Six months ago, we reported on years of sexual harassment allegations at the University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music against composition professor Dan Welcher. The allegations spanned a period of almost 20 years. They ranged from sexual comments to non-consensual touching, from intimate questions about students’ sexual lives to an unwanted kiss after a composition lesson.
As we hit publish, I remember wondering how the university, and the larger classical music community, would respond. I was not the first reporter to investigate these allegations; a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002 had brought attention to a sexual harassment investigation brought by the (federal) Department of Education against the Butler School of Music. Back then, a finding of sexual harassment required proof of a “sexually hostile environment.” And though a former student had alleged that Welcher sexually harassed her—and though she would be the first of the many former students I’d interview about this alleged pattern of harassment—the Department of Education concluded that their partial corroboration of her allegations did not demonstrate a culture of sexual harassment.
In an email to VAN shortly before that article was published, University of Texas at Austin spokesperson Shilpa Bakre wrote, “The safety of students is always our top priority. The University of Texas at Austin takes all allegations of misconduct seriously and investigates all complaints.” At that time, she wrote, “There are no findings of misconduct involving Professor Welcher.”
According to a University document obtained by VAN (first reported by the student newspaper The Daily Texan), Welcher resigned from the University on March 2, 2020. An investigation by the University had found that “there was sufficient evidence that he violated UT’s policies on sexual harassment.” They found Welcher guilty of “an array of unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” The Provost accepted the investigation findings and began termination proceedings; Welcher chose to resign before these processes were complete. “35 witnesses,” the document notes, “were interviewed” for the investigation; “11 additional written reports containing similar allegations” had been received.
Welcher did not respond to multiple emails from VAN in both 2019 and 2020 requesting comment on these allegations. (Welcher’s attorney, Joe K. Crews, did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment for this article.) Shortly after publication, in an email obtained by VAN in October, 2019, Welcher offered a response to these allegations. He wrote that he was “profoundly sorry to have unwittingly brought shame and embarrassment on the Butler School. I know there is nothing I can say to undo the discomfort I have apparently caused some students, except ‘I’m sorry.’” He clarified that he would remain off campus for the remainder of the academic year before retiring. “I look forward to the end of this unfortunate episode of my life,” he concluded. But in emails with reporters from The Daily Texan, Welcher has characterized reporting on these allegations as “journalistic muckraking and the ensuing social media feeding frenzy.” Crew, his lawyer, referred to VAN’s reporting as “lurid unsubstantiated allegations.”
Other University employees reacted quite differently. Shortly after the original article was published, associate professor Yevgeniy Sharlat sent an email to composition students alerting them of the article. “What this article alleges is very concerning to all of us,” he wrote. “I want to state, as explicitly as I can, that predatory behavior is not tolerated at the Butler School of Music.” 23 minutes later, Butler School of Music director Mary Ellen Poole emailed the school’s general student body about the article. “Know that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated at the Butler School, and remember that all employees are obligated to report any such incidences [sic]. My door is always open to anyone with concerns,” she wrote.
Four days later, Sharlat wrote to the composition department about discussions he planned to have around the article. “Over the last several days, I have heard from many of the current students and recent alums,” he wrote. “I want to thank everyone who spoke and wrote to me. As challenging and uncomfortable as it must be for you, I invite you to speak openly about your concerns in today’s gathering.” He wrote to the composition department shortly after this meeting to thank students for their participation. “It’s hard to put into words how thankful I am to all of you — for speaking courageously at yesterday’s tough, but necessary, meeting. You inspire me. I want to stress again that this is only the first step in establishing trust — and I will continue to listen to you in the weeks and months ahead, as Director Poole and I decide what concrete steps we can take to empower your voices. This is a humbling learning process for me.”
Poole wrote to the Butler School of Music’s student body shortly afterwards to summarize her impressions of that meeting. “I’ve just left a two-hour meeting with the entire population of the composition department, and I am sick to my stomach. What I learned this afternoon has added many layers to my understanding of the ways Dan Welcher’s behavior has interfered with students’ learning, with their professional confidence, with the integrity of their physical selves, and with their pride in saying they have studied at the Butler School,” she wrote. “I believe everyone who has spoken up. It has broken my heart. And now I must figure out a way for us to move forward.”
She concluded, as many of my interviews did, with a discussion of the burden of going public with these allegations. “It doesn’t seem fair at all that the burden of reporting sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, or the creation of a hostile work environment that interferes with your education should be on YOU. It’s not fair,” she wrote. “The reporting system is cumbersome, the investigation process slow, and it often does not result in what we would consider justice. But the only way through this that I can see is for us to talk to each other about it, for faculty and staff to acknowledge the responsibilities that go with their power and influence, more often than in a yearly video training on sexual harassment. I can’t expect that you will trust me to figure out how to make this better on the level of the Butler School. But I hope that somehow you will.”
The response outside the Butler School of Music was swift. Welcher had been invited as the guest speaker at the University of Redlands’ Frederick Loewe Symposium; his guest appearance that October was canceled. And in response to the allegations against Welcher and other faculty, the University of Texas at Austin began a comprehensive review of their sexual harassment and misconduct policies. Spokesperson Bakre wrote in an email to VAN that the university was implementing “mandatory Title IX training for everyone within the Butler School of Music and [it continues] across the College of Fine Arts.” She continued, “Additionally … over the span of four months, consultants from the Husch Blackwell firm met with UT Austin students, staff members and faculty members and led a comprehensive review of the university’s sexual misconduct policies. The President accepted all of their recommended policy changes.”
Our reporting last September had found evidence of at least one instance outside the federal investigation in which Poole and Sharlat had been made aware of alleged harassment by Welcher. A second-hand allegation against Welcher had been shared with Sharlat in February, 2018. Sharlat told the source of this allegation that he would report it to Poole; he later informed the source that he and Poole had determined no disciplinary action could be taken without a formal complaint. As he would write in an email to me this past week, “as a mandatory reporter, I have always reported allegations for further investigation and will continue to do so.”
And though this is true—though the University could not take disciplinary action without investigating specific allegations; though Sharlat and Poole had heard nothing that day that they could act upon—I can’t help but wonder whether the University’s investigation could have concluded much earlier. It’s not as though it was a well-kept secret. Around the time of publication, a composer I respect called me to tell me they had also experienced sexually inappropriate behavior from Welcher. On Twitter shortly afterward, another composer described being warned by a professor not to study at the University because of Welcher. Another emailed me later that week to share their “Welcher story.” And in my article, a former student had already described the “whisper network” in the composition program that had repeatedly warned incoming students about Welcher.
Every person deserves the right to respond to the allegations against them. Every person has the right to due process. But in the case of Welcher, this process—at the university level—has concluded. And it has found that Welcher committed sexual harassment according to the university’s own code. It found him guilty of “1) referring to students in inappropriately affectionate terms; 2) making sexually suggestive jokes and other references; 3) inquiring into the sexual and romantic activities of students; 4) exposing students to nude imagery while at his home; 5) giving shoulder massages; 6) touching and kissing others about their face; and 7) touching or attempting to touch students on the buttocks.”
Welcher’s alleged harassment had first been reported to the University in 2001. It had been reported to the Department of Education, and the public, in 2002. It had been reported to two University faculty in 2018. It had circulated in whisper networks for years. But it took VAN’s reporting for the investigation to corroborate this alleged harassment. Perhaps, rather than implementing mandatory sexual harassment and misconduct training videos, we should question the underlying systems that have allowed this sexual harassment to take place. 19 years is too long; three investigations are too many. ¶