The Boston Conservatory at Berklee has cut ties with a high-profile professor, well known in the city’s contemporary classical music scene, amid allegations of abusive behavior and sexual improprieties.
Eric Alexander Hewitt — a saxophonist, conductor, and gatekeeper to coveted performance berths for young musicians — was placed on leave during a Globe investigation into alleged sexual mistreatment of women at the conservatory and beyond.
In addition to losing his position as an associate professor at the conservatory in late November, Hewitt had his contract working with the Boston College High School jazz band severed, and Phillips Exeter Academy placed him on leave from an adjunct teaching position, according to representatives of those institutions.
Boston Conservatory’s executive director, Cathy Young, said Hewitt had earlier tendered his resignation, effective at the end of the semester, but “based on information the conservatory received” the school placed him on leave Nov. 28.
“He will not be returning to the conservatory,” Young said in a statement.
Young declined to clarify the reason for Hewitt’s departure, noting only that he had been given a performance warning in October — before the Globe’s inquiries — “for his behavior and interaction with students in the classroom and in rehearsals.”
In multiple interviews, however, four former Boston Conservatory students described unwanted sexual advances by Hewitt — allegations that included bullying, lewd phone calls and text messages, propositions, and, in one incident, sexual assault.
The women, who ranged from 21 to 29 at the time of the alleged incidents, described a period dating to 2012 in which Hewitt used his considerable sway at the conservatory to run roughshod over young musicians just embarking on their careers.
The Globe confirmed their accounts with contemporaneous communications, medical records, and multiple interviews with friends, family, colleagues, and professors who learned of Hewitt’s behavior soon after it occurred.
The Globe has confirmed that at least two of the incidents shared by the women — including the alleged sexual assault — were reported to conservatory faculty soon after they occurred.
Young, who has worked at the school for seven years but only recently became director, said she was unaware of such allegations against Hewitt.
“I can state emphatically that during my tenure as both director and dean of the dance division I never heard anything about inappropriate behavior by Associate Professor Hewitt,” Young said in a statement.
Hewitt declined multiple interview requests.
He responded to an initial text message seeking comment about the alleged sexual assault and other incidents, saying he would call to discuss it that evening.
But Hewitt never called and did not respond to subsequent messages and texts. When reporters for the Globe later went to his house in Stoneham, no one answered the door.
After this story was posted online, the conservatory sent an e-mail to alumni, saying the article “raises new and additional concerns and allegations of which we were not previously aware.”
“We take these allegations seriously and are currently looking into this new information,” wrote Young.
“We also plan to hold a series of division meetings with students after the winter break to have an open dialogue about harassment, discrimination, and misconduct.”
An outcry at Berklee
The women’s accounts follow a series of Globe articles about a culture of blatant sexual harassment at Berklee College of Music, a nearby Fenway institution that merged with the conservatory last year.
An outcry from students after publication of those articles prompted Roger Brown, president of the combined schools, to host an extraordinary forum at Berklee’s famed concert hall on Nov. 13 to apologize and to pledge a more responsive and more transparent system for dealing with sexual misconduct.
Just hours after that meeting, the conservatory’s dean of music, Michael Shinn, sent an e-mail to students “regarding a particular faculty member’s recent behavior and alleged mistreatment of students.”
Although Shinn did not name the faculty member in question in the e-mail, Young confirmed it was sent in reference to Hewitt and his behavior in the classroom and rehearsals.
Hewitt, 38, was only two years removed from a master’s program when he was named chair of the conservatory’s woodwind department in 2005. He quickly expanded his realm of influence over the next decade, conducting the school’s wind ensemble, sinfonietta, and composer’s orchestra, and serving as artistic director for the school’s New Music Festival, an annual series of concerts that presents works by modern and contemporary composers.
Nevertheless, interviews with more than a dozen former and current students and faculty indicate there were persistent concerns about Hewitt’s volatile personality, along with whispered allegations of sexual improprieties.
