Metro

Berklee president confirms another misconduct case

Roger Brown, president of the Berklee College of Music.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Roger Brown, president of the Berklee College of Music.

She grew up in Taiwan, where stepping forward to accuse a professor of sexually inappropriate behavior — of forcing her to hug him before each piano lesson, and demanding she remove her jacket so he could scrutinize her dress — was not something young women do.

But after escalating e-mails from her piano teacher, Bruce Thomas, seeking a closer relationship, the Berklee College of Music junior reported him to school officials in the fall of 2015. She brought all of Thomas’s often bizarre late-night messages as evidence.

Still, it would take Berklee officials another year — despite mounting evidence brought to administrators of similar behavior by Thomas toward at least four other Asian students — to fire the 35-year veteran of the school.

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Berklee president Roger Brown, in an interview Wednesday, acknowledged that Thomas was one of 11 faculty members terminated since 2004 for sexual misconduct. Brown defended how administrators at the famed music school have handled allegations of sexual impropriety.

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Wednesday night, Brown sent a message to thousands of Berklee alumni noting the “impassioned and vigorous dialogue on campus” regarding sexual misconduct and predicted “it is likely that more details of abuse will emerge in the media.” He encouraged alumni who experienced sexual misconduct while at Berklee, or knew of someone who had, to report it to the college.

Brown and his administration have been under fire since the Globe reported last week that at least three faculty members had been quietly let go after students accused them of assault or harassment.

Hundreds of students walked out of class on Monday and attended a forum, led by Brown, at which he acknowledged that the problem was greater still, involving at least 11 faculty members over the past 13 years.

As the scandal continues to unfold, Brown said Wednesday that the school will seek guidance from a nationally renowned consultant on federal sexual abuse and harassment laws to help Berklee figure out its next steps.

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In the interview, Brown declined to disclose the names of the 11 terminated faculty members — one of several demands made by students during Monday’s emotional forum — but acknowledged the three already identified by the Globe in last week’s article. He confirmed that Thomas was also among the 11.

“If we terminate someone and release their name, their impulse is to blame the person” who reported them, increasing the chances the student’s name would be revealed, Brown said.

“I don’t defend [Thomas’s] behavior, and I am not trying to say it was appropriate,” Brown said. “But the sanctions, as we went through this, seemed right at the time, and when we got enough evidence, we terminated.”

Thomas did not return phone calls seeking his comment.

“Do we publicly disclose, or do some release saying professor X was terminated on date Y for sexual misconduct?” Brown said.

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The Globe’s story last week noted that some cases of alleged sexual abuse at Berklee were quietly resolved with financial settlements that included confidentiality agreements, barring all sides from discussing the cases.

‘It is likely that more details of abuse will emerge.’

Brown said that in the cases of the 11 faculty members fired for sexual misconduct, none received more than the amount promised in their employment contracts, which often ran three or more years.

“In most cases they were paid less, or sometimes a lot less,” he said.

Brown declined to elaborate further on the financial settlements offered to the faculty’s victims.

At Berklee, men predominate in sheer numbers, accounting for 68 percent of students and faculty, according to the school. That imbalance was cited during the Monday forum by faculty and students as contributing to a culture that, they said, has long tolerated sexual misconduct.

For the Asian woman who stepped forward to report Thomas’s behavior, the anxiety was as much about her family as it was the overwhelming male presence on campus.

“My family was against me reporting him, because it’s really a cultural thing,” said the woman, who graduated in May and asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions. “They think I have no chance to win this because he is an old American teacher and I am no one, so he can take revenge.”

In a series of e-mails and Facebook postings to the woman, Thomas wrote of his longing to see her after she stopped taking his classes, and noted that he was searching for her at various local concerts. The woman shared those e-mails and Facebook postings with the Globe.

After the woman reported Thomas in the fall of 2015, the college issued a written warning to him, according to Berklee. He had already received a verbal warning about his behavior toward another women, the college says.

She said she became aware of at least two other Asian women who had fended off similar behavior from the piano teacher. She said that in the spring of 2016, she brought copies to Berklee officials of e-mails he sent to those women. But she said Berklee officials told her they could not take action unless those two other women, who were too fearful to speak out, agreed to step forward.

Then in July 2016, another Asian woman complained to Berklee about Thomas’s aggressive and increasingly strange behavior.

Finally, in November, he was fired, according to the termination letter. In all, Thomas was accused of inappropriate behavior toward six students over nearly 18 months, according to Brown. The president said the six included a woman who had reported Thomas to the school in early 2015.

That was six months before the Taiwanese woman defied her family’s wishes and spoke out.

Brown defended his administrators’ actions, saying the woman must have misunderstood what Berklee officials told her when she brought evidence of Thomas’s misconduct toward two more students in 2016.

“If the message was interpreted that we can’t do anything if they do not come forward, that’s not true,” Brown said.

“We said, can you encourage someone to come forward, but we can do investigations whether someone comes forward or not.”

Berklee enrolls students from 151 countries, according to Brown. After the Globe’s story last week, one faculty member said she had heard from nearly four dozen students about concerns for foreign students.

“My students are telling me the vast majority of students who are preyed upon [by faculty] are international students who are afraid of losing their scholarship and student visas” if they speak out, said the faculty member who asked that she not be identified for fear of professional reprisals. “I didn’t hear this from one student, I heard this over, and over, and over, again.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.