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Allegations of systemic racism roil Boston Conservatory

The Berklee College of Music campus in Boston. The Boston Conservatory is associated with the school.
The Berklee College of Music campus in Boston. The Boston Conservatory is associated with the school.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Students and alumni of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee are calling out what they say is a longstanding culture of systemic racism at the school, and a white professor has resigned amid allegations that he mocked Black students and used racial slurs in the classroom for years.

Much of the anger directed at the Fenway school relates to Christopher Caggiano, an associate professor who taught musical theater history there for 16 years. A change.org petition calling for his ouster that has been signed by nearly 2,000 people, including students, alumni, and parents said “year after year, Chris Caggiano runs a racist classroom.”

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In interviews with a dozen students and alumni of color who have studied musical theater at the conservatory, Caggiano’s name surfaced every time.

“His insensitivity regarding racial things is just uncalled for,” said Stephanie Umoh, who described herself as “half black, half white,” and graduated in 2008. That year she was the subject of a Globe article in which she talked about the difficulties of being a Black student at the conservatory. Afterward, she said, a teacher reprimanded her for airing the criticisms.

Umoh was part of a group of about 45 Black students and alumni who came together in early June to share their experiences about discrimination at the school and to push for change. They compiled a document that contains allegations of offensive conduct by Caggiano that include “publicly castigating” the academic performances of Black students and “doing a mocking ‘jig-dance’ next to the screen while a black face video played.”

Caggiano’s last day was June 12, he told the Globe. In a phone interview, Caggiano read a prepared statement:

“I deeply regret any discomfort or pain my students experienced in my classes. I am honored to have watched them thrive over the past 16 years,” he said. “My big mistake was assuming that just because I hold liberal views that I could automatically call myself an ally. Now I know that is a distinction that you need to earn.”

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Caggiano went on to say the school recently presented him with a database of students’ complaints over the years.

“I didn’t want to nitpick and say ‘this is a mistake,’ or ‘that’s not true.’ I took a step back and said the most important thing is that I seem to have lost the confidence of the student body and it doesn’t really matter which things are true and which aren’t true. What matters is my effectiveness as a teacher has been seriously compromised.”

He added: “I feel very humbled and embarrassed that I didn’t see the signs sooner. I am a good person and I made mistakes. If anything, I made mistakes out of trying to make the class more enjoyable and more lively. But the classroom is not a comedy club.”

Stories of Caggiano’s gratuitous use of the “n-word” in class go back more than a decade, alumni say. In 2016 Kenesha Reed was in her first semester of graduate school when, in a musical history class, she said, Caggiano referred to theater balconies during segregated times as “(n-word) heaven.”

“I was just stunned and floored. It hit me in the chest,” Reed said in an interview. She and two other students e-mailed Caggiano afterward and told him “it felt like a verbal assault and left us feeling disconcerted, uncomfortable, and disrespected.”

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Reed said they also complained in an e-mail to the chairperson of the theater division at that time, who had been sitting in on the class. Neither responded, she said. The chairperson is no longer at the school.

In 2017, Reed filed a formal complaint with the Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Berklee that led to a meeting with the human resources department. In November of that year, Caggiano was reprimanded in a letter from human resources, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe.

“It has been alleged that you have repeatedly used racially insensitive language in your classroom after being counseled a number of times on inappropriate classroom behavior over the years, and most recently in the Spring/2017 by your chair and your dean,” the letter said. “Please note that such conduct is not appropriate or acceptable in Berklee’s community overall.”

Yet students say his offensive behavior didn’t stop. “He joked about not being able to say the word anymore,” said Dwayne Mitchell, who graduated in May.

A catalyst for the anger roiling the top performing-arts college was a May 31 Facebook post by executive director Cathy Young, following the killings of George Floyd and others across the country. The post decried racism in general terms and articulated the school’s values which include: “We do not tolerate racism.”

Young’s post did not specifically address racism within the conservatory, which was a separate school until it merged with the Berklee College of Music in 2016. That prompted an outpouring from students and alumni on social media accusing the conservatory of hypocrisy and enumerating dozens of examples of bias, discrimination, insensitivity, and harassment.

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They described the difficulty that people of color have in landing roles in productions, especially lead roles, and of routinely being cast in such demeaning roles as prostitutes and slaves. They also cited a lack of diversity among the school’s leadership and faculty.

Many spoke of feeling marginalized or “less than.”

“It’s one thing to acknowledge the racism around our country, but how about inside your own institution?” said Emily Whitlow, who graduated in 2019, in her response to Young’s post.

Javier Cabrera, who studied musical theater and graduated in 2017, said in another post that he witnessed a student production of “In the Heights,” which is set in a Hispanic-American community of New York, “where the leads were white and the Latinx students were ensemble and nobody cared.”

Lori Tishfield, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in musical theater, said that in one of her liberal arts classes a teacher posed the question: “Which nationality had the hardest time upon entering America?”

The answer was the Irish, “because the Irish faced a lot of discrimination and couldn’t get jobs,” Tishfield recalled in an interview. She describes herself as half white and half Black, but identifies as Black.

“That is so not OK,” she said. “There is no way that the Irish had it harder than Africans who were brought here as slaves and still face discrimination and oppression today.”

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Young, who took over as the conservatory’s executive director in 2017, issued a statement to the Globe last week apologizing to “any community member — students, faculty, or staff — who has ever been marginalized or subjected to racism at our school. The current conservatory leadership is united in our commitment that any form of racism, bigotry, or hate will not be tolerated,” she said.

Young also addressed racism at the institution in a June 5 letter to the conservatory community posted on the school’s Facebook page.

“Our immediate priority is to repair the bridge between our core values and what our students of color are experiencing on campus,” she wrote. “If you have felt unsafe, unsupported, stereotyped, or tokenized because of the color of your skin, then Boston Conservatory has failed you in the most fundamental way.

“As part of our general disciplinary process, we act on the information we receive and take appropriate measures,” the statement said. “Those may include but are not limited to” training, written warning, final written warning, and termination.”

In her June 5 Facebook post, Young pledged to make systemic changes at Boston Conservatory, including mandating diversity, antiracism, and anti-bias training for students, faculty and staff; hiring more Black faculty; diversify the school’s performance programming; and ensuring that Black artists and underrepresented voices are “elevated and celebrated.”

In her statement to the Globe, Young said she could not provide details about Caggiano’s case and did not answer a query about why it took so long for him to leave the school.

Umoh, the 2008 graduate, called Caggiano’s resignation and the school’s apology “a step forward.” Students, she said, ”have to feel like they’re in a safe space to create art. And the school has to take students’ complaints seriously.”

Linda Matchan can be reached at lindamatchan@gmail.com.