into claims of misconduct.