Alumni reflect on SFPA culture as investigations come to a close

By Sarah Siock and Shaun Chornobroff

Nearly a year after current and former students in Rider’s School of Fine and Performing Arts (SFPA) reported a toxic learning environment and created a 44-page document detailing over 120 anonymous complaints that launched a third-party investigation, findings have been published surrounding a handful of complaints, leaving students to question what systemic changes will be made. The mass allegations focused on accusations of sexual harassment, racism, inappropriate relationships and body-shaming done by faculty at the university.

The investigations

Rider responded to the allegations by hiring a third-party investigator, TNG Consulting, in October 2020 to accept and assess formal complaints. Administrators confirmed last spring that the process was part of formal Title IX anti-discrimination investigations, but they refused to disclose how many investigations were undertaken. Over the past few months, TNG published their reports with students receiving the reports in emails from administrators.

Since multiple claims were investigated, several reports were published to those involved.

A copy of a report from an investigation that was obtained by The Rider News detailed allegations against a specific professor. The report does not list the professor by name.

According to the report, the allegations include that the professor created programmatic barriers that resulted in “disparate treatment” of a production, “Upon the Shoulders We Stand,” led by minority students in 2020. In addition, it was alleged that the professor refused to properly say the name of a student even after being corrected multiple times and did not take action after being informed of racial slurs used by students in the fine arts living-learning community dorm, Lake House.

The report says there was insufficient evidence for the majority of the claims but, “It is more likely than not that respondent [the professor] engaged in unprofessional conduct” by repeatedly mispronouncing a student’s name. The report also found “it is more likely than not that respondent engaged in harassment” by repeatedly mispronouncing a student’s name, despite being corrected, over the course of several semesters. However, the investigator concluded there was insufficient evidence to conclude that such conduct constituted discrimination.

Action taken

Rider’s Chapter of The American Association for University Professor’s (AAUP) Chief Grievance Officer Jeffrey Halpern said that the union asked the administration for reports and relevant materials from the investigation to make decisions about the next steps. He added that the investigations completed by TNG, “should in no way be thought of as determining actual responsibility or as the endpoint in the process.”

Halpern and AAUP President Barbara Franz declined to comment on specific disciplinary action being taken as a result of the investigations.

“Those accused have not had an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses or put on any meaningful defense. … Once we are provided the information we have demanded we [the union] will review and decide the next step. It is likely that we will arbitrate. An arbitration is analogous to a court of law,” Halpern wrote in an email to The Rider News. “The accused will be presumed innocent and the burden of proof will rest on the administration. We will have the aid of legal counsel and be able to cross-examine witnesses under oath with the potential of perjury charges. We will be able to call witnesses and present arguments to rebut the administration’s claims. Once all evidence has been heard the arbitrator will make a binding ruling.”

Halpern said the administration has yet to turn over relevant information from the investigation to the union. Provost DonnaJean Fredeen said that she does not “comment on confidential personal matters” in an email to The Rider News.

Student reactions

Throughout the investigation process, students and alumni have advocated for reforms at the university, while being vocal about a lack of communication from the administration during the investigative phase.

Jerome Manning ’21 graduated from Rider with a degree in musical theater and submitted complaints about the department his senior year. He said the university could have improved its conversations with students throughout the investigation.

“I think they could have kept us more informed… it just felt like we were never really getting updates or we would get them like three or four months at a time,” said Manning.

Manning also said he hoped to see immediate changes take place within the department now that the investigation was complete, including hiring a greater amount of faculty of color in SFPA.

“I think some change does take time but also stuff can also not take time, it can be very, very quick…You can bring in guest speakers every week, you can do workshops and master classes…That doesn’t take years and years,” said Manning.

Maddie Levy ‘19 said she did not enjoy her time at Rider as a student in the university’s musical theater program. When students came forward with complaints last year, Levy said she was in full support and heard stories similar to her experience.

“I witnessed a lot of abuse, both of myself and my classmates, and it felt like we were going to class every day to be just torn down… there were professors who were telling kids that they could make or break their careers. There were professors who were telling kids that they would never make it as a performer,” said Levy.

Dean Klebonas ’21, who graduated from Rider with a degree in musical theater, criticized the Title IX process. Klebonas submitted a complaint his senior year that related to “inappropriate reactions” by faculty members when they became aware of students’ concerns with the department.

“So much of the problem came from our faculty just taking positions and stances on the situation. We were told that we shouldn’t treat any of our peers differently because we don’t know the story, but to me, that was showing professors taking pretty clear stances on the situation and the way that I was treated changed clearly,” said Klebonas.

Klebonas said he felt there were still professors at the university resistant to change.

“It doesn’t have to come to this”

Manning, Levy and Kleobonas said they hoped future students would feel comfortable speaking up as a result of the investigation, adding that they wanted to see positive discussions between students and professors.

“I still care so much about Rider and what goes on there. Through the whole process I always stress that I love Rider University and I wouldn’t be doing any of this if I didn’t love Rider,” said Kleobonas. “I think the most important thing for them to do is just to create an environment where they are willing and ready to listen to their students. So students can feel like they can say something and that something will be done about it.”

Manning added, “ I think the teachers should be more open to listening to what the students have to say, rather than saying ‘well this is how we’ve done it for all these years…’ they should also make it a more healthy and open space for dialogue rather than it being this very tense atmosphere.”

Levy said she would like to see changes made to how complaints are addressed with prompt action taken.

“I’m happy with the steps that Rider’s taken moving forward. But I hope in the future, they can listen to students as these complaints arise, and then it doesn’t have to come to this,” said Levy.

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