Juilliard chairman challenged but retains board support

When charismatic former New York City Ballet star Damian Woetzel was named president of the prestigious Juilliard School in 2017, the school’s powerful president Bruce Kovner praised his “unusual blend” of intellectual and artistic qualities.

But earlier this year, Kovner told Woetzel that an internal assessment had revealed a lack of confidence in his leadership and had asked him to step down by the end of June, a year before the end of his contract, according to a letter. sent by Woetzel to the school administrators. which was obtained by The New York Times.

Woetzel fought back and managed to rally support behind him, gaining testimonials from several prominent artists, including trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, who leads Juilliard’s jazz program, and pianist Emanuel Ax, a prominent faculty member. . And he wrote in his letter to the trustees that the performance review “was extraordinary and highly inconsistent with best practices in nonprofit governance – it was designed, initiated and managed by our Chairman of the Board. “.

Things went downhill at a board meeting last month. The administrators, when informed of Kovner’s assessment and recommendation to remove Woetzel, declined to do so. Kovner, long the school’s biggest benefactor, plans to step down in June after 22 years as president, a move an associate said was long overdue.

Kovner declined to comment, and Juilliard provided a board statement to The New York Times in which he said that “at its last meeting, the board strongly reaffirmed its support for Chairman Damian Woetzel” and to the ten-year strategic plan that the school created in 2019.

The statement said the board was “unwavering in its focus on the best interests of the students of The Juilliard School and remains committed to supporting the school’s outstanding faculty, staff and leadership.”

Some saw the conflict as a rare power struggle between two prominent figures in the cultural world, a confrontation between the old guard and new blood.

Given Kovner’s immense influence as Juilliard’s greatest patron – and as an important figure at Lincoln Center, the home of Juilliard, where he sits on the board of directors and has given large sums – some have was surprised to see Woetzel win. One director compared it to a David and Goliath story.

Woetzel, 54 – who earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government while dancing – has built a national reputation, having led the arts program at the Aspen Institute and the Vail International Dance Festival and served as Barack Obama’s Arts and Humanities Commission Chair.

Kovner, 75, whose Forbes net worth is estimated at $6.2 billion, has been a permanent government of sorts at Juilliard, having served as chairman for an unusually long period. Along with his wife, Suzie, Kovner’s donations included $25 million for a new wing and scholarships in 2005; a treasure trove of valuable musical manuscripts in 2006; $20 million for the early music program in 2012; and $60 million for a new scholarship program in 2013.

At Lincoln Center, Kovner was one of the largest donors to the redevelopment of the performing arts complex, sits on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera, and was previously a trustee of the New York Philharmonic.

The impasse posed a challenge for the board and the school, given that Kovner’s continued support of Juilliard remains crucial.

Woetzel’s assessment was sent to 49 faculty and staff members — including every department head and 18 direct reports — of whom 43 responded anonymously. There are approximately 700 full-time and part-time faculty and staff at Juilliard.

The exam was designed and conducted by Kovner and J. Christopher Kojima, vice president, says Woetzel’s letter to the board. His letter said it was “not being conducted remotely by an independent party, as is best practice for nonprofit institutions of our stature.”

Responses included 143 comments, more than three-quarters of which were negative, according to a person familiar with a summary of the report who was granted anonymity to describe the sensitive personal matter.

The comments amounted to several key criticisms, according to the summary, which was described to The Times: that Woetzel focused on performance rather than education; had weak administrative leadership; did not consult faculty members on key decisions; and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

A question about confidence in the future of Juilliard was answered negatively by more than half of those who responded, according to the person familiar with the summary.

On Jan. 27, Woetzel was asked to leave, according to his letter to the board.

“Bruce Kovner has communicated – on behalf of the executive committee – that my service as chairman will be terminated prior to the end of my contract and that the decision is ‘irrevocable,'” Woetzel wrote in the letter to the directors.

“After communicating this intent to terminate to me,” the letter states, “Bruce then emailed me a severance offer that allegedly included a jointly-drafted statement that would create a false narrative that I was resigning the June 30th.”

The letter gave Woetzel 96 hours to respond. He decided not to resign.

On February 4, Kovner sent the results of the assessment to the full board, saying the findings were concerning and would be discussed at the regular board meeting four days later.

Woetzel gathered support from a number of prominent artists and colleagues, who sent letters to the board ahead of the meeting.

“Damian has a record of excellence in his leadership of the school, particularly during two years of the pandemic and these deeply troubling social, political and financial times that have changed America’s social landscape,” Marsalis wrote in his letter, obtained by The Times. “He has engaged with students, faculty and the board to try to create an institution that is modern, nimble and able to address the very real concerns of students and alumni around the world.”

“I think the way we’re doing this calls into question our ethics,” Marsalis continued. “This attempt to impeach him appears to be poorly thought out, poorly executed, and it will put a stain on our institution that even our love of resources and fragile minds cannot easily remove.”

Trombone player Weston Sprott, who is the dean of Juilliard’s preparatory division, warned in an email to influential faculty member Ax that “a decision to fire Damian would be extremely damaging to the institution. “.

“Amid dealing with the bumps and bruises one would expect in navigating the national reckoning regarding racial injustice,” Sprott continued, “Damian may have put together the leadership team the more diverse, inclusive and successful in our industry – one that is respected by students and faculty and the envy of its competitors.

Kovner and the executive committee expect Woetzel to address the issues raised during the evaluation with outside coaches and under the guidance of trustee Reginald Van Lee, a former management consultant, according to the person familiar with the summary. But one director said no such course of action had been decided by the full board.

Woetzel started out as an unconventional choice for Juilliard, having never worked in academic administration, let alone one of the world’s top performing arts schools, which at the time of his appointment had a $110 million annual budget, $1 billion endowment, etc. more than 800 students.

At Juilliard, Woetzel made several notable strides, securing a $50 million donation to expand the school’s weekend training program aimed largely at black and Latino schoolchildren; fill several key positions; and guiding the school through the difficult two years of the pandemic.

But he also had bumps along the way. After a school drama workshop involving the re-enactment of a slave auction caused an uproar, Woetzel issued a “sincere apology” in a note to the community.

Last June, students protested a planned tuition hike, occupying parts of Juilliard’s Lincoln Center campus and staging street protests. (Several other top music and drama schools offer free lessons.)

Kovner, who made his fortune as a hedge fund manager, contributed extensively to conservative causes and served on the boards of the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute, two right-wing think tanks. Last May, City Journal, which is published by the Manhattan Institute, criticized what it described as the school’s “growing cadre of diversity bureaucrats” in an article titled “Revolution Comes to Juilliard: racial hysteria consumes the school; without control, it will consume the arts.

Kovner has also supported left-wing organizations, including the Innocence Project, which seeks to free those wrongfully convicted; and Lambda Legal, devoted to the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Juilliard is now gearing up for the next chapter. This week, the school’s Duke Ellington Ensemble was scheduled to celebrate Juilliard Jazz’s 20th anniversary at the Chelsea Factory, a new arts space.

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