Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of composer Adolphus Hailstork.
The attorney for a University of North Texas professor accused of “racist acts” and of fomenting a racist academic attack on a fellow music theorist, said depositions have weakened the university’s defense in a lawsuit.
In 2020, UNT graduate students in the division of Music History, Theory and Ethnomusicology denounced Timothy Jackson, a tenured music professor and the director of the UNT Center for Schenkerian Studies on Twitter.
The students also asked UNT officials to dissolve the scholarly publication he co-founded, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies.
Michael Thad Allen, the attorney representing Jackson, said students and music faculty deposed by the plaintiff have admitted they gave false information to the university during its investigation, and that some didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the allegations they posted online.
‘Racist acts’ or a ‘Twitter mob?’
In a statement circulated on social media last year, UNT students and music faculty alleged that Jackson and the journal were guilty of “platforming racist sentiments” in a symposium published in the journal in 2020.
The symposium, made up of 15 essays (including an anonymous entry) rebutted a plenary paper by music theorist Philip Ewell that was presented at a 2019 Society for Music Theory conference.
That plenary paper took aim at 20th century music theorist Heinrich Schenker and proposed that Schenker exemplified “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame” in his work. Ewell, who is one of very few Black music theorists, said Schenker was an ardent racist whose white supremacy is reflected in his analysis of music. Ewell, who teaches music theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York, received widespread support for his work from his peers.
Ewell declined to comment for this story.
The students’ petition on Twitter led to criticism from the Society for Music Theory, which drew additional statements condemning Jackson from his colleagues in the College of Music and from faculty in other colleges across the country.
The university launched an investigation of Jackson and the journal, which resulted in Jackson’s removal from the journal and the defunding of the publication.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to UNT President Neal Smatresk and UNT College of Music Dean John Richmond last year, asking the university and college to drop the investigation of Jackson and the journal. The foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public advocacy group that defends faculty and student publications and speech from censorship.
An attorney from the Foundation said Friday that UNT has yet to respond to the letter, and the foundation hasn’t retracted its criticism of the university and the college.
How a professor offended students, professors
Specifically, critics took issue with a statement Jackson made in his paper, which was published in the symposium. While Jackson acknowledged that Black and other nonwhite Americans face barriers in classical music and music theory, he suggested that some of those barriers are self-imposed. Jackson wrote that perhaps the biggest barrier for potential Black classical musicians and music theorists lies within Black families, who largely “don’t profoundly value classical music.” Later in his paper, Jackson discussed documented antisemitism in the Black community.
In January, Jackson sued the university for violating his academic freedom and First Amendment rights. The suit also names graduate students, who attorney Michael Thad Allen said defamed the professor.
“We conducted a number of depositions,” Allen said. “Some of things that became prominent in the investigation of Timothy — I’m talking about things in the university’s investigation that accused Tim of extortion and ‘racist actions,’ and which really amount to Timothy saying things that made them uncomfortable and hurt their feelings — amount to defamation. If I accuse you... of burning a cross in someone’s yard and you did not do it, that is defamation in any state.”
The lawsuit details portions of the university’s investigations that read as dramatic, including an instance in which Jackson allegedly forced a student on the journal’s editorial staff into Jackson’s car and coerced him not to censor submissions to the symposium the student disagreed with. In his affidavit, Jackson said he did invite the student to sit in his car to wait out a rainstorm, but said their discussion of the symposium was perfunctory, not coercive.
Allen said a deposition of UNT music theory graduate student Rachel Gain was also revealing.
“The graduate student, Rachel — these are public record — this defendant admitted on record that she had no firsthand knowledge of any of these claims,” Allen said. “That’s a pattern with these allegations. Many of Timothy’s critics don’t have firsthand knowledge of the claims they shared.”
Gain didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
Allen said the university has moved to dismiss Jackson’s suit, citing sovereign immunity — a legal doctrine that claims the state can’t be sued in its own courts without the consent of the Texas Legislature.
“But the investigation of Timothy and the actions taken are a violation of his First Amendment rights,” Allen said, adding the plaintiff will press forward with the case.
Allen said another deposition, from UNT Music Theory professor Frank Heidlberger, showed that Jackson isn’t the only journal editor who doesn’t strictly adhere to a formal peer review process. Heidlberger edits a music theory journal titled Theoria.
