Student uncovers decades of sexual misconduct allegations against Michigan violin professor

Sammy Sussman of The Michigan Daily. Courtesy Photo.

A 6,500-word feature is a feat for any journalist to pull off. It’s another thing altogether for a 19-year old music major who has never written a piece of news in his life to do so with credibility and impact.

On Monday, The Michigan Daily, the student-run newspaper at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, published a lengthy investigation by sophomore Sammy Sussman detailing four decades of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by Professor Stephen Shipps, who began teaching violin in the university’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 1989.

Within 48 hours of the piece going live, Shipps, 66, had stepped down from his chairmanship of school’s string department and resigned as director of the Strings Preparatory Academy, a pre-college program at the university. Shipps is currently on leave from the university. Neither he nor his lawyer agreed to speak with Sussman for the piece.

Sussman, a native of Bedford, New York and a composition student in the School of Music, had previously written only for the Daily’s art section. When a tip came his way, however, he asked to move temporarily to the news team to look into it. We spoke with Sussman about how his investigation came together. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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How did this story come about? Was it through a tip?

We were actually investigating a tip about a different professor that I had received from a friend in the music school. There’s this online forum called Whisper Network, and the friend said someone had posted there about a professor at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan. I started working on that, and pretty soon someone said I should really be looking into Professor Stephen Shipps. This person was able to point me to a victim who I quote anonymously in the article. Once we spoke with her it became apparent that this story was pressing. It involved 40 years of allegations and numerous victims from multiple institutions.

 

How long did you spend reporting the story? And what was your process for finding sources and determining how far back in Shipps’s career you needed to go?

I began working on the Shipps story near the beginning of October. I was lucky that the first source I got to was a former student of his from the North Carolina School of the Arts, where Shipps previously taught, named Wendy Olsen Posner, who is quoted by name in the article. She connected us to others, including the person who provided the earliest allegations we published, from 1977, when Shipps was 27. She also knew of an allegation from the mid-1980s.

From there, we started looking online. Were there any yearbooks from the North Carolina School of the Arts, for example? And there were. So I scanned through those and looked at violin students and then just started cold-calling them to hear if they had anything of relevance to the investigation. In terms of students at the University of Michigan, I had to do a little research, using records from the school and other documents. There are a couple of people who we spoke with whose senior recital programs, for example, said, “Student of Stephen Shipps,” but who on their professional biographies neglect to mention him.

Throughout the investigation, we cold-called over 50 people. And as we progressed, we were able to be more refined. We knew we were only looking for women, for example. And he didn’t seem to do these things with grad students, it seemed like it was mostly undergrads or high schoolers who he interacted with in summer programs, or in the pre-college program here.

The crazy thing is that a lot of the victims knew each other. I would talk to Maureen O’Boyle, another woman who I quote by name, and she would just point me to women farther up the chain. She’d say, “Oh, yeah, I spoke to this person 11 years later, and she also experienced something. And I heard he did something to this woman at Michigan.” A whole network existed of people who gossiped about what happened regarding Shipps and tried to tell potential students of his not to study with him because of what happened to them.

 

How did you go about kind of corroborating accusations and the accounts of your sources?

There is some degree of corroboration that comes when one victim points to another. As opposed to when I was cold-calling people, I would go into those interviews with a little bit more of a believing mindset. We also tried to call other people, friends and family, who were aware of the allegations at the time. With Maureen O’Boyle’s allegation, in particular—she was assaulted in 1978—we were able to speak to another woman who was not included in the article but who said she was also at the party I describe in the piece and was able to corroborate a lot of the details. With another one of the allegations from the North Carolina School of the Arts, we were able to speak to five of the victim’s friends, who all said, “Yeah, we were all aware of this. We were in high school then, and we didn’t know who to go to, so we all went to each other.”

Sometimes women pointed us to friends they hadn’t spoken to in 20 or 30 years, which I think was actually really beneficial because there was distance between the sources. I would cold-call these people and say, “I heard you were friends with this person in the eighties when you both went to high school together. Can you corroborate that you were aware this was going on?” Then they would say, “I haven’t thought about this in 20 years. But, yes, I definitely remember that. It was terrible.”

 

Many of the women who accuse Shipps in your piece are cited anonymously or given pseudonyms. Were there internal debates at the Daily about this, or whether or not to move forward with the piece?

