In an interview with The Daily, a former student in the School of Art & Design recalled her decision to take a class with Phoebe Gloeckner, Art & Design Professor and graphic novelist. This student requested anonymity, citing a fear of professional repercussions. In this article, they will be referred to as Leila.
“I always wanted to take a class with her,” Leila said. “She’s so prestigious. She has a movie. She’s a best selling author … so that was really interesting to me.”
In the fall of 2020, Leila registered for Gloeckner’s course, ArtDes 366: Graphic Narratives. On Oct. 2, a month into the course, Leila and several other students in the class reported Gloeckner to Art & Design School administrators for dismissing students’ concerns about repeatedly showing “racist caricatures in her curriculum” that lacked educational context. This complaint was obtained by The Daily.
A Michigan Daily investigation found numerous previously undisclosed allegations against Gloeckner of perpetuating racial and gender-based microaggressions. The investigation also found that both Art & Design administrators and the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) were repeatedly made aware of these allegations between the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021.
Of the 679 Art & Design students enrolled in the winter 2022 semester, 58% are white, 12% are Asian, 5% are Black, 7% are Hispanic and 0.3% are Native American, according to the U-M Office of the Registrar.
The investigation also uncovered a formal complaint sent to U-M administrators by an artist who worked with Gloeckner at an outside program, the Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA), in the fall of 2021. It is unclear what actions administrators took to address these concerns.
This investigation is based on interviews with 12 current and former students of Gloeckner, including three residents who worked with Gloeckner at ACA, along with a review of emails, letters of complaint and other documents pertaining to Gloeckner’s classroom conduct.
In an email to The Daily, Gloeckner pointed to the University’s response to the allegations against her.
“(The complaints) were already examined by U-M, and the university decided to close the matter over a year and half ago,” Gloeckner wrote. “The other allegation from (ACA) is simply outrageous, and absolutely untrue.”
Brad Smith, Art & Design associate dean of academic programs, commented on the University’s response to the allegations against Gloeckner in an email to The Daily.
“The administration of the Stamps School of Art & Design responded to the concerns shared by students in 2020 and 2021 through established processes regarding such issues,” Smith wrote. “As this is a personnel matter, university policy limits the information we are able to share.”
Gloeckner has been a professor at the University of Michigan since 2004. She received tenure as an Art & Design associate professor in 2010. Gloeckner is best known for her graphic novel, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which was adapted into a film in 2015. The film received critical recognition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
According to students in the Art & Design School, Gloeckner is the only professor who specifically teaches comics and graphic novels.
An Art & Design faculty member, who requested anonymity for fear of professional retaliation, told The Daily they recalled three separate instances in which students came to them with concerns over Gloeckner’s classroom conduct. These students expressed concern over Gloeckner’s alleged presentation of graphic and racially insensitive material in class.
Leila said concern surrounding Gloeckner’s curriculum began on the first day of ArtDes 336 in the fall of 2020. Gloeckner assigned students to replicate a cartoon by illustrator Robert Crumb. In interviews with The Daily, multiple students expressed discomfort with the image, which portrayed a woman leaning against a window. One student said they felt the comic was “misogynistic.”
Crumb is known for his controversial work and role in the Underground Comix movement.
Leila said that in class the next day, students expressed their discomfort with the material to Gloeckner. Gloeckner assigned students to watch a documentary on Crumb in response to student concerns.
In interviews with The Daily, six students said the documentary involved graphic discussions of rape and misogynistic depictions of women. These students allege that Gloeckner did not provide a content or trigger warning before assigning the documentary.
Leila said she felt like the documentary assignment was a punishment for students not agreeing with class material.
“I don’t care if she likes Robert Crumb,” Leila said. “It was more the fact that (she) was like, ‘You guys must like it, and if you don’t like it, there’s going to be consequences.’ And there were consequences.”
A former Art & Design student who took ArtDes 336 with Leila corroborated Leila’s account. This student also requested anonymity, citing a fear of professional repercussions. In this article, the student will be referred to as Spencer.
Spencer said that Gloeckner presented cartoons with racist and misogynistic themes in class. Spencer felt personally offended by these materials.
“She would assign work that involved us looking at really triggering material, as in depictions of sexual assault, sexual violence against women (and) racist imagery, like blackface and yellowface,” Spencer said. “My classmates would be expressing discomfort with the material … She would always just kind of dismiss it … She showed us this one (comic cover) with a racist depiction of (East Asian) people on it, and me being Chinese, I was not comfortable with that.”
Another student in ArtDes 336 corroborated Spencer’s account. This student also requested anonymity, citing a fear of academic retaliation. In this article, he will be referred to as Beck.
Beck said Gloeckner presented images of yellowface without historical context.
