Brian Cole, the chancellor at UNC School of the Arts, announced Wednesday that he wants to hold listening sessions with students in light of a lawsuit alleging that school administrators condoned a pervasive culture of sexual abuse and exploitation over a 20-year period, starting in the 1970s.
The UNCSA Board of Trustees will meet in closed session Thursday afternoon via Zoom to discuss the lawsuit, Lauren Whitaker, a spokeswoman for the school, said Wednesday. She said she does not expect board members to make any statements after the closed session ends.
Seven alumni who attended UNCSA’s high school program in the 1980s filed the lawsuit in Forsyth Superior Court on Sept. 29. They also filed individual lawsuits with the N.C. Industrial Commission. They are represented by Gloria Allred, a California attorney known for representing sexual-abuse victims of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. The plaintiffs are also being represented by a local law firm led by Greensboro attorney Lisa Lanier.
Attorneys are asking for the lawsuit to proceed as a class action.
“I want you to know that I am heartbroken to hear the experiences recently shared by the seven UNCSA alumni, students from the 1970s and 1980s, regarding allegation of sexual abuse,” Cole said in an email to the school community on Wednesday. “Those accounts go against everything that I stand for as an artist, a leader and a human being, as well as the values of our school.”
Cole, who was installed as chancellor on Friday, the same day that news of the lawsuit became public, said that in the past several days, UNCSA students had expressed concerns about school safety and that “at times, they have felt unheard despite current institutional systems and procedures in place.”
“I am committed to changing that and want to reinforce a campus environment where no student ever feels unheard, and where, as a campus, we continually strive to do better in protecting the safety and well-being of every member of our community.”
This is the second statement Cole has issued to the school’s community since the lawsuit was filed. Late Monday afternoon, he issued a statement, saying he was appalled by the allegations and emphasizing that the school has instituted policies to ensure that such sexual abuse will not be tolerated or allowed. He said the school has provided resources for students who want to report abuse. He reiterated that last point Wednesday, saying that students can report any safety concerns to the school’s Title IX office, campus police and student conduct office. Students can also report alleged abuse to local law-enforcement, the Forsyth County Department of Social Services and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
“As a next step, I will be convening a series of listening sessions in each of our conservatories to welcome students into an in-person conversation with me over the next few weeks,” he said. “I want to hear directly from you and understand any and all concerns you have about student safety and harassment.”
Established in the 1960s, UNCSA is one of the country’s top arts schools. It has five conservatories – dance, film, design and production, and music – on one campus, which has both a high school and college program.
One of the seven plaintiffs, Christopher Soderlund, filed a lawsuit in 1995. The 1995 lawsuit was dismissed. In both lawsuits, he said two dance instructors, the late Richard Kuch and Richard Gain, manipulated him into a sexual relationship when he was 16 and then later belittled him. He feared that reporting the abuse and rejecting their advances would jeopardize his education at the arts school and his future professional career. The lawsuit said that administrators he turned to about the abuse failed to do anything about it.
Other plaintiffs alleged that they were subjected to repeated sexual abuse and inappropriate sexual comments when they were in their young teens in the 1980s. They have all said they suffered psychological and emotional damage as adults because of the abuse. The lawsuit also alleged that sexual abuse occurred in other conservatories, such as film.
One of the plaintiffs, named Christopher, said in a taped statement Monday during a news conference via Zoom that he rationalized the abuse by believing it was his fault.
“I am broken and have been for decades,” he said.