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The student union letter that led to an RAM staffer’s dismissal

November 5, 2017 by norman lebrecht

37 comments.


We promised a followup to the Royal Academy furore, specifying the grievances of the student body over a set of lecture notes that were circulated by one of their professors. Here’s the Students Union document.

 

 

The letter (name withheld) sent to the RAM student body earlier this week was absolutely unacceptable, and her follow-up email that attempted to address student concerns was entirely inadequate. Not only was the initial letter unprofessional in tone, formatting and written style, and not only does it encourage harmful social behaviors, but it violates the Academy’s Equality and Diversity Policy by encouraging the development of a toxic educational and working environment in which musicians are complicit in the harassment of and discrimination against colleagues on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, age and physical appearance. The Policy Summary found on the RAM website includes points such as “ensure staff create a positive, inclusive ethos that challenges inequality and inappropriate behavior” and “ensure all Academy policies and activity are sensitive to equality issues,” and (X)’s letter is in explicit contradiction to these aims.

The following are some of the most egregious statements from the letter:

“Choose your deputy wisely. Pick someone almost as good as you so you are considered better.” This type of attitude encourages a toxic competitive environment rather than a culture of collaboration, support and mutual respect.

“Join in with the sectional humor. Brass is pubs and pond life is tea queues.” Stereotyping musicians based on what instrument they play is alienating to any performers who feel they do not fit the mold.

“The boys = (other orchestral musicians).” This maintains an environment in which anyone who is not a man is automatically an outsider.

“Gypos (short for gypsies) = violinists specifically.” It is shocking that such racist language would be accepted let alone implicitly encouraged by an official document sent out by the Academy.

“Look young, up-together and cool in rehearsals, and smart in concerts; this is a superficial and ageist world.” This statement regards the superficiality and ageism of the professional environment as something to be accepted rather than challenged, as something that is inevitable rather than perpetuated by individual and collective actors on a daily basis.

“Accept criticism and rejection and forget about it the next time you meet the offender.” It is indeed essential to welcome criticism and opportunities for growth. However, it is also necessary to know where to draw the line if such criticism and rejection crosses the line into harassment or abuse.

“Non-conformity is frowned upon nowadays. The days of the hooligan have gone.” This statement explicitly discourages a diversity in perspectives and attitudes.

“Expect nothing from others but be loyal yourself.” Again, this encourages an environment in which some people may be exploited but are discouraged from expecting anything in return, rather than encouraging all musicians to support each other.

“Play your part, do your thing, head down, don’t complain and keep quiet.” Supposedly this advice applies even in cases of discrimination or harassment.

In her response to student concerns, (X) suggested that her remarks were taken out of context and based on scientific research conducted by a UCL PhD student. She also merely discussed how certain “colloquial terms” could be seen as “offensive” and apologized for the offense without addressing any underlying issues, instead referring us to our principal study teachers for further conversation. There is no denying the fact that this research is likely an accurate portrayal of behaviors that will help advance one’s career. However, the only appropriate context in which they should have been shared would have been a workshop and/or document that explicitly problematizes the behaviors and examines how one might get personal and professional support to respond to specific incidents and to work towards changing the broader culture. Otherwise, they are an active encouragement of racist, sexist and exclusive behaviors and actively discourage musicians from speaking up about injustices by creating a climate of fear around reporting.

We are all current students at RAM, and many of us have witnessed and/or been subject to other discriminatory behaviors perpetrated by both students and staff. Clearly, (X)’s letter is not an exception to an otherwise idyllic and welcoming environment but rather a symptom of a much broader and deeper failure to live up to institutional aims regarding equality and diversity.

In response to this letter, we call for the immediate establishment of a student-led Working Group on Equality and Diversity in order to devise both a both short-term and long-term response to both the letter and the broader climate to which it speaks. This group will examine the climate at RAM as well as in the broader classical music profession and come up with a set of recommendations drawing from approaches taken by other institutions in an attempt to address the underlying cultural and structural issues that allow these attitudes to flourish. The group could take actions such as but not limited to: 1) assessing whether avenues of reporting discriminatory behavior are broadly known, easily accessible and sufficiently safeguard the person making the report; 2) assessing whether particular staff and student training initiatives should be undertaken around diversity issues to promote a safe and welcoming environment for all; 3) collaborating with the Musician’s Union to devise recommendations for students who encounter discriminatory statements or behavior in a professional context; and 4) demanding a formal and adequate response from the Academy that demonstrates the institution’s commitment to ensuring a healthy and respectful educational and working environment for all musicians.

