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Accused of Racism, UNT Professor Sues School over 'Academic Free Speech'

A heated debate has erupted over the legacy of famed music theorist Heinrich Schenker.EXPAND
A heated debate has erupted over the legacy of famed music theorist Heinrich Schenker.
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Last month, a music theory professor filed a lawsuit that, in part, accuses the University of North Texas for infringing on his First Amendment right to free speech.

The professor, Timothy Jackson, said UNT took retaliatory action against him after he defended the legacy of Heinrich Schenker, an Austrian music theorist and composer who died in 1935, in an academic journal published last summer.

Schenker had been accused of being a “virulent racist” in a 2019 plenary address by prominent music theorist Philip Ewell, who is Black. But Jackson challenged Ewell’s take in a scathing entry published in the 12th volume of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies — a move that prompted some to call Jackson a racist, too.

In his article, Jackson accused Ewell of "scapegoating" and said that Ewell's criticism of Schenker "occurs in the much larger context of Black-on-Jew attacks in the U.S."

Jackson also argued that the “paucity of African-American women and men in the field of music theory is that few grow up in homes where classic music is profoundly valued."

In response, a group of graduate students petitioned their dean and said they "stand in solidarity with Dr. Phillip Ewell in his goals to address systemic racism in and beyond the field of music theory."

Race has been an especially sensitive subject across college campuses nationwide following the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Many academics say they’ve felt targeted, swept up in a torrent of political correctness and "cancel culture."

“I had to stand up and speak out,” Jackson told the Observer. “Academics … have a responsibility to exercise their academic free speech. And when they think that the ball is out, they have to say so. Even if people — and lots of people — don’t agree with them.”

Jackson anticipated blowback from his entry but expected it to be scholarly in nature. Instead, the UNT professor said he was hit with a wave of blistering criticism following the article’s release, with many calling for his firing and the dissolution of the journal that he helped found.

Soon after, UNT moved to remove Jackson as the journal’s head; it also investigated the journal's editorial process. Jackson pushed back by filing a lawsuit, saying the campus attempted to silence him for his views.

Jackson, who is the director of the campus’s Center for Schenkerian Studies, said the ordeal has been “extremely hurtful and very difficult."

“All I can tell you is that I’m both devastated but also determined to continue,” he said. “This wasn’t a fly-by-night operation: This is something that I’ve worked on throughout my entire career at UNT.”

In an email, a UNT spokeswoman said administrators are not discussing pending litigation at this time.

Following Ewell's plenary address, Jackson had issued a call for other Schenkerian scholars to respond. Many similarly criticized the scholar's take, but Jackson said he’d included pro-Ewell entries, too; one anonymous article was also published.

“I am a strong believer in academic freedom and dialectics,” Jackson said. “In other words, I think that there’s always two sides to the coin and two sides to the riverbank.”

Ewell declined the Observer’s request for comment.

Others were also named in the lawsuit: Jackson is claiming defamation after graduate students and several faculty members accused him of racism. But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a campus free speech organization, called the move “unwise” because those allegations are statements of opinion, not fact.

Jackson’s attorney Michael Thad Allen disagrees, saying the move was necessary.

“In Texas, baseless accusations of racism are grounds for a defamation claim,” he said.

“We’re not suppressing the speech of these professors: We’re asking them to speak in court and defend statements that they made, which we allege are defamatory,” he continued. “We’re not asking that they be fired.”

Following the journal’s publication and subsequent backlash, UNT moved to form an ad hoc review committee to investigate whether any responses had been racist against Ewell, Jackson said. The committee didn’t find anything supporting that charge, he said.

Still, the committee did take issue with the way the journal was edited, one of the main qualms being that it was student-run, Jackson said. The ad hoc panel recommended changing the journal’s editorial structure and called for more transparency within its editorial and review processes.

Jackson was given two weeks to respond to the ad hoc committee’s findings, but before he’d gotten the chance, the report was released publicly, he said.

Several faculty and graduate students endorsed Jackson’s “cancellation,” with some pushing for Jackson to resign from the editorial board, Jackson said.

Jackson said he’s not “in any way hostile” to the larger cause of promoting diversity and people of color within the music theory and classical music worlds. But he said he has to draw the line when it’s done on the “backs of innocents.”

Schenker and his students were Jews, during the time of Nazi Germany, who were open to the idea of diversity and inclusion, he said.

“So, to accuse them of harboring Nazi ideas and ideals is accusing the victim of being the perpetrator,” Jackson said. “And that’s something I just can’t accept.”

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