In the mid-1980s, a North Carolina School of the Arts student took a brave step that affected the rest of her high school career: she met with Robert Hickok, the school’s dean, to report that Stephen Shipps, her violin teacher, had attempted to kiss her during her lesson.
The student requested anonymity, citing professional concerns. As in The Michigan Daily’s previous reporting about Shipps’s alleged harassment and abuse, she will be referred to as Meghan. In a Dec. 2018 interview with The Daily, the student remembered Hickok’s response.
“(Shipps is) a very affectionate man: ‘Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand it?’” Meghan recalled Hickok saying. (Hickok is deceased; two students attending the school at the time corroborated that they were aware of Meghan’s allegation.)
A few years later, in the summer of 1989, another faculty member became aware of allegations of Shipps’s abuse. By that time, Shipps had left the North Carolina School of the Arts; he was scheduled to begin teaching at the University of Michigan in the fall.
In a Dec. 2018 interview with The Daily, an Ann Arbor musician with extensive ties to the School of Music, Theatre & Dance community alleged that she spoke with a Music, Theatre & Dance School professor about the rumors of sexual misconduct that had followed Shipps to the University of Michigan. This musician also requested anonymity, citing professional concerns.
“I heard this guy is a scumbag,” the musician told the professor, adding some details about the aforementioned sexual misconduct allegations.
This past Thursday, Shipps was sentenced to five years in prison for repeatedly transporting a minor across state lines in 2002 while committing sexual misconduct against her. This sentencing came over three years after a Michigan Daily investigation uncovered numerous previously undisclosed allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault against Shipps at the University of Michigan, the North Carolina School of the Arts and the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
In 1995, according to reporting from The News & Observer, administrators at the North Carolina School of the Arts were made aware of eight complaints against Shipps. It is unclear if Meghan’s allegation comprised one of these reports. It is also unclear if the school communicated these complaints to the University of Michigan.
In 2017, a former student of Shipps’s emailed the then-interim dean of the Music, Theatre & Dance School to report her experience of alleged statutory rape while studying with Shipps in the late 1970s at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. At the time of this email, Shipps was a tenured professor of music, the chair of strings and the director of a youth music program through the Music, Theatre & Dance School. He had previously served as the school’s associate dean.
The former student that emailed the dean requested anonymity, citing professional concerns. As in The Daily’s previous reporting about Shipps’s alleged harassment and abuse, she will be referred to as Jane.
“Stephen Shipps raped me when I was sixteen,” Jane wrote in her email to the interim dean. “Over the years, I’ve heard stories similar to mine regarding Mr. Shipps.”
Wendy Olson Posner, the first woman to speak with The Daily on the record about Shipps’s alleged harassment and abuse of students at both the North Carolina School of the Arts and the University of Michigan, spoke in a recent interview with The Daily of many opportunities that administrators had to address Shipps’s alleged harassment and abuse prior to his sentencing.
“There were so many points along the way where if some person with authority had stood up and said, ‘We’re not going to allow this to happen anymore,’ it could have stopped,” Posner said. “It probably could have stopped before he went to North Carolina. And it could have stopped before he went on to Michigan.”
In December 2018, The Daily published an article describing four decades of previously unreported alleged sexual harassment, misconduct and assault committed by Shipps at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, the North Carolina School of the Arts and the University of Michigan. Shipps was placed on leave days before this reporting was published. He retired from the University two months later.
The Daily’s article prompted federal, state and local law enforcement to launch criminal investigations into Shipps. Both the University of Michigan and the North Carolina School of the Arts were subpoenaed as part of these investigations.
A former North Carolina School of the Arts high school student and survivor of Shipps’s alleged sexual misconduct wrote in a recent email to The Daily about the impact of the initial investigation. This student requested anonymity, citing fears of professional retribution. As in The Daily’s previous reporting about Shipps’s alleged harassment and abuse, she will be referred to as Anne.
“Fellow faculty members, administrators, and staff didn’t want to address Shipps’s behavior,” Anne wrote. “Those in charge seem to have determined that it was better to ignore the problem than to risk the fallout of acknowledging it, until they couldn’t… I guess that’s why it took a student newspaper to care enough to take on a member of the faculty who preyed on countless students.”
A former Music, Theatre & Dance School graduate student and lecturer spoke in a recent interview with The Daily of the evolution in the faculty’s behavior towards Shipps. The former student and lecturer requested anonymity, citing their many professional connections to the University of Michigan. In this article, she will be referred to as Chloe.
