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Podcast #155: Heather Mac Donald on The Juilliard School's Strange Anti-Racist Meltdown

· 15 min read
Podcast #155: Heather Mac Donald on The Juilliard School's Strange Anti-Racist Meltdown

Quillette‘s Jonathan Kay speaks to City Journal writer Heather Mac Donald about how a single drama workshop caused Juilliard students to feel “traumatized,” and sparked an activist campaign aimed at undermining the elite school’s famously rigorous standards.


Jonathan Kay: Last month, writer Heather Mac Donald wrote for City Journal about a recent student insurrection following presentations by New York University theater professor Michael McElroy, one of Juilliard’s two external diversity consultants. Ironically, he had been brought in to speak about black musical culture following the George Floyd riots under the school’s equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging program. But the whole gesture went sideways.

As part of this theatrical exercise, McElroy, who is black, began with an auditory recreation of the African slave trade, adapted from the 1970s era TV mini-series ROOTS. These were drama students, don’t forget, half of them black, being taught a workshop on black historical themes. Yet a number of them complained to Juilliard that the workshop was traumatic for them. And, led by the president of Juilliard’s black student union, Marion Grey, they began drafting a long list of demands, which grew to include everything from excusing them from having to come to class on time, to being permitted to skip out on Shakespeare requirements because he’s too “Eurocentric.”

All of the details are included in Heather’s May 23rd City Journal article titled The Revolution Comes to Juilliard. She’s the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the best-seller The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture.

Earlier this month she spoke to me by phone about the ongoing tempest at Juilliard. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

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Jonathan Kay: What’s kind of crazy about the story is that the original episode that set all of this off was delivered by a black expert in music.

Heather Mac Donald: The presenter Michael McElroy, was not just black, but he was hired by Juilliard as one of its two external diversity consultants to work on EDIB, or equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging. So he was presumably somebody that, from Juilliard’s perspective, is sensitive to these issues whether you view those issues as valid or not. And yet he became the racial bogeyman in this whole episode.

Jonathan Kay: One of the man-bites-dog aspects of this is that, as I understand, the administrator at Juilliard who made the decision to throw this person under the bus was themselves white?

Heather Mac Donald: Damian Woetzel is the president of Juilliard. He was a ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet. Yes, he threw McElroy under the bus adopting every trope of threat and injury that had been put out there by these narcissistic drama students claiming that McElroy’s workshop was ill-conceived, and that it didn’t protect members of the Juilliard community, which is an idea that is fallacious on two grounds.

First, that there’s any duty to protect members of a school. And second, that a workshop on black musical culture threatens any kind of student. And then the Dean of the drama division, who is white she is white, followed in Woetzel’s footsteps saying that the workshop caused trauma and that she felt remorse for engaging with him in the first place. Again, I can’t stress enough, this was somebody who would pass Juilliard’s EDIB threshold for being affiliated with the school, and now all-of-a-sudden he becomes some kind of lethal threat.

Jonathan Kay: In your article you describe how during the controverted ZOOM call, when this training was taking place, it sounds like there were black students who are just listening to it and engaging with it and appreciated it. How representative of the black student constituency at Juilliard were the people complaining?

Heather Mac Donald: The spearhead of this effort, a president of the black student union named Marion Gray, in her video that she produced on April 21, she said that there were some black students who were participating in the workshop along with the white students, and afterwards the white students said that they felt it was an extraordinarily moving experience. As far as what the ratio is of the people that back Gray and those who were not claiming trauma from this workshop, I don’t know. I can’t speak to that.

Jonathan Kay: In this letter that some drama students wrote, they talked about how Juilliard’s “racist environment is hazardous to BIPOC students’ bodies.” And then it says some students are silenced, broken, and limited by racism. So this thing about being broken and their bodies being under attack, one might think there was some kind of dungeon that was being used for racist torture or something like that. Were there any specifics given aside from the content of this presentation? Is the background here that there was some kind of racial fight club going on?

Heather Mac Donald: Of course not, the background is the last 10 years of apocalyptic, delusional, maudlin, self-pitying bathos-filled rhetoric on the part of college students everywhere. I’ve encountered this constantly. When I go and talk at colleges, this is the coin of the realm, this type of absurd claim that to be black or female on a college campus today is to be under existential and physical threat to one’s very existence and identity. And so what you were reading from the Juilliard coalition of black drama students is nothing new. This is completely stale rhetoric by now. And in every single instance, it is completely fictional and delusional.

