18 years after they were first reported, allegations of sexual harassment at the Butler School of Music continued.
Brandon Scott Rumsey was accepted into the prestigious Masters’ program in composition at the University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music in 2012. For a first-generation college student who took his first music courses at community college, it was a thrill. “It felt like I had hit the lottery—being someone who didn’t have a ton of connections who was discovering along the way that I was capable and decent in writing music,” Rumsey said. “And I didn’t want to screw that up.” Rumsey graduated from UT Austin in 2014. But he was still processing his experience when, on October 16, 2017, he first made the decision to speak about alleged sexual harassment at the school by his composition professor, Dan Welcher. Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow’s meticulous reporting on Harvey Weinstein had just been published, and the #MeToo hashtag was spurring conversations on sexual harassment worldwide. Rumsey’s Facebook post that day was simple: “Me, too,” he wrote.
In early December, Rumsey read through the results of Dr. Karen Kelsky’s “Crowdsourced Survey of Sexual Harassment in the Academy.” After combing through hundreds of responses, he realized his alleged experiences of a nonconsensual kiss and repeated sexual comments resembled the experiences of thousands of other students throughout the world. Rumsey submitted a response to this survey on December 3, 2017. It was approved at 4:55 AM the following morning. “I had heard of this teacher harassing or making leud [sic.] and inappropriate comments to men and women alike. I always defended him as did many others at UT,” Rumsey wrote. “After talking in his doorway, this teacher, now my thesis advisor, pulled me towards him and kissed me on the mouth when departing a regular meeting. Never happened before or again after, and I always thought it was something I initiated until recently.”
For the first time, Rumsey is willing to go public with these allegations. “For quite some time, I’ve tried to move on from this by keeping things business as usual,” Rumsey wrote in an email. “I’m realizing now that it wasn’t and isn’t possible to move on until I tell myself and others the truth. What happened isn’t my fault.”
Rumsey alleged that Welcher began making frequent sexual comments as soon as he started the program. “I and a few of my closest friends, especially the ones of non-straight sexualities, were very uncomfortable with a lot of those comments,” Rumsey said. “And we would cringe but it to us it was, ‘Dan being Dan.’ But Dan was inappropriate and pervy.” During private composition lessons, Rumsey alleged that Welcher began repeatedly asking him intimate details about his sex life, details Rumsey refused to provide.
Rumsey also found Welcher to be similarly “uncomfortably affectionate” with him in written and verbal communications, both while he attended the school and after he graduated. VAN reviewed emails and chat messages from Welcher to Rumsey between 2013 and 2019. In 2013, while Rumsey was still a student at the Butler School of Music, Welcher emailed Rumsey an explicit sexual joke about blowjobs, explaining that while Welcher “almost wrote” it on social media he was “afraid of the consequences!” While Rumsey’s messages were largely focused on his music and career development, Welcher frequently used intimate-sounding nicknames for Rumsey, calling him variously “you lucky boy,” “good boy,” and “sweet boy.” At the end of one email in May 2019, Welcher wrote, “I’m also glad you’re still a He/Him/His/Himself…” “He seemed to have no semblance of boundary between teacher and student,” Rumsey recalled.
Rumsey also remembered feeling as though no one was addressing the issue. “It seemed like no one was checking him on his behavior or flat out telling him it wasn’t OK. He would do this in the open during rehearsals in New Music Ensemble,” he recalled. “And during closed lessons, he’d make inappropriate jokes always of a sexual nature referring to himself or other people or asking personal questions.” As this behavior went unchecked, Welcher’s comments became more uncomfortable. “He knew about my sexuality and he was comfortable asking intimate questions about my sexual relationship with my partner and making sexual jokes as though we were comfortable gay buddies or something,” Rumsey said.
In Rumsey’s last composition lesson, on April 30, 2014, Welcher’s behavior took a turn. As Rumsey moved to hug Welcher and exit the classroom, Welcher allegedly grabbed both sides of his face and forcibly kissed him on the mouth. “It was definitely a very deliberate kiss targeted on my mouth and he had my head between my hands,” Rumsey said. “I remember immediately feeling gross.” Rumsey told another student about this incident as he left the building. He also called a friend shortly afterwards and told them of the incident. (VAN spoke with these two friends, along with an individual who was told years later, all of whom independently corroborated Rumsey’s description of the events as they were told of them at the time.)
