A University of North Texas music professor filed a lawsuit against the university for violating his constitutional rights.

The suit comes after UNT said it would remove Dr. Timothy Jackson from his position at the head of a music theory journal, defunding the journal itself as well as the research center he directs, according to an affidavit.

The suit follows a controversy that led to accusations of racism and demands for UNT officials to investigate the Journal of Schenkerian Studies and to discipline or fire the faculty members who produced it.

Last summer, UNT graduate students and music faculty denounced Jackson and the scholarly publication he co-founded on Twitter, alleging that both were guilty of “platforming racist sentiments” in a symposium published in the journal.

The symposium was a collection of essays rebutting the 2019 plenary talk by Music Theorist Philip Ewell at the annual meeting of the Society of Music Theory. Ewell, who is Black, said that the late 19th Century Music Theorist Heinrich Schenker’s analysis was informed by Schenker’s racism, and that Schenkerian Theory perpetuates “a white racial frame” for studying, analyzing and discussing classical music.

Jackson, a tenured professor and director of the Center for Schenkerian Studies at UNT, invited prominent Schenkerian scholars to reflect on or rebut the talk in the journal’s 12th volume, using their research and expertise to refute Ewell’s claim that Schenker, a Jewish musician and theorist who lost family members in the Holocaust, couldn’t separate his racist assumptions from his theoretical framework. Fifteen academics were published, one of whom was anonymous.

Rachel Gain, a graduate student in the Division of Music History, Theory and Ethnomusicology, posted a statement denouncing the journal and demanding an investigation into its editorial processes on Twitter, saying it was shared “on behalf of a cross-section of graduate students in the division.” The students advocated for officials to dissolve the journal and discipline or fire the faculty involved in the publication.

Later, the Society for Music Theory’s executive board denounced the journal for “anti-Black statements and personal ad hominem attacks on Philip Ewell” in the symposium.

One of the writers published in the symposium later criticized the editorial review process after backlash built.

Last November, UNT administrators published the findings of an internal review that reported a lack of editorial oversight and that the journal and its editorial staff failed to observe best practices in scholarly publication. The panel — which was made up of faculty outside of the College of Music who have served as editors of academic publications — recommended that the journal continue publication, but with changes to the editorial structure, a commitment to transparency with editorial and review processes and clearly defined relationships between editors of the journal, the editorial board, the music theory department and the UNT Press, which publishes the journal.

Specifically, the review suggested editors serve three year terms on the journal, and to consider professors who aren’t on the UNT music theory faculty for editorships. The review also recommended the journal develop and publish written policies and procedures for peer review and special sections, and create procedures to avoid conflicts of interest, including precautions about publishing articles by editors of the journal. Finally, the review suggested that the editorial board should lend oversight to the journal and require annual reports and that UNT Press should review accomplishments at the end of each editor’s term.

According to the affidavit submitted with the lawsuit, Provost Jennifer Cowley instructed Jackson to develop a plan to address the recommendations by Dec. 18. But one week before the deadline, Benjamin Brand, the chair of the music theory division, informed Jackson that the department was removing him from the journal and defunding the journal and the Center for Schenkerian Studies.

Jim Berscheidt, the vice president for University Brand Strategy and Communications, said UNT administrators will not discuss the pending litigation.

Gain, one of the students among the suit’s defendants, didn’t reply to an interview request.

Jackson said the criticism and allegations of racism have hurt him personally and professionally.

“They’re tremendously hurtful,” Jackson said. “And I think part of the hurtfulness comes from the fact that I know they are false. And the reason I know they’re false is because I’ve had a few Black students over the years who I promoted long before this all happened. I’ve long supported promoting Black people in all fields.”

Jackson recalled a Black student who enrolled in his class teaching 16th Century Counterpoint 13 years ago. The student, who Jackson declined to name, made her discovery of renaissance classical music at UNT, he said, and fell in love with classical music and developed an interest in music theory. Jackson said the student was gifted and dedicated, and he became her mentor.

