March 3, 2024

Division, investigations, faculty departures… What is going on in Hope College’s music department?

Author: Colleen Flaherty
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A faculty exodus from Hope College’s music department has rocked the small Christian campus on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. The college’s administration says that things are under control. But some students and faculty members want further action regarding the events that precipitated the departure or reassignment of 17 instructors within a year.

Specifically, students in the music department are seeking the resignation of Hope’s provost. Another professor who recently took early retirement following misconduct allegations, which he disputes, has requested an independent investigation into the college’s management.

“If the leadership of Hope College wishes to regain the support and trust of its broad constituencies, it should institute as soon as possible a thorough, impartial and independent investigation of its recent actions against long-serving, dedicated, and respected music faculty,” Brad Richmond, the recent retiree and former director of Hope’s choral activities, wrote in a recent open letter to the college, published in the Holland Sentinel.

Richmond denied an interview request, referring questions to his letter. It says that he cherished his 20 years at Hope — until he was suddenly suspended and banned from campus in June.

The letter does not say what Richmond was accused of, exactly. But people who have seen the charges “call them petty and contrived; one described them as ‘a combination of 1984 and Catch-22,” he wrote. He also says he endured an uncomfortable faculty and staff meeting about the music department’s situation on Jan. 9, during which someone in the audience asked what he’d done.

“It was inferred, without any specifics, that I was a threat because of a history of ‘manipulating students,’” Richmond wrote. “Really? Then why did the college allow me to travel to South Africa with 35 Chapel Choir members just two weeks before my suspension? Ask my students whether I discussed department matters with them. Ask former administrators whether other faculty members have done this.”

Hinting that a major cultural rift among music professors is at play, Richmond wrote that the department has “long suffered from philosophical divisions.” While he and others envisioned a program that “moves past the traditional European model to include multicultural experiences preparing students for 21st-century careers,” he explained, efforts in that direction, such as folk music, Brazilian drumming and recording arts, “all came under attack last year.”

Those professors who “fought this dismantlement were rebuffed and labeled ‘insubordinate,’ with the result that many people who served Hope College with distinction are now gone,” he wrote.

Some 17 current and former professors have been affected, Richmond says: four quit, two were dismissed, eight lost adjunct status or received significant assignment changes, while one was investigated and sanctioned. Two who were suspended — including Richmond — are also gone.

In certain ways, Richmond’s account transcends his department and could apply to many programs at many Christian institutions struggling to balance progress and tradition.

Hope is a Calvinist college that has received much funding from the DeVos family. Its last major controversy was in 2016, when its governing board privately considered ousting former president John Knapp. The board backed off after its plan was leaked, and after campus protests. Knapp, who left of his own accord in 2017, was popular with students and faculty members, many of whom approved of his public statements and actions in support of diversity and inclusion. Some said Knapp’s approach was critical to the college’s survival, especially as Michigan’s college-age population shrinks.

A number of professors did not respond to request for comment. An investigation by the Sentinel, which included numerous anonymous sources, said professors trace the faculty departures back to 2017, and a fight over how the department would proceed after a former chair left for another institution out of state.

“In my mind, it was a tale of two cities,” Edye Evans Hyde, a former adjunct who taught jazz vocals, told the Sentinel. “There was a group that wanted to expand the department, offer new options and get more students. The other faction was the conservative Christian Reformed classical style. It was very much: ‘How do we expand what we’re doing’ versus, ‘This is who we are.’”

At the same time, some faculty members told the Sentinel that the progressive camp exaggerated the divide, to the detriment of the department and students.

“Contrary to what some people think, the music department is doing well, given the circumstances, while classes, lessons, as well as rehearsals and concerts are being performed without interruption, making sure that our students receive what they are here for: a high quality music education,” Mihai Craioveanu, professor of violin, reportedly said via email.

Richmond wrote that he and colleagues met with Hope’s new provost, Cady Short-Thompson, to assure her that the department could solve its own challenges. But things devolved, and the succeeding chair stepped down.

The administration decided to appoint a chair from outside the department. Hope picked Jonathan Hagood, a historian and associate dean for teaching and learning.

Around the same time, in early 2018, four music professors learned that they were the subject of a sex discrimination complaint. Details were never made public, and the complaint was dismissed within a few months, sources said. But Short-Thompson initiated an extensive cultural investigation of the department that proved even more divisive, faculty members told the Sentinel.

As that investigation proceeded, Richmond and one other professor were suspended. Another professor was placed under review, two instructors were asked not to return and others saw their duties reassigned.

Alumni asked questions about the departures over the summer, as did students when they arrived back to campus in the fall. Certain classes or programs they said influenced their decisions to attend or stay at Hope, including a women’s chamber choir class, were suddenly gone. And many of those asking questions said they missed and valued the professors being forced out.

In September, the music department’s outside chair, Hagood — a well-liked and respected professor — died by suicide.

In November, students demonstrated outside the college’s Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts to demand transparency about what was happening to Hope music.

In December, the college announced that a new president, Matthew A. Scogin, a finance executive and 2002 Hope alumnus who is a member of its governing board, would begin this summer.

But concerns about how Hope has handled the music department center on the provost, Short-Thompson.

In addition to faculty concerns about her leadership, a group of current music students and alumni wrote in an open letter in the Sentinel last month that their “many conversations with Provost Short-Thompson have shown us that [she] is not being open or transparent regarding our concerns.”

Hope’s actions “have caused irreparable damage to the affect[ed] faculty members and their family and friends,” the students wrote, requesting a public explanation and Short-Thompson’s resignation. “The administration is not demonstrating its values as a college rooted in the historic Christian faith.”

The college publicly said last month that it had concluded its investigation of the music department, with “evidentiary substantiation of violations including documented financial malfeasance, insubordination and, as to one professor, academic irresponsibility.”

Hope also addressed its findings with faculty members in the meeting Richmond wrote about. For 45 minutes, he says, the college’s human resources director made “derogatory comments about me, the department and others, and invoked the faculty handbook to support claims of due process. A screen over the stage displayed categories of fireable offenses while she tossed off nasty characterizations and alleged acts like beads at a Mardi Gras parade.”

While students in the music department continue to express frustration over how the college has managed the music department, other student leaders say they’re satisfied with Hope’s actions.

In another recent letter in the Sentinel, the members of the Student Congress Executive Board wrote that they’d met with administrators and believed that “correct steps of the faculty handbook were followed with efforts made to protect the students, faculty, music department and college.”

They added, “We would like to state our trust in the process and affirm our support for the administration of Hope.”

Jennifer Fellinger, Hope spokesperson, said late Tuesday that in response to concerns, the college’s Board of Trustees has ordered an outside review of the  matter. As for reports that employees and students haven’t been heard throughout this process, Fellinger said that the college worked to balance transparency and confidentiality concerns.

“There have been various reports about the number of music faculty that have been impacted,” Fellinger added via email. “In the fall, some part-time music faculty were not renewed, which is common in music departments because student demand and faculty performance vary from semester to semester and year to year. Other faculty contracts were adjusted in light of accreditation requirements and enrollment needs.”

Hope remains committed to the music department and, “contrary to what is being reported, there is optimism at the college” about its future, she said.

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A student poster about music faculty departures at Hope College
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