“She showed a yellowface cartoon, a very racist cartoon, and it wasn’t [for] historical context,” Beck said. “It was just an example of a political cartoon or comic cover.”
Spencer recalled particular discomfort with Crumb’s images and documentary.
“(Crumb) would draw himself sexually assaulting women, he would draw extremely racist caricatures of Black people and people of other races,” Spencer said. “It’s not like (we were) asking her to completely change the curriculum. We’re asking her to be more sensitive to the fact that there are students in class who are people of Color who don’t want to see stuff like that.”
In one instance, Gloeckner included “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” a comic by artist Winsor McCay, in a class presentation without including content warnings. The comic has been criticized in The Atlantic for featuring “an unconscionable blackface African stereotype.” A screenshot of this presentation was obtained by The Daily.
In an email to The Daily, Gloeckner said comics are intrinsically sensitive and can deal with contentious material.
“Comics are, by nature, a provocative art form,” Gloeckner said. “Some comics reflect fantasy worlds that reveal our desires, dreams and nightmares.”
In an interview with The Daily, one student alleged Gloeckner repeatedly misgendered them throughout the class, even after they corrected Gloeckner. This student requested anonymity, citing fears of academic retaliation. In this article, they will be referred to as Jaden.
“She misgendered me the entire class,” Jaden said. “She would use ‘he’ instead of ‘they,’ and either I or someone in the class would remind her … and she would just continue to use ‘he/him’”
Jaden said they felt Gloeckner made marginalized students in the class feel uncomfortable.
“As a Black and non-binary person, I would honestly describe my experience in (Gloeckner’s) class as traumatizing,” Jaden said. “Art is just so vulnerable. You really have to be vulnerable with your work and be willing to put yourself out there. So to make a class of marginalized students feel unsafe … that’s really unacceptable.”
On Sept. 13, 2020, Jaden emailed Gloeckner to discuss student concerns with class content. Jaden suggested Gloeckner meet with students outside of class in order to not take up class time. The Daily obtained a copy of this email.
“Some of my classmates and I wanted to find a time to meet with you to talk about how we could have more inclusive and productive dialogue in the class moving forward,” Jaden wrote. “We feel like the harm caused deserves to be properly addressed, to ensure a class environment where we can all work and learn at our best.”
Gloeckner declined Jaden’s request to meet with students as a group and offered to meet with students individually instead. The Daily obtained a copy of this email.
“I plan to speak with you individually over the next few weeks,” Gloeckner wrote. “Believe it or not, I’m on your side. I am not your enemy. I am not of the ilk that would punish you for your opinions. I welcome conversation with you.”
Jaden said they felt Gloeckner held power over students in her role as a professor.
“She said that she felt uncomfortable (because) it was more of us against her,” Jaden said. “Which I disagree with because to me, it feels like she was the one who had power over us as the professor.”
Beck told the Daily he felt Gloeckner exhibited an unwillingness to listen, which is why some students preferred meeting in a group setting.
“It’s really hard to get all your thoughts together,” Beck said. “Having other people with you makes you more comfortable to talk in the first place.”
On Oct. 2, 2020, Leila met with Brian Banks, diversity and inclusion advisor at the Art & Design School, to share a list of concerns regarding Gloeckner’s conduct. (The Daily obtained emails confirming that this meeting occurred.)
According to the document of student complaints which Leila provided to Banks, Gloeckner repeatedly presented images including blackface, yellowface and violence against women.
Banks wrote to Leila that he had passed the concerns to interim assistant dean Veronica Falandino and chief of staff Pat Hodges.
“We believe that (the) issues raised are serious enough that we want to give appropriate time to pursue an in-depth understanding of them,” Banks wrote to Leila. “We will follow up with you with a more substantive response soon.”
Beck told The Daily he filed a complaint against Gloeckner with the Office of Institutional Equity (now the Office for Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX) in September 2020 after the students requested to meet with Gloeckner.
OIE Senior Investigator Suzanne McFadden emailed Beck on Sept. 21 confirming she received the complaint. McFadden met with Beck on Sept. 25.
McFadden later emailed Beck a list of the specific concerns raised in the meeting.
On October 13, Falandino wrote to students that the list of complaints had been shared with Associate Dean Brad Smith. Faladino also wrote that Dean Gunalan Nadarajan was briefed on its contents.
According to emails obtained by The Daily, Falandino also offered to meet with students. She said that Smith and Nadarajan planned to meet with Gloeckner that week.
Students allege that the administrators’ response changed after these emails.
On Oct. 15, Falandino wrote that the Art & Design administrators were going to let OIE investigate before meeting with Gloeckner.
On Oct. 22, McFadden emailed Beck that OIE would close the matter. McFadden said she and a representative from Academic Human Resources spoke with Gloeckner.
