Staff members at the University of Auckland’s music school claim they’re being silenced and students are suffering without help in the wake of revelations a former head of the school sexually groomed and exploited students over 20 years. Alison Mau reports.
Staff at Auckland University’s music school allege students have been left waiting for mental health support in the wake of revelations James Tibbles – a former head of the school – formed inappropriate sexual relationships with students over decades.
Multiple current and former staff members spoken to by Stuff believe there was a “culture of silencing” at the university after the allegations, and the university misled the public in claiming there were no other complaints against Tibbles.
In April, a spokeswoman told Stuff the university knew of no complaints against Tibbles before those laid in late 2020 and early 2021, by former university student Jenny Thomas and former St Cuthbert’s College student Sara O’Brien.
But a staff member has told Stuff he sent an email to Vice Chancellor (VC) Dawn Freshwater on April 18 – the day a Stuff investigation into was published – claiming music school management had been made aware of another complaint against Tibbles, made by a student, before he was appointed head of school (HOS).
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The staff member, who Stuff has agreed not to name, said the student had told him of Tibbles’ behaviour and “it was clearly serious enough to make a complaint.”
The email described the staff member telling the head of school at the time that the young woman had “similar issues” with Tibbles – and as a result, left the university and “not managed to study or work in the past five years.”
It referenced a subsequent conversation with the dean in a corridor before the head of school selection process in 2020, where the staff member told the dean of his student’s experience.
“You brushed me off dismissively and said that without a student making an official complaint it would have no bearing on the appointment of an HOS position.”
Shortly after sending the email, the staff member said he was phoned by human resources (HR) at the university and told not to contact the VC again.
“[HR said] it’s very inappropriate to write that to the VC and if I had any concerns in future to go through my line management.”
He said the HR staffer admitted the university had received a complaint and that it was “resolved” with an apology from Tibbles.
In response to questions from Stuff, a UoA spokeswoman denied the staff member was warned not to contact the VC, calling their recollection a “misrepresentation.”
The spokesperson said UoA had received an “earlier” complaint, but that it did not contain serious allegations and “there was no reference to sexual harassment.”
The email to Freshwater also expressed other concerns, which UoA says were addressed by HR, the dean and the HOS.
“While there was a reference to the student in the staff member’s email, most of the issues were related to private employment matters.”
In the email, viewed by Stuff, the staff member raised issues of student safety.
“The fact that I had no-one to turn to when I knew there was a serious and highly dangerous risk to student wellbeing has had consequences that probably stretch further than we will ever know,” said the writer of the email.
“I do not know how many other students have been affected, but I doubt it stops with my own student, and the ones who have spoken to the media.
“I spoke officially to the HOS and unofficially to the dean of the faculty, and my words were disregarded.”
At a staff meeting on May 17, 2021, the staff member decided to speak out.
“After [HR] said that on the phone, I thought, ‘I’m the only one who knows there was a complaint before he was appointed’. I [told the meeting] I had written an email the day the article came out, which I sent to the VC, the dean and the head of school, which I knew was going to get me into trouble but I wanted all of them to know that [the university] did know [about Tibbles].”
James Tibbles was appointed head of school in February 2020. Stuff understands the bulk of the school’s teaching staff opposed the appointment, with some sending written submissions.
But the UoA spokeswoman said the university “did not receive significant opposition” to the appointment.
And despite promises by the university, students were having trouble accessing mental health support in the wake of the Tibbles revelations, staff have told Stuff.
“I have a student now who is having huge difficulties… because she knows, having read all the information, that she was being groomed,” according to one staff member.
He said every lesson was “like a counselling session” and he and other staff were not equipped to give the support the students needed.
The staffer said his student waited weeks for a counselling appointment, after trying to get help on the day the investigation was published.
“The next available appointment was the middle of July.”
Another member of the teaching staff said they had dealt with “crying, distressed” students who had lessons from Tibbles, and were now wondering whether they were groomed. The university’s Te Papa Manaaki/Campus Care programme was triaging student calls, but students were then passed on to the student health and counselling service, which was slow and overwhelmed, the staff member said.
“It can take weeks, if not months to get support.’”
The UoA spokesperson said “as far as we are aware” students who had sought counselling had received it in a timely manner.
It described “a suite” of counselling options available through Student Health and Counselling.
“Te Papa Manaaki/Campus Care do not restrict the number of appointments and support students with their care for as long as needed.”
The latest claims of upheaval follow a rocky few years for the university’s School of Music.
In 2018, news reports show a planned restructure of the school had turned “nasty” with five staff, including a high-profile and long-term professor, Uwe Grodd, made redundant against the wishes of the majority of staff.
