This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting on this situation.
The floodgates opened at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts this month, with numerous students and alumni complaining on social media that a professor and longtime associate dean there had harassed them or their peers and had otherwise been "toxic."
Additional concerns have been raised about the climate within the college for underrepresented students.
Questions remain as to how the alleged behavior went unchecked, if it did, and when the university became aware of the allegations. Multiple students have said that more formal complaints against the professor, Sean Kelley, went nowhere or were dropped by the university.
Kelley did not respond to requests for comment. The university says it’s investigating the allegations.
Complaints about Kelley began to appear on social media after one former performing arts student, Netta Walker, wrote a lengthy public Facebook statement upon receiving a local Jeff Award for her work in Chicago-area theater. Walker, who is black, wrote that the fine arts program at Roosevelt is “abusive.”
“This university taught me that I was less than my peers in the following ways: they did not cast me, they chose white male-dominated seasons, they deliberately did not try to utilize me, they refused to cast outside both the racial and gender binaries, and taught exclusively white theatrical history,” Walker wrote. “This program is still heavily run by white men, and has not changed any of these practices.”
Walker said she didn’t care if her post upset her former professors or broke her ties with the college.
“I’m already comfortable not claiming the institution, and it seems they feel the same in regards to me,” she said. “I refuse to stay silent about the brainwashing that students are faced with daily.”
Tatyana Sampson, another former student, then started an online petition targeting Kelley, in particular. Kelley has “for years” been “known for his inappropriate sexual harassment and behavior towards many of the young men” at the college, Sampson wrote, sharing a photo of an allegedly underage person that Kelley had liked on Instagram. “It is not our job as students to have to fight this, our primary job is learning; but when other higher ups neglect to do anything I find it my duty, as an alum, to say something.”
Next, student Laney Yancey shared her own Facebook post about her experiences studying under Kelley.
“Going to acting school for me, was, and continues to be, a dream. I am from a small town in Kentucky, and have always longed for my college days when I could learn more and more about this art form that has given me a deeper purpose in this life,” she wrote. While her first year delivered on part of that dream, it also “opened my eyes to deep systematic issues that exist [within the college]. These issues had me often feeling enraged, deeply saddened, and confused.” Kelley, in particular, “has created and perpetuated a toxic culture and has been a figurehead in abusing his power in an environment that should be founded on trust, safety, and vulnerability.”
Roosevelt’s performing arts school is a conservatory-style program. And conservatories are known for their intense, demanding and sometimes unconventional teaching methods. But the behaviors that Yancey and others have described go beyond unconventional or demanding.
In Yancey’s acting class alone, she wrote, Kelley allegedly said that she and a classmate “looked like we would have great sex.” While preparing Yancey for a scene, Kelley also allegedly “screamed until he was red in the face, while repetitively calling me bitch. Both of these instances were in front of an entire classroom of my peers.” He allegedly told Yancey that she was a “walking counseling center” when she asked for help with a scene and, in another instance, “threw a chair, slammed several cabinet doors, and then used the exact words of, ‘Slap that cunt,’ while ‘coaching’ a male student in his scene with a female student.”
To other students who also shared their experiences in posts or comments on social media, Yancey said, “I am so proud of all the voices that have been vigilant in posting their own experiences. We do not live in a world where men in power get excused anymore.”
Kelley has not commented publicly on the allegations against him and did not respond to requests for comment over several days.
The college on its Facebook page said, “Please know that the university is now aware of the allegations and is in the process of investigating them." It added, “Please know that the university takes complaints very seriously and also that the university strictly prohibits retaliation.”
Roosevelt “values every member of its community, including current and former students, faculty, and other staff,” the college also said. “It is important to us that these matters be investigated promptly and thoroughly, and that members of our community feel comfortable voicing any and all concerns. We will provide updates on these matters when/as we are able.”
The post provided contacts to make formal complaints. Some students have complained that the contacts don’t yield responses. Others have asked if the university is also investigating the climate concerns raised, beyond Kelley specifically. Some also say that the university was previously notified about Kelley, directly, but did nothing.
Nicole Barron, university spokesperson, also said that the university recently became aware of the allegations on social media and takes them “very seriously.” She confirmed that Roosevelt is investigating but declined additional comment, including as to whether Kelley is on leave.