Utah State University students endured ‘pervasive’ sexism and abuse from piano faculty as reports were mishandled, investigation shows

Logan • Piano students at Utah State University endured a “pervasive culture” of sexism, a “disturbing” pattern of sexual violence and psychological abuse by faculty, an investigation has revealed. Four music instructors were accused of assaulting or harassing students, those who complained faced retaliation, and women received 41 cents for every dollar of scholarship funding given to men.

And university officials failed to act for years, investigators concluded.

At a news conference Friday, USU President Noelle Cockett responded to the blistering findings and outlined her plans for reform.

“Step one in moving forward is standing up and admitting that we at Utah State made mistakes in the way we handled issues of abuse, of mistreatment of students and even of instances of sexual assault,” Cockett said.

Gary Amano, the head piano teacher, has retired, she announced. The school has removed the interim piano program coordinator from that role and will make “leadership changes” at its Title IX office, which handles complaints of assault and discrimination. A new task force will investigate gender discrimination campuswide and the school will consider making it simpler to discipline faculty.

“I want the university community and the public to understand that these issues that showed up in the review don’t just affect those who experienced them directly,” she said. “These issues challenge the very mission of our university and threaten the futures and careers of more than just the victims, more than just those directly involved.”

USU hired Salt Lake City attorney Alan Sullivan to investigate the piano program last month after former students began posting on social media accounts of rape, sexism, and bullying by faculty.

The firm interviewed 60 current and former students, faculty, and other employees, and reviewed hundreds of university records. Sullivan concluded that Amano had committed or facilitated extensive abuses — and that multiple university administrators knew this but did nothing.

“Unfortunately, … the university’s music department and Title IX office did little to address the problem despite repeated opportunities to confront Professor Amano and respond to complaints,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan’s report identifies eight student complaints that reached administrators in the music department and elsewhere in the university. The Tribune has reported on four additional student complaints to administrators.

USU had previously promised, in 2016, to strengthen its Title IX enforcement and its handling of sexual misconduct complaints, in the wake of multiple rape allegations against former USU football player Torrey Green. Its latest vow of reform comes as the U.S. Department of Justice investigates its response to campus sexual assault, in a federal review announced in 2017.

‘Unwilling to confront ... offenders’

One former student said that as one of the few women in Amano’s elite studio, she practiced harder than her classmates, always in fear of being kicked out. She told investigators the teacher’s attitude was, “If I give you this privilege or opportunity, it’ll just take it away from a male.”

Another said she was afraid to practice in the music building at night because an instructor, one of Amano’s favorite graduate students, repeatedly touched her and tried to meet with her alone.

Another former student told investigators a music teacher “‘terrorized’ her on and off for years” after he raped her.

Sullivan’s report identifies six complaints of sexual violence, discrimination and mistreatment by faculty against piano students, made to USU’s Title IX investigators.

Four music instructors were accused of sexually harassing and assaulting piano students from 1994 to 2012, according to Sullivan’s report. Their names were redacted.

Two of the accused instructors remain employed at USU, and Cockett did not specifically address whether their employment or the allegations will be reviewed.

Sullivan identified four alleged victims of one former instructor, two of whom complained to Title IX staff; The Tribune has spoken with another former student who said she was raped by the same man when they were undergraduate classmates. Cockett said that man has been banned from employment at USU.

Amano defended the instructor and criticized the student who filed the most recent complaint, Title IX records show. Title IX investigators wrote that they feared Amano would retaliate against the student for making the complaint.

Amano also allegedly wrote a letter to the parents of a student who reported an assault by another music professor; that former student said Amano blamed her parents, saying they had given her “too much freedom,” Sullivan wrote.

Despite multiple reports of retaliation and sexism, Amano faced no action until music department administrators asked him to go on sabbatical last year.

“A disturbing pattern emerges from all of these incidents: Some of them appear to have been common knowledge at the time, but none of them appears to have been taken seriously by the leadership of the piano program or the university,” Sullivan wrote.

“In several instances, the only party to be criticized was the victim. … The incidents demonstrate, at the very least, a persistent bias against women and a serious lack of faculty supervision and discipline. They also demonstrate that piano program faculty and music department leadership were for years unwilling to confront sexual harassment offenders.”

Amano announced his retirement on Monday, one day after The Tribune published a story detailing allegations of mistreatment and misconduct from 20 former and current students at USU and its attached Youth Conservatory, including eight students who said they complained to university administrators.