There is not a more compassionate, liberal environment in human history than an American college campus. Whether it’s Juilliard or University of Idaho, or Amherst or Harvard, or a community college, all of them are filled with well-meaning, open-hearted adults who want all of their students to succeed.

As far as taking these statements at face value—and literally, if you want to look at the crime data, college campuses are the safest places in America as far as violent crime—this is just a discourse that is completely unmoored from any connection to reality. And, far from being racist, there is not a single minimally selective college in the country that is not using racial preferences to admit as many minority students as it can.

At Juilliard in particular, the drama division is over 50 percent BIPOC. And those BIPOC students are at least 50 percent black. And yet if you listen to Marion Gray and some recent graduates who were quoted in other press reports, we are supposed to believe that Juilliard is subjecting black students to, as you say, silencing, “breaking” them, and a racist environment that is hazardous to them.

Jonathan Kay: What is the answer here? What is it that the students are demanding?

Heather Mac Donald: They want an end to what they’re calling a “Euro-centric” faculty, curriculum, and performances. In other words, they are trying to tear down the classical tradition that was the basis on which the Juilliard Drama Division was founded to give students a deep grounding in what is really a uniquely Western tradition of written drama scripts. Other cultures have very different dramatic traditions. In Africa until the post-colonial period theater was participatory and ritualistic. There wasn’t a distinction between actors and audience, everybody was participating. But these students want an end. They don’t want to have study Chekov or center Shakespeare, or Ben Johnson, or Christopher Marlowe. They think that’s identity-destroying.

One of the most ludicrous and illogical demands that they’re making is they want to end so-called “colorblind” casting and replace it with “color conscious” casting. So no longer should a black actor be allowed to play a white role like Hamlet unless it is deliberately done as a black Hamlet or a black King Lear. And, as they demand, the entire production should justify that choice and make it quite evident. The reason that this is such a bizarrely self-destructive claim is that colorblind casting works uniquely in black’s favor because no director today would dare cast a white actor in a black role. So blacks get to play black roles and white roles. Whites only get to play white roles.

And to other things like teaching the general American dialect, which is just a sort of neutral set of accents and wording and rhythms that is agreed as the central jumping-off place that allows an actor to then go into a range of dialects. They don’t want to have to study that because they think this threatens their already fragile identities. And they want an entire year of exclusively putting on plays by, for, and about BIPOC artists. So it just goes on and on.

I have absolutely no faith that the Juilliard administration or faculty will stand up against this.

Jonathan Kay: I wanted to swing back to the actual content of this presentation, which apparently “brutalized” this or that. My understanding was that the most controversial sequence was an excerpt from ROOTS? I’m old enough to remember when ROOTS first came out there was a book and then it was adapted to the screen. It was considered very enlightened and groundbreaking and progressive. Is there any indication that the response to these people who say they were traumatized is a sincere response? Or is this just some kind of weird hyperbolic politicized reaction?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, I don’t even know what his sincerity means in this world because everything is hyperbolic. Everything is performative. Everybody is enacting mini dramas of oppression. Whether they have any kind of divided consciousness, laughing at their power or awareness of the absurdity of these mini dramas, I can’t say. My instinct would be that they don’t. I think that the investment in an oppressed racial identity is so great, and the power of that racial identity is so massive, that it would be asking a lot for people to have any kind of critical distance on it.

But yeah, ROOTS was trying to educate the American public about the reality of the African slave trade in a world where we are told by the progressive left that American history continues to whitewash its appalling past, the cruelty, the lack of compassion, the sadism that was shown to blacks for so long. The claim that American history continues to have this sanitized version of American history is just onwards and upwards a claim that is fictional.

But if it were the case that America continues to turn away from its violent sordid past, what better way to overcome the deliberately created ignorance of students than an imaginative recreation of what it would be like to be the object of a slave auction? That sort of exercise uses the power of imagination and empathy to try to make real what may be simply too abstract a concept. This is a good thing.

Jonathan Kay: Has Michael McElroy, he was the one who was scheduled to give that three-day ROOTS drama workshop that everyone decided was so deeply scarring. Has he spoken out? Has anyone within the Juilliard community gone public objecting to this climate of hysteria?