“Frank Heidlberger admitted to publishing papers without peer review, and to publishing his own articles in his own journal,” Allen said. “These were the very things that were a complaint against Timothy. We’re not suggesting that Frank or Timothy shouldn’t publish their own work, work that they contribute in a field that is their specialty. But it was wrong for Timothy to do what Frank Heidlberger did? It makes no sense. And it makes no sense that it’s considered a conflict of interest on Timothy’s part, but evidently not on the part of Frank Heidlberger.”
Allen said Theoria also includes citation from Wikipedia, a point that caused graduate students and faculty to question the rigor and scholarship of Jackson’s journal.
“These are the very practices that Timothy is accused of doing as ‘editorial mismanagement,’ and even as evidence of systemic racism,” Allen said. “Has this other professor been accused of ‘racism’ and investigated by an ad hoc panel? You know the answer to that is no.”
Smatresk hadn’t responded to a request for comment by press time.
Kevin Scott, a Black composer, musician and conductor in New York City, has been a friend of Jackson’s for years.
Scott said he’d followed Ewell’s presentation, and read the symposium in the UNT journal.
Scott said it’s true that nonwhite students face barriers to participating in classical music.
Some of the barriers are systemic, he said. And some of the barriers are much closer to the students themselves. Scott recalls growing up in a house that brimmed with jazz.
“My dad loved John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey,” Scott said. “Duke Ellington was too highbrow. He was more into the bebop and big band. I grew up listening to this music.”
Then, one night, Scott was suddenly enthralled with music that concluded a popular 1960s news show, The Huntley-Brinkley Report. It was music from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, and Scott said he was smitten. His love of classical music was a mystery to his father, who didn’t exactly approve.
Students of color who want to pursue music can start hitting snags early, he said.
“Part of it has to do with finding the right teacher and finding an understanding teacher who will see them as a human being and a musician,” Scott said. “Students need a teacher who won’t see color, won’t see gender, sexuality, sexual orientation or anything like that, not first.”
Scott wasn’t ready to demonize teachers wholesale. Rather, he said, many private teachers matured in a form that is very much centered on European culture and unconsciously steeped in whiteness.
“You run into a lot of teachers, older teachers, who are used to one kind of student,” Scott said. “And a Black student or a student of color walks in, and they wonder, ‘What are you doing here?’ They aren’t sure what brings that student into their studio. But they don’t say that out loud. Because the second you say it out loud? You’re branded a racist, and it goes everywhere. The NAACP, the internet, everyone will brand you a racist.”
Scott said that nonwhite musicians and musical academics often encounter assumptions that they are committed to and only fluent in their own musical heritage. Gifted students who connect with a teacher, work hard and take on the competition circuit can break into professional orchestras.
But for much of America’s symphonies, the bottom line is bringing in money. And that can result in programs that center on the masters, like Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler. The focus on masters means that other parts of the classical music canon — including music by Black, Asian and Latino composers — are neglected. Representation in the program and in the orchestra continue to skew white and Asian.
Classical music is a meritocracy, Scott said, so the competition for orchestra chairs, conductor positions and composition publication and performance is fierce. And a musician who rubs an influential person the wrong way “for any little reason” can find it hard to get work. Black conductors have had regional success, he said, but leadership of major metropolitan orchestras has been elusive.
“What Ewell has pointed out, I’ll give him some credit, is that there is a hierarchy that keeps some people out,” Scott said. “There are a lot of people in classical music who want to keep to their Euro-centric ideas, like fools. We’ve always felt that the right conductor has to come from Europe, but a lot of them are not familiar with American music.
“They might know Gershwin, Copland, Ives, Bernstein, Barber... and maybe they’ll know Duke Ellington,” Scott said. “So if you mention William Grant Still, Adolphus Hailstork... or Shelly Washington, they go, ‘Who?’ These are great composers. Older composers know the names, but not the music. Younger conductors might not even know the names.”
Ultimately, Scott said he disagrees with Ewell on Schenker. Scott doesn’t think Schenkerian analysis promotes racism in its structure.
“The only way to further his idea that white people are out to keep their music was to find a fall guy, a patsy,” Scott said. “Schenker said German music was the only music worth studying, with a few exceptions. Schenker thought Wagner was the end of German music. What Ewell did, he tries to introduce these hierarchy of tones, and this is the biggest piece of hogwash, that in these tones Schenker was expressing this racism. It just doesn’t work.”
Scott said the recent interest in promoting Black art and anti-racism comes from good intentions. He said the promotion of Black artists and music can be a real contribution.
“The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor changed some things,” he said. “The interest is there because of genuine concern. The people who do these things out of genuine concern will stay with it. People who are doing this because it’s the news of the moment will leave it behind in a second.”