Last year, Provost Joyce Jacobsen lowered the cost of private music lessons from $795 to $780, eliminating a $15 surcharge on the music lessons course fee that was implemented in the early 2000s. Jacobson’s decision to lower the cost was prompted by an inquiry brought forth by former guitar teacher Carver Blanchard, who was then serving as the University-appointed representative for Private Lessons Teacher (PLT).
Shortly after Jacobson disallowed the fee, she emailed Blanchard to notify him that his employment contract would not be renewed for the upcoming academic year. The email came five days after the Music Department recommended him for re-appointment, and 38 years after he began teaching guitar and lute at the University.
“I write to inform you that Wesleyan will not be hiring you as a Private Lessons Teacher in 2018-19,” the email read. “Thank you for your service to Wesleyan.”
The question of how and why this happened yields no simple explanation. Since Jacobsen has at-will prerogative to dismiss non-tenured employees without providing a reason and cannot comment publicly on personnel matters, it is difficult to determine the reason behind Blanchard’s dismissal. Blanchard, however, believes that his denial of reappointment was retaliatory, based on his conduct as private lessons teacher representative.
The PLT representative is a year-long, unpaid, University-appointed position. As PLT representative, Blanchard was responsible for acting as a conduit between the PLTs and the administration and for voicing the questions and concerns of his fellow teachers. Private lessons are the only courses at the University that students must pay to take, and throughout most of the program’s history, teachers have earned the entirety of the fee students paid. In running the program, the University neither made nor spent any money, maintaining a revenue-neutral policy for the program.
In the early 2000s, however, an additional $15 fee was tacked onto the private lessons rate, though it is unclear who implemented the surcharge. For many years, the change went largely unnoticed by students and teachers alike. To students, the surcharge appeared indistinct from the primary course fee, an incremental and unremarkable rise in cost. To teachers, who continued to earn the same wages, nothing seemed different. But for the first time in the program’s history, there was a part of the private lessons tuition that was not being paid to teachers. The program began earning between $2,000 and $5,000 per semester, but it was unclear how the money was being spent.
“I don’t know how it even happened,” said Tony Lombardozzi, a jazz guitar teacher in the PLT program who has worked for the University for over 30 years. “But all of a sudden it was $15 more, and no one knew…. We were never asked about it either. Like normally they would go, ‘We’re going to try to supplement this, so we’re going to add $15, how do you all feel about it?’ Most of the teachers didn’t even know. Because we don’t see that, we just got our same pay.”
When Blanchard became PLT representative in the fall of 2017, several of his colleagues asked him to look into why the surcharge existed and whether or not it was actually necessary. Part of the fee’s purpose was revealed to Lombardozzi about ten years ago, when he received an email from a retired Music Department administrative assistant (AA) that questioned the need for its continued existence.
“My position was eliminated (part of that $15 charge to the students was for my increased hours. Now that I’m gone does that mean that the students are now supporting the increased hours of [the other administrative assistants]?)” the email read. “That $15 charge should definitely be revoked…. Students would be outraged if word got out that payment for hourly wages for secretaries was coming out of the cost of private lessons—I question if it’s even legal…. By the way—I never sent you this email…”
After receiving this email, Blanchard set out on a mission to discover how the course fee was being spent, first approaching the department’s two current AAs.
“He brought up this $15 fee, because it was always kind of lingering there,” Lombardozzi said. “And that was the beginning of the end. I hate to say it like that.”
Blanchard said that the AAs met his inquiry with resistance and insisted that he had no right to know how the money was being used.
“So [he] didn’t take ‘I’m not telling you anything you have no right to this information’ too kindly, because that’s what [the AAs], in essence, said: You don’t have the right to know anything. He just kept looking,” Lombardozzi said.
According to the AAs, they never denied him the right to investigate but rather referred him to Department Chair Paula Matthusen. They didn’t want to go over Matthusen’s head and provide Blanchard information without her consent.
“The one thing I will say [is] when he initially approached me, I told him, ‘There is a chain of command. You need to speak to the Department Chair,’” she explained. “It wasn’t information that we had to give him.”
When Matthusen couldn’t give Blanchard the answer he was looking for, he moved on to North College, asking people at many levels of the administration, from registrar assistants to student account administrators to the associate provost, about how he could get to the bottom of this.
