WMU Graduates Allege Discrimination In Jazz Program
Two alumni of Western Michigan University say they faced racial discrimination while studying in the School of Music, and one says she was also treated unfairly because of her gender. The head of Western’s highly regarded vocal jazz ensemble, Professor Greg Jasperse, is at the center of their complaints. The university has cleared him of wrongdoing, but the students’ claims have caught the attention of the highest levels of Western’s administration.
Jasperse is an accomplished jazz composer who got tenure at Western last year. He leads the university’s top-tier vocal jazz group, Gold Company.
Jasperse, who’s white, is known to colleagues and the public as an avowed antiracist. After George Floyd was killed last May, Jasperse went on fundraising bike rides for racial justice. Several local news outlets did stories.
Jasperse told Fox 17 that after Floyd’s death, he was “wondering, like a lot of us are, ‘what can I do, what can I do? Where is my power, where is my influence to move the conversation?’”
But Jasperse’s fundraisers surprised some of his former students. Late last year, two of them went public with claims he’d failed to address racism in Gold Company – and had behaved in a biased and insensitive way.
Jasperse declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, he said he abhors discrimination. He noted an investigation by Western’s Office of Institutional Equity has cleared him of misconduct. And some of his colleagues say Jasperse has become a scapegoat for systemic problems at Western.
“A slap in the face”
But the allegations haven’t gone away. One of the former students to accuse Jasperse was Travon Williams, who sang in Gold Company before graduating in 2018.
Williams declined through friends to be interviewed for this story. Former classmate Jessica Ivey says she heard from Williams after Professor Jasperse got press for his fundraisers.
“He told me that he was just super triggered and disheartened and it just felt like a slap in the face,” she said.
In an open letter he published on social media, Williams, who's African-American, said Jasperse mishandled racism from students in the jazz program. For example, Williams wrote that he told Jasperse non-black students habitually used the n-word. According to Williams, Jasperse told him he should be the one to confront the students about their use of the slur. Ivey says she was shocked Jasperse would expect that of Williams.
“It broke my heart,” she said. “I was like heavy for two days just thinking about how long he’s been carrying that around. You know, because that was early in his college career.”
And Williams said Jasperse showed a lack of understanding on other occasions. Williams claimed the black students in Gold Company were once pressured into performing a rap sequence, over the students’ objections. Williams said another time, Jasperse proposed that Gold Company perform “Dixie” and “Old Dan Tucker.” Both are minstrel tunes steeped in racism. Williams wrote that Jasperse pulled the songs after he complained. But he added that Jasperse defended the selections to the group.
“So to hear him getting all this praise and this press about supposedly advocating for black lives really just hurts,” Ivey said.
She added it didn’t help that Williams had few black classmates, and that despite the genre’s black roots, Western’s jazz faculty is entirely white. The university says a new initiative in the music school will address diversity and inclusion.
Soon after Williams published his letter, a second music alum followed suit: Katherine Plier, who graduated last year.
“It was really hard for me to hear”
Plier is Asian-American. She said she experienced racial and gender-based discrimination in Gold Company, in the form of a double standard for student behavior. Plier says in noisy rehearsals, her male peers were free to tell the other students to pipe down. But once, when she did the same, she said Jasperse slammed his fist on the table and yelled at her.
“‘We don’t talk that way, Katherine, that’s not acceptable behavior,’” she recalled Jasperse saying. “’Whereas Jani, a man, would constantly say ‘y’all shut up.'”
Plier also said Jasperse turned her down for a coveted role as a music producer, or teacher and arranger of music, in her senior year. Instead, he appointed two men who Plier said were less qualified. She added, Jasperse told her she’d still be arranging and teaching music for Gold Company. She just wouldn’t get the title that normally goes with the work.
“People only really ever change job descriptions on the fly if they are seriously trying to exclude someone. And it really made no sense to me, it was really hard for me to hear,” she said.
Plier says she complained about Jasperse’s decision to then-music school director Brad Wong. In a statement, Wong told WMUK he looked into Plier’s claims and found Jasperse had acted appropriately.
The university responds
Plier didn’t stop there. She went to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. She says it turned her away. Eventually Plier went to a different department, the Office of Institutional Equity. She says it promised a two-month investigation that ended up taking about twice that long. The OIE declined to discuss the investigation with WMUK. In February it found Professor Jasperse had not committed protected class discrimination.
At the same time, in a letter it sent to Plier, the OIE seemed to validate her claims. It said academic leaders had talked extensively about “the impact of these experiences and how they can be avoided in the future.”
Last month Plier spoke at a virtual university Trustees meeting. She told the board that growing up, her mom told her life’s not fair.
“And then of course I as a stubborn kid would say to her, ‘well, we can make it fairer.’ And so fast forward, here I am at the university talking to you to consider making something fairer,” she told the Board.
Usually Trustees don’t respond to comments from the public, especially when they’re critical. But Plier’s remarks got a response from Board Chair Lynn Chen-Zhang, who said she'd had the same conversation about fairness with her own mom.
“A lot of what I’m doing today is to carry out my statement to support my statement to my mother, ‘we are making this, the world fair.’ So we share that desire,” Chen-Zhang told Plier.
Plier’s comments also got WMU President Edward Montgomery’s attention. He invited her to meet with him and other top administrators last week. Plier went with delegates from the local NAACP. And she says the meeting went well. She said she had a chance to propose a variety of changes to make Western more equitable. Among them: ensuring investigations move quickly, and allowing students to withdraw from a class because of discrimination.
“I’ve been trying to learn how to settle with knowing that I shared my story, I’m leaving with my values and I did everything I possibly could inside my role as an alumni to create change,” she said.
She added that the head of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion has apologized for Plier’s experience there when she tried to report discrimination.