Still, Welcher and Rumsey occasionally communicated through email and social media. “I needed letters, I trusted him to be a mentor in giving me feedback on my work,” Rumsey said. Rumsey continued to correspond with Welcher when he needed letters of recommendation or introductions into Welcher’s large professional network. He continued to struggle with how to clearly articulate to Welcher that he was uncomfortable with these sexually explicit jokes and unwanted displays of affection. Welcher continued to ask him for details about his personal life, and Rumsey attempted to rebuff these questions without harming his professional connection. “I’ve maintained friendships with past teachers before and I still keep in touch with many of my teachers,” Rumsey said. “That fear came up a lot that I had worked this hard and come this far and that if I spoke out against it or undermined him and told him he was a creep and he needed to stop, I didn’t know what that would entail or do to me.” (Welcher didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on these allegations.)
Rumsey’s allegation of a nonconsensual kiss was not the only previously undisclosed allegation of sexual harassment that surfaced in VAN’s investigation. VAN also spoke with a former UT Austin student who got to know Welcher as a member of the New Music Ensemble, where Welcher is long-time conductor. She spoke of two instances in which she alleged that Welcher touched her nonconsensually. (The student declined to be identified for fear of professional retribution. VAN spoke to a friend of the student’s from the time of these incidents who corroborated the student’s account.)
In one instance, the student had been invited by Welcher to discuss the ensemble’s upcoming repertoire for the year. “As we talked about different concertos, things like that, I was sitting in a chair across from his desk,” she said. “And then eventually, after grabbing a few CDs, [he] came to join me at the next seat. He pulled his seat a lot closer to me as we looked at scores.” She recalled feeling a little uncomfortable with this, but was prepared for what came next. “And then his hand had started grazing on my leg. And I immediately felt very uncomfortable and I knew that was inappropriate behavior so I quickly and subtly tried to get us out of the chair,” she said. Though she alleged having already heard some sexually inappropriate comments from Welcher, she hadn’t experienced a physical approach before. She remembered saying, “I think it’s time for me to go,” and quickly exiting the studio. “I left right after that because I knew that wasn’t appropriate behavior, even behind closed doors, between a student and a professor,” she said. (According to the University of Texas student handbook, physical conduct that “may constitute sexual harassment includes but is not limited to unwelcome intentional touching.”)
In another instance, the student ran into Welcher in the parking lot after a premiere of one of Welcher’s student’s pieces. “Dan walked me over to my car because his was parked nearby. He gave me a hug, as usual, but then we hugged a long time and his hand moved towards my butt,” she said. Again, the student was forced to find a convenient means of escaping the situation without damaging her relationship with Welcher. “I immediately backed away and said ‘OK, goodnight, I’ll see you later this week,’ and then I hopped in my car and went home,” she said.
The student’s positive experiences with Welcher in the New Music Ensemble led her to dismiss his two attempts at touching her nonconsensually, especially given the positive effects he had on her career. Because Welcher did not pursue her afterwards, she tried to let it go. “I knew that [him allegedly touching my butt] wasn’t appropriate behavior but I thought, ‘It is what it is,’” she said.
Allegations of sexual harassment against Welcher go back to 2001, when they were first reported to UT Austin administrators and then to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. In 2002, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article, “Music’s Open Secret,” which included allegations of sexual harassment by Welcher. (The article is currently available, behind a paywall, on The Chronicle’s website.)
The article included allegations from a female student, Monica Lynn, along with other allegations from an anonymous graduate student. (This anonymous graduate student declined to participate in this new article, citing the pushback she felt from the music community at the time and what she described as UT Austin’s lackluster response.) Lynn alleged that Welcher questioned her during a composition jury not about her music but about her previous work as a neonatal nurse, asking whether she was aware of the new “milk bank” being created in a city park for premature babies. At a party later that year, he allegedly invited her to accompany him to a local strip club, remarking to other students that Lynn would be dancing there in “her dog collar and chains.”
At a dinner attended by the former graduate composition student, Welcher was alleged to have made multiple sexually explicit comments. He allegedly sang a song called “Isn’t It Awful Nice To Have a Penis?” He allegedly showed the female graduate student a naked photograph of him on vacation and another of a female cat that he said had just been “gang banged” by a group of male cats. (One definition of verbal sexual harassment from the University of Texas student handbook is “gratuitous comments, jokes, questions, anecdotes, or remarks of a sexual nature about clothing or bodies.”)
In the immediate aftermath of the 2002 article, the American music community rallied around Welcher and against his accusers. Letters to the editor in the following edition of The Chronicle referred to an “attack, by proxy, on Dan Welcher from a highly questionable and biased source” and a series of “inaccurate and unwarranted generalizations about the University of Texas’s music school.” 2002 was also different era in regards to allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct: before journalistic exposés on James Levine, William Preucil, Charles Dutoit, and many others galvanized the classical music world’s reckoning with sexual harassment and misconduct, before reporting on alleged sexual harassment by Plácido Domingo divided opera communities in America and Europe.
