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Two Faculty of Music instructors publish open letter on culture of racism, discrimination

Letter says faculty lacks accountability, processes to address issues
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The Faculty of Music Building. TOSIN MAYEGUN/THE VARSITY
The Faculty of Music Building. TOSIN MAYEGUN/THE VARSITY

On June 11, Tara Kannangara and Jacqueline Teh, sessional instructors at U of T’s Faculty of Music, published an open letter on Instagram addressed to the U of T Jazz program located within the faculty, as well as a 98-page report on a survey of students and faculty. 

The letter highlights the struggles they have gone through over the past year as the only faculty members who identify as women of colour. The instructors decided to publish the letter after they said they were antagonized and excluded by the faculty due to their advocacy actions, such as creating a survey and presentation meant to showcase the instances of discrimination that racialized community members have faced within the faculty and U of T Jazz.

The letter also mentions other incidents, such as the exclusion of Kannangara from an anti-racism committee meeting despite being one of the two racialized women in the faculty, that highlight the issues within U of T Jazz.

The Faculty of Music acknowledged the letters in a statement over the summer, committing to undergoing a third-party review and providing updates on the faculty’s Anti-Racism Anti-Oppression Committee (ARAO). 

Surveys met with silence

Kannangara and Teh’s advocacy began when they, along with a growing number of members from the artists’ coalition #thisisartschool, began sharing and collecting hundreds of stories about experiences of racism and discrimination in programs across Canada, the United States, and more.

Many stories were about U of T Jazz, which both Teh and Kannangara also attended. “We felt, ethically, [that] we should listen to these stories, because these are our students and our friends,” Kannangara said. They decided to examine the flaws within the program and to push for change. “This all started very compassionately,” Kannangara added.

In an interview, Teh told The Varsity that they and others in the #thisisartschool coalition had put together a survey for students and faculty at U of T Jazz. The results were then summarized in a 98-page report to be presented to the jazz faculty at the Faculty of Music.

Teh said that they faced many barriers leading up to the presentation. For example, requests were made to redact certain parts, such as a statement from the founder of the #thisisartschool movement, Modibo Keita, which emphasized the divide between the Faculty of Music as an institution and its students. 

The statement reads: “#thisisartschool was a way for me to show the institution that I carry power that can be damaging to them. #thisisartschool was my warning. #thisisartschool was my way of saying I don’t need you. #thisisartschool was my way of saying WE don’t need you. It was my way of saying YOU need us. YOU need me.”

After presenting the report, Teh and Kannangara said they were met with silence from the faculty and their colleagues. “There are faculty members who didn’t want to meet with us, didn’t want to talk to us,” Teh said.

The survey was meant to start conversations and collaborations that would help the faculty tackle issues of racism and discrimination. However, it quickly became clear that this work entailed acknowledging many ugly and uncomfortable truths. Teh and Kannangara said that U of T Jazz’s response was not to examine the issues, but rather to shift the blame on the people who were bringing them up.

Stepping out of the comfort zone

After they discovered that addressing these problems through traditional channels would not work, Teh and Kannangara decided to bring the issue to the public by publishing the open letter and survey report on Instagram. 

“We’ve invested hundreds of unpaid hours into this work, and usually what we’ve been met with is: ‘It’s not good enough,’ ‘You’re not qualified,’” Kannangara said.

The key points of action they discuss include hiring more racialized faculty and establishing support systems for those who are hired, incentivizing people to go to diversity and consent training sessions, and ensuring students are given information on where to find accessibility and support services.

These demands echo the points in another open letter sent to the faculty last year, calling for anti-racist action.

Nikitha James, vice-president external of the Faculty of Music Anti Racism Alliance, said in an interview with The Varsity that there have been some encouraging changes within the faculty. 

“It isn’t necessarily the majority of professors, but in some classrooms, we’ve been seeing some really major changes,” James said. “More professors are also listening to students and getting their input on all of this stuff.”

James did note, however, that the majority of change is coming from the bottom up, with students and activist groups advocating for policy changes and creating support spaces for students of colour. 

“It’s about finding a way for people to survive, first and foremost, and also thrive at the university, and that’s not going to be because of the university,” she added. For her, while systemic changes are a long term goal, the immediate objective is to ensure the safety of students and create support networks.

Response from the faculty 

The recently appointed dean of the Faculty of Music, Ellie Hisama, released a letter on July 15 stating that equity will be a key component of her leadership at the faculty. 

“I am acutely aware that I am arriving at a challenging time. I have heard first-hand from some of you about concerns regarding our teaching, learning, and working environments,” wrote Hisama. The Faculty of Music was also criticized over the summer with allegations of a culture within the faculty that perpetuated sexual harassment and violence

The letter includes a timeline of calls to action from the community and updates on the creation of the ARAO, which was created in October of 2020. 

According to an email from a U of T spokesperson, the ARAO is “undergoing a careful reconstitution by the Dean of the Faculty of Music, Professor Ellie Hisama, in consultation with faculty.”

The dean will also ensure that a third-party “Climate and Culture Review” is conducted on the faculty, with a summary report published at the end. Hisama noted that the review will “[allow her] to learn about the experiences and observations of all members of [the faculty of music community].”

In an update on September 15, Hisama wrote that the faculty held a number of “listening sessions” throughout the summer, speaking to over 70 students in the faculty. She also provided an update on the Climate and Culture Review, writing that it will be undertaken by Rubin Thomlinson, a representative from a third-party law firm, and will start on September 23. 

The review will consist of an online survey, interviews, and an open email address for members of the faculty to share their experiences. 

Once completed, a summary of the review will be made available. According to the spokesperson, it is too early to know when the review will be completed. 

Hisama also shared that the faculty is searching for a director of equity, diversity, and inclusion who will be dedicated to the music faculty. 

— With files from Lauren Alexander