The university has begun a “sanction process” against piano professor Dennis Hirst, Cockett said. He has taught at USU since 1993 and was interim coordinator of the piano program.

Hirst “enabled Professor Amano’s discriminatory acts, or else ignored them, without taking meaningful steps to hold him accountable or correct the problems to which they led,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan also identified three cases in which Craig Jessop, dean of USU’s arts college and former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was made aware of piano students’ complaints. Two additional women have told the Tribune they complained directly to Jessop about conditions in the program.

Sullivan did not make a recommendation about Jessop. Asked whether Jessop or other administrators would be disciplined, Cockett said, “This is not the conclusion of this situation” and that the school would continue to look into how employees handled student allegations. She said she also expects the school will receive additional reports.

Tolerating abuse

The insults, public belittling and threats faced by many piano students needlessly undermined their education and devastated their careers, Sullivan wrote.

“For decades the piano program tolerated psychologically abusive faculty behavior — behavior that drove some students to leave the program without degrees, giving up the piano altogether, and other students to contend with abuse until they graduated,” he wrote.

“... The training of elite piano performers undoubtedly must be rigorous and highly disciplined,” he added. “But we do not believe there is any excuse for the humiliating treatment that some students experienced.”

The report catalogs students’ claims of sexist remarks by Amano, including that women are “likely to become nothing more than housewives and neighborhood piano teachers” and men are naturally better pianists than women and were more deserving of performance opportunities.

In interviews, Amano rejected those claims, stating he had never disparaged female students or discriminated against them, the report states — but, he told investigators, “it is a fact of life” that most elite piano performers are men. He has not responded to requests for comment from The Tribune.

Until last year, Amano was “the sole arbiter of piano scholarships,” Sullivan wrote, and students said they “were under the constant threat that their scholarships would be reduced if Professor Amano became displeased with them.”

Investigators found that since 2009, women piano students had received 41 cents of scholarship funding for each dollar given to men. When Amano went on sabbatical last fall, all women who received scholarships were required to perform clerical work for the department, Sullivan wrote. The only three students not required to perform clerical work for their scholarships were men.

A plan for reform

Cockett, who took office in 2017 and is USU’s first woman president, said the piano program and the Caine College of the Arts began making changes in recent months — including adopting a code of ethics for the treatment of students, creating a board to review allegations of discrimination and abuse, and a point system to allocate scholarships, judged jointly by piano faculty.

But scrutiny will continue campuswide, she said — starting with changes to the school’s Title IX Office. That will include changes in its leadership, increasing staff and creating a position to oversee prevention training.

“The authority and scope of Title IX must be undeniable here on the campus,” Cockett said.

The university will also launch a collegewide task force to review gender discrimination against students, staff and faculty. Cockett and Ronda Callister, a professor in USU’s Huntsman School of Business who studies gender inequality, will oversee the task force and will determine its objectives and membership in the coming weeks.

In an effort to more clearly prohibit student mistreatment, Cockett said she has charged Provost Laurens H. Smith and faculty senate leadership to consider revising USU policies to expand expectations for faculty conduct, to simplify discipline and to provide clearer processes for addressing student complaints.

The university is also considering dedicating a counselor to the College of the Arts, installing windows in all one-on-one classrooms and placing cameras in instruction areas, she said.

Cockett also said the university will work with past students who left the school without their degrees.

Former student Amy Arakelyan, who studied piano at USU from 2003 through 2007, said she is glad to see the school’s plans to reform its Title IX office.

Arakelyan, who wrote the first social media complaint to gain exposure last month, had written a lengthy complaint to Jessop in 2015 about sexism and abuse in the piano department. Sullivan’s review found no record that Jessop or Title IX investigators forwarded the complaint to human resources officials, as Arakelyan had requested.

“I’m encouraged by the restructuring of Title IX and how they’re going to be reviewing their policies and how they handle complaints and things like that,” she said. “Just having a reliable place where students can voice their concerns and feel like they’re actually going to be taken seriously. If those changes are made like they say, I think that will do so much for the students at USU.”

Camille Weber, a senior piano major who filed a Title IX complaint against Amano last year, said she’s “excited for future students” now that USU’s piano faculty can teach without the pall of abuse hanging over the department.

“Even just this last year,” she said, “my professors really paved the way for me to be able to graduate and get everything done despite everything that happened.”