Welcher has remained a giant in American new music. His reputation as a conductor, composer, and advocate is formidable, particularly in the Austin music community. His website boasts that he is “one of the most-played composers of his generation.” His music has been recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, ASCAP, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. Welcher served as the Lee Hage Jamail Regents Professorship in Composition and the Director of the New Music Ensemble at the Butler School of Music. He also hosts a weekly radio show focused on new music. “He’s so interwoven into the Austin community with his radio show and his teaching and his conducting and his former bassoon playing,” Rumsey said.
Monica Lynn described the detrimental effects of her allegations against Welcher from 2002. “One composition instructor, [Kevin Puts,] declined to write recommendations for my graduate school applications,” she wrote in an email, “saying he had been instructed not to write any recommendation letters on my behalf.” In response to a request for comment, Puts wrote in an email, “I’m aware that an investigation of this matter occurred, but it took place during the year I was abroad on sabbatical in Italy (2001-2) and I was not privy to details about it. It’s possible that Ms. Lynn reached out to me for a recommendation letter sometime thereafter, but to be completely honest, I don’t have any recollection of it. That said, as someone very active in educating and mentoring young composers, I strongly condemn any behavior by those in positions of power which might make a student feel uncomfortable or threatened.”
Welcher responded to Lynn’s allegations in the Chronicle of Higher Education article by explaining that “the only ‘reputation’ I have is that of a very demanding teacher...I do sometimes intimidate certain kinds of students with my directness and my candor about their music. But none of this has anything to do with sexual harassment.” Welcher also claimed that Lynn’s comments stemmed from her abilities as a composer. “A would-be composer who lacks sufficient musical skills, a good ear, or the ability to produce competent music after three years of study must face the unpleasant fact that she is not suited to this career,” Welcher wrote. “If the students cannot accept this, it is her right to go elsewhere and try again—but not to malign the faculty with libelous statements.”
When the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigation into alleged sexual harassment at the Butler School of Music concluded, Lynn was dismayed with the results. Despite the Office finding that three of the seven incidents alleged by Lynn were corroborated by investigators, and two more were found to have “conflicting evidence,” interviews with randomly selected students and faculty members led the investigators to conclude that they had been “provided no information that indicated the existence of sexual harassment or a sexually hostile environment” at the University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music. (Interviews with randomly selected students and faculty were standard when investigating Title IX claims at the time, as the Department of Education sought evidence that an academic environment was broadly “hostile” on the basis of sex.)
Many of the other allegations against Welcher uncovered by VAN resemble those described in the 2002 Chronicle article: repeated sexually explicit comments about students and sexually explicit jokes directed toward students. These jokes were allegedly made in both public and private settings, frequently in front of groups of people. To some students, they seemed like regular occurrence at composition department events. “It’s the kind of thing where you would just expect it,” a former composition student said. “You’d be like ‘Dan Welcher did this,’ ‘typical Dan Welcher’ kind of thing.’” (This student declined to be named for fear of professional retribution.)
Welcher’s alleged behavior that this student witnessed included a joke about male genitalia and an instruction before a concert Welcher was conducting for the ensemble to “keep it kinky.” (VAN spoke with two other composition students who were friendly with the former student quoted above. Both corroborated the frequent, sexual nature of Welcher’s comments. VAN also spoke with a member of the ensemble from the “keep it kinky” incident not known to the quoted student who independently corroborated the student’s account.)
Another female composition student from the mid-2010s described an incident in which Welcher commented on her appearance after a concert. (She also declined to be identified for fear of professional retribution.) She was both a composer and a dancer, and she was dancing in a piece she had written. When a group of composers and faculty formed after the concert to compliment the student, Welcher made a comment about her physical appearance. “Dan said that he thought it was ‘hot,’” the student said. “It was hard not to see his comment as a disrespect for the sacredness of the art form and ugly misinterpretation of my own purposes as a dancer.” Soon afterwards, she relayed the incident to her boyfriend. “I do remember telling my boyfriend about it immediately and he was like, ‘Oh, God,’” she said. VAN spoke with the boyfriend, who remembered being told of the incident at the time, along with many other instances of Welcher’s alleged inappropriate and sexually explicit comments and jokes.
In February 2018, a friend of Rumsey’s passed his allegations about Welcher on to UT Austin Professor Yvgeniy Sharlat. Sharlat pressed the friend for more information about the allegation, and they went back to Rumsey to ask for more details about his alleged experiences. Sharlat then told Rumsey’s friend that he would bring these concerns to the Director of the Butler School of Music, Professor Mary Ellen Poole. (VAN was provided dated screenshots of messages between the acquaintance and Rumsey about communications with Sharlat that support this account.)
