By Stephen Neukam
“You are such an amazing dancer — for a girl of your size.”
It was Sydnie Roy’s first day of her freshman year, in a dance class in which she performed well, and after, a professor told her the words that have been a “staple,” stuck in the back of her mind since.
Roy, now a senior musical theater major, experienced what many current and former students say they have endured in Rider’s Theater and Dance Department — a toxic and inappropriate learning environment, marred with allegations of sexual harassment, racism, inappropriate relationships and widespread body shaming, according to a 44-page list of complaints against current and former professors in the program.
The document, with 120 submissions from current and former students, outlines troubling systematic issues at Rider and in musical theater at large. This story relies on conversations with over half a dozen current and former students and their experiences at Rider. While over 25 faculty members were contacted for this reporting, the university has instructed them not to speak about the allegations, according to Rider’s Chapter of the American Association of University Professors President Art Taylor.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen said that the university takes the accusations seriously, saying, “We are fully committed to investigating the allegations, to giving all parties the opportunity to be heard and to respond, and to taking appropriate action if needed.”
It was stories like Roy’s and others, some even darker and menacing but submitted anonymously, that prompted students to confront professors last month with the allegations and have led to investigations from the university.
The revelations at Rider can be placed in a national moment of consciousness. A movement that mobilized demonstrations around the world and has brought to the forefront a painful past and an embattled future, Black Lives Matter, also spurred the students to hold their university community accountable.
Shamiea Thompson, a junior musical theater major from the Bronx, New York, said she was severely isolated by her introduction to Rider — a Black student, she said she felt undervalued, underrepresented and left behind by the program that she worked so hard to get into.
“I just stopped talking,” said Thompson. She feared there were no allies around.
Then Black Lives Matter, reignited after the brutal killings of several unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement, carried a current of dialogue to Thompson.
“I started talking. I didn’t be quiet. I haven’t been quiet since.”
Thompson made a social media post, finally letting go of her anxieties and frustrations. She found other students, if not allies, at least fighting a common enemy and system that had battled them for years. They formed what they dubbed “The Woke Police,” committed to calling out insensitivities and transgressions in their program.
Racial issues were the backdrop of Thompson’s struggle in the program and at the university. She said she felt tokenized — she was recruited to the program, from a family with no educational background, and felt deserted when she struggled to adjust. She felt objectified — she changed her hair, was called “exotic” and people continuously attempted to touch her head. While these experiences animated her trials, she found that her peers were clashing with other conflicts — not the same as hers, but all the products of what she believes is an abusive system that must be addressed collectively.
Once she started talking, she also started listening. The floodwaters of pain, backed up for so long, started to break the dam.
“In the conversations that were happening, it shook me to a very clear understanding that my house isn’t the only house on fire,” said Thompson.
The experiences of current and former students poured in as Thompson and other Rider students gathered the stories into a document. While what started the discussions was a movement against racial discriminations, it became clear that the traumas were rooted in other causes as well.
Troubles plaguing the department jump off the pages of allegations. Some professors have sections seven pages long, detailing accusations of deeply troubling behaviors. Perhaps most prominent is complaints of body shaming, with professors telling students to lose weight and prompted at least two students to get costly cosmetic surgery. Some students say they spent small fortunes on such procedures, and others fell into unhealthy eating habits and struggled with mental health issues as a result of damaging interactions with faculty.
Students also detail a pattern of disregard for sexual assault allegations, quite a few claiming that professors protected and stood up for a student suspected of the violation.
The complaint also brings attention to claims of inappropriate conduct and relationships. This ranges from male professors touching female students without consent, getting involved with the personal lives of students, physical abuse in classrooms and disparaging students to their peers.
The allegations also outline a toxic learning environment, with professors throwing around their weight and connections in the industry to intimidate students. Some sections claim that professors play obvious favorites, with some preferring the more “masculine” men in the program.
In a nearly three-hour meeting with department faculty on Sept. 16, students read the entire 44-page document to professors. Senior musical theater major Dean Klebonas, who is no longer planning on going into the industry, said that while some faculty were supportive of the students, others claimed during the meeting that the charges against them were false and defamatory, and refused to acknowledge that there could be a problem in the program. Klebonas said that students will continue to work to make sure the faculty understand their concerns.
“If they need to be spoon-fed what the problem is, then that’s what we will do,” vowed Klebonas. “While some of them have taken it with such great gusto and honor [to support students] … There are professors and faculty members who are resisting change.”
Fredeen added, “We also are committed to addressing the cultural concerns that have been raised. As such, we currently are working to identify outside consultants who can assist in moving these processes forward.”
While these problems linger in Rider’s Theater and Dance Department, they are an attribute of the profession as a whole and are not specific to the university.
Darin Earl II, a 2017 graduate of the department, has seen some of these issues manifest themselves in the industry. While Earl said he has always been treated with respect in his communities, including at Rider, he has seen how theater companies and productions value their bottom lines over true representation and equity.
“It was a theater company in particular that put on a show about Third World countries, essentially — it was a little sensationalized,” said Earl. “And as a person of Jamaican descent, I went to see it with a couple of friends … they more or less praise themselves on being able to tell the story, rather than the opportunity to bring in people who can also contribute to the story after having first-hand experiences.”
Fellow Rider alumni, Earl said, have opened up a network and a space for people to air their grievances and shared experiences in an effort to collectively deal with traumas from the program. He said he hopes current students will join the network once they graduate to receive guidance and support from alumni as they begin their careers.
As students sound the alarms, they are finally recognizing the flames they fight back are related and from the same source, and won’t resolve to just yell for help. Students have presented demands to the administration for reforms in the program — a bottom line of action they believe is necessary.
These demands include additional funding, including scholarships, for Black students and students who come from impoverished areas; a permanent Black faculty member (the faculty roster in the program is overwhelmingly white, with little Black representation); a liaison between the students of the School of Fine and Performing Arts and the faculty and administration; sensitivity training; mandatory curriculum reviews and a resident therapist for students in the school.
The demands were sent to Rider’s administration on Sept. 23, specifically requesting a meeting with President Gregory Dell’Omo and Fredeen. Fredeen confirmed receipt of the email from students two days later, promising to reach out and set up a meeting date with the students — a meeting has yet to be scheduled.
Thompson said she fears the faculty will be protected against the allegations, because of the power of the faculty union. The union declined to comment on the complaint.
Roy, who is biracial, said the environment in the program made her want to quit and give up, an experience that “has diminished me as a human at some points to where I feel like I am so small that I couldn’t say anything.” She has found strength through her peers and fellow students, a dynamic so telling in their resistance against their obstacles.
“It shouldn’t be this way. I had to have so many conversations with myself and say, ‘[the professors] don’t matter. They are a little pinch of salt in the whole pillar of salt.’ It just doesn’t matter.”