A 17-page letter signed by a number of university benefactors – including Sir James Wallace, former Supreme Court justice Sir Edmund Thomas and Dame Gillian Whitehead – seen by Stuff, strongly opposed the restructure process, saying it breached the Education Amendment Act and the university’s standards.
“It is our belief that the restructure of the School of Music currently underway falls so gravely short of these standards it poses a substantial risk to the reputation of the university” the letter, signed by 18 supporters, said.
Dated 28 April 2018, the letter demanded “an independent review of the restructure proposal by suitably qualified people not involved in its development” and “a halt to the staff redundancy process.”
The university said it had responded to “a number” of letters ahead of the restructure, explaining reasons for the proposed changes.
One of the women who made a formal complaint about Tibbles, Sara O’Brien, said a “witch hunt” was underway at the university, with staff being quizzed by the HR department about whether they had spoken to her.
O’Brien said in her view the university was not living up to its stated values.
“If they don’t tolerate bullying and harassment, why did they disregard the feelings of the staff over [Tibbles’] appointment? If they don’t tolerate bullying and harassment, why did they tell staff they are not able to speak about the James Tibbles employment matter?
“If they don’t tolerate bullying and harassment on campus, why did they install a man who was known to be a .. sexual harasser?”
In Stuff’s April investigation, Tibbles was revealed to have resigned from St Cuthbert’s College in 1998, after the school looked into his behaviour towards O’Brien.
O’Brien told Stuff she that at 16, she had not realised her relationship with Tibbles was unusual until the day he told her he loved her, and insisted she told no-one. Days later he delivered a secret letter to her classroom.
“I can’t believe I was brave enough to actually say those words… Or even admit them silently to myself,” the letter read.
“I guess you know what the word LOVE means. I’m still shaking every time I think of you.”
O’Brien’s parents found the letter and alerted the school and CCAFS (Community Child Adolescent and Family Services, now Oranga Tamariki). Tibbles resigned shortly after an investigation was launched.
When the Stuff investigation was released in April, St Cuthbert’s College apologised to O’Brien, saying it handled the complaint poorly and that it was “deeply sorry” for the distress and ongoing devastating impact on its former student.
The University of Auckland told Stuff they hired Tibbles in 2000 after receiving letters of recommendation, one of which was written by his boss at the school, Dr Graham McPhail. Dr McPhail is now a senior lecturer in music education at the university.
In April, McPhail told Stuff he had written a “very supportive” letter for Tibbles, but said he did not know of his behaviour other than “the mistake of sending a letter and becoming infatuated with the student.”
He admitted if the university had known why Tibbles left St Cuthbert’s it may have made a difference to his appointment.
“If I had had as much information then as I have now, I would have responded very differently, including not providing a reference for James.”
However, new documents released to Stuff showed McPhail had been told in writing in September 1998 that Tibbles had sexually harassed O’Brien.
In an email thread between McPhail and St Cuthbert’s long-serving former principal Lynda Reid – also seen by Stuff – McPhail claimed to be “heartily sick” of having to manage O’Brien’s music studies and that “[n]either [name withheld] or I speak to Sara O’Brien since everything we say gets twisted.”
In her reply, Reid said she understood his irritation, but “the reason that Sara was not ready to sit her assessment is that a member of the college staff sexually harassed her.
“Given the fact that in a sense it is the school that injured her, we must not compound the injury by making her perform a piece she was to learn with the person who injured her.”
In response to questions from Stuff, McPhail said he had no recollection of the email.
“I understood then, as I do now, what ‘sexual harassment’ means. However, when I wrote the letter of recommendation I was not aware it had taken place” McPhail said.
The email thread between McPhail and Reid shows he replied the same morning it was sent, saying Reid’s “viewpoint is very clear, even if we disagree.”
Asked whether the university should continue to have confidence in him as a teacher of young people, McPhail said: “Yes I do. My annual evaluations from students are extremely positive in all regards.”
Sara O’Brien said she remained puzzled by the university’s response to her complaint in January 2021. She had to repeatedly chase the university to address her concerns, she said, waiting 43 days for a reply to one email, and getting a response only after Stuff asked questions of the university.
Where to get help for sexual violence
- Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00, click link for local helplines.
- Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline 0800 842 846, text 4334, webchat safetotalk.nz or email [email protected]
- The Harbour Online support and information for people affected by sexual abuse.
- Women’s Refuge 0800 733 843 (females only)
- Male Survivors Aotearoa Helplines across NZ, click to find out more (males only)
- If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 111.
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