The friend soon texted Rumsey to inform him of Sharlat’s response: Sharlat had apparently spoken with Poole, but without a formal complaint, they did not believe that any concrete disciplinary actions could be taken. (It is unclear if Rumsey could have filed a formal complaint in 2017 for an alleged incident in 2014. According to the University of Texas Office for Inclusion and Equity, “Generally, the employment or academic concern is handled if the complaint is made within 180 days of the occurrence or 30 days from the end of the semester for students.” However, victims of sexual harassment frequently delay in reporting their experiences.) Approximately a year and a half later, Welcher officially retired from university. He is currently serving a one-year phased retirement for the 2019-2020 academic year. Sharlat and Poole declined to comment for this article, instead referring VAN to the University’s spokesperson, Shilpa Bakre. “The safety of students is always our top priority,” Bakre wrote in an email. “The University of Texas at Austin takes all allegations of misconduct seriously and investigates all complaints. There are no findings of misconduct involving Professor Welcher.”
This is where the paper trail surrounding Rumsey’s allegations ends. It was the second time in 17 years that UT Austin administrators were made aware of the “open secret” surrounding Welcher’s alleged sexual harassment and misconduct. Apparently, no disciplinary actions have been taken.
Instead, students’ networks picked up the slack. “I would guess that a majority or close to a majority of the composition students know about it,” a former composition student recalled. “There seems to have been some sort of warning process in place for incoming students.” The process began when students came to the school for their admissions interviews and extended to their first weeks on campus. “The more light-handed way of going about it would be saying, ‘Dan Welcher is very divisive within the department and people either really like him or really dislike him. He has a very strong personality,’” the student said. “The more direct thing was straight up saying, ‘He behaves inappropriately quite frequently and you just need to be aware of that when you’re around him.’”
Monica Lynn, the named source from the 2002 Chronicle article, often heard that Welcher’s behavior had not changed. “During the year following the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights, I heard numerous rumors that Dan Welcher was continuing his abusive behavior toward students, and that his egregious behavior was being ignored and tolerated by university officials,” she wrote in an email. She expressed disappointment that UT Austin had not taken more significant action to curb Welcher’s behavior. “I am not surprised to hear of these recent allegations, nor am I surprised by the university’s inadequate response,” she wrote. When asked her thoughts about the 2002 article, given these new allegations, she wrote, “I am a firm believer in the right of every student and employee to pursue their goals in an environment free from hostility and discrimination; I will continue to speak out as an advocate when I see classmates or coworkers being treated unjustly.” She remains bothered, however by one specific aspect of the 2002 article. “That phrase ‘she failed’ still bothers me,” Lynn wrote, “because it is simply not true. It was they who failed; they failed me.”
When Lynn was told of Welcher’s comments about the female performer after the dance concert—the instances in which he allegedly referred to her as “hot” in front of a group of composers—she was reminded of a previously undisclosed incident she had reported to the Office for Civil Rights. She allegedly witnessed Welcher rate two female performers at a performance by how “fuckable” he thought they were.
Lynn expressed concern that, despite having reported Welcher’s behavior to UT Austin administrators, escalated her reports to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, being quoted in The Chronicle and learning of separate allegations being reported to UT Austin administrators in February 2018, Welcher’s history of making derogatory comments towards female composers and performers remained the same throughout his UT Austin career.
Rumsey also described the struggle he faced prior to the #MeToo movement and his online post about Welcher’s alleged misconduct. “I had myself convinced that I could move on from the incident following my lesson since there are so many situations that seemed so much worse than mine. I had myself convinced that it was a huge misunderstanding between people from different cultures and generations. And I had myself convinced that it was my fault for giving him the wrong idea or something,” Rumsey wrote in an email. “No one ever told me it was, those were my words.” He also spoke of Welcher’s reputation in the new music community and the failures he perceived in how people responded to allegations of his harassment and misconduct. While he and his fellow students were at the school, he said, “We didn’t know what to do about it.” And now, “He has this reputation wherever I go—no matter where I am people would bring up his reputation.”
The former composition student who was called “hot” by Welcher, however, spoke of the changes in public conversations around sexual misconduct and sexual harassment since 2002 that allowed her to speak in 2019 about what she experienced. “I feel extremely fortunate that, 17 years later, I have a career because the voices of that older, victim-blaming patriarchy aren’t as loud anymore.”
Rumsey spoke of similar hopes that the #MeToo movement will encourage others to speak out. “It meant so much to me to read voices of others, even if they were anonymous,” he wrote in an email. “It is my hope that this article will serve the same purpose—of reminding others that they aren’t alone and that this can happen to anyone. And that it’s not your fault.” ¶