In January 2020, the University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School provided musicology administrators with a department review based, in part, on a survey of doctoral students. The report revealed multiple concerns of musicology faculty engaging in verbal abuse, contributing to a “troublesome climate and culture” and significantly below average graduation rates for over two decades. A copy of this review has been obtained by The Michigan Daily.
“Students indicated a sense of belonging … (that) is the lowest of all programs in the humanities and the arts,” the report said. “Your students painted an alarming image of (the) program climate.”
The report noted that these scores had dropped in the four years since Rackham’s previous review in 2015 of the musicology department.
Anonymous comments from individual graduate students were also included in the report.
“A dozen comments in the open-ended responses described instances of the following: (1) faculty publicly calling into question the intellectual and scholarly ability of students, especially female students; (2) faculty openly discussing issues of disability, health, and other protected personal information of students; and, (3) faculty openly insulting and demeaning students,” the report said.
A Daily investigation into the musicology department climate found numerous previously undisclosed allegations of unprofessional conduct against musicology professor Louise Stein and the department’s current chair, James Borders.
These allegations span from the 1980s to the present and range from grade manipulation to insensitive comments targeting students’ socioeconomic backgrounds.
This investigation also found the Music, Theatre & Dance School and Rackham administrators were repeatedly made aware of concerns regarding Stein and Borders. It is unclear if these administrators have taken any actions to address these concerns outside of the review.
The investigation conducted by The Daily is based on interviews with 16 current and former students along with emails, documents and the internal Rackham review.
In an email to The Daily, Borders commented on the allegations against him.
“Should the University open an investigation, I would cooperate fully,” Borders wrote.
Stein also commented on the allegations against her in an emailed statement to The Daily.
“The allegations … are deeply concerning to me because I remain dedicated to supporting students and promoting their success at all levels,” Stein wrote. “If the University decided to investigate, I would certainly cooperate fully.”
In an email to The Daily, David Gier, dean of the Music, Theatre & Dance School, explained the actions administrators have taken in response to the 2020 musicology department review.
“We take very seriously the experience of U-M students at SMTD, and prioritize climate and culture at the school,” Gier wrote. “While I cannot comment on personnel matters related to faculty and staff, I am sharing the steps SMTD has taken to address areas of concern outlined by the 2020 Rackham Program Review of the Musicology Department.”
Gier wrote that the Music, Theatre & Dance School’s response to climate concerns included the creation of a handbook for the musicology department and the implementation of anti-racism and equity-focused training for faculty.
Gier did not comment on the allegations against Stein or Borders.
‘These people don’t care about me at all’
In interviews with The Daily, seven current and former musicology students of the 16 total interviews spoke of allegations of unprofessional conduct against Borders. These students allege that his conduct is an open secret among students and faculty.
A former student who enrolled in the doctoral program in musicology in the early 2010s spoke of Borders’s unprofessional conduct at department events. The student asked to remain anonymous out of fear of professional repercussions. In this article, they will be referred to as Emma.
Due to the small size of her class, Emma asked that the years she was enrolled in the program not be identified in the investigation. According to the 2015 Rackham report, the average enrollment cohort between 2004 and 2014 was four students.
In her first month at the University, Emma was warned of Borders’ behavior toward graduate students. She was specifically advised by another student not to speak with him at the annual department party hosted at Borders’ house.
“(An older student) clearly mapped out (the house): This is the layout of the kitchen, this is the layout of the living room, this is probably where the professors will be,” Emma said in an interview with The Daily. “‘Don’t hover. Don’t try to make small talk. Don’t think that this is going to be a pleasant experience.’”
At the party, Emma watched Borders allegedly approach an Asian student to talk to them about “Japanese ritual suicide.” She alleged Borders then pretended to perform such a suicide.
“‘So when you want to commit suicide, let me know because I can help you or I can tell you how to do it,’” Emma alleged Borders told a group of students at the party.
Another student who attended this party independently corroborated Emma’s account.