The current AAs, who requested their names not be used in this article, told The Argus that all the money gathered through the additional fee has gone toward students and has been used in part to cover financial aid for students taking music lessons. They found Blanchard’s insinuation that there was a misappropriation of funds troubling.
“So do they really feel as though there’s a pot of money sitting around somewhere?” one of the AAs asked.
In mid-October, Blanchard received an invitation to attend a Music Department meeting, where he hoped he would be able to voice his concerns and receive answers. But according to Blanchard, he was told by Professor of Music and African American Studies Jay Hoggard that he would not be allowed to address the department.
“If I was not going to be permitted to make my case, why had I been invited?” he wondered. “I found out when Professor Hoggard turned to me and said, ‘We asked you here to help extricate yourself from the consequences of your misbehavior.’ Then, ‘You are at risk of being charged with harassment.’”
“The phrase ‘You are at risk of being charged with harassment’ was reiterated repeatedly without attribution…until I was told that my time was up, and dismissed,” Blanchard wrote in an email. “I saw this as an attempt to get me to drop the inquiry.”
Hoggard has dismissed these statements as inaccurate in an email to The Argus.
On Nov. 1, 2017, Associate Provost Mark Hovey sent Blanchard an email reiterating that the manner of his inquiry was making some people uncomfortable and that he needed to stop searching for answers within the Music Department.
“[Irrespective] of the rightness of your position on the issue of private lesson costs and compensation, you have to stop talking about this with the music department,” Hovey wrote. “Please just talk to me about it.”
Eventually, Provost Jacobsen became aware of all that had happened concerning Blanchard’s inquiry into the fee. But prior to learning about Blanchard’s concerns, Jacobsen did not know the fee existed.
“I hadn’t been paying attention,” Jacobsen told The Argus. “I mean, it’s such a small thing in my world. Blanchard actually brought it up and asked, ‘Well why are we charging that? We don’t need to do that anymore.’ And so then we got rid of it.”
According to Jacobson, the fee had been redirected to the Music Department’s budget and had been used to cover the overhead costs that it takes to run the department, namely the hours the AAs spend coordinating private lessons and financial aid. Jacobsen decided to disallow the fee partly because the University is much wealthier now than it was 15-20 years ago, explaining that the department no longer needed supplementary funds to cover overhead costs.
“They don’t actually need it anymore,” she said. “I made that decision personally. That doesn’t mean it was wrong to do it before, but we can now afford not to do it.”
Both the associate provost and the AAs said the fee has never been used to supplement their salaries. The AAs said that financial aid is one of the central purposes of the fee. But the University registration records for private lessons are not public, and without any data on how many students were enrolled and how much aid they collectively received, it’s impossible to determine whether or not the program turned a profit at the end of the year or if the funds were used entirely for aid. But there is also a separate financial aid account set aside for private lessons students, which, according to Hovey, is the fund used to pay for all lessons of students receiving aid. To Hovey’s knowledge, the surplus money in the PLT account never moves. An AA reiterated this.
“There’s no movement of that money in any way, shape, or form,” one AA said. “It’s in that account, to be used towards things for private lessons. I can’t move it anywhere else. So we always give students financial aid, [and] the more students that could take lessons, the better for the students, and the better for the teachers.”
Hovey explained that at the end of the year, the Music Department turns over supplementary funds to the University. The financial aid account is funded by the University budget.
“If you look at the financial aid account, and you look at how much was taken in and how much was spent each year, I’m pretty sure you would find that the University actually spent money [on the PLT program],” he said. “It’s not revenue positive but revenue negative.”
Jacobson disallowed the fee before the Spring 2018 semester, a decision that took effect this semester. At the beginning of the Spring 2018 semester, Jacobsen called a meeting with all of the private lessons teachers to provide a platform for the teachers to voice their desires and concerns regarding department affairs. The surcharge was not permitted to be discussed at this meeting.
“After that meeting, I resigned as private lessons teacher representative, in order that my continued presence would not be a problem,” Blanchard said. “If I no longer held that position, that would be the best way for a new start. For somebody else to be private lessons teacher [representative]. It’s over, my job was done. The way to really establish finality would be for someone else to assume that job.”