Sincerely,


Comments (37)

  1. William Osborne says:

    The students encourage an atmosphere of tolerance and diversity. In that spirit, I think dialog would have been better than a firing.

    1. William Osborne says:

      Or perhaps it was just a transferal to a different position until the employee is more experienced.

  2. Anon says:

    Generation snowflake hysteric hyper reaction.
    The letter was in bad taste and style. But nothing what it’s made here to be.
    Get a life. Get some perspective. Get to know some REAL problems of the world.

    1. Sue says:

      “Tolerance and diversity” with university students? Oh, that IS an absolute hoot!!!

      1. Craig says:

        Have you even read the original document? There are bigger problems with it than any kind of ‘offence’ caused to the student body, that’s just a small part of the complaint. It is not a piece of work of a standard befitting any music college, let alone one of the top ones in the world.

  3. Stephen Hansford says:

    Why can the modern British student ever be challenged or offended? Safe spaces are killing everything. Man up.

    1. Sue says:

      Do watch some of the stunning lectures and discussions from Jordan Peterson; these are a real eye-opener!! And it’s certainly not just the USA and Canada where the problem of bullying and hectoring students is causing a backlash.

  4. William Osborne says:

    In response to the comments by anon and Hansford, I think the suggestions the students make are worth consideration. A music world with their sensibilities will be a better and more artistic place. A rare cause for hope, these days…

  5. Stephen says:

    The student’s reply is literate, well-written, polite and professional. The original document circulated was not.

    They’re not asking to be cuddled, for a “safe space”, for their poor delicate little sensibilities to be protected, snowflake-like…the response of “oh they just need to be challenged or offended” is ridiculous. They make perfectly reasonable suggestions none of which would make the industry a worse place to work. I mean, on what planet do you have to be to think circulating a memo where violinists are “gypos” is ok??? I’ve hired orchestras for sessions for years and never heard that. It’s not 1976. Carver, perhaps. Gypos??? What kind of dinosaur even says that?

    They didn’t even ask for the staffer to be fired, so you can even say the Academy was bowing to pressure, the Academy apparently just over-reacted.

    1. Sue says:

      The problem, sir, is that students have been crying ‘wolf’ for so long now that most people have just shut off.

  6. Stephen says:

    And from what it says elsewhere, this was a temporary employee…actually scratch that. RAM absolutely did right thing.

    How many of you would go into a temp job and circulate a memo encouraging everybody to call a section of that group by what is generally recognized as a racial slur? What if we said that there’s lots of good old Jewish melodies for the violin, so it’s ok to call violinists “kikes”?

    What planet do you need to be on to think that’s ok? That would have got your temp position rescinded 20 years ago, let alone today.

    Jesus, anybody making the whole “they need to be challenged” and thinks that invoking the “they’re snowflakes with their safe spaces” line is relevant here needs a lobotomy.

    1. Bruce says:

      The whole thing struck me as a “this the kind of thing you may run into out there” type of letter, not an endorsement of such behavior.

      1. Stephen says:

        Who the hell writes a memo…under even those circumstances…containing the word “gypo”? As a temp?

        This takes really a considerable degree of stupidity, even if it was a “you may hear this”, especially given the general tone which was “you have to tolerate the following”. What if we change it to the n-word?

        1. Bruce says:

          Well yes. Not arguing with you. I see room for nuance, and for context. Rather than get into it here, I would refer you to the last three paragraphs of my (overly long) comment below.

          1. Sue says:

            Oh yes, we definitely need more ‘nuance’ and ‘context’ – especially in Syria.

          2. Bruce says:

            Oh, sorry — we were talking about Syria, weren’t we.

    2. Alex Davies says:

      You are right to highlight the offensive language used about gypsies. If this email had used similarly derogatory language about Jews or black people it would have been the headline, not a minor quibble in the comments section. You can just imagine it, “RAM sacks staff member over antisemitic language”, or, “RAM tutor dismissed for racist abuse”. The racism I hear directed towards gypsies is quite extraordinary, not least because I’m not talking about the morons who post on Stormfront, but about people who are intelligent, educated, and cultured, who have respectable professional careers, and who would not consider themselves racist and would never express a racist opinion against any other ethnic group.

