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N.E. Conservatory defends Zander decision

Response is mixed to departure

New England Conservatory officials yesterday said they have received no complaints from students or alumni about a convicted sex offender hired by renowned conductor Benjamin Zander to make videos over the past decade, and they defended the decision to cut ties with him last week.

Karen Schwartzman, a spokeswoman for the conservatory, would not confirm that Zander had been fired, but she said in a phone interview that his departure was warranted.

Zander believed Peter Benjamin (above) was profoundly remorseful and determined to turn his life around.

WBZTV

Zander believed Peter Benjamin (above) was profoundly remorseful and determined to turn his life around.

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“There might be some who think that certain people in an organization can be held to a different standard, because of their prominence or because of the number of years they have been affiliated or because of their role or because of the degree to which they are revered,’’ Schwartzman said. “But when an institution is presented with information that a senior faculty member has made a decision without consulting anyone else about bringing a sex offender on a campus that serves children, the organization has no choice but to take strong disciplinary measures.’’

Zander was one of numerous faculty members who used the services of Peter E. Benjamin, 68, but he was the only one to admit knowledge of the videographer’s crimes. Zander has said he was fired after refusing to resign.

“His decision showed poor judgment,’’ Schwartzman said. “The conservatory had no choice but to take the action it took.’’

Benjamin spent five years in prison during the 1990s after pleading guilty to charges of rape and sex abuse. His case included allegations that he secretly videotaped himself having sex with three teenage boys.

Zander, 72, the revered conductor of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and faculty member for the past 45 years, left a deep imprint on the thousands of students he inspired with rousing talks and exacting standards over more than four decades at the New England Conservatory, leaving many dismayed that he left on such a discordant note.

But in interviews on and off campus yesterday, students and their parents had mixed feelings about Zander’s departure.

“Sometimes he does things that annoy people, but like a lot of students, I think [Zander] is a very, very, very great person,’’ said Rafael Horowitz Friedman, 19, a freshman oboist. “I can see why the administration thought he used poor judgment. But is this the way to treat someone who had such a huge impact for so many years?’’

While dropping his son off at the school, Bill McShane said he thought the administration responded in a “knee-jerk fashion.’’

“You get the sense that the administration was reacting to national concerns,’’ he said. “At the very least, I think Zander had the responsibility to inform the conservatory that he was employing a sex offender. But I still don’t think I would have fired someone who has been there for so long and done so much good.’’

“It seems unfair to me,’’ said his son, Billy McShane, 19, a sophomore.

Others said the school, which could be held legally accountable for any crimes committed on campus, had no choice.

“Zander has been really great for the conservatory, and I think he’s a fantastic musician,’’ said Vani Jagannathan of Southborough, who has a son and daughter in the conservatory’s youth program. “As a parent, my first obligation is to my child. If the university administration thinks they made the right decision, I support them.’’

Schwartzman acknowledged during the weekend that the institution did not follow its own policies to protect children. She said that in November 2010 the school began screening its vendors for criminal backgrounds, not just staff and volunteers, which they had previously done to comply with state law. They did not check Benjamin’s background, however.

Last week, school officials sent e-mails to some 6,500 current and former students and their families, explaining that they learned in mid-December that a videographer on campus was a convicted sex offender.

During the weekend, Zander sent a letter to his youth orchestra telling them he preferred to stay in a job he adored. He told them he knew Benjamin’s crimes were of a “sexual nature,’’ but he said he did not know details.

Zander wrote that he believed Benjamin “was profoundly remorseful and determined to turn his life around.’’

He also told students he thought his removal had been influenced by other events, including previous disagreements with conservatory president Tony Woodcock.

“I felt it was the right thing at the time to give this man a chance,’’ Zander wrote. “I deeply regret the upset I have brought to you all inadvertently as a result of the way this has all played out.’’

Last night, Elisabeth Williams, 46, of Arlington sat in her parked car outside the conservatory waiting to pick up her 15-year-old daughter, Ella, who was inside rehearsing with the Boston Children’s Chorus.

Her youngest son, Nate, 13, performs with the jazz ensemble there every Saturday, and her oldest son, Jameson, 18, attended the preparatory school from third to sixth grade.

“I think Benjamin Zander clearly used bad judgment,’’ she said. “It’s totally unacceptable. I can’t imagine the parents of the kids in the preparatory school being OK with [the videographer] working around their children.’’

As for the school’s acknowledgment that it did not follow its own procedure of screening for criminal backgrounds of vendors, she said “obviously, they should have.

“It’s unfortunate because 99 percent of the people here are really good people who care about the arts and music.’’

Carrie Kourkoumelis, who has had four children attend the conservatory’s preparatory school, has known Zander for years. She played as a harpist in one of his orchestras and her son traveled with Zander to Prague and Vienna in an orchestra.

She said she has great respect for Zander but believes that he had to go.

“This was a very difficult judgment call for the school, and I believe they made the correct decision,’’ she said.

She said trust is vital at an institution where children are often alone with faculty.

“I think it is a tragic thing that this has happened, for him, for the school, and for all the students who have looked up to him,’’ she said.

Globe correspondent Matt Rocheleau contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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