At the University of North Texas, the Mob Comes Calling for a Music Theorist

(Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
You might think music theory is an academic area that’s safe from the illiberal mob, but a University of North Texas professor has learned otherwise.

Chances are you have never heard of the music theorist Heinrich Schenker or the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, a publication at the University of North Texas (UNT) devoted to “all facets of Schenkerian thought, including theory, analysis, pedagogy, and historical aspects.” But that journal, and, in particular, the UNT music-theory professor Timothy Jackson, who oversees it, are now at the center of a controversy that goes to the heart of whether we are truly a free society. Can people speak their minds, or will those who express dissenting opinions be destroyed by a mob they can neither challenge nor resist?

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Jackson published a critique of a plenary address given by the music theorist Philip Ewell to the Society for Music Theory. Ewell posited “a ‘white racial frame’ in music theory that is structural and institutionalized.” In particular, Ewell accused Schenker (1868–1935) of being racist, therefore suggesting that his work in music theory is tainted.

For Jackson to have questioned Ewell’s thesis and defended Schenker against the charge of racism was seen as nothing short of heresy. UNT graduate students and faculty, as well as music professors across the country, are now demanding that Jackson be investigated, his journal shut down, and his position eliminated. A group of graduate students in UNT’s Division of Music History, Theory, and Ethnomusicology issued a statement calling on the university to “hold accountable every person responsible for the direction of the publication” of the journal. “This should also extend to investigating past bigoted behaviors by faculty,” they wrote, “and, by taking this into account, the discipline and potential removal of faculty who used the [Journal of Schenkerian Studies] platform to promote racism. Specifically, the actions of Dr. Jackson — both past and present — are particularly racist and unacceptable.” A group of UNT faculty piled on, circulating a petition “endors[ing] the call for action” by the graduate students.

In other words, these students and faculty are not only calling for Jackson’s head for expressing his views in his journal article, they want the university to launch a witch hunt to see what else they can dig up on him. And today, the dean of the UNT College of Music, John Richmond, announced that UNT is opening that investigation in the name of “reaffirm[ing] our dedication to combatting [sic] racism on campus and across all academic disciplines.”

Any professor in Jackson’s position — that of stating a view that goes against prevailing campus opinion — should be terrified. College administrators are not exactly profiles in courage when it comes to standing up to the mob, typically preferring to roll over in the hopes that they won’t be next. (Spoiler alert: They will be next.)

It is particularly ominous that Jackson’s critique of a fellow scholar falls wholly within the scope of academic freedom that UNT promises to its faculty. Jackson is not a professor going viral after mouthing off on Twitter, although those professors need protection too. He offered a serious critique of that scholar’s work, based on archival research within his highly specialized field, and after lifelong study of Schenker specifically and music theory more generally. He now has a legitimate fear that he may lose his job and be rendered persona non grata at any other institution. Questioning the current campus orthodoxy even in the context of serious academic inquiry is now considered a capital offense by the growing number of people who, as Daniel Schwammenthal put it earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, “seem to understand George Orwell’s ‘1984’ not as a warning but as a manual.”

It is difficult to overstate what an existential crisis this represents for a free society. I worry that people will be fatigued by yet another cancel-culture story, or that this may appear as simply an internal squabble among scholars in an obscure field. But if we do not stand up to this mob behavior each and every time, it will quickly swamp civil society. Simply put, the behavior of those who want Timothy Jackson’s life ruined over his academic critique of an article applying critical-race theory to music theory is not compatible with freedom. And if we do not see our own freedom as threatened by this situation and the countless others like it, that freedom will perish swiftly and silently.

Nevertheless, I think this battle can be won. When a similar controversy erupted at Princeton over an article in Quillette by Professor Joshua Katz, the mob clamored for Katz’s head. Katz had dissented from a “Faculty Letter” signed by many of his colleagues demanding that Princeton take illiberal measures to address perceived systemic racism on campus and beyond. Princeton’s initial reaction was predictable: The university publicly denounced Katz and announced it was investigating him. But Katz and his allies refused to cower. Support for Katz poured in from high places, including the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Eventually, realizing that it would actually be held accountable for its promises of free speech and academic freedom, Princeton relented. While maintaining his disagreement with Katz’s article, president Christopher Eisgruber announced that the article was “protected by Princeton’s commitment to the freedom of speech” and that Katz could be “answered but not censored or sanctioned.”

I do not believe the victory at Princeton would have happened without a large group of people, Katz included, who were willing to stand up loudly and publicly and say “enough.” While UNT may not be as prominent as Princeton, nor the Journal of Schenkerian Studies as well-known as Quillette or the Wall Street Journal, we need to stand up loudly and publicly now, too. Enough. An attack on one person’s freedom is an attack on everyone’s freedom, and the only possible way to defeat the rising tide of repression on campus and beyond is to fight with everything we have, each and every time.

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