“Instead of saying, ‘Oh, this is a one-time thing, Shipps was a super bad guy.’ (They) need to realize that he was also a distinguished professor. He was in his position for a really long time. He was a department chair, a youth program director,” the former student and lecturer said. “People were on his side, they were on his side when the rumors were floating. They were on his side until it went public and they couldn’t ignore it any more. We need to take an unflinching look at that.”
In October 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan announced an indictment against Shipps for transporting a minor across state lines in 2002 while repeatedly committing sexual misconduct against her. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward later described the nature of the crime in a sentencing memo.
“Stephen Shipps was … (a) crucial person in (minor victim 1’s) life,” Woodward wrote. “At age 15, Shipps was her teacher, her mentor … and her ticket to the world of elite classical music. But instead of guiding her through her development as a violinist, student, and young woman, Shipps coerced her into a sexual relationship that would forever impact her life.”
Woodward wrote in the sentencing memo mentioned above of the many former students that were affected by Shipps’s alleged sexual harassment and misconduct. (Between previous Daily reporting, the criminal charge and a larger lawsuit against the North Carolina School of the Arts, The Daily has learned of 12 survivors with specific allegations of sexual misconduct and assault against Shipps.)
“Unfortunately, (the 15-year-old student) was not Shipps’ first victim. According to Shipps, (the 15-year-old student) was the last student that he exploited through a sexual relationship,” Woodward wrote. “But she was far from the first.”
Woodward described Shipps’s abuse of authority in court on Thursday.
“He was able to exploit his position for decades within the classical world,” Woodward said. “He was an excellent teacher to some … a monster to others.”
Though Shipps has never commented on The Daily’s reporting, John Shea, Shipps’s defense attorney, referenced public reporting about Shipps and admitted in court that Shipps repeatedly engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships with his students.
“We acknowledge that it was a pattern,” Shea said. “But we don’t accept all the allegations (that have been reported).”
In a brief statement that he read in court, Shipps apologized for his actions towards the minor victim from the criminal charges.
“I have broken the law and I acknowledge that,” Shipps said. “I’m sorry for having been a bad citizen. I’m sorry for having hurt (the 15-year-old former student).”
In a sentencing memo, Shea attributed Shipps’s behavior to a performing arts educational culture that long tolerated sexual misconduct.
“From the time he was a high school student himself, (Shipps) was aware of the fact that various of his teachers had sexual relationships with students. These inappropriate, and in some cases illegal, relationships were often open secrets, the regular recurrence of which was accepted with little more than eye-rolling,” Shea wrote. “Regrettably, (Shipps), whose students often were adolescents and primarily female, sometimes joined that culture as well.”
George Carter, another former North Carolina School of the Arts student, knew of multiple high school students who alleged that Shipps attempted to initiate sexual relationships with them. He wrote that Shipps’s repeated abuse is a reflection of the culture of the performing arts.
“Stephen Shipps is the epitome of the privileged male whose lucrative career was carved from the systemic political corruption within the professional classical music structure that has existed for decades,” Carter wrote. “For (40 years), Shipps was provided endless opportunities as a violinist, professor, conductor and university department chair.”
Anne described the importance of Shipps’s prosecution and sentencing.
“The criminal proceedings … make it clear that, as far as the law is concerned, what he did to me and others was wrong,” Anne said. “I carried the shame that should have belonged to him for many years … I kept his abuse a secret because I wrongly saw myself as a co-conspirator in his crime.”
Stephanie Silverman, a former North Carolina School of the Arts student that witnessed the effects of Shipps’s alleged harassment and abuse, wrote in a statement to The Daily about the context of Shipps’s sentencing.
“This sentence (will) never fully reflect the true trauma he has inflicted on so many lives. The women who he assaulted … were 16 and 17 at the time. We are in our 50s now. That is decades of young women,” Silverman wrote. “There is no doubt he was, willfully or not, protected by the institutions he worked for, in this case the University of North Carolina School for the Arts and the University of Michigan.”
Carter wrote in a statement to The Daily of his hopes for survivors of Shipps’s alleged harassment and abuse.
“I hope for his other victims and their families that Stephen Shipps’ sentencing … serves as symbolic justice,” Carter wrote.
Posner spoke in a recent interview of Shipps’s decades of alleged harassment and abuse.