  7. Bruce says:

    This memo looks like the work of someone who has long and bitter experience of the system as it is (and not as it should be), and wants to warn students of some of the things that may be said or done to them when they get out of the protected environment of school. The author’s gender may have — let’s be honest, most likely had an influence on the experiences she has had and how she was expected to handle them.

    I haven’t read up on the code of conduct and rules of communication that people agree to follow when they are hired by the RAM; I agree with Robert Osborne that dialogue would be preferable to outright firing, but the faculty member may have broken one of the rules in the “failure to adhere will result in immediate dismissal” category. It hardly looks like an endorsement of the behaviors described; quite the opposite.

    Still, this document could be a very valuable basis for a workshop designed to wake students up to what life can really be like out there. (If you’re in school and starting to freelance, you’re generally not dependent on getting gigs to keep you from becoming homeless, and it’s easier to turn down work if you see or experience exploitation or harassment; not so easy to do when you’re on your own.) It would make a good introduction for a discussion about where all the talk about inclusion, diversity, equality, respect for others (or political correctness, if you prefer to think of it that way), etc, came from.

    If nothing else, this memo could be distributed with an introduction along the lines of “I thought I was sophisticated and worldly before I left school. Since then, I have seen and/or experienced all of the behaviors, expectations, and stereotypes I describe. The advice below is based on my experiences out in the ‘real world.’ Be ready.”

    It could even be a warning: As a society, we like to talk about being resilient and having a positive attitude. The author has clearly been affected by her experiences. Can you imagine what some of those may have been? Can you honestly say how those same experiences would affect you? What about your classmates, some of whom are going to be lifelong friends? Keep a careful watch over your heart as you go through the world — you may need it for others as well as for yourself.

    1. Bruce says:

      I meant I agree with WILLIAM Osborne. Don’t know where I got “Robert” from. Sorry.

      1. Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

        Maybe from the Robert you dated two years ago?
        He is on snapchat now. Give him a poke.

        1. Steve says:

          Norman, the person who goes by “Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer” is a troll. I suggest blocking future replies. The comment above is just a particularly egregious example of a pattern of baiting, name calling and insulting comments. These comments add no value to the discourse that you generously allow on your blog. Enough is enough.

          1. Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

            Is calling out openly for censorship in compliance with the mainstream value of this blog?
            Shut up, S*.

  8. Gordon Jury says:

    Behaviors? Humor? Defense? Problematize? (ugh!). The authors of the SU document seem to have forgotten on which side of the Atlantic they live.

  9. Steve says:

    Telling someone to shut up is, of course, censorship.

    1. Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

      No, I am not like you, who keeps pointing the finger at others like a moral apostle, but at the same time does things 1000 times creepier than a troll. You are nothing but a Scheinheilige, the most disgusting thing in the world. Shame on you, whistleblower.

    2. Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

      Rule no.1 of combating trolls: don’t feed the troll.
      Wise up, man.

  10. Bruce says:

    Perhaps we could all try not to let a single person change the course of the whole conversation with one irrelevant remark. No need for censorship (or “censorship”), just no need to pay attention.

    Just a thought; seems worth a try.

    Anyway, it seems like, as unprofessional and ill-advised as this memo was, the author raises some important points about what the world outside of school is like*, and the kinds of behaviors & expectations a person may have to cope with once they get out there — and thus raises important points about why all this talk about equality, diversity, inclusion etc. reflects an actual lack of, and need for, decency in our interactions with one another.

    *not just music school. A similar memo could be written about pretty much any industry. When I started my non-music job, our orientation period included several hours of training in appropriate vs. inappropriate workplace behavior, something I never got (and I wish others had gotten) as part of my musical education or in any music-related job.

    1. Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

      +1
      Bruce, you are the best, as always.

  11. Robert Holmén says:

    My theory… this wasn’t why the faculty member got fired. It was yet another straw on the camel’s back already piled high with bad interactions with students and faculty alike and this was convenient demarcation point.

    Just a theory because if you take any of the complaints singly, they’re not really a firing offense and the students weren’t asking for a firing.