About a month after the meeting, Blanchard received the email from Jacobsen notifying him that he would not be reappointed as a private lessons teacher for the following school year. In an effort to find an explanation for what he saw as an abrupt and unwarranted dismissal, he responded to the provost.
“Your letter astounded me,” he wrote in an email to Jacobsen. “I had received formal notice two days ago by the chair of the Music Department that I had been re-appointed for next year…. What in the world happened? I believe my teaching record is good, so this must have to do with my actions as PLT representative. If so, I cannot imagine how my performance in a temporary position unrelated to my teaching forms the basis for my dismissal as a teacher. To be fired without explanation is something I believe would normally occur only in the case of some serious moral transgression. However, whatever the reason, this is a permanent stain on my professional record which will be with me for life. I hope you will forgive me if I try to find out what I can.”
In response, Jacobsen clarified that the Music Department’s recommendation to rehire Blanchard did not constitute a reappointment and that, as the provost, she had final say in all academic appointments.
“I made the decision not to engage you for a new appointment because your regular expressions of dissatisfaction make it clear that you are not happy in the plt program,” the email continued. “While feedback is always welcome, at times your interactions made Wesleyan employees feel uncomfortable and they made complaints which were brought to your attention and to my attention. Thus, I have decided that it is in the best interests of all involved if we move in another direction next year.”
As word of Blanchard’s dismissal spread throughout the Music Department, so too did word of the controversy surrounding the fee. Several private lessons teachers were shocked and upset, concerned by how opaque the whole process seemed.
“It was all very non-transparent,” Libby Van Cleve, the University’s oboe teacher, said. “It was all done with people saying, ‘Did you hear this? Did you hear that?’ It was sort of just a word on the street kind of thing. I feel like when there’s a lack of transparency, it screams that there’s something’s wrong. Why wouldn’t there be transparency? It’s incomprehensible…. I’ve never heard of anybody not getting reappointed. I think it’s a very bad system if somebody can lose their job without any notice and without any [explicit] reports of student or faculty criticism. That does not make for a trusting and warm community.”
Lombardozzi was also upset to hear that Blanchard had not been re-appointed. He wondered if decades of loyalty mattered in the face of a one-year contract, if allegations of misconduct should carry more weight than performance as a teacher.
“I’ve been here thirty-three years, and that’s something I think is really important,” Lombardozzi said. “[Many private lesson teachers] have been here longer than me, so there’s a lot of dedication here…. I know that as a guitar teacher and a lute teacher, Carver was spectacular. In [terms of] Carver doing his job, I mean all they have to do is read his reviews…. I think when he didn’t get appointed, it was a real injustice. Because he was a good teacher, and that’s what his contract is to do. It wasn’t to be in the politics of it all, or to represent teachers who have other issues.”
John Spencer Camp Professor of Music Neely Bruce, who was responsible for recruiting and hiring Blanchard back in 1979, felt similarly.
“I was very surprised,” he said. “It’s unprecedented. And the department recommended him. Carver’s a popular teacher, a great guy.”
Blanchard maintains that throughout the inquiry, his central concern was the fee and its implications. As soon as he either found an explanation or effectively had it revoked, he insists that he would have let it lie.
“In truth, none of the private lessons teachers, including myself, particularly care about [the money],” Blanchard said. “They’re willing to let that go. It’s mainly the arrogant disregard for the conditions of our employment, and that they felt entitled to impose a fee [without] disclosure. When it finally got to the provost, [it] was disallowed. So the question is, why wasn’t that the end of it? In short, what I believe is that I was denied a reappointment in order to protect others, who were instrumental in the establishment and the perpetuation of the fee.”
Because Jacobsen cannot speak about personnel matters, she emphasized how important it is to remember that without her input—which she is not allowed to disclose—any version of this story will be incomplete.
“These are always asymmetric situations because [I] can’t say anything,” she said. “Unofficial people can say whatever they want, and official people can’t say anything.”
“The truth-finder, the reporter, can never really find the truth,” she added.
Correction: A previous version of this article included a secondhand account of Jay Hoggard’s email and in-person correspondence. Hoggard has denied these statements.
Sasha Linden-Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.