A Canceled Music Theorist Fights Back

David Randall

Last September, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) published an account of how a large number of faculty and graduate students initiated a social media campaign against Professor Timothy Jackson of the University of North Texas (UNT), demanding sanctions against him up to and including that he be removed from his tenured position at UNT. The participants in this campaign included music theorists nationwide, as well as faculty and graduate students at UNT. His colleagues’ grievances were based on his defense of the music theorist Heinrich Schenker, and by extension modern music theory as a whole, from the spurious charge of “systemic racism.” They sought to punish Jackson harshly for exercising his right to free speech on an academic subject matter within his professional competence—and they sought to punish him for saying what any fair-minded, amateur observer would take to be the common-sense truth.

NAS stated in September that the University of North Texas should not only defend Jackson’s right to speak freely on any matter of scholarly or public importance but should also vindicate his professional character and explicitly reject the aspersions cast upon it. NAS President Peter Wood wrote to three separate officials at UNT, urging them to cease their “investigation” of Jackson and to publicly vindicate his professional and personal character.

Unfortunately, UNT instead has decided to endorse the persecution of Jackson. An academic committee stated that Jackson had failed to act according to best professional practices in his editorial role at TheJournal of Schenkerian Studies. They require him to cease his affiliation with the Journal, with the likely consequence that the Journal will cease publication. Jackson has now initiated a lawsuit against the University of North Texas, to seek redress for the harm done to him. (See also FIRE’s account of Jackson’s lawsuit.)

Jackson’s lawsuit, as a lawsuit should, addresses at length very complicated matters of fact. These are the essentials:

  1. The UNT investigatory committee ignored or contradicted established matters of fact; e.g., it asserted that the Journal failed to give Philip Ewell (the subject of the symposium) a chance to take part in the symposium.
  2. The UNT investigatory committee held Jackson responsible for supposed derelictions of duty by his colleagues, which (if true) he never knew, and about which he could not reasonably be expected to know.
  3. The UNT investigatory committee had decided, retroactively and arbitrarily, to hold the Journal to professional standards associated with science journals in disciplines that receive substantial federal funding, and which the university had never before required of a journal of music theory.
  4. UNT has selectively applied federal privacy laws to release documents to bolster the case against Jackson, but then withheld and forbade Jackson permission to publish exculpatory evidence.
  5. UNT’s action to investigate Jackson, scapegoat him, and force him to cease his association with the Journal, is obviously pretextual, as UNT seeks a formal justification to punish him for daring to publish a repudiation of “systemic racism.”

Jackson’s lawsuit makes UNT’s misconduct plain; certainly the submitted documents clearly demonstrate that the UNT investigatory committee failed to give proper heed to established facts.

Jackson’s lawsuit also makes clear the damage that radical social media campaigns have done to higher education—and, more generally, to America. The anti-Jackson social media campaign elicited under duress a ritual denunciation from Jackson’s graduate student, the editor of the Journal; the student, with a new family, was required to denounce his mentor so as to save his professional career. The mob elicited further ritual denunciations of Jackson from music theorists throughout the country. This pressure caused professors of music at UNT to denounce editorial practices for which they themselves shared responsibility. The radical social media campaign has coerced an astonishing number of academics to fall in line with the persecution of Jackson. The complicit are ultimately responsible for their own compromises. But the academic social media campaign, which requires Sophie’s Choice, is more to blame than Sophie.

Jackson’s lawsuit also illustrates the damage that Critical Race Theory (CRT)—the intellectual background for radical academic social media campaigns—has done to scholarship. CRT seeks and succeeds in annihilating scholarship that analyzes the actual substance of any domain of inquiry. In this case, CRT scholars seek to replace actual Schenkerian musical analysis with ritual condemnations of that analysis. Western music theory is taken to be prima facie invalid on the grounds that Schenker allegedly said something unpleasant about blacks in the course of his lifetime. The very premise must be rejected if scholarship is to survive. Should Martin Luther King’s teachings be suppressed or rejected if it is found that he led a less-than-spotless personal life? The blemishes in his personal life would not make his ideas any less powerful. Similarly, whatever Schenker’s personal flaws, they make Schenkerian musical analysis no less true, and impose no requirement to apologize for its use to analyze music. It is secondary, if also essential, that CRT requires slanderous distortions of the historical record to make its case—eliding the complications of Schenker’s actual beliefs and engaging in the paranoid fantasy that Schenkerian music theorists somehow engaged in racist discrimination.

And CRT is slanderous, period. Jackson’s lawsuit charges many, many people with accusing him of “racism,” which is actionable in the state of Texas. Their best defense would be that they are merely echoing the CRT charge of “systemic racism”—but that would be an explanation, not an excuse. Every American who uses CRT vocabulary engages in slander of millions of Americans—and when they use CRT language against any individual, they render themselves liable to legal redress against slander. We may hope that America’s courts someday will render a sufficient number of judgments in favor of those slanderously accused of racism that the tide toward CRT thought will recede from academia, and the nation.

In the interim, we urge all Americans to contact the University of North Texas, to urge them to rescind their decision against Jackson, and to compensate him for the suffering their unjust actions have inflicted upon him. We also urge citizens of Texas to contact any federal or state representative—and especially Governor Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, and Senator John Cornyn—to ask them to speak up for Professor Jackson.


David Randall is director of research at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Marius Masalar, Public Domain

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