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Harvard President to NEC: reinstate Benjamin Zander

Two hours ago, a letter was delivered to Stephen Friedlaender, Chair of Board of Trustees, New England Conservatory of Music, and its president, Tony Woodcock, with copies to the rest of the board.

It called for a review of the dismissal of Benjamin Zander, which it declared was ‘seriously flawed’ and ‘disproportionate’ to any alleged offence. The letter was signed by the former president of Harvard, Neil Rudenstine. Professor Rudenstine does not sign petitions. His opinion carries weight.

Before I go any further, I should make clear (as he does) that Professor Rudenstine is a brother-in-law of Benjamin Zander’s. The letter is co-signed by Professor Michael Zander, a distinguished legal academic in England. He is Ben Zander’s brother.

The letter lays out the full catalogue of events that led to the conductor’s dismissal and calls for a review by the board. Some of the events are truly shocking. Here, first, is a summary of the letter. The full letter will follow later:

Call to Reinstate Ben Zander – a new development

 

Ben Zander’s dismissal from the New England Conservatory of Music was seriously flawed by lack of due process and was disproportionate to his offence, argue his brother-in-law, Neil L. Rudenstine, former President of Harvard University and Ben Zander’s brother, English legal academic, Professor Michael Zander.

In a closely argued, 5,000 word letter to the Conservatory’s Board of Trustees, dated February 21,  2012, prepared without Ben Zander’s participation in either the inception or the writing, they say that while it is generally unwise for family members to become involved in such issues, “we strongly believe that justice in this case has not been done and are therefore taking the unusual step of writing this letter.”

Ben Zander was dismissed for having, without permission from the Conservatory, hired the videographer Peter Benjamin, who had been convicted 20 years ago for serious sex offences involving young people.

After serving a prison term and completing his probation, Mr. Benjamin was given permission to resume his profession, specifically including filming at the New England Conservatory.

Since his release from prison in 1998, there have been no known complaints regarding Mr. Benjamin’s conduct.  Zander used Mr. Benjamin from time to time to film group rehearsals and concerts of students at the Conservatory and its Prep School.  In January 2012, Zander acknowledged that the decision to employ Mr. Benjamin, and that it was safe to do so, was not his to make.  He publicly apologized for the upset and anguish his actions had caused.

The February 21 letter to the Board of Trustees says of Ben Zander’s dismissal, “if the matter had been handled with more deliberation and concern for due process, the outcome would have been different.”

Summary of major points:

 

  • Zander was neither the first nor the only person to hire Mr. Benjamin at the Conservatory, nor was he the only Conservatory member to have known about Mr. Benjamin’s previous conviction.

 

  • Zander was singled out for investigation by the Conservatory’s Administration several weeks before his dismissal, but was never told that an investigation was underway.

 

  • The investigation involved — among other steps – a lengthy telephone call from NEC lawyers, seeking evidence from Zander without notice that he was under investigation.  This was tantamount to the taking of a deposition without notice,  akin to entrapment.

 

  • President Woodcock  called an emergency meeting of the NEC Board of Trustees with only one day’s notice at which he recommended Zander’s dismissal from his position as Faculty Member and Conductor of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (YPO), which recommendation was unanimously accepted.

 

  • The decision to dismiss took place before Zander had been informed that such a step was even under consideration.  He was, in effect, found guilty but covertly and in absentia – with no opportunity to put his case.

 

  • Following the Trustee meeting Zander was called to a meeting with President Woodcock without notice of the reason.  He was informed in a ten minute meeting that he had the choice of immediate resignation or summary dismissal, and was told that he had four hours to make the choice.  Leaving the building without having made his decision would be treated as dismissal

 

  •  No specific charge or grounds were stated in the letter of dismissal.

 

  • There was no opportunity to reply or to seek legal or other advice.

 

  • In recommending Zander’s immediate dismissal directly to the Board of Trustees, President Woodcock de facto circumvented Zander’s right of appeal to a committee of five faculty members, a right stipulated in the Conservatory’s published procedures.  President Woodcock’s actions deprived Zander of any legitimate recourse.

 

Zander decided not to resign.

 

Ben Zander had been a faculty member for 44 years. In 2009 the New England Conservatory  awarded him an Honorary Degree.

 

The February 21 letter states that its purpose is to ask the Board of Trustees to reconsider Ben Zander’s dismissal “in light of all the now known relevant facts, and of the time for further reflection allowed by the passage of some weeks.”

 

“Dismissal was the most severe of the possible sanctions available. Did the Board of Trustees give any (or sufficient) weight to Zander’s outstanding record, especially with students, over decades at the Conservatory? Did the Board seriously consider other possible sanctions?”

 

The NEC had explained to students that Ben Zander was dismissed in order “to create the safest possible learning environment for you and the rest of the NEC community.”  The February 21 letter states:  “We suggest that the Administration’s attempt to justify Ben Zander’s dismissal as a move ‘to create a safer environment for students’ is risible, and insulting to the intelligence of the students to whom it was addressed.”

 

Ben Zander had failed to get informed permission to use Mr Benjamin as a videographer. So far as was known, no harm to anyone had resulted from that failure.

 

“Did that justify his instant dismissal? Did it justify the orchestration of a covert legal investigation; carefully prepared letters to 6,500 families; equally well-prepared letters for Zander to sign regarding his resignation or dismissal; an official press statement ready for immediate release; and an emergency Board of Trustees meeting during which Zander’s dismissal was approved  –  all before he had any knowledge of these proceedings, or any opportunity to obtain advice, and when he was de facto denied his stipulated right of appeal as a faculty member? Above all, was his dismissal proportionate to the offence?”

 

 

Neil L. Rudenstine was President of Harvard University from 1991 to 2001.

