A foundation that advocates for free speech in education has demanded that the University of North Texas drop an investigation into a music theory professor accused of racism and the academic journal he edits.
On Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to UNT President Neal Smatresk and UNT College of Music Dean John Richmond, asking the university and college to drop an investigation into professor Timothy Jackson, the director of the UNT Center for Schenkerian Studies and the Journal of Schenkerian Studies. The foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public advocacy group that defends faculty and student publications and speech from censorship.
“Our position is, in this case, that the UNT administration is investigating an academic journal,” said foundation attorney Lindsie Rank, author of the letter. “The administration has no business investigating an academic journal, its contents or its editorial processes. Scholars, not administrators, should be investigating academic journals.”
The investigation of the professor and the journal came in response to both a petition by graduate students in the UNT Division of Music History, Theory and Ethnomusicology and a statement by the executive board of the Society for Music Theory. The petition and statement denounced Jackson, other participating faculty at UNT and the journal after the publication of “Symposium on Philip Ewell’s SMT Plenary Paper ‘Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.’”
Students and the society’s executive board argue that Jackson and the journal trafficked in racist stereotypes in the symposium, which published 15 essays rebutting Ewell, a Black music theorist who teaches music theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Ewell’s paper criticized famed German music theorist Heinrich Schenker — whose life and career bridged the 19th and 20th centuries — saying Schenker’s unsavory personal and political attitudes reinforce “a white racial frame” of music theory. Ewell said the white racial frame of the discipline disadvantages music theory students in general and Black, Indigenous and students of color specifically.
In the petition, the students asked UNT to make the journal available to the public, condemn it and discipline Jackson and any other UNT faculty involved in the edition. The students recommended firing Jackson, who has tenure, and to dissolve the journal.
The Journal of Schenkerian Studies published its 12th issue in July, with the bulk of the edition rebutting Ewell’s paper. One of the rebuttals was anonymous, which UNT graduate students and critics online said is unscholarly. The executive board of the music theory society said the symposium constitutes professional misconduct. Both graduate students and the Society for Music Theory leadership said editors — Jackson and Stephen Slottow — veered from their standard submission and editorial process to counter Ewell. Online, students and critics said rebuttals were poorly sourced and poorly edited.
Jackson responded to the issue and an earlier Denton Record-Chronicle article in a guest essay published Wednesday. In a statement through his attorney, Michael Thad Allen, Jackson said he submitted his case to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education through its website last week. While the foundation mostly advocates for the civil liberties of teachers and students, it also takes cases to court to protect the civil liberties of students and teachers.
“[The foundation] simply asks the university to do what it should and obey the law,” Jackson said. “Scholars may be attacked by other scholars or whomever for their opinions. This is the usual practice of scholarly discourse, but UNT, as a state university, must protect and respect the First Amendment and [section] eight of [Article I] of the Texas Bill of Rights and its contractual obligation to academic freedom.”
The foundation’s letter said Jackson and the journal are protected by the First Amendment, as UNT is a public school, and that professors are afforded the academic freedom to discuss, investigate and interrogate unpopular or offensive ideas. Rank’s letter laid out examples in Supreme Court decisions that ensure Jackson and the journal are protected and shouldn’t be subjected to the university’s review.
“While the content of [the journal’s] series of responses to Ewell’s SMT address might be deeply offensive to some readers, it does not fall into any exception to the expressive rights shielded by the First Amendment and academic freedom,” Rank writes in the letter. “It is well-established that the First Amendment does not make a categorical exception for expression that some may find hateful, and equally well-established that it constrains public universities in penalizing students for exercising their right to free expression and faculty members for exercising their right to academic freedom.”
Rank said while the graduate students’ petition took issue with the editorial process of the journal, much of the online commentary alleged racism. However, she said, the administration can’t intervene on the content of the publication or the production without violating academic freedom or the First Amendment.
UNT graduate students who posted the petition on Twitter declined to be interviewed for this story.
Smatresk and Richmond declined interviews for this story but gave a statement to the Denton Record-Chronicle. The statement said the university appointed a five-member multidisciplinary panel of UNT faculty with experience in editing and producing scholarly journals. None of the panel members are part of the College of Music, which UNT officials said lends objectivity to the review of the production of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies’ 12th edition.
“The panel will seek to understand whether the standards of best practice in scholarly publication were observed,” the statement says, “and will recommend strategies to improve editorial processes where warranted. Upon completion of its investigation, the panel will issue a report to UNT Provost Jennifer Cowley. The report will be made public.”
The statement didn’t mention Jackson or disciplinary action against him or any other faculty in the Center for Schenkerian Studies.
“The University of North Texas is committed to academic freedom and the responsibility that goes along with this freedom. This dedication is consistent with, and not in opposition to, our commitment to diversity and inclusion and to the highest standards of scholarship and professional ethics. ... The Journal of Schenkerian Studies has made many contributions to the understanding of music theory. We will continue to offer music theorists the opportunity to share and defend diverse viewpoints under the most rigorous academic standards and ethics.”
In an email Thursday, Ewell contradicted Jackson’s published response, which states that the journal made a call for submissions from members of the Society of Music Theory, including Ewell.
“With respect to Dr. Jackson’s claim that I was given a chance to respond to the responses, that’s not true,” Ewell said. “I was never given that chance. I never received any communication from [the journal] inviting me to respond in any fashion to the responses to my talk that appeared in [the journal].”
When asked if he thought UNT officials should investigate the incident, Ewell declined to comment.
Rank said the foundation asked Smatresk and Richmond to respond to its letter by Thursday, Aug. 13. She said that while some universities ignore the foundation’s letters, most respond. The next step for the foundation depends on UNT’s response and subsequent action.
Jackson said if the foundation decides to sue, he would look to the nonprofit to litigate directly on his behalf.