We had to speak to a lawyer about a potential defamation suit that we were opening ourselves up to, and the anonymous sourcing was definitely a big concern. But we felt once we had reached a certain threshold of allegations, even if many were anonymous, that it pointed to systemic behavior. And in some cases we could really justify the anonymity. We had one allegation within the past five years, for example, from a girl who was 13 at the time. You’re obviously not going to put her name out there. And a lot of people had professional concerns. Some of the allegations come from people in their thirties who studied with him or worked with him in an administrative capacity. I mean, this guy was the chair of the strings department, the director of a youth program. He ran a summer program in England. He had been an associate dean. He just had way too much power in the music world for a lot of people to consider putting their names to this, even if they wanted to speak with us.

Our lawyer tried to push us to get more people to go on the record with their name, but it just got to the point where we weren’t making any progress. We were making more and more calls and getting more and more allegations, but none of them were going to be names attached. We realized we needed to go with what we had.

 

Was there a specific interview or moment in your reporting that clinched this for you, when you became really confident in your article’s conclusions?

Early on, a lot of the allegations I was getting were second-hand. Then eventually I got in touch with a woman who we quote in the article as Anne. Anne sent me her journal entries from when she was 16. I think that that really made me realize, you know, there’s a story here. A quote that I think still sticks with me from one of her journal entries is something like, “Some days Shipps was willing to give me a lesson, and other times he just wanted a blowjob.” Reading that in a 16-year-old’s handwriting really put everything in perspective for me, and I realized that this was much more than a few uncorroborated allegations—that this spoke to some systemic failures.

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Before you this piece, you hadn’t done any kind of news writing, correct?

Yeah, I do classical music reviews for the Daily. (Laughs.)

 

So can you talk a bit about the learning curve you went through pulling this together?

When you write a concert review, let’s say, you attend the concert, you keep the program so you can spell people’s names right, and then you just kind of share your thoughts. This was more intense than that.

My first draft was only around 2,000 words, and it was mostly secondhand allegations. I brought that to my editor, Maya Goldman, and she was like, “This is nowhere near enough. We need this corroborated, we need to see documents, we need to have interviews with victims.” That was a lot to learn. It was an intense experience, too, because of the subject matter. Usually a first assignment for a news writer at the Daily is, like, covering a meeting with the vice provost about a new campus sustainability initiative. So taking this on was maybe a little ambitious, I think, and I learned by trial and error.

I will say that I’ve always loved investigative journalism, but working on something for three months is very different from reading someone else’s work.

 

Do you feel like you caught a bug for it? Is it work you would like to keep doing?

I think so. It’s very difficult to say now. It’s been a stressful experience to see the fallout from my article. In less than 48 hours, Shipps was replaced as the strings chair. He was replaced as the director of the pre-college program. It’s been intense just to walk around school, and I think I need a little separation before I’ll know if I want to do this again. If I did investigate something else, I don’t think I would pick something in the music school. It can be quite uncomfortable, you know, to investigate somewhere that I also have to—

 

To be graded.

Exactly, yeah.

 

As a student yourself in the School of Music, were you nervous about the potential personal ramifications of pursuing this story?

I’m lucky that I don’t have any relationship with the strings department, which Professor Shipps chaired until Monday night. I was definitely worried about how this might affect affect my friendships at the school. A lot of Shipps’s current students really enjoyed studying with him, and this story is an incredibly traumatic thing for them. It also upset some of my relationships with other professors in the school. There’s been nothing retributive, but I have noticed some professors acting differently around me. Some seem like they are a little afraid to have honest conversations with students if I’m in the room.

To my knowledge, the music school has never had a student reporter be the first to uncover serious allegations of this nature. Previously, if you look at David Daniels who was also a professor in the School of Music who was put on leave over the summer after allegations of sexual assault, the story first came from an outside publication [the New York Daily News], and then The Michigan Daily picked it up.

 

What feedback have you received?

We received some negative feedback from people who had positive experiences with Shipps and maybe wish this hadn’t come out, but I haven’t heard anyone arguing that the allegations are untrue or that they don’t believe them. I think the school community is grateful, given the nature of these allegations, that they were brought to light and that this is something that we can now address.

Now, the conversation has kind of moved from me and the Daily and our journalistic credibility toward, you know, “How should we address this individual, given these claims?” And, “How can we address the potential institutional failures that led to his hiring and his continued employment here? Are there larger systemic issues that got us to this point, and how should we better address sexual misconduct in music and higher education?”

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Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.