Toronto plans equity review in music after racism and sexism claims

New dean at top Canadian school hopes outside perspective can resolve months of protest over behaviours and curriculum

July 23, 2021
Music orchestra cello
Source: iStock

The new dean of music at the University of Toronto is planning an outside review following months of protests by faculty and students over alleged racist and sexist behaviour and curricula at the renowned school.

The new dean, Ellie Hisama, in one of her first steps upon arrival from Columbia University, promised an “impartial and confidential” assessment of the music school’s climate by independent external experts.

“I am acutely aware that I am arriving at a challenging time,” Professor Hisama said in an open letter to the music school community. “Ensuring that the Faculty of Music is a safe, inclusive and welcoming environment in which we can all excel is my first priority as the new dean.”

Professor Hisama is replacing Don McLean, a professor of music theory and musicology who served as dean for the past decade, and who faced growing discontent and demands for change over an alleged environment of misogyny and racial inequality within the school.

Toronto’s music students appeared satisfied with Professor Hisama’s initiative as part of her initial response to the circumstances she is finding upon her arrival. “An impartial investigation has been long needed; this is a step in the right direction,” the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association said in a response.

The association led several hundred students and others affiliated with the university in putting forth a petition in recent months urging changes that included an outside review. Those signing the letter alleged more than 65 instances of sexual harassment and abuse within the music school, and suggested that many more involved victims too afraid to speak out.

A separate appeal by nearly 200 students and staff last year faulted the school for failing to combat the “inherently Eurocentric” bias of music teaching.

Professor McLean answered the larger petition with a note agreeing on the urgent need for change while saying that key decisions would be left for Professor Hisama to address upon her arrival this month in Toronto.

Those signing the petition acknowledged that such problems with sexual harassment appear widespread in higher education, and especially prevalent in music teaching, with its emphasis on one-on-one instruction.

They cited data from Statistics Canada showing that more than 70 per cent of the nation’s post-secondary students witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualised behaviour in 2019. That study also found that 11 per cent of female students suffered a sexual assault in a post-secondary setting during the previous year.

Along with demanding the outside review, the petitioners demanded mandatory consent training for staff and students, and the creation of an in-house equity, diversity and inclusion officer.

Professor Hisama has combined her expertise in music theory with a specific focus on issues of gender, culture, ethnicity and the composers overlooked throughout history.

She promised ahead of her arrival to carefully assess the situation in Toronto before taking major actions. In announcing the planned Climate and Culture Review, she gave no immediate details of the process and timeline, but made clear it would “directly engage” students, faculty and staff.

“This external review will examine issues of culture, leadership and morale,” Professor Hisama said, “in order to understand the extent to which the teaching, learning and working environments of our community reflect our shared commitment to inclusiveness, belonging, respect and concern for the safety and mental health of all in our community.”

She appears to be operating for now in a period of relative goodwill. “This investigation – so long as it is truly impartial and confidential, and puts the victims first – is absolutely needed and is a necessary first step to healing,” the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association said in its response. “Too much has been covered up at the Faculty of Music.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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