“I had a productive conversation with Phoebe Gloeckner and a representative of Academic Human Resources where we discussed the concerns that were raised,” McFadden wrote. “This matter will now be closed in OIE pending additional information.”
On Nov. 9, Leila emailed Falandino to ask for an update on her complaint. Leila wrote in the email that Gloeckner’s response to student concerns had not changed.
“Although she has been behaving better in past classes, today Prof. Gloeckner once again engaged the class in inappropriate racial & misogynist content,” Leila wrote. “She continues to dismiss the discomfort of her students despite their feedback & criticism.”
Another student emailed Falandino on Nov. 9 to report concerns about a guest speaker in Gloeckner’s ArtDes 336 course, Casanova Frankenstein.
“I understand that there is encouragement to talk about work that has cultural significance and provides a clearer understanding of discussions pertaining to race,” the student wrote to Falandino. “However, I can comfortably say that various students of color were offended, including myself, about the outright depictions of sexualization of women, including objectification of their bodies, and various racial caricatures alongside them.”
In response, Falandino offered to meet with students to discuss the concerns. Falandino said Smith and Nadarajan would meet with Gloeckner. It is unclear if this meeting occurred. The Daily obtained a copy of this email.
Students of ArtDes 336 met with Falandino and Smith on November 18.
After this meeting, Leila said she received no further communication from administrators about her concerns.
The following semester, Spencer enrolled in another course taught by Gloeckner: ArtDes 355: Illustrated Books. In an email to the Daily, Spencer wrote that they took another course because Gloeckner was the only professor teaching about comics and illustration.
“I took a second course with Gloeckner to pursue my interest in comics & illustration, and felt I had no choice but to remain under her instruction in order to do so,” Spencer wrote.
On March 16, 2021, Spencer reported Gloeckner to Smith for inappropriate conduct in this course. Spencer wrote that Gloeckner’s behavior had persisted from the previous fall — in their opinion, she showed a repeated pattern of “insensitivity” toward student concerns.
“Professor Gloeckner’s guilt-tripping and combative actions are absolutely unacceptable,” Spencer wrote. “I will not be comfortable taking a class with her again.”
Smith responded in a March 17 email obtained by The Daily, saying he would bring the concerns to Gloeckner. Spencer received no further update on the status of their complaint.
“There wasn’t much follow up,” Spencer said. “There wasn’t much transparency about what they were actually doing.”
In an interview with The Daily, a recent Art & Design graduate alleged they were warned by other students to avoid Gloeckner’s classes. This student also requested anonymity, citing a fear of academic repercussions. In this article, they will be referred to as Emerson.
While taking ArtDes 447: Narrative Forms in the fall of 2021, Emerson alleged that Gloeckner misgendered students and presented racist imagery with caricatures of Black people. Emerson never reported Gloeckner’s behavior to administrators, citing rumors that administration failed to act on prior allegations against Gloeckner.
“Stamps to me is a very white-accommodating, often racist school,” Emerson said. “Considering (Gloeckner) has tenure, and she lives in that accommodating space, I didn’t expect anything I did to amount to much within Stamps and within (the University) as a whole.”
Emerson said that as a transgender and queer student, they did not feel their voice would be heard by administrators if they filed a complaint.
“I don’t have money,” Emerson said. “I’m not white. I’m trans and queer. The school isn’t made for that. It’s largely set up for white kids with money who wouldn’t even get affected by (Gloeckner’s behavior). And if it’s not bothering them, then it’s not bothering their main source of income, so it wouldn’t really amount to much.”
The complaints filed by students in fall of 2020 and winter of 2021 were not the only reports about Gloeckner received by Art & Design administrators. During the summer of 2021, Gloeckner served as a mentoring artist at ACA, an artist residency program based in Florida. ACA is not affiliated with the University.
In interviews with The Daily, three former residents of the 2021 ACA summer program spoke about their experience with Gloeckner. These residents alleged Gloeckner engaged in insensitive conduct similar to allegations from students of the University.
One of these residents, Natalie Dupille, alleged Gloeckner repeatedly perpetuated racial and gender-based microaggressions during the ACA program. Dupille also alleged Gloeckner dismissed her requests for artists to share preferred pronouns in course introductions.
“It was just overall a pattern of unprofessionalism and inappropriate boundaries,” Dupille said.
In an interview with The Daily, another resident spoke on Gloeckner’s conduct as a mentor. This resident requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions. In this article, they will be referred to as Asa.
Asa told The Daily they decided to participate in the ACA summer program specifically to learn from Gloeckner.
“I was a fan of her work, and that is the reason I went (to ACA),” Asa said. “I’m not too excited to meet most heroes because they often fail you, but I wanted to have conversations about memoir and time, and that’s what I wrote in my proposal to the residency.”
Asa alleged Gloeckner’s behavior crossed appropriate boundaries of a mentor and mentee relationship.
