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American Organ Institute director investigated for multiple sexual harassment allegations

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John Schwandt, associate professor in the OU School of Music and director of the American Organ Institute, was recently investigated by OU's Title IX office.

Editor’s note: The sources in this story requested to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. Fictional names have been assigned to these sources, whose identities are known to The Daily.

John Schwandt, director of OU’s American Organ Institute and a School of Music professor, was recently investigated by OU’s Title IX office, according to three anonymous sources, after multiple students and AOI employees reported he engaged in inappropriate behaviors.

According to William, a university employee, Schwandt — who announced in a Jan. 9 email to students he would be taking administrative leave for the spring semester — was under investigation dating to at least the summer of 2019, when the university first announced the AOI would close

The Daily reached out to Schwandt and a university spokesperson for comment on March 9. Schwandt denied the allegations detailed in the article, and the university had not commented as of noon on March 12.

James, a former student, said “at least six students and three faculty and staff members associated with the AOI” have been involved in Title IX reports of Schwandt’s behavior.

In the Jan. 9 email, Schwandt wrote that he would still retain administrative duties, including serving on doctoral boards. Schwandt’s full annual salary is listed at $123,460, and OU recently approved paid leave for Tom Orr, a performance professor who was placed on administrative leave in January “in light of recent allegations.” Orr was previously investigated by Title IX in the summer of 2018.

Martin, a second former OU School of Music student, said Schwandt made inappropriate sexual jokes while in the organ studio, which the student said prompted several discussions with students and faculty about respect and professionalism. Martin also said Schwandt asked students intimate questions about their sex lives and sexual orientations, and then gave inappropriate nicknames based on the information.

“In private lessons, students would be playing, and he would ask suddenly, ‘Hey, are you gay? What do you guys do (in bed)?’” Martin said. “Those have been specific situations, and I know there have been multiple.”

This experience was common for many students in the program, James said, but seemed more common among gay male students.

“In private lessons with Dr. Schwandt — and also in studio classes — he would frequently ask me about my sexual orientation, or make comments or even jokes, or say (derogatory) names about it,” James said. “That information was used in public situations with other students, professors and people in the community as gossip, basically. I know that this happened in several other people’s lessons, particularly to gay men.”

Barbara Lee, senior vice president of academic affairs and professor of employment and higher education law at Rutgers University, believes students are especially vulnerable in sexual harassment cases. Students rely on professors for their academic evaluation, mentorship and support. A professor's authoritative position creates an environment where students may not feel comfortable speaking up, or may not know who exactly to voice their concerns to.

“This type of behavior not only makes it difficult for them to learn, but makes it difficult for them to continue coming back to the classroom,” Lee said. “It violates every principle that we in higher education believe in — providing an environment in which people can learn, thrive and grow.”

Mark Gough, an assistant professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University, said the impact of such behavior can extend beyond students, leading to an overall poorer workplace environment for co-workers.

“It can lead to obvious decreased engagement at work and in class, health consequences, increased stress,” Gough said. “Simply making work or school intolerable, which can all but stall those environments.”

Schwandt also allegedly drew inappropriate images on students’ sheet music, potentially as a tool to highlight particular areas of a piece he felt students should pay special attention to, Martin said.

“He would write penises on people’s sheet music — I know several people that has happened to,” Martin said. “I guess it was a way for him to get their attention if there was something they needed to work on. I’m not really sure about the reasoning behind why he would draw that specific thing.”

Schwandt’s behavior allegedly caused several other AOI faculty and staff to speak with groups of students about what was acceptable to discuss in the workshop, Martin said.

“(Schwandt’s comments) have prompted conversations (between faculty and students) about professionalism and treating each other with respect,” Martin said. “None of those conversations were very detailed about who they were aimed at, but they did, in my opinion, result from the conversations and statements he made.”

Schwandt allegedly encouraged students to arrange with their significant others to receive sexual favors if they practiced a set number of hours per week, James said, and ridiculed a student for being in a relationship he did not approve of, allegedly “threatening (the student) with expulsion.”

Martin said Schwandt also asked students to run personal errands for him and his wife, including grocery shopping, giving rides to doctor’s appointments and dog-sitting.

James said while he does not believe Schwandt had bad intentions, many students were forced to regularly and unwillingly be part of an uncomfortable environment.

“I don’t get the sense that any of this was meant to be malicious on his part,” James said, “but this atmosphere that was created — if you did not want to be a part of it — you were basically ridiculed and punished, and your education suffered because he viewed you as a prude or something of that nature.”

Lee said these actions would still be illegal, regardless of intent.

“Sexual harassment is illegal under both federal and state laws, and is a violation of the policy of probably every college and university in the country,” Lee said. “The intent of the person who is making the comments is completely irrelevant. The issue is what is the impact on the individuals who are exposed to that, whether they are students or co-workers.”

Blake Douglas joined the OU Daily news desk in October 2018, and is currently the news managing editor. Previously, Blake has served as an intern reporter, senior news reporter and summer news editor.

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