Heather Mac Donald: No, of course not. I had tried to reach McElroy. There was sort of a give and take. I thought I was going to get an interview with him and then it didn’t happen. But no, nobody has. There are professors who were retiring from Juilliard and leaving because the environment is so toxic, but they do so silently. I’ve had people decry what’s going on, but none of them are willing to speak on-the-record.

I’ve got a piece coming out on the even more heartbreaking attack on the classical music tradition from the Black Lives Matter activists. There too, the people I spoke to who should be the guardians of this culture would only speak on conditions of anonymity so great that they would only agree to be described in categories that were so broad that they would contain multitudes! Millions of people could be described as an “arts educator,” lest there’d be any possibility of tracing them back to their respective institutions. So the most upsetting aspect of this is that the people who should know better, and who have been given the privilege of curating these traditions and passing them on to the next generation, have completely fallen down on the job. They are not willing to stand up to the mob and speak the truth.

Jonathan Kay: I’ve reported on a number of these school controversies, places like Haverford and Smith and some Canadian universities, and often it’s the music department in particular, and drama and arts, that become the most militant. And then you have slightly more conservative voices, maybe from other departments. Is it the case that a place like Juilliard, because there’s only the performing arts and in this case, that it can swing in such a dramatic direction?

Heather Mac Donald: Well, frankly, I don’t see Juilliard as that much on the extremes. I don’t see any difference between Woetzel’s reaction and say Christopher Eisgruber’s reaction at Princeton, and the STEM fields are a perfect example of this. They have been completely colonized now by race and gender ideology. Their official statements are all about “You can’t have good science unless it’s diverse science.”

But on the other hand, somebody that is in the music division at Juilliard said that when the school began as purely a music conservatory, it did have a small modern dance component. And eventually under Joseph Polisi, he added the drama component. Whether this was an excessive expansion of realm or a natural evolution given being located in New York City and having Broadway and off-Broadway right there, one can debate. But, this professor in the music division told me, again off-the-record, that when the drama division opened the drama students were more prone to self-dramatizing outbursts and whatnot. So there may be something to it that a pure art school is going to be a modest degree up on the hysteria scale. Nevertheless, I really do not want it to be thought that there’s a lot of difference between Juilliard and the rest of academia.

Jonathan Kay: You’ve used “narcissist,” and I’ve used terms like “hysteria,” and we’re using these terms in more of a colloquial politicized sense. But when I was briefly working on a journalistic segment that was connected to Canadian literature, I noticed that a lot of the people in that field, including people who were very successful and talented writers, that kind of genius does go with a certain psychological profile. There’s certainly a correlation with artists and often higher rates of, call it “neurodivergent” behavior. Unfortunately, that can involve narcissism. It could involve a lot of selfish behavior and outbursts and stuff like that.

To some extent at a place like Juilliard, is the Social Justice performative aspect kind of a way of expressing a lot of personal stuff that’s going on? And neither of us are clinicians, but do you detect that a lot of these people just are not well psychologically?

Heather Mac Donald: What I noticed in 2015 is that hundreds of schools, colleges in the United States and the universities, the black students published what was called “the demands,” and these were all aggregated on a website. And what was striking is that in maybe 80-90 percent of these different demands, whether they were plagiarizing each other I don’t know, was that they needed more mental trauma counseling and support. But these were schools that were not art schools, to the extent that there’s anything to that, that there is any kind of actual grounded sense of mental trauma, I would argue that it comes from the ubiquity of racial preferences.

Students are being admitted to schools for which they are not competitively qualified. They’re qualified to go to a good college, but they are being bumped up into a college where their peers are above them in measurable academic skills, and that is not a good situation to be in. If I were admitted to MIT in order to get their gender diversity up, and I had a math SAT score of 650 on a scale of 800, and my peers who had been admitted without gender quotas had close to a perfect score on their math SATs, which is pretty much what pertains at MIT, I am going to really struggle and I’m not going to be able to keep up in my first year calculus course.

I may drop out of a science track. I may drop out of MIT entirely. And I have two choices; I can either say “I wasn’t qualified for the school,” or that “I’m the victim of rape culture and pervasive sexism.” Had I been admitted, instead of being catapulted into an academic environment where I was not matched with my peers, to Boston university, which is also in Boston, where MIT is, or Boston College, which are perfectly respectable schools and where I’d met the qualifications of my peers, I would have been likely to graduate in a STEM field.