“After that class, she used to come and talk to me whenever she could,” Jackson said. “I spent a lot of time with her... She wanted to go into music theory and I wanted her to go into music theory but she felt she couldn’t make a living at it. She would have had to go into graduate school to get her doctoral degree — she was just an undergraduate at the time.”

The student got into a competitive arts management program with the help of a glowing reference from Jackson. In 2013, Jackson said, the student wrote to him and asked again about possibility of pursuing music theory. Ultimately, she chose not to get back into the field, in part because it would be difficult to support a family on the salary of a music theory professor, “but also because she thought she would be too lonely as the only Black woman in the field.”

Jackson said he grieved her decision, and understands how important it is for Black female scholars to integrate their fields of study by being the first in their field.

“We have Korean (women), we have Chinese (women),” Jackson said. “We have all the other ethnic groups represented, but we don’t have any Black women who are strong Schenkerians yet.”

Jackson said he is invested in seeing the underrepresentation of Black scholars in Schenkerian theory change.

Jackon alleges that UNT and the broader music theory community are curtailing his academic freedom and freedom of speech. The public rebuke could affect his ability to get his work accepted at upcoming conferences, and could also affect his students.

“It does make it more difficult to get one’s students positions,” he said. “And students are afraid to study with one. I had one student who told me didn’t want other students to know that we were communicating. So it’s extremely damaging.”

Michael Thad Allen, Jackson’s attorney, said the university and music theory community’s censure is especially harmful for graduate students studying with the center.

“I can speak with authority as a former academic myself... it is common, disturbingly common, for academics to retaliate against each other by taking it out on each other’s graduate students,” he said. “It’s a community that does and should take ideas extremely seriously. As it should be. Sometimes, [it] crosses the line where professors begin to think the people who disagree with them are somehow evil.”

Allen said in addition to violating Jackson’s rights, UNT prevented Jackson from publicly defending himself even as the allegations and criticisms spread across social media platforms and reached the newsrooms of National Public Radio, The Federalist and FOX News.

“The University only published the defamatory statements against him,” Allen said. “That report was sent only to Timothy, and there was a big pre-textual show from the university of making this an investigation into, somehow, the procedures employed by the journal. But you’ll see that it was addressed — although there were four members of the editorial staff — the only person ever identified as having done wrong was Timothy.”

Allen said the university’s report and investigation faulted Jackson for not knowing information the junior editors never disclosed to him. Allen added that the university refused to publish exculpatory evidence Jackson provided in his own defense.

“The complaint absolutely shows that some statements being made in public about whistleblowing, about gangster-like meetings in a car, were simply false,” Allen said. “We’d like to think the individuals involved did not act in bad faith, but what else are you supposed to think?”

Jackson denies wrongdoing in his role as an editorial advisor to journal, and said the discussions and decisions around the essays weren’t unconventional for a humanities journal. The faculty who made up the ad hoc committee used guidelines that are chiefly used by scientific journals that receive some public funding, the lawsuit says. He defends publishing an anonymous essay to protect the academic freedom and livelihood of its younger writer, according to the lawsuit.

“Firstly, I think this is much bigger than me,” Jackson said. “I’m not really a culture warrior. I’m actually a kind of soft-spoken person in spite of being portrayed in other ways by the media. I’m actually a quiet, soft-spoken person. But I am stubborn. I’ve been giving papers at the Society for Music Theory and American Musicology Society for my entire career, I would say 30 years now. I’ve noticed this theme in this society. It has become transformed from a forum in which one could voice opposing ideas. It was a place where one could be not a member of the ruling clique but still be heard and respected. It’s changed now to become more like a society of enforcers, where if you state or believe anything opposed by the ruling clique, you’re very much liable to be ostracized or even worse, as you can see now.”

Jackson says his goal is “to break that open again so we can have true, level playing field for ideas, for different viewpoints. I think that’s absolutely crucial.”

“My personal goal is to continue at UNT as a professor for as long as I can, and to produce a journal and to continue to direct the center as best I can, and to foster expertise in Schenkerian analysis,” Jackson said.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.

Recommended for you

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!