    But the whole crap load of over generalization and condescension together does not speak well for the faculty member.

    “Not only was the initial letter unprofessional in tone, formatting and written style…”

    It certainly was odd in that regard. A bad example for communication, academic, mentorly or otherwise.

  12. Craig says:

    Easy for people to jump in with their standard ‘generation snowflake’ comments, isn’t it? So simple to dismiss genuine concerns by pointing fingers. You’re no better than those who dictate what others can and cannot say.

    The document is self-contradictory, badly written and formatted and generally unprofessional in appearance. This alone means that it should never have been sent around to students in one of the top music colleges in the world. These are young people, often very unsure of themselves, entering a very competitive industry where they are fed contradictory advice from different teachers about how they should behave when they get their big break and play their first professional gigs. A document like this thrown into the mix is extremely unhelpful. ‘Being seen around the right people’ is transparent behaviour and likely to get you rubbed from an extra list, and I have never once heard violinists referred to as ‘gypos’, it’s a crazy claim.

    There are some sad truths within the document about sexism etc, and instead of merely ‘being offended’ perhaps it would be worth examining them, but they lose their impact when surrounded by confusing advice that has been coloured by personal experiences. I should add that the claim that the information was based off research from a UCL PhD student holds very little weight when you realise that said student is the same person who authored the document!

    The best thing to try and do in the orchestra as a young person is to, quite frankly, just do your job. Turn up on time, play well, don’t be a d**k. You’ll go far.

  13. William says:

    I think that many people here are missing the broader context of this memo. The original memo from the staff member represents a spectacular own-goal on the behalf of RAM. As a graduate of one of the other London music colleges, I can testify to the fact that RAM has a reputation for excellence, but also competitiveness, bitchiness and general unpleasantness that doesn’t exist to anything like the same degree at the other colleges. The students are absolutely right to be trying to address this institutional culture; something that this memo clearly tries to perpetuate – and of course this staff member should be dismissed.

    In terms of the music industry as a whole, having been a pro musician for 10 years, I can also add that whilst there is unpleasantness in the profession, there are more excellent people out there than not, and that the nastiness is only there when people choose to perpetuate it.

  14. Alex Davies says:

    The document circulated is in poor taste in places, but I think others are correct to point out that the real offence was circulating this to everybody without running it past senior management. Having in the past had part-time temporary university teaching positions I can certainly confirm that it would be considered very bad form to offer advice to one’s colleagues’ students.

    1. SVM says:

      Re: “the real offence was circulating this to everybody without running it past senior management”

      1. If so, an important question is did the person *intend* to send it to everybody? At my institution, it is very common for people to send messages to a large mailing list accidentally, having not realised that, at my institution, an address starting “class–” has the function of copying the message to a mailing list automatically (there is guidance that specifies how this works, but it is not made prominent enough in staff/student handbooks), and, despite my repeated complaints to IT, without any form of moderation. I have no idea how the RAM’s mailing-list system works, but it may be that a similar problem exists.

      2. Requiring circulars to be run past senior management may be appropriate in a private corporation, but would be inappropriate in academia. If every circular for concerts, seminars, events, lecture-notes, workshops, opportunities &c. had to be run past senior management individually, you would need a lot of delegated administrators (as opposed to list moderators, whose role is to check the mailing is not accidental/spam and is suitable for the context of the list), which would be expensive. More importantly, the whole point of an academic institution is that its staff should be free to discuss publicly issues of concern, however controversial or unpleasant. This does not imply /carte blanche/ to use large mailing-lists indiscriminately. However, sacking a member of staff for using the wrong mailing-list seems very extreme.

  15. Londonmusician says:

    Good luck to these students on the job. I for one am really looking forward to sharing a desk with a 22-year-old giving me their diverse opinions on how to change our ways. NOT.

    1. miko says:

      I bet you are mate, steeped in the bullying self important racist sexist petty oneupmanship that the London cl music scene is traditionally proud of. Keep it up, you ll become as extinct and irrelevant as most perceive you anyway.

  16. On The Square says:

    Now that her name is out, it is hard not to double check, via Google. As it happens it turns out she presented an academic paper in 2014 which “revealed that her research showed 43 out of 45 orchestra fixers she interviewed were men, mostly freemasons”.

    So maybe there is more to this story. Just saying.


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