Engineering senior Ben Iwrey can’t stand going to Michigan football games anymore. The shame of sitting in the bleachers instead of marching with the band on the field would be too much.
In July, Iwrey went from being drum major to nothing in less than a week.
Jamie Nix, director of the Michigan Marching Band, fired Iwrey and promoted LSA senior Iden Baghdadchi to the drum major position.
Months earlier, on April 18, Iwrey had won a hotly contested competition, defeating Baghdadchi and Engineering senior Rob Reed to become the student leader of the band.
Although Iwrey had played clarinet for the marching band since his freshman year, he had no experience as a drum major. He decided to stay on campus over the summer to learn the ropes.
After three months of work at Revelli Hall, the marching band’s home on East Hoover Street, Iwrey thought he was making great progress.
“I was under the impression that I was forging some great relationships with the staff,” Iwrey said.
He was surprised to learn the staff thought otherwise.
Nix and his staff, unhappy with Iwrey’s work during the summer, gave him a letter on July 19 that said they were considering demoting him from his post. It listed about a dozen instances when Iwrey allegedly acted in an unprofessional manner.
“Over the course of the past several weeks, as you have begun serving in this highly public leadership and service role, you have demonstrated repeated inability to conduct yourself in a professional manner as required by the higher standards of this position,” Nix wrote.
Iwrey was shocked.
“There was some tension between me and Professor Nix, but I was confident that we’d push through the season for the sake of the band,” Iwrey said.
He said most of the allegations were not discussed with him before he received the letter.
“The letter implies that I was warned on numerous occasions that I may be removed, and this is 100 percent false,” he said. “At no point did they imply to me that my behavior was such that it might lead to my dismissal. I thought I was doing fine.”
Iwrey met with the staff on July 20 to discuss the allegations but couldn’t persuade them not to fire him.
According to a September report by Daniel Washington, the associate dean for faculty affairs at the music school, staff members “did not go into the meeting of July (20) planning to remove (Iwrey) and that if he had shown a sliver of awareness that he needed to change, he would probably not have been removed.”
But Iwrey said the exact opposite happened.
“I could not have been more apologetic or conciliatory in that meeting,” he said. “I said on countless occasions ‘I will do whatever it takes to make this situation right.’ They made it clear from what they told me that nothing I said was good enough.”
The next day, Iwrey received another letter from Nix, this time informing him that he would be dismissed as drum major.
“All of us feel that you are valuable as a student and member of the band, just not in the position that requires more humility, awareness, respect for authority, and professionalism than you have proven to naturally and publicly exude in this role,” Nix wrote.
They offered him an opportunity to return to the band as a regular member or rank leader.
Iwrey made a number of requests but said he would return to the band regardless of whether they were met. But Iwrey said the staff told him he was in no position to make demands, and chose to kick him out of the band altogether.
Nix, who declined to be interviewed for the article, informed the other band members via e-mail that Baghdadchi would be replacing Iwrey. He didn’t offer any explanation for the switch.
Two months later, most members of the marching band still don’t know what happened to the man they elected drum major.
To an extent, neither does Iwrey.
In an attempt to find out, he made two Freedom of Information Act requests, asking for all the e-mail correspondence regarding his removal from the drum major position.
Both times, he said he was told public interest was best met by not sharing the information but was not told why.
Iwrey continues to seek reinstatement.
In August, he filed a grievance with the School of Music refuting Nix’s allegations.
He has a meeting with the associate dean and dean of the School of Music tomorrow afternoon.
“I’m hopeful that the School of Music will realize that the situation was not handled ethically and professionally, and this will come to a successful and happy conclusion,” Iwrey said.
The blame game
In the July 19 letter, Nix wrote that he had told Iwrey not to pursue former U.S. President Gerald Ford as a speaker for a special band event.
Nix wrote that Iwrey then overstepped his authority by asking Bruce Madej, associate athletic director for communications, about Ford’s availability.
Iwrey maintains that although Nix told him to focus on other candidates, he did not forbid him from pursuing Ford.
Nix’s letter also accused Iwrey of encouraging scalping football tickets. While speaking to new band members, Iwrey suggested they buy football season tickets – which band members don’t need – and sell them. Iwrey admits to this and has apologized for the incident. He considers it his worst mistake, he said.
Nix’s letter also said that Iwrey spoke in a “biting, arrogant and offensive” manner with the mother of a prospective band member.
The woman had implicitly insulted Iwrey’s height, he said, by saying she was glad there was no height requirement for the drum major. Iwrey is 5′ 9″.
Iwrey said that although the question annoyed him, he and the woman had a friendly discussion. “We shook hands, and we wished each other an enjoyable summer,” he wrote in his grievance.
Nix also criticized Iwrey’s casual demeanor, writing that he frequently used inappropriate language while serving as drum major.
“After being told it is not advisable in your role to say phrases like ‘what the hell’ and ‘pissed off,’ you asked a staff member if Professor Nix would be pissed off if you knocked on his door when he was on the phone,” Nix wrote.
But Iwrey said his language fit the occasion.
“I don’t find that choice of language at all inappropriate,” Iwrey said. “At no time did I get the impression that freshmen were insulted, intimidated or offended.”
Iwrey also allegedly made sarcastic observations about the program that cast the band in a negative light, including saying “Professor Nix is intimidating”
The letter also cited a few instances where the staff disapproved of Iwrey’s behavior prior to his election as drum major.
At a 2003 women’s basketball game where Iwrey was performing, he commented on the racial make-up of the Dutch national basketball team. He said the team was surprisingly white and remarked that there must be no black people in the Netherlands.
Iwrey admits to making this comment, but said that it was not intended to be racist. He wrote a letter of apology to the Michigan cheerleading team, one of whom overheard the comment and complained. He said he thinks this incident is no longer relevant.
“This happened three years ago,” he said. “To even bring it up is pointless.”
At the 2005 Rose Bowl game against Texas, Nix instructed members of the band not to use the “Hook ’em Down” gesture, which is Texas’s classic “Hook ’em Horns” signal turned upside down.
In the letter, Nix accused Iwrey of making the sign. Iwrey denies it, saying that it was another band member caught on tape.
“You could simply review a tape of the (game) to prove my innocence,” he wrote.
What are the drum major’s responsibilities?
– Perform a pregame routine, including the “back bend” and the “goalpost toss.” The drum major takes off his hat, bends backwards and touches his head to the ground. He then runs to the end zone and throws his baton over the goalpost. If the drum major drops the baton, legend says Michigan will lose the game.
– Serve as the band’s public face and the liaison between the band and the staff.
– Instruct the marching band with vocal and whistle commands.