UNT professor sues after controversial article results in his removal as journal head

Amid an ongoing debate on race in the music theory field, a University of North Texas (UNT) professor filed a lawsuit against the school in federal court, asserting that the university administration had violated his Free Speech rights and was trying to censor his academic work by moving to remove him as editor of an academic journal. 

Key Players

Timothy Jackson is a professor of music theory at UNT. He is the founder and director of the school’s Center for Schenkerian Studies and the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, which is published by the UNT press. In 2019, he wrote an article defending Heinrich Schenker, a music theorist from the early 20th century who has been accused of promoting white supremacy. 

Philip Ewell is a professor of music theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Ewell, who is Black, has been outspoken about the need to confront systemic racism in the music theory discipline. He argued that this includes explicitly acknowledging the racist views of major historical players in the field, especially Schenker. 

Further Details

Schenkerian music theory, named after Heinrich Schenker, is one of the most widely taught viewpoints in music theory in American higher education, according to SUM, a publication curated at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.

In an address to the Society for Music Theory in November 2019, Ewell argued that Schenker’s white supremacy played an important role in his music theory and that continued teaching of his theory without acknowledging its allegedly racist aspects was contributing to the “white racial frame” present in the field, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Specifically, Ewell asserted that Schenker believed Black people were unable to self-govern, scorned their musical contributions, and condemned biracial marriages. He also said Schenker referred to nonwhite people as “primitive” and “animals,” according to SUM. Ewell said that addressing this framing of music theory was crucial to add more diverse voices to the field; the membership of the Society of Music Theory is currently only 1% Black, SUM reported. 

Afterward, several responses were written by different music theorists in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, including one by Jackson, who accused Ewell of “scapegoating,” adding Ewell’s criticism of Schenker “occurs in a much larger context of Black-on-Jew attacks in the U.S.,” the Dallas Observer reported.

Jackson’s article delved into a larger commentary on Black culture and values, claiming that Ewell was “uninterested in bringing Blacks up to ‘standard’ so they can compete. On the contrary he [was] claiming that those very standards themselves are racist,” Inside Higher Ed reported.  Additionally, Jackson also argued the “paucity of African-American women and men in the field of music theory is that few grow up in homes where classic music is profoundly valued.”

Jackson’s rebuttal was met with intense backlash, with some people calling him a racist, the Observer reported. Many demanded that UNT fire Jackson and dissolve the Journal of Schenkerian Studies.

“Academics … have a responsibility to exercise their academic free speech,” Jackson said, defending his piece. “And when they think that the ball is out, they have to say so. Even if people — and lots of people — don’t agree with them.”


Jackson removed as journal head

A group of UNT music theory graduate students petitioned John Richmond, the dean of the College of Music, saying they “stand in solidarity with Dr. Phillip Ewell in his goals to address systemic racism in and beyond the field of music theory.”

According to the Denton Record-Chronicle, the graduate students condemned Jackson as racist on Twitter and criticized his editorial leadership. As a result, UNT removed Jackson as journal head, and an ad hoc review committee was created to investigate the journal and whether Jackson’s response was racist.

Jackson sues UNT

Jackson partnered with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an advocacy organization, to file a lawsuit against the university, accusing it of infringing on his right to Free Speech. Despite the lawsuit, many members of the UNT faculty and the graduate student body supported punitive actions against Jackson, according to the Observer. 

Jackson’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, rested on two central accusations, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The first targeted faculty members and graduate students for defamation, in response to their having publicly labeled Jackson a racist. The second accused UNT of infringing on Jackson’s Free Speech rights by trying to remove him from his position at the Journal of Schenkerian Studies and enforce changes to its editorial process.

FIRE initially supported Jackson on both of these fronts, but it has since criticized the inclusion of defamation suits, saying that the comments Jackson has taken issue with are “protected expression of opinion,” according to Inside Higher Ed. 

Federal Judge denies UNT’s motion to dismiss, giving green light for suit

One year later, on Jan. 18, 2022, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant for the Eastern District of Texas, nominated in 2014 by former President Barack Obama, denied UNT’s motion to dismiss, giving Jackson the ability to press forward with the suit.

According to the Denton Record-Chronicle, Jackson said students and colleagues treated him as “a pariah.”

“I lost all of my music theory doctoral students but one,” he said. “My center and the journal remain in limbo. Until the truth for which I stand has been acknowledged, I don’t see how the lingering damage to my career can be repaired.”

As of March 16, 2022, there were no further developments.