In an interview with The Daily, Alyssa Wells, a current student enrolled in the musicology doctoral program, recalled her time in fall 2017 as a graduate student instructor (GSI) for one of Borders’ classes.
On Nov. 1, Wells learned that her mother-in-law had been moved into hospice care due to a decline in her health. She called a fellow GSI and made arrangements for them to cover her duties before that day’s 8:30 a.m. lecture. She emailed Borders at 6:58 a.m.
“I woke this morning to the news that my mother-in-law has a very short amount of time left. I will not be in class today,” Wells wrote. “Right now I am still too much in shock to make the judgment about whether or not I will be in for the rest of the week.”
After a lengthy discussion over email about plans for Wells’s sections, Borders wrote that Wells had failed to communicate clearly in her earlier emails. The email exchanges between Wells and Borders were obtained by The Daily.
“Your personal situation, as emotionally challenging as you find it, neither reduces your responsibility nor the reasonable expectation of clear communication so long as you are a UM instructor,” Borders wrote to Wells on Nov. 3, 2017.
Borders included Associate Dean Jason Corey, one of Wells’ colleagues and two musicology professors in his response, which Wells told The Daily she felt was inappropriate because the emails “revealed sensitive personal information.”
Wells said she asked other faculty members for their advice on how to handle Borders’s complaint. In one email, a different department faculty member suggested that Wells “de-escalate.”
“The urgent thing you need to do at this point is to de-escalate the situation,” the faculty member wrote on Nov. 4 in an email obtained by The Daily.
Wells recalled speaking to other faculty members about Borders’s complaint. They all had the same response, Wells claims.
“‘Apologize to him,’” Wells said. “Apologize to the person who had tried to initiate disciplinary action against me in my job because I took a total of four days off … that I’m legally entitled to.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, one reason employees can take time off is “To care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a qualifying serious health condition.”
Wells told The Daily she later met with her advisor, who told her that Borders had criticized Wells during a faculty meeting.
“(The advisor) said that I had done something to make him think that I was not serious about the subject … that I had abandoned students,” Wells said.
When she returned to teaching after Thanksgiving Break, Wells said she attempted to apologize to Borders to de-escalate the situation. During their conversation, Borders allegedly told Wells he had complained about her in a faculty meeting and spoke for so long that two faculty members left the meeting.
Tara Browner, a graduate of the musicology doctoral program from the late 1980s, alleged Borders’s behavior created an intimidating and hostile classroom environment.
“It was just awful,” Browner said of her time in Borders’s musicology bibliography class. “He’s one of these people that finds somebody in the class and picks on them.”
Another student who took this class independently corroborated Browner’s characterization of Borders’s classroom conduct.
After Browner decided to confront Borders about his teaching style, she alleged Borders retaliated by lowering her grade to a B. She recalled calling Borders after the end of the semester to discuss her grade.
“‘I gave (the grade) to you because of those things you said to me,’” Browner alleged Borders said. “‘You had a bad attitude.’”
Browner said her grade was allegedly raised after that phone call. The Daily has obtained a transcript listing Browner’s final grade as a B+.
Eight years later, while attending the American Musicological Society conference in Baltimore, Browner alleged that during dinner one night Borders made a toast about her in front of some graduate students and faculty.
“(Prof. Borders was) drinking and drinking, and people started doing toasts,” Browner said. “And he stood up and … his toast was, ‘Fuck you, Tara Browner.’”
Browner was shocked at Borders’ behavior, particularly given that she was no longer a University graduate student.
“What was shocking is that he treated a professional colleague — me — the way he did,” Browner wrote in a statement to The Daily.
Browner described feeling a lack of support from the musicology faculty while she was a student at the University.
“I kept thinking, these people don’t care about me at all,” Browner said of the department. “They don’t care about my career. All I am is I’m something that’s here, that’s on a fellowship … they just simply do not care about me.”
‘Two years at Michigan set me back five years in my career’
The Daily’s investigation also found numerous allegations of unprofessional conduct and academic bullying against Professor Louise Stein, a member of the musicology department since 1987. These allegations come from interviews with 14 current and former students of the 16 total interviews and a review of emails, assignment feedback and other documentation.
