Afraid to speak up: Culture of silence surrounded UT music professor’s conduct for years

Chase Karacostas

The allegations of sexual misconduct by composition professor Dan Welcher detailed in an article by VAN Magazine earlier this semester were shocking to some in the Butler School of Music. But for others in the school, it wasn’t. They felt they had to endure a culture of fear and harassment for years during their time at the University.

“There's a part where Brandon Rumsey (the main subject of the VAN article) is talking about how new students would be inculcated into this atmosphere, kind of surreptitiously warned by saying, ‘You know, Dan is a divisive figure,’” said a former graduate student who requested anonymity. “Even after Brandon was no longer there, we still did that. We still would say, ‘Dan is polarizing’ or even, ‘I try to avoid Dan.’ I remember telling people that just as a way of telling them … how to essentially survive.”

College of Fine Arts dean Doug Dempster barred Welcher from contact with students the same day VAN’s article was published, to ensure their safety while the University investigated the allegations, which ranged from repeated sexual comments to inappropriate sexual contact with students.

The Daily Texan spoke to 10 current and former undergraduate and graduate music students, as well as a former music professor, about Welcher’s time at the University. 

The allegations made by these students did not reach the same magnitude as those detailed in the VAN article, but through these conversations, the Texan found an environment surrounding Welcher where students would give vague warnings to one another about how to survive classes or time with him while remaining too afraid to speak up and report behavior they found inappropriate. Behavior that once included suggesting to a student that she “would look good nude at Hippie Hollow” – the nude beach in Northwest Austin, one current graduate student said.

Even with major allegations against Welcher now public, the students the Texan spoke to requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. They attended the University during a range of years from 2012 to the present. 

Some of the students said they kept quiet about the extent of how uncomfortable they were around Welcher, wondering if they were overthinking his comments or making a big deal out of inappropriate comments others weren’t bothered by. Many of them are talking to each other about it all now, but before the VAN article, some said they just tried to ignore — and forget — about his conduct. 

“My motivation for not speaking out was less about repercussions and more just about like trying to ignore it and get out of this situation as quickly as possible, which, now I see I really should have reported it back then,” one former graduate student said.

The Texan reached out to Welcher prior to the publication of this article and was contacted by his lawyer, Joe Crews, who said in an email that Welcher would not be providing a comment. 

Fear of retribution

Part of the fear of academic or professional retaliation stems from how tight-knit the music industry and the music school itself are. 

For the last seven years, the school has had an average of 320 undergraduates and 300 graduate students at any given time.The composition major alone comprises just seven undergraduates and 26 graduate students, on average. And Welcher served as one of just four full-time composition faculty in the Butler School of Music alongside additional, part-time and visiting adjunct faculty. 

Each year, he typically taught private lessons to five to six, primarily graduate students, said Shilpa Bakre, University communications strategist. He advised graduate students, which entailed mentoring them through their “degree program and final thesis or performance project,” and served as the director of the New Music Ensemble. 

Welcher’s 50-year career in the music industry — and seemingly endless list of connections to it — made students also worry that they will be alienated, unable to find a job, if they said anything or cut out of career-making opportunities while at UT. 

Prior to being barred from contact with students, Welcher was not at the University this semester and was not teaching any classes. UT first hired him in 1978. 

Undergraduate and graduate students alike said that after committing to UT, they heard that while Welcher was one of the most talented composers in the country, it would be best not to find yourself alone with him. 

“I went and openly warned people about that just to be cautious and know how to protect yourself if you need to,” a former graduate student said, adding that she had no heads up about him prior to coming to the University. “Which, of course, you shouldn't have to do that. That's not great. But at the time, that's what we as women had to do for each other.”

Butler School of Music director Mary Ellen Poole previously announced on Sept. 30, four days after the VAN article published, that she would request a University investigation into Welcher's conduct. 

“The safety of students is always the University’s top priority,” Bakre said in an email. 

The Texan contacted the sources mentioned in the VAN article but was unable to speak with them or confirm specific allegations. 

Bakre said in the email there is no time limit for filing a complaint and that “anyone can come forward.” 

“To protect the integrity of the investigative process, the University does not acknowledge or discuss ongoing investigations,” Bakre said in an email. She also said later that, “If new allegations come to light, they are thoroughly investigated by University offices.”

Welcher has not been fired by the University nor has he resigned. He is currently on a one-year phased retirement with the University, which entails 50% time until the end of next spring. In an email to faculty, he said he would step aside in order to avoid causing “any further unpleasantness” for the Butler School of Music. 

Years of rumors

One graduate student said there were always rumors about random inappropriate comments Welcher would make.

However, she said she didn’t truly understand that the rumors might represent a more concrete, widespread behavior.

“I really am grappling with the fact that it was so prevalent and yet none of us said anything,” she said. “That is what's really, really painful for me right now. And I'm just trying to understand. I mean everybody who would say things like that would have a different experience with him, so because it wasn't so universal, it made it easier to ignore.”

But for her, it wasn’t just rumors. One night, after she performed a dance routine that Welcher attended, he told her in front of a group of people that he “thought it was hot.”

“When these things happened at the time, we were all just kind of like, ‘Oh, it's kind of creepy,’ but we didn't want to say anything,” she said. “We would rather just move on and ignore it.’”

Eight other current and former students also said they heard Welcher make sexist comments, including making inappropriate comments about women’s bodies.

At a forum in the Butler School of Music on Sept. 30, just four days after the VAN Magazine article was published, students came forward to share stories about how Welcher had made them feel uncomfortable, expressing similar allegations to what was told to the Texan.

Students said discussions about reporting Welcher often included mentions of a Chronicle of Higher Education article published 17 years ago detailing sexual misconduct allegations by Welcher. A University investigation around the same time did not find any evidence of wrongdoing. 

“That was a scary thing,” a graduate student said. “I think it's part of the reason why it took so long (for people to come forward).”

In an email to students following the forum, Poole acknowledged distrust in the school’s disciplinary systems. 

“I am focused on supporting our students in the Butler School of Music,” Poole said in a statement to The Texan. “We are working to ensure that they are aware of available campus resources and understand how to report and why it is important to do so. My door remains open to students who would like to voice their concerns as we continue our efforts to improve our culture.”

Dempster said in an email to the College of Fine Arts that the Butler School of Music scheduled mandatory Title IX training for teaching assistants, assistant instructors and faculty for early next semester.

Three other forums and meetings with students were held following the VAN article’s release, Bakre said. The school also discussed the issue at two regularly scheduled faculty meetings on Oct. 3 and Nov. 7. There are currently no future forums planned.

Feeling betrayed

While some students may have sometimes felt uncomfortable around him, many described positive academic interactions with Welcher. More than half the students the Texan spoke to said they appreciated having him as a mentor and that he often pushed them to improve their work. 

Many of them said Welcher had written recommendation letters or introduced them to other members of the music industry as they tried to advance their careers. But they said the help they received made it even harder to speak out against him. 

But the recent allegations have made some students look back on their experiences with him. 

And for students who felt like they had come to trust Welcher, they said they felt betrayed. 

“He made people feel good about themselves, but he betrayed that trust,” a graduate student said. “So none of those things, you know, none of those things (he did for students) excuse that behavior. And I actually think that makes it cut deeper. That he had these people's trust before he crossed that boundary.”