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.