Students and admin sound off on SFPA investigations, cultural changes

By Sarah Siock and Stephen Neukam

Students in Rider’s School of Fine and Performing Arts (SFPA) have cited a lack of transparency and action in the university’s handling of

investigations that are taking place within the department — a result of mass allegations of sexual harassment, racism, inappropriate relationships and body-shaming done by faculty at the university.

The process stemmed from over 120 complaints of misconduct against faculty in SFPA from students and alumni of the program, compiled during the fall semester in a document by students leading the push for action. The document details students’ claims of a toxic and unhealthy learning environment. 

Rider responded in October by hiring TNG Consulting, a third-party investigator, to field formal complaints. This spring, administrators confirmed that the process was part of formal Title IX investigations, but they refused to disclose how many investigations were undertaken.

Student concerns

While the university responded to the allegations, senior musical theater major Dean Klebonas said he is frustrated with the pace of the investigations, and the absence of updates from the administration. Klebonas submitted complaints that included what he called “inappropriate reactions” by faculty members when they became aware of students’ concerns with the department.

“This started in October, and it’s now March, and we don’t really know what’s happening in terms of accountability. When everything was at its height last semester, we felt pretty good about our power and our say. But now I am getting a lot of people asking, ‘What’s been going on?’ We are kind of losing that transparency,” said Klebonas. 

Senior musical theater major Dean Klebonas

Although Klebonas submitted complaints to the investigator, his case was not considered for further action. Klebonas received an email in Janurary directly from TNG Consulting that stated an assessment determined his complaints “did not meet the definitions of any policy violation within the Anti-Harassment and Non-Discrimination Policy.”

Vice President for Human Resources and Affirmative Action and Title IX Coordinator Robert Stoto said several factors determine the length of investigations including the complexity of allegations and the availability of witnesses.

“It is not possible to say with any degree of certainty how long any investigation will take since each one is different. However, it is always our goal to move forward as expeditiously as possible, without sacrificing thoroughness,” said Stoto. 

The third-party investigator has moved forward with specific student complaints and conducted individual interviews. Senior musical theater major Jerome Manning is one student who sat down with investigators earlier this month. 

Manning submitted a complaint that detailed interaction from faculty members after students brought to their attention that fellow fine arts students were using racist language. He submitted a second complaint where he alleged that the department did not provide adequate resources or advertising to the “Upon Your Shoulders” show, which is a yearly cabaret that celebrates African American culture. 

 Manning said the investigator was “impartial” and “wanted to hear the facts.” However, Manning expressed disappointment due to the lack of immediate changes that have taken place within SFPA after the allegations were brought to faculty. 

“There are things that could be happening right now to change the culture. It feels like they are wasting time and hoping that the ruckus will die down,” said Manning. 

Manning also said that students are often left in the dark when it comes to the status of the investigation. He said that he and other students often have to wait a month at a time to receive an update about the process. 

School reforms

Outside of the investigative process, students have pushed for reforms at the school. The results have been frustrating, according to students.

Junior musical theater major Shamiea Thompson

Junior musical theater major Shamiea Thompson, a leading voice in the student effort, said that an October meeting with school administrators proved unproductive. The meeting included Stoto and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen. According to Thompson, President Gregory Dell’Omo declined to attend.

“We took a meeting with them on October 16 — I haven’t heard from anyone since,” said Thompson. “Change doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of our demands deal with finances and structural change … but there are things that we can do now.”

Fredeen said she was surprised to hear that the meeting was characterized as unproductive and detailed initiatives the university has undertaken to deal with cultural issues in the school, including a faculty search in the Theater and Dance Department for someone with experience in Black theater, workshops for faculty and students and a task force that identified areas of concern.

“I actually thought it a very productive meeting as we had the opportunity to discuss a set of action steps the students had presented to the University,” said Fredeen. “We then discussed actions that the University was taking to address the issues raised by the students.”

While the original plan was to continue the meetings with the group of students, Fredeen said that they were discontinued “to assure the integrity of the process.”

Manning said he would like to see the hiring of more Black faculty members and a greater enrollment of Black students in SFPA through targeted scholarships.

“We really have no Black faculty members that we see on a daily basis. One of the biggest reasons why I feel people of color might not be able to go to university is because of the price,” said Manning. “If they really want to change the system and make it more culturally diverse, then you have to also look at the financial needs of the students that you’re wanting to have.”

To Thompson, the main issue in affecting change is that the administrators that hold power don’t empathize with students of color and other marginalized groups.

“You are a bunch of old white people making decisions for things that do not and will not affect you,” said Thompson. “Why haven’t I heard from you? … Silence is a response.” 

Administrative responses

Administrators have been tight-lipped about the investigation.

Stoto and Fredeen said the privacy of the investigations is due to the fact that they are ongoing and involved parties are kept confidential. Stoto and Fredeen would not comment on the specifics of any investigation.  

In October, Rider’s Chapter of the American Association of University Professor’s (AAUP) President Arthur Taylor, a professor in the Information Systems, Analytics and Supply Chain Management Department, told The Rider News that the union was prepared to represent faculty if an investigation materializes. 

Jeff Halpern, AAUP contract administrator and chief grievance officer, said standing by faculty is the continued stance of the union and that the AAUP has an attorney who provides legal advice to faculty. He declined to reveal how many faculty members were being represented.

 “The role of the Union is to assure due process for any of its members who are accused of professional misconduct,” said Halpern. 

“Keep applying pressure”

Despite the long process, students are remaining optimistic that the investigations will bring accountability and change to the school. 

“Performing arts specifically, is suffering across the country, in colleges and universities, and we just want more than anything for people that come after us to have a positive and encouraging experience, like many of us felt like we didn’t have. I just want everyone to keep that fight no matter how long it takes,” said Klebonas.

Manning echoed Klebonas’ words when he spoke about the importance of students continuing to speak up. He said without faculty changes the improvement students wish to see cannot happen. 

“I know a lot of people get discouraged when things don’t happen right away, but things take time. I think it’s important for us to keep applying pressure, no matter how tiresome it sounds because that is what creates change,” said Manning. “The first and most important thing is that if there are adults in positions of power, who are still resisting this change that needs to happen, then we cannot expect positive change, with them dragging us down.”

Caption: Senior musical theater major Jerome Manning said the investigator was “impartial” and “wanted to hear the facts.”

CLARIFICATION:

The AAUP does not provide direct legal representation to individual faculty. Instead, “The AAUP has an attorney who provides legal advise [sic] to the union,” according to Halpern.

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