Stein has previously drawn attention in the “Overheard at umich” Facebook group for a threatening and aggressive email she sent to Information and Technology Services in 2016. In an April 2021 Facebook thread, multiple students who took Stein’s courses expressed concern over her conduct in class and in emails.
The Daily spoke with one of Emma’s classmates, who also requested anonymity out of fear for professional repercussions. In this article, they will be referred to as Noah.
In their first semester at the University, Noah and Emma enrolled in Musicology 509 with Stein. They allege that Stein repeatedly offered feedback that was insulting and unproductive.
“‘You all write like you have absolutely no graduate experience,’” Emma alleged Stein said.
Emma took another class with Stein the next semester. In this course, students began work on their third term paper, an essay the department used to determine which students would continue in the doctoral program.
Stein returned one of Emma’s papers with comments written in all caps and red text. The Daily obtained a copy of this essay.
“I feel like I can’t breathe when I look at those pages,” Emma told The Daily. “I can’t tell you how often I cried over emails and feedback from her.”
In her application to the University, Emma wrote a diversity statement in which she described growing up below the poverty line. Emma alleged Stein repeatedly brought up Emma’s statement to critique her work. The Daily was not able to independently verify that Stein had access to these documents.
“She actually weaponized details from my diversity statement against me,” Emma said.
The Daily obtained an email containing feedback on a presentation Emma gave in class in which Stein commented on Emma’s socioeconomic background.
“Sometimes I have to say things that are not as ‘nice’ as the things we exchange in social discourse,” Stein wrote. “You come from a very different world than the one we are training you to enter (academe!!).”
Despite her concerns over Stein, Emma said she never filed a complaint about Stein’s behavior for fear of retaliation.
“(I heard) that other people had complained in the past … and that nothing had ever happened,” Emma said. “All that could really happen was that it could make Stein have more reason to attack.”
Emma alleged that Stein’s recurring negative feedback prevented her from progressing on her third-term-paper. She was later cut from the doctoral candidate program because of problems with this paper, according to a letter from the department obtained by The Daily.
“Two years at Michigan set me back five years in my career,” Emma said.
Wells is a first-generation college student. When she enrolled in one of Stein’s classes, she alleged that Stein repeatedly made comments about her family background. In one instance, Wells mentioned that her mother was taking a college music appreciation course.
“From that point on, (Stein) made comments about me sounding unrefined,” Wells alleged.
Wells alleged Stein once held the class overtime for 15 minutes to criticize how Wells presented a mock lesson for a piece based on a Spanish poem. One other student, who was in the class at the time, independently corroborated Wells’s account.
“She held the class over to interrogate me about my knowledge of Spanish and my inability to translate the poem and (to) truly know what the poet was getting at … other classes were waiting to get in,” Wells said.
In interviews with The Daily, multiple current and former students alleged Stein created a hostile environment in class by asking aggressive questions during presentations.
A former graduate student who entered the program in the fall of 2007 asked to remain anonymous out of fear for professional repercussions. In this article, they will be referred to as Lauren.
During her first year in the program, Lauren was required to enroll in one of Stein’s courses. She also enrolled in a research methods course taught by Borders. (Borders, the department’s chair at the time, was in an administrative position from June 1993 to June 2008.)
“She was just very abusive,” Lauren alleged. “When we were done (with a presentation) she would sort of embark on this oftentimes very long tirade about how terrible we were.”
Lauren alleged Stein provided hostile feedback on assignments particularly toward students studying disciplines in musicology outside of her own.
Three other students who were also enrolled in the course at the time raised similar concerns in interviews with The Daily.
At one point, Lauren alleged that Stein told her she didn’t possess basic skills for success in academia.
“She didn’t think that I had the ability to focus and she didn’t think that I had the right study skills to work at the level that we were working,” Lauren said. “At some point, she had me come into her office and for an hour she sat there … and told me, you know, gave me all these basic instructions for how to study.”
Lauren alleged Stein once held the class overtime to lecture her on how terrible she was.