 

Michael Zander QC is Professor Emeritus of Law, London School of Economics & Political Science.

(mandbzander@btinternet.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Ex-Bostonite says:

    Not a way to treat anyone, whatever you think of them.

  2. Blair Tindall says:

    For God’s sake, Norman, what exactly is your relationship with Mssrs Zander and Benjamin?

    Mr. Zander testified at an adult sex offender’s trial as a character witness. He claims not to have known of the offenses, so why was he qualified to testify? One of the offenses, excuse me, 11 of the offenses included Mr. Benjamin videotaping naked male minors, or himself engaged in acts with such. And then, Zander hired this person to *videotape* minors, and the videographer was a former opera singer who well knew into which he was now mired. Frankly, Ben Zander was an absolute jerk to me when I met him in California. Of course at the time he thought I was just a rank and file orchestra musician, so who would guess I would ever become a writer?

    How many parents are happy to hear about this? Ben Zander is such a genius that he can engage a pedophile to videotape their minor children? Really? There’s no one else in town who can do this who hasn’t been convicted of sex crimes?

    I don’t doubt that Mr. Benjamin is an intelligent and apt person. But this is clearly not an appropriate career choice for him. Nor was it a bright decision for Mr. Zander to hire him, and one really does have to question BZ’s motives. Yes, Mr. Benjamin deserves a chance at a second career, just not this one. Definitely not this one. As someone who lived through it for 14 years, it’s hell on earth. And Mr. Zander showed extreme disrespect to these children and their families by hiring him. Perhaps BZ can relocate and start a new orchestra, with a new pedophile to videotape these kids.

    It’s time to end the Boston Brahmin silliness.

    • Blair: I really shouldn’t reply to anything that you write. It appears that over the years you’ve descended from the sharp, witty writer of “Mozart in the Jungle” to someone who seems to always shriek because they’ve forgotten how to talk. Did you read Rudenstine’s letter?? :
      (1) Peter Benjamin was explicitly given permission to re-assume his profession as photographer of cultural events
      (2) This permission was extended to the New England Conservatory
      (3)It was understood that, whenever he photographed children, there must be a responsible adult with him at all times. This condition was never violated
      (4) Over more than 10 years Benjamin has shown that he could be, and was, rehabilitated.
      I fail to see, given these circumstances, any threat that he posed to the students at the NEC. And, certainly, it escapes me how Zander could have posed any threat to their health and safety.
      I expect another one of your torrid screaming outbursts, so I’m prepared for the “rebuttal”

      • Susan Byers Paxson says:

        From the tone of her remarks, it would appear that Blair Tindall does not believe in the concept of actual rehabilitation, only in punishment, and lots of it. (Ducking now.)

    • But what we really want to know – what was it like being married to Bill Nye the Science Guy?

  3. There has been so much muddying of the waters that it is almost impossible to keep straight the relevant information. There are many concurrent stories going on here, such as a possible personal vendetta against Mr. Zander by Mr. Woodcock, Zander’s valuable contribution to the institution over many decades, and the question of a rehabilitated sex offender’s place in society. The threads of all these stories seem to overlap and influence each other and blend into a complex drama. However I think that it is important to start from the beginning and boil this case down to the relevant details.

    To do this we must do two things

    (1) Identify what (if any) offense took place.
    (2) Determine if NEC’s punishment was judicious.

    We know what offense took place, and the Harvard letter sums it up well:

    “Zander’s offense was that he had retained a freelance videographer to work in proximity to young people and children, without having obtained the informed permission of the Conservatory.” That “informed” part referring to, of course, Mr. Benjamin’s brutal crimes against children.

    The only thing to determine is whether NEC’s response of firing him was judicious. To me there is only one thing which would make the firing of Zander unjust: whether or not there were other NEC staff/faculty who were guilty of the same offense and were treated differently than Zander.

    So let’s see if we can determine that.

    It has been established that at NEC there were multiple staff/faculty who:
    (1) Knew about Mr. Benjamin’s conviction as a child rapist / pornographer
    It has also been established that there were multiple staff/faculty at NEC who:
    (2) Hired Mr. Benjamin as a videographer.

    It seems that Zander is the only person who falls into both categories. As such it is appropriate that he should be dismissed. If it is known that there are other staff/faculty members who fall into both categories who were not punished identically to Mr. Zander, then yes, NEC has committed an injustice and is in deep, deep sh*t. Thus it is crucial to know if there were other people who fall into both categories – this is still unclear.

    —–
    Summary:

    There are many other misdoings which merit scrutiny: the denial of due process to Mr. Zander under NEC’s internal laws, the handling of the firing in general, the baffling conflicting information NEC released, etc. All these are of course important, but I think for now we must stick to the main offense which took place, and sort out all the other misdeeds separately.

    I have no connection to this controversy other than being a musician. Please feel free to critique my post / handling of the facts.

    • NEC Student says:

      I do appreciate your maturity in the comment, however, you are misinformed. There is a personal vendetta against Zander by Woodcock. That’s been known since last summer.

      Also, I have seen videos in the NEC library of Opras (Hansel and Gretel with middle schoolers), that are filmed by Peter Benjamin in Jordan Hall before the hiring by Benjamin Zander.

      I’m sorry, but you are misinformed, and those complex stories that you condemn to be false, are in fact true.

  4. NEC Student says:

    Honestly Blair, I’ve concluded over the past couple weeks that you are truly an ignorant obtuse person. You only ever see a situation as black and white. There are spots of gray everywhere, especially in a situation like this one. I am a YPO member, and never did I once see this man Mr. Benjamin. I believe he only on concert nights. In fact, I believe that a truly remorseful man is the safest man in the world. I would feel totally comfortable even going to this man’s house alone. HE IS NOT A MONSTER, he is a human being, just like all of us… Honestly Blair, grow up!

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