Many of those interviewed for this story described it as “known” that Hewitt dated women he had taught, while hitting on others. Some students noted that he stared at their breasts. Others were put off as he compared music to sex, once urging musicians to “play from their gonads.”
Hewitt had a staggering command of the music. He was also passionate, routinely emerging drenched in sweat from performances and once playing so hard that he bloodied his saxophone’s reed.
“He was like, that’s how you know when someone’s really playing,” said one former student. “He was an intense guy. It makes you crave his approval because it’s so hard-won.”
But then, as if flipping off a light, Hewitt could turn wrathful, verbally upbraiding students when they made a mistake, warning that they’d have been fired from a professional orchestra.
These outbursts, coupled with Hewitt’s alleged sexual improprieties, caused some women to warn each other about him.
A proposition rebuffed
In the spring of 2013, soprano Aliana de la Guardia was at a party attended by Hewitt and his girlfriend. She recalled them chatting politely, as Hewitt told her that he was planning the conservatory’s upcoming New Music Festival and was considering her for a performance.
As they left the gathering, however, de la Guardia said, Hewitt propositioned her, asking her to come home with him and his girlfriend.
“I said, no — I’m married,” recalled the soprano, who recently wrote about the incident on Twitter. “Then he said: I don’t have to hire you.”
And after that, he never did.
“He sent me some weird texts apologizing — he said, ‘I was drunk,’ ” she recalled. “He really kind of severed ties with me. I never received another e-mail or text.”
That fall, a young foreign student encountered Hewitt during her freshman year at the conservatory. Although he was not her primary teacher, she participated in several Hewitt-led ensembles, in which she said he repeatedly singled her out for public censure.
Things began to shift, however, when she returned home that summer. Hewitt had previously friended her on Facebook, and she said she noticed he was going back through her timeline, “liking” photos as far back as 2007.
When she returned to Boston in the fall, she said, he wasn’t as abusive during rehearsals, instead asking for her personal e-mail address and phone number.
Then the calls began.
“The first time he called he asked if I’d read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ” said the woman. “It’s inappropriate to talk about with my teacher, but he said ‘I’m not just your teacher. We talk. We’re friends.’ I was like: No.”
For the next three months, she said, she continued to receive calls and texts from the professor late at night and early in the morning.
“He asked if I liked to be spanked or could take a beating, because that’s what turns him on,” said the woman.
“He really likes rough sex, and that my tits are amazing, and that’s why he really wanted to have sex with me. I just hung up.”
The woman said she was professionally concerned because of Hewitt’s position, but never felt physically threatened by Hewitt.
The advances continued through early 2015, when during a rehearsal Hewitt came up to her from behind, she said, and asked: “When are we going to go from ‘Hello, Mr. Hewitt’ to whiskey?”
Women recall a pattern
Diana Rodriguez, a composer who graduated from the conservatory in 2015, said she vividly remembers the foreign student telling her about Hewitt’s graphic messages. She said stories about Hewitt’s unwanted advances came up again during a recent gathering of female musicians who had attended the conservatory, with women relating accounts of being bullied or propositioned by him.
“It was a pattern,” Rodriguez said. “It really defines their career — with fear.”
The foreign student said that as she continued to rebuff his advances, Hewitt warned her about trying to report him, saying some of the school’s higher-ups were loyal to him and that she would only embarrass herself.
Ultimately, the student did try to say something to administrators, approaching Abra Bush, then director of the conservatory’s music division.
“I said there are things happening at the school that no one’s talking about,” recalled the student. “She said, ‘How about you focus on your studies, because you’re not doing as well as last semester.’ ”
The student did not disclose her experiences with Hewitt to Bush at the meeting.
Another student, however, did bring her concerns about Hewitt to Bush. The woman, a graduate student, said that when she ignored Hewitt’s repeated suggestions that they go out for coffee, it severely affected her placement in student ensembles.
The woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of professional repercussions, said she reported her experiences to Bush in early 2015. She said she clearly recalls Bush telling her: “He does that type of thing.”