So that type of mental stress may be real. But again, to push back against your idea that this is something that is particularly egregious in an arts environment because of a proneness to a greater rawness of feeling, I would just point out that in 2015, during the period of “the demands,” black students at Princeton went around chanting “we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This was a phrase first used by Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a civil rights activist, who was beaten in the 1950s for trying to vote. Fannie Lou Hamer had grounds of plenty to be sick and tired of being sick and tired.

No Princeton student has any grounds for that kind of self-pity. To be a student at Princeton, no matter your color, is to be among the most privileged individuals in human history. At Emory University, students met with the president and claimed that being asked to show up on time to class and take their exams was putting them at risk of their lives. These types of maudlin claims of being at lethal risk are just not exclusive to an arts environment. They are coming out of major research universities as well.

Jonathan Kay: I think this goes beyond race. I did a big piece on Haverford college and I noticed there was a certain fetish among people of all races for proclaiming themselves to be “exhausted” and “gutted,” especially when they were asked to explain some lapse in their logic or evidence. And there was this immediate recoil to this, this idea that they’re “spent” because they’ve given every ounce of themselves already to the cause of social justice.

Heather Mac Donald: It’s ludicrous. We’ve have got to call these people out. We’ve got to say “you are a joke!” You have no grounds to be exhausted and spent because you are so fortunate. Any college student you’ve got at your fingertips the thing that Faust sold his soul for which is knowledge. You are surrounded by adults who want you to succeed. It is ridiculous, and why anybody is putting up with it, I don’t know.

And it doesn’t stay put in college. We see now all these woke workplaces where aggressive bosses are being taken down and the recent college graduates are running the show. The black employees of the New York Times, claiming that they’re put at lethal risk by an op-ed published by Senator Tom Cotton calling for a federal response to the riots in the summer of 2020. The editor who oversaw the op-ed page of the New York Times, and who therefore is ultimately responsible for running Tom Cotton’s op-ed, resigned because the black employees at the New York Times claimed that they were “at risk” from Tom Cotton’s op-ed. This is just absurd.

Jonathan Kay: Yeah. But just to emphasize, it wasn’t the black employees, it was a subset of people who self-organized on Slack. And some of the biggest ringleaders of getting James Bennett mobbed out of the New York Times were white people who think of themselves as great allies.

I want to get back to this climate of elite performative arts education at Juilliard. Because, I don’t know if you remember it, but I’m old enough to remember the movie Fame. There was a TV series that glamorized the life of people who were great dancers and singers and performers at a place like Juilliard. It was shown to be this very gritty place where people had to survive by their talent and by their strength of character. And it was taken for granted that you were going to be stress-tested in terms of your ability to withstand the pressures of the people teaching you, and the competition, and the expectations of fans, your future fans, your audience, et cetera. Has that ethos of stress-testing yourself just out the window now.

Heather Mac Donald: It probably is. I can’t speak directly to that. Several years ago, I attended some student musical events at Juilliard and talked to students. But as far as the general ambiance of kowtowing to student fragility, I can’t say. I would make a guess, however, which is that I’m sure that any kind of rough-and-ready environment that at least used to be cutthroat and ruthless, that chewed people up and spit them out without any remorse, I’m sure that’s ended.

And in fact, among the black student demands that were put forward in Juilliard was one that all black students who are on probation for attendance violations, whether it’s missing class entirely or being late, all black students should be amnestied. Whereas the white students who are on probation for attendance violations, they should continue being on probation. And they also claimed that Juilliard’s tradition of rigor, which was a word used in some of Juilliard’s materials and making demands of performance rehearsal schedules and whatnot, that that too is somehow oppressive to students.

So I’m sure it’s being watered down. In a place where that kind of high demand, high stress environment training would seem to be even more necessary, which would be the military, that has backed down completely. So we’ve been seeing for years the feminist demand that bootcamp soften itself. It is a general feminization of the culture. Anything that is rigorous is being unwound throughout our culture.

Jonathan Kay: Heather MacDonald, her article is called The Revolution Comes to Juilliard. Thanks so much for being on the Quillette podcast.

Heather Mac Donald: Thank you so much, Jonathan. I greatly appreciate it.

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