“I’m so relieved that he was finally charged,” Posner said. “He’s had decades to build a career. I mean, he’s had a very nice, very successful career. He was respected by many people. He had been allowed to live a very comfortable life — he almost made it to retirement. And I think about the many girls he abused when they were 16 or 17 years old.”
Posner recalled her feelings when she was first contacted by The Daily for an interview in 2018.
“I had been carrying (knowledge of Shipps’ alleged harassment and abuse) around without any sense of closure for so many years, for so many decades. And I always wished there had been an opportunity to put my voice on the record and just let people know what had happened,” Posner said. “To be asked to be quoted … It was sort of a blessing.”
Like many of the women involved in The Daily’s reporting, Posner was shocked at the University’s response.
“People were speaking up, they were being received with support. The system was forced to respond,” Posner said. “It was kind of mind blowing. Because I went to Michigan and North Carolina. And it had never been that way.”
Since the release of the investigation, the University of Michigan’s Music, Theatre & Dance School has taken various steps to change the school’s culture. In the summer after The Daily investigations into Shipps and former Music, Theatre & Dance School professor David Daniels were published, glass panels were put in all office, classroom and practice room doors. The school also contracted with a law firm to conduct surveys on the school’s culture and climate.
Chloe described the importance of the glass panels.
“Being able to see into studios is a huge improvement. That is really important. And I think that that was structural,” Chloe said. “If you can’t see into the room, then you don’t know what’s going on in there. It’s a form of transparency.”
In his sentencing memo, Shea asked the judge to consider alternatives to incarcerating Shipps.
“Defense counsel asks the Court to consider a sentence that does not require incarceration or, if the Court determines that incarceration is necessary, a modest carceral sentence,” Shea wrote.
Shea wrote that though Shipps had suffered from alcoholism since the age of 17, he found sobriety in 2009. Shea also wrote that Shipps became increasingly involved in his church in 2007.
“The ‘offender’ who will appear … for sentencing has been a much changed and better man for many years,” Shea wrote.
In court, Shea suggested that a sentence focusing on Shipps’s criminal actions in 2002 would ignore his subsequent efforts to improve his character.
“Focusing simply on the offense ignores the great progress that (Shipps) has made in his life since that time,” Shea said.
Carter wrote in an email to The Daily about Shipps’s privilege.
“This is what privilege buys you,” Carter wrote. “Shipps faces sentencing concerning only one of his many abuses.”
Shea also argued in his sentencing memo that Shipps has taken ownership of his harmful actions.
“Shipps pleaded guilty. His acceptance of responsibility has been sincere and his remorse is deeply felt,” Shea wrote. “He had no desire to cause further distress to the (victim of the criminal charges) by contesting the charges. He fully agrees that he should make restitution for the harm he caused her.”
Posner argued in a recent interview that Shipps’s guilty plea spoke not to Shipps’s ownership, but to the effects of The Daily’s reporting.
“I don’t think it speaks to his finding some conscience. I think it speaks to the public’s response, to the fact that it’s all out there now in an article,” Posner said. “I don’t think any of us think it’s remotely sincere.”
In a press statement after Shipps’s sentencing, James C. Harris III, HSI Detroit deputy special agent in charge, spoke of the bravery of the numerous women who spoke out about Shipps’s alleged harassment and abuse. (The Department of Homeland Security aided in the criminal investigation.)
“It is my hope that today’s sentencing can bring some closure to Shipps’s victims and sends a powerful message to others in positions of trust that if you prey on the vulnerable, you will be held accountable for your actions,” Harris said.
U.S. Attorney Dawn Ison also commented in the press statement on the many women who have spoken out about Shipps.
“I want to commend the brave young women who, after many years, found the courage to come forward and expose the abuse they suffered at the hands of Shipps,” Ison stated.
The 15-year-old former student from the criminal charge has never been interviewed by The Daily. In interviews and emails with The Daily, five other survivors expressed shock and disbelief at Shipps’s claim that he has accepted responsibility for his actions and expressed remorse.
Though they’ve repeatedly been contacted by law enforcement officials, none of the survivors who spoke with The Daily have received any communications from Shipps.
In an interview after the sentencing, Maureen O’Boyle, the only named survivor in The Daily’s 2018 article, spoke of Shipps’s claims of remorse for his actions in 2002.
“You’d have to imagine that if his remorse was sincere, I would have heard from him,” O’Boyle said. “Only he knows how many women should have heard from him.”
Focal Point Reporter Sammy Sussman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.