“It was continual boundary-crossing every which way possible.” Asa said. “Everything felt like a trap with her.”
Asa said during class, Gloeckner presented her own work documenting violence against women in Ciudad Juarez. Asa alleged that Gloeckner showed violent images from this project in class without adequate content warning or explanation of their educational value.
“She showed us images of women being interrogated (and) very violent stuff without any context whatsoever, on a big screen,” Asa said. “I don’t really need trigger warnings for things, but it was pretty alarming in the morning to go to a room, and you’re just shown violent images and nothing is explained whatsoever.”
Asa told The Daily they were uncomfortable with how Gloeckner responded to their art in the program.
In one instance, Asa volunteered in class to share their comic which depicted an inappropriate relationship they experienced with a teacher in their teen years. Asa alleged that Gloeckner defended the teacher in front of the class.
“I was writing a story about my own childhood,” Asa said. “I was being groomed by a teacher in high school … I’m saying this in front of everyone, and (Gloeckner) starts to get really defensive and say that the teacher probably just had an interest in me (and) thought I was a special student.”
Asa said they told Gloeckner this teacher kissed them when they were 16. Asa alleged that Gloeckner continued to defend the teacher.
Dupille corroborated Asa’s account of this event.
“That was a turning point for me in which I was deeply uncomfortable,” Dupille said.
Shortly after this incident, Gloeckner allegedly invited Asa to her residence for a tarot card reading. Dupille and another ACA resident corroborated that this meeting occurred.
Asa said they accepted the offer for the reading at Gloeckner’s private cottage in an attempt to maintain an amicable relationship. They alleged that during the tarot card reading, Gloeckner made personally targeted comments based on Asa’s art.
“She started to tell me really terrible things about my family and my partner that you’d only know if you’ve read my comics,” Asa said. “She told me that my life was going to be really sad, that my partner didn’t love me and never will. It was really bizarre.”
Asa said they pushed back on these comments and left the cottage soon after. Asa alleged that on the walk back to the main campus from Gloeckner’s cottage, Gloeckner whispered in their ear, “You are a dog,” then kissed them on the face without their consent. Dupille and another ACA resident told The Daily Asa made them aware of this event soon after it occurred.
The next day, Asa claimed Gloeckner reached out to meet with them as a part of mandatory mentoring sessions. Asa said they declined to meet, and a few hours later, they were allegedly called into the ACA director’s office and removed from the program. Asa believes Gloeckner reported them to ACA administration after the incident in Gloeckner’s cottage. The Daily was not able to independently verify that Gloeckner was involved in Asa’s dismissal from ACA.
Asa shared their experience with ACA and Gloeckner on social media. Beck, the student from Gloeckner’s Fall 2020 course, found Asa’s posts and contacted them. After learning of the complaints filed by students at the University, Asa decided to contact Art & Design School administrators to share their own experience.
In a statement addressed to Banks on Sept. 22, 2021, Asa shared their concerns about Gloeckner’s conduct during the ACA program.
“She is racist and supports racist comic artists,” Asa wrote in the statement. “As an Indigenous person who was called a dog by Phoebe Gloeckner I can confidently say she does not see us as people.”
Asa said their experience with Gloeckner damaged their mental health and tarnished their career in the comics industry.
“Going into that residency, I was at the height of my career with comics,” Asa said. “My career now feels over, and I’m having to rebuild it. And because people have strong admiration for (Gloeckner) … I then became a nobody pretty instantly. I’d say it’s ruined my career and my mental state.”
Asa said they spoke with an internal investigator at the University, but received no further communication from administrators.
Dupille told The Daily that she and three other residents left the ACA program in solidarity with Asa.
ACA administrators Nancy Norman and Ivan Riascos did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment on these allegations.
After completing Gloeckner’s class in 2021, Spencer told The Daily they stopped pursuing illustration and comics classes due to Gloeckner’s behavior.
“My thing was comics and illustration, but (Gloeckner) being the only (comics) faculty made it really difficult for me to take any more classes on that track,” Spencer said. “I decided, ‘No, I’m not going to mentally put myself through having to take another class with her.’”
Leila said she did not drop Gloeckner’s course because she wanted to prioritize her career in comics and feared she would not graduate on time.
“If I had dropped out of (Gloeckner’s) class, I don’t think I would have been able to finish my major in time,” Leila said. “I didn’t have an option to actually exit out of an abusive classroom.”
Leila said the Art & Design School lacked adequate protocols to address issues surrounding racial microaggressions. She also said she struggled to find resources about reporting a professor and felt emotionally drained from the process.
“The University should really care more about discrimination and harassment in the classroom because it affects a lot of the academic process for students,” Leila said. “I think that students of color and gender minorities are the ones that are affected the most.”
Daily Staff Reporter Callie Teitelbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.