“She just kept going for 10 minutes, and everybody was late,” Lauren said. “She made me cry … It was a really intense experience.”
Another student present in this class independently corroborated Lauren’s account. The student recalled that once Lauren started crying, Stein allegedly said that Lauren’s inability to receive feedback reflected her inability to be a good professor in the future.
Allegations of unprofessional conduct against Stein stem back to the 1990s, according to interviews with former students.
In 1990, students like Browner who had Minority Merit fellowships were ineligible to receive teaching assistantships in the musicology department, Browner said.
Browner told The Daily that in 1990, Stein allegedly called her into her office and berated her for fighting for teaching assistantships for minority students.
“‘You have low self esteem,’” Stein allegedly said. “‘And you think that you’re not as good as the other students, because you’re a minority student, you’re an Indian. But the reality of it is that all graduate students are trash.’”
After that comment, Browner told The Daily she left the office without responding.
“I didn’t know her and, and I thought, ‘Why is she saying this to me?’” Browner said.
Another former student who took one of Stein’s classes in 1992 recalled her dismay whenever Stein responded to her questions in class. The student asked to remain anonymous, citing fears of professional retribution. In this article, she will be referred to as Ellen.
“I would jump in and ask some kind of probing question,” Ellen said. “But her response was to shut me down.”
In 1994, Stein was up for promotion to a tenured position on the musicology faculty. She allegedly called Ellen to ask for a letter of recommendation.
“She had no idea or concept of how angry and disappointed I had been in my experience in her classes,” Ellen said in an interview with The Daily. “I said, I don’t think you realize the effect that your actions or your words or attitude … had on me.”
Stein received tenure in May 1994, according to records available on the Board of Regents website.
‘Nobody tried to stand up for me’
In interviews with The Daily, numerous current and former students alleged that Music, Theatre & Dance School and Rackham administrators have repeatedly been made aware of concerns about Borders and Stein even before the 2020 Rackham review.
Noah recalled that after Stein once told him his work was of “K-Mart quality,” he challenged her comment in an email that included Music, Theatre & Dance School Associate Dean Steven Whiting.
Whiting invited Noah to meet with him to discuss his concerns about Stein.
“He (said) he supports (Stein) in every way. And I said, well, I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore,” Noah said.
Noah withdrew from the University of Michigan soon after that meeting. A few years later, he left academia.
In the winter of 2010, Lauren sent an email to the musicology graduate student listserv requesting data about graduate student pay. In an interview with the Daily, Lauren claimed musicology GSI salaries were lower than those of other Rackham graduate programs at the time.
“I will submit a list of schools and salaries to a (friendly) member of the faculty with no names attached,” Lauren wrote in the email obtained by The Daily.
Lauren did not send the email to faculty in the musicology department.
Borders responded the next day in an email to the department’s students, faculty, the school’s dean and Whiting. It is unclear how he learned of Lauren’s email to the student listserv.
“I regret that a department colleague, friendly or otherwise, thinks this kind of thing appropriate and ethical (sic.),” Borders wrote in an email obtained by The Daily. “I think it’s divisive at the very least and it ends here.”
Multiple faculty members replied to the email chain throughout the day, most expressing support for Borders’s sentiments.
“Nobody tried to explain anything,” Lauren said. “Nobody tried to stand up for me.”
Stein responded to Lauren’s email to the department about GSI salaries by sending an email to Lauren’s personal Gmail account. This email was also obtained by The Daily.
“I recall that when you were enrolled in Musicol 509, I suggested to you as kindly as I could that your own immaturity (evident in your presentations in 509) could become a stumbling block to your development as a scholar and teacher,” Stein wrote to Lauren. “Alas, I think you made a poor choice when you sent out that message to your peers … precisely the kind of poor choice that stems from immaturity and a naive view of the world.”
In a written statement to The Daily, Megan Hill, a musicology program alum, described her reaction to the email chain.
“(I remember) being shocked at the tone being directed at my fellow student,” Hill wrote in an email to The Daily. “(We) could not be certain we would not be publicly harassed and humiliated by our teachers.”
