Fired Ohio State band director: Was he scapegoated for a sexualized culture?

Many current and former members of the Ohio State marching band are coming to the defense of Jonathan Waters, who was fired last week. But the university president appears to be standing by his decision.

Eamon Queeney/The Columbus Dispatch/AP/File
Ohio State University marching band director Jon Waters poses for a Nov. 2013 photo at the Steinbrener Band Center in Ohio Stadium before practice, in Columbus Ohio.

In the wake of Ohio State University’s decision to fire marching band director Jonathan Waters last week – for failing to adequately address a culture “conducive to sexual harassment” – many current and former band members have taken to social media to #StandWithJon.

But OSU President Michael Drake, who took office earlier this year, appears to be standing by his decision.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our students,” Mr. Drake said in a statement after Mr. Waters was fired. “[W]e must abide by a zero tolerance policy ... for any behavior that creates a hostile culture at Ohio State.”

The university has appointed former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery to lead an independent task force that, among other things, will review the band culture. The band is continuing to operate under interim leadership.

Schools have long had a responsibility to address sexual harassment and violence, but it’s unusual to see high-profile leaders fired for failing to do so, says Lisa Maatz, a vice president of the American Association of University Women in Washington and, coincidentally, an alumna of OSU.

“Folks with strong ties to the band may wish it was done differently, but I can’t imagine that a new president would make this decision lightly. What it says to me is he is serious about addressing climate issues at Ohio State,” Ms. Maatz says. “There is a dawning awareness of just how much sexual violence exists on campuses ... and smart colleges are stepping up and doing what they can.”

Still, many have rallied to Waters’s side. Among the shows of support:

• A petition on calling for his reinstatement has more than 8,300 signatures. It says that “issuing a directive does not result in creating a new culture” and that “few have been as adamant or worked as hard as Jon Waters to improve the culture ....”

• An online campaign has raised more than $13,000 for Waters, who was not offered a severance package, reports the student newspaper The Lantern.

• Former band members such as Alexandra Clark (2009-11) are defending Waters and the band’s traditions to the media. Ms. Clark told CBS News she didn’t mind having a nickname referring to a Jewish woman with a big chest, which was listed among a slew of inappropriate nicknames in a report on the band’s culture. "It wasn't until I saw that report by Ohio State ... and how people on the Internet were talking about me that I actually felt sexualized and degraded," she said.

• Brian Golden, president of the TBDBITL Alumni Club (the band is known as The Best Damn Band in the Land), noted on the group’s website that he had met with Drake Wednesday to discuss alumni concerns and that the group is continuing to review the circumstances of Waters’s dismissal.

 An investigation into the band stemmed from a parent’s complaint in May that the culture was sexualized and that members were sworn to secrecy about objectionable customs. The school’s Office of University Compliance and Integrity – which oversees matters related to Title IX, the federal law against sex discrimination in education – issued its report July 22.

The report concluded that the band’s culture “facilitated acts of sexual harassment, creating a hostile environment for students” and that Waters “knew or reasonably should have known about this culture” and failed to address it and prevent its recurrence.

It details problematic traditions and Waters’s level of knowledge, based on interviews with multiple witnesses. Among such traditions in the band, which is 20 percent female: a midnight march with students clad only in their underwear, sexually explicit and misogynistic jokes and songs, and the circulation of pornography on the band bus rides.

In the fall of 2013, a marching band member was expelled from OSU for sexually assaulting another band member. The incident prompted a training session by the Title IX coordinator for band staff and students.

OSU is among more than 70 colleges and universities being investigated for possible Title IX violations related to sexual violence and sexual harassment by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In a response by Waters to OSU before he was fired, reported by, he outlined ways he had begun to shift a “caste" culture, by emphasizing “servant leadership.” He wrote of raising awareness about hazing and how it wouldn’t be allowed, especially in the wake of the death of a marching band member at Florida A&M University in 2011.

Waters’s supporters say that he would be the best one to implement changes in the band and that he’s being scapegoated. “These were entrenched practices that went on for decades before (Waters) became director, decades before he became a band member and decades before he was born,” Waters’s attorney, David Axelrod, told The Lantern.

But after more than a decade of raising awareness about hazing in hierarchical groups, and about the sexual exploitation that can overlap with it, “now the move is much more toward prevention and elimination of the practices altogether,” says Brian Crow, a professor of sport management at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.

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