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Report finds sexual misconduct in USU piano program went back 'decades'

An independent investigator hired by Utah State University found the university's piano program failed to follow up o...

Posted: Apr 8, 2018 11:20 AM
Updated: Apr 8, 2018 11:20 AM

An independent investigator hired by Utah State University found the university's piano program failed to follow up on accusations of sexual misconduct and discriminating against women, according to an 18-page report released Friday.

It also offered six suggestions for the university moving forward, from terminating staff, to making adjustments to the university and the Title IX office.

Although the report centered on the university's piano program, Utah State University President Noelle Cockett said she will push for a university-wide review of gender discrimination among students, staff and faculty. That includes a task force for the issue that will be announced in the coming weeks, she added.

"We cannot move forward as an institution if we do not own up to our past mistakes," she said during a press conference Friday. "Each of us at Utah State has to dig deeply into ourselves and come out the other end with solutions to these problems and a commitment to preventing these actions in the future."

The report released Friday, however, found complaints from students or parents dated back to at least 1994 and continued for decades. It stated professor Gary Amano, head of the piano program, created a hostile academic environment for women, discriminated against females on the basis of gender and that he tolerated sexual harassment.

"The incidents demonstrate, at the very least, a persistent bias against women and a serious lack of faculty supervision and discipline," the report said.

The report suggested the university dismiss Amano; however, Amano submitted his retirement, effective immediately, on Monday, Cockett said. She added whether Amano receives retirement benefits was out of the university's control.

It also suggested a staff member accused of sexual misconduct should not be retained "for reasons made apparent in this report," said Jody Burnett, Utah State University board of trustees chair. The staff member's name was redacted due to privacy regulations.

Cockett explained that since it was not a criminal investigation, the university was limited in what they could release, but added the staff member "was barred from further employment at Utah State University."

In addition, the report suggested punishment for professor Dennis Hirst, who was serving as interim head of the program, for enabling or ignoring Amano's discriminatory acts. Cockett said Hirst was removed from his position as piano program coordinator and the university is pursuing sanctions against him.

The report also recommended changes to grading processes to eliminate gender discrimination and changes for faculty behavior toward students, suggesting the university's Caine College of the Arts develop standards to "ensure students are properly challenged and held to rigorous standards, but without humiliation or reticule from faculty."

Many of those changes were implemented within the past year, Cockett said. The university also changed how scholarships are awarded, where scholarships are recommended by a committee before they are awarded by a department head.

It also suggested the college establish a clear procedure for evaluating student complaints and changes to the Title IX office. Cockett said the office was reorganized, more staff were hired and given more power at the university in sexual misconduct prevention.

"The authority and scope of Title IX must be undeniable here on the campus," she said.

The university hired the investigator, an employee at Salt Lake City-based Snell & Wilmer, on Feb. 16, after former students made claims of sexual assault, harassment and gender discrimination within the piano program, Utah State University spokesman Eric Warren said.

The firm gathered 60 witnesses and hundreds of pages of documents.

That investigation began after at least two former students shared their experiences with the program in Facebook posts earlier that month. Two more posts describing incidents of harassment within the music program, dating as far back as 1999, were reported shortly after the investigation began.

The investigation was sparked after a Feb. 10 Facebook post written by Amy Cannon Arakelyan, a former student in the program, who called the university's music department a "toxic environment characterized by thinly veiled misogyny and emotional manipulation," including sexual harassment from a faculty member.

Another former student, Whitney McPhie Griffith, shared her story in a Facebook post three days later. She alleged an instructor in the piano program raped her in 2009 while she was a student at the university and eventually filed the incident to Title IX; however, she said the instructor "was told to knock it off - essentially given a slap on the wrist."

"The meaning and power behind the #metoo movement has intensified for me in the past three days," she wrote in the post. "All of this has been on my mind every single day for years, particularly in the past year or two, when the public spotlight has been on USU and other universities for sexual assault cases."

KSL does not typically name alleged victims of sexual assault, but Arakelyan and Griffith have both posted their stories to the public.

The Deseret News reported Wednesday it spoke with 25 former and current Utah State music students and found more allegations and even a police report in the 1990s describing a sexual assault of a teenage student by a USU music department employee, who is now a music faculty member.

Cockett credited the students who spoke out about the abuse through the #MeToo movement for sparking the changes announced Friday.

"They wanted to make sure that things that happened in our past to our students, to them, never happens to anyone else," she said. "Thank you for being so brave. Thank you for demanding changes at Utah State. We are moving forward because of your exceptional strength."

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