Lauren said she brought the emails to Whiting to address the situation, but he allegedly said he did not want to see them.
“He said ‘Don’t show me those behind-the-woodshed dressings-down,’” Lauren alleged. “‘I don’t need to see them.’”
‘There need to be some consequences’
In a separate survey in 2015, Rackham asked graduate students to rate their experiences of department climate and culture. The musicology department’s students rated the department significantly below average.
After the report’s release, multiple students met with Jason Geary, the associate dean of graduate studies in the Music, Theatre & Dance School at the time. (Geary has since left the University to work as the Director of the School of Music at the University of Maryland.)
Minutes from this meeting provided to The Daily show that Geary was made aware of numerous allegations of misconduct against Stein. According to the minutes, students had expressed concerns to Geary about “retaliation and escalation” should a formal complaint be filed against Stein.
Geary offered support to the students and encouraged them to file formal complaints as a group.
The Daily has obtained emails and meeting records that point to at least six other administrators who were made aware of these concerns in 2016 and 2017.
Rackham’s 2020 review noted that the musicology department’s completion rate was significantly below average.
“With completion rates of 69% for your 2001-05 entering cohorts, 65% for your 2006-10 entering cohorts, and a potential completion rate of only 60% for the 2011-15 entering cohorts, you are well below (the) average completion rate of 80% for the humanities and the arts,” the report stated.
Rackham identified three potential causes for these graduation figures, which are among the lowest in graduate programs at the University. According to the 2020 review, the three factors identified were “the structure of examination milestones, the lack of systematic annual reviews of students, particularly candidates, and the culture and climate of the program.”
The 2020 report also expressed concern over the department’s low number of under-represented/minority (URM) students. Rackham noted that of the three URM students who enrolled in the program between 2006 and 2010, none completed their PhD.
“More worrisome (than the overall graduation rates) are differences in completion rates between demographic groups,” the report stated.
Rackham suggested that Corey and Professor Stefano Mengozzi, the chair of the department at the time, share the 2020 report and schedule a discussion on its findings with the students and faculty of the musicology department.
It is unclear what steps the Music, Theatre & Dance School and Rackham administrators took to address these concerns.
Borders, the current department chair, wrote in an email to The Daily commenting on the department’s handling of the 2020 review. Despite the concerns brought forth from former and current musicology students, Borders said the department has made progress in addressing the review’s results.
“Like all my colleagues in Musicology, I have read the 2020 Rackham report on climate issues in the department and believe that–over the course of a number of meetings and many conversations–we have taken action to address the concerns it raised,” Borders wrote.
Borders did not specify what action has been taken in response to the 2020 report.
Stein also commented on the department’s handling of the 2020 report in an email to The Daily.
“Together with my colleagues, I have invested a great deal of time, thought, and effort in making substantive changes to the Musicology program in response to the Rackham review,” Stein wrote.
In an interview with The Daily, Liz Abdnour, Michigan-based attorney and former Michigan State University Title-IX investigator, discussed the Rackham review. (Abdnour has no legal involvement in these cases. Her comments are expert opinions based on information provided by The Daily.)
Though the report had suggested that the musicology department take steps such as creating “a document that outlines normative expectations for your faculty in working with graduate students,” Abdnour noted that Rackham has no ability to enforce these recommendations.
“They’re recommendations, they’re not a requirement,” Abdnour said. “And they’re sort of leaving it up to this group of folks that seems to already not be able to communicate appropriately or effectively to figure out how and why they need to improve.”
Given the numerous allegations raised in The Daily’s investigation and the outcomes of previous Rackham reviews, Abdnour said she believes that additional reviews and reports need to include enforcement mechanisms.
“I also think there need to be some consequences tied to their compliance with a plan that they may create,” Abdnour said. “Otherwise, there’s no incentive for them to comply with whatever plan they or somebody else might come up with.”
Managing Focal Point Editors Julian Wray and Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Daily Staff Reporter Sammy Sussman contributed reporting to this article.