LOGAN — An independent investigation into allegations of discrimination and sexual assault within the Utah State University music department has revealed that discrimination and sexual misconduct went unpunished for years.
“We cannot move forward as an institution if we do not own up to our past mistakes,” USU President Noelle Cockett said at a press conference Friday morning, where she announced changes the university is making as a result of the report’s recommendations.
The report concluded that piano program head Gary Amano had discriminated against female students on the basis of gender and tolerated sexual harassment of students by faculty members, and it recommended Amano’s dismissal.
Cockett announced Amano has retired effective April 2 and is no longer employed at the university. When contacted Friday, Amano had no comment.
The report also recommended sanctions for professor Dennis Hirst, who investigators said enabled Amano’s discriminatory behavior. Cockett announced that Hirst has been removed as the piano program coordinator and that the university will move forward with sanctions against him. Attempts to reach Hirst Friday were not successful.
Read more about the report's findings here.
Another faculty member — whose name was redacted in the report — has been barred from further employment at the university, Cockett said.
The 18-page, partially redacted report, which reflects interviews with 60 witnesses and hundreds of pages of documents, said four faculty members between 1994 and 2012 were accused of sexual harassment, including one former faculty member who admitted to sexual relations with three students.
"A disturbing pattern emerges from all 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," the report states. "In several instances, the only party to be criticized was the victim."
Additional recommendations included changes to ensure university policies “clearly prohibit psychologically abusive behavior by the faculty,” eliminate gender discrimination within the university, and develop standards for more stringent review of student claims of mistreatment and sexual harassment.
Cockett said she is initiating a reorganization of the university's Title IX office, including leadership changes, the addition of more staff and increased oversight.
"The authority and scope of Title IX must be undeniable here on the campus," she stated.
Cockett said that in the coming weeks she will announce a task force to address the issue of gender discrimination, not just in the music department but across the university. The task force will re-evaluate processes for grading, awarding scholarships and the hiring of new faculty to advance gender balance.
Other actions the school is considering include hiring a dedicated mental health counselor for students and putting observation windows, and potentially cameras, in all one-on-one instruction rooms.
The issues raised in the report “challenge the very mission of our university,” Cockett said.
“I believe people are feeling more empowered to bring these things forward,” she said. “It’s an evolving university climate that has to continue to just move forward and absolutely with no doubt, people have to understand there is zero tolerance.”
“President Cockett has taken this seriously from the start, and by seriously I mean she has taken it to heart,” Tim Vitale, a spokesman for the university, told the Deseret News. “She has had the safety and well-being of our students front and center in her mind.”
USU hired outside counsel Snell & Wilmer of Salt Lake City to conduct the investigation on February 16 after several women claimed in Facebook posts that they had been mistreated by music department employees. Whitney McPhie Griffith, who said she was raped by her piano instructor in 2009, and Amy Cannon Arakelyan, who said she was sexually harassed by faculty members, were among the first to come forward.
Since the start of the investigation, more alleged victims have spoken up, including a male former music student who said he was groped by his music professor on an overnight trip, and more than a dozen former piano students who said the program culture allowed for sexism, harassment and intimidation.
“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,” said Cockett.
Before the press conference, Cockett held a separate meeting to debrief music students on the contents of the report. As the meeting let out, students returned to their classes and practice rooms. Soon the familiar sounds of piano, cello and violin filled the halls of the fine arts center.
“I don’t think there was one person who wasn’t in tears (during the meeting),” senior piano student Lexie Hansen said of fellow piano majors. “I think that’s telling.”
Hansen was pleased to hear that Amano was retiring but felt that Hirst, her private teacher, had unfairly taken much of the fall for Amano’s bad behavior.
“He was in a really difficult position, and he always tried his best to help students,” said Hansen, who filed a Title IX complaint against Amano in the spring of 2017. “Professor Hirst always protected me, always.”
Other students expressed gratitude for the steps the school has taken.
“I’m really grateful to what the university is doing for us, and how transparent they have been,” says Sarah Hamatake, a junior in the piano program. “It’s been a really emotional trip, this whole thing, from day one.”
Not just piano majors, but music students throughout the department felt the impact of the report.
Laura Corrigan, a sophomore studying music therapy, said she thought the investigation and response were very effective. “I feel more relieved and protected knowing the faculty and instructors are here are looking out for my best interest,” she said.
'A huge relief'
Amy Cannon Arakelyan described her feelings of relief in a phone interview with the Deseret News.
“I am so grateful that USU has Noelle Cockett as a president,” she said through tears. “The work is not done, but I trust her, and I haven’t felt that from anyone at USU for a long time.”
She was especially supportive of the decision to remove Amano.
“I don’t wish anybody ill will,” she said. “But I have been witness to so much damage that he’s done to people, myself included, so the fact that he’s no longer in a position to do that is a huge relief.”
Whitney McPhie Griffith agreed.
“Gary was the root of the problem,” she explained. “In my opinion, it was largely because of him that so much of this happened for so long, without any consequences.”18 comments on this story
Griffith said that although she feels the report’s recommendations and Cockett’s response are a “massive step,” she believes that “there is still so much to be done” to ensure that there is lasting change in the department.
Both Arakelyan and Griffith, who were among the first to come forward on social media, said they never could have imagined their posts would have this impact.
“Never in a million years did I think there was a chance it would blow up like this,” said Griffith.
“The earth was dry and parched, and a spark was lit, and it just took off,” said Arakelyan.