Bush, now a senior associate dean of institute studies at the Johns Hopkins University Peabody Institute, said in a statement: “At no time were there any allegations around any improper sexual contact or assault of which I was made aware by any student at the conservatory.”
Bush added that before she left the conservatory last year, she reprimanded Hewitt for conduct that she declined to detail — creating a written record of the concerns and alerting the conservatory’s leadership.
A colleague complains
Curtis Hughes, an associate professor of composition at the conservatory, recently complained about Hewitt to the school’s dean of music. Hughes, who has known Hewitt for nearly 20 years and considered him a friend, said he first became concerned about two years ago, after hearing rumored allegations against his colleague.
“I got into the habit of warning my female students in a low-key way to be wary of him,” Hughes said. “I felt strange, because I felt that was saying too much and not saying enough.”
Those allegations concerned a young member of the wind ensemble who studied under Hewitt between 2009 and 2011.
During that time, the woman described Hewitt as a mentor and advocate. She said she’d heard stories of his lecherous behavior, but “laughed it off,” adding that Hewitt never hit on her while she was a student at the conservatory.
“I looked up to him,” she said, adding that Hewitt helped her secure a small scholarship when she could no longer afford the tuition. “People thought he was a rock star.”
The student transferred after her sophomore year after receiving a better offer from another school. And she was gratified when, on a visit to Boston in the summer of 2012, her former mentor asked if she’d like to go to dinner to catch up.
“I was getting much more into composing,” said the woman. “I was really excited to speak to him about that.”
The student, then 21, told Hewitt of her newfound passion for composition during dinner. She said Hewitt seemed enthusiastic and suggested they return to his apartment to hear some of her work.
Getting into his car, however, he surprised her with a flask.
“It was weird,” she said. “I had him on such a high pedestal, and then he pulled out the flask.”
She said Hewitt offered her another drink at his apartment, after which she began to feel woozy — sensing she may be in danger as her consciousness faltered.
“He took out my earrings,” the music student texted her boyfriend at 10:22 p.m. “I’m going to be fine I know how to get out of this.”
A few seconds later, she sent another cry for help.
“Okay I can’t stall anymore,” she wrote. “I have to find a way out. Find freak out. Promise. I can dotvhs”
The next thing the woman remembers, she was in Hewitt’s bed and he was having sex with her.
“I remember crying and saying I didn’t want to do this and asking him to stop,” she said.
She next remembers waking up in his bed the following morning, totally naked.
“He got on top of me and had sex with me again. I was having a total out-of-body experience, just waiting for it to be over.”
Medical records provided to the Globe indicate that the woman visited a nearby New England hospital that day, where nurses administered a Sexual Assault Nurse Examination kit.
“[Hewitt] texted me at first to say that he had an awesome time,” said the woman, who added that she was afraid and responded cordially to Hewitt’s messages.
No report to the police
The woman never reported the alleged assault to police.
Her boyfriend at the time confirmed to the Globe that she had told him immediately about the alleged assault.
Over the next month, she also began telling her close friends, as well as a professor at the conservatory, Rudolf Rojahn.
“It sounded very credible to me,” said Rojahn, who is no longer at the conservatory.
Rojahn said that he approached Karl Paulnack, who then directed the conservatory’s music division, telling him about the alleged incident. But Rojahn said that at the woman’s request, he did not identify the accuser or Hewitt to Paulnack.
“[He] said that since there was no police report there wasn’t anything they could do,” Rojahn said.
“I didn’t name the alleged perpetrator. There was nothing the administrator could do, so the matter was dropped.”
Paulnack, who now serves as dean of the School of Music at Ithaca College, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The woman said that she has tried to move on since the alleged assault, a process that has meant relinquishing her musical career.
“I’d learned so much from [Hewitt.] I felt like there was too much of him in my music,” she said, adding that she hasn’t played her instrument in years.
“The part of me that was a musician and loved music: It killed part of that.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.