Student skips music class in protest of “offensive” material

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Timothy McNair says he did not attend class Friday and will most likely fail his music class.

McNair says his music professor, Dr. Nally, emailed him and instructed him to attend class Friday and complete all assigned work.    McNair was not in class. He has contacted the NAACP to file a complaint.   If he fails the class, he could lose his scholarship.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Northwestern University graduate student says he is unwilling to perform the work of a poet he considers offensive and racist.  The school is threatening to fail him if he doesn’t comply.

 Timothy Mcnair

Timothy Mcnair

25-year-old Timothy Mcnair is required to perform three songs at a June 8th concert as part of his music class.  One of them contains the writings of American  poet Walt Whitman.

“We know (he) was historically racist.  He’s called African Americans ‘baboons’ and was for oppressing voting rights,” Timothy said.

Although some may disagree with him, Timothy feels pretty strongly about it.  He says he researched Whitman for a sociology class.  And even though the Whitman poem he’s being asked to perform doesn’t contain any blatant racism, he is insulted by the writer and some of his other work.

He exchanged emails with his music professor, Dr. Nally.  He said he is willing to do extra credit to make up for it.  Dr Nally said Timothy either perform all the selections or be banned from class and receive a failing grade.

“Certainly I do not deserve to fail this class.  I have a 3.7 GPA.  I’m an officer on three committees of this university.  So what is deserving for me?  Is to be able to perform two pieces and have the third piece removed because of the insensitivity.”

But right now it doesn’t look like that will happen.  The school released a statement saying:  “Northwestern University does not comment on academic issues regarding individual students. However, the University’s expectation of all students is that they complete work assigned by their professors.”

Timothy is filing a complaint with the NAACP.

Thursday, he received another e-mail from the professor letting him know that if he wishes to perform all of the songs he has to return to class tomorrow.  Timothy doesn’t plan to do so.

WGNTV reached out to the professor but no comment from him.  He referred to the statement from the university.


  • Music Student

    I'm a class mate of Timothy McNair and I am aware of his issues. This "class" in choir. Every graduate student is required by the University to sing in the choir. He knew this upon coming to Northwestern. As a singer myself, I can assure you that Timothy is not the first person to sing music with which he does not agree. Jewish students in the choir sing sacred motets by Bach, gay students sing love songs about women, and white students sing African American spirituals. Should I not study the music of Wagner because he was an anti-Semite? Mr. McNair would be wise to learn that if you dedicate yourself to a life of music, you commit yourself to something greater than yourself. To art that transcends human boundaries and limitations. Perhaps Timothy should consider the other forty people in the choir he made a commitment to instead of publicity he can get out of this. Talk about making a mountain out of a mole hill. This is not news, this is a student who is looking for validation in all of the wrong ways. Instead of having a closed mind to the writing of Walt Whitman, maybe he could come to the poetry and music with an open mind and try to see what the poet meant, not wrote.

    • bobanmebrudder

      Music Student, I agree 100% with you. Who does he think he is? If the professor gives in to him, then it will set a precedent for all students to do the same thing.

  • Isolde Schmidt

    I would like to bring to public attention the fact that the concert in question, which is described in such a way that makes it sound like a solo concert, is in fact a choral concert. Timothy is singing as a member of an ensemble; an ensemble, I might add, that has other African American students, none of whom have taken issue with the Hansen song.

    Furthermore, Timothy enrolled in the course knowing that in order to complete it successfully he must sing all of the chosen repertoire. He has not been a respectful member of the group for the majority of the quarter (showing up late or not at all for rehearsals of pieces other than the one currently being discussed), and has certainly not made As for the past two quarters (as he claimed in the interview broadcast on the 9pm news). I say this in the hopes that his complaints to do no damage to a very talented choral director, who is totally undeserving of such a selfish attack.

  • Music Student

    I am a voice major at Bienen School of Music and have sung with Timothy before. As a student of music (or any liberal art degree program for that matter), you are required to perform music you may not agree with or relate to. Jewish students are required to sing Lutheran motets by Bach and gay students are required to sing love songs about women. Considered one of the greatest composers of history, Wagner was an anti-Semite. Should we ignore his contribution to the annals of music? Absolutely not. Timothy would do well to realize that when he dedicates himself to a life of creating music, it is about creating something that transcends human boundaries. Maybe Timothy should consider the commitment he made to the other forty members of his choir and realize that he is a part of something bigger than himself. If closed-minded people, like Timothy, were to come at the music of Hansen and the poetry of Whitman without preconceived notions, he may discover what Whitman actually meant, not what he said.

  • McKracken

    This would be a significantly more compelling story if his talent level was on par with his ridiculous shenanigans.

    • Felice

      Although you clearly are lacking in the intelligence department, your logic is that you have to have talent to object to something morally?

      Right…I guess the 4 people who gave your comment a thumbs up are just as clueless as you are as well. Gotta love America…

  • don

    Northwestern is a top tier music school. I think there's more to the story than this. Is someone trying to slap that big old lawsuit lottery? Love the McKracken comment above. I've no clue who any of these people are … but when you go to graduate school, you do as you're told, or you get weeded out. Simple as that.

    • BYOB

      This story is less about whether or not Walt Whitman was a racist and more about the fact that an African American man is being failed for sticking up for his beliefs. In any other class, missing an assignment might result in a lowered grade but certainly not a failing grade. That's what the issue is. And for the record, Walt Whitman did not support giving the right to vote to African Americans. He said that himself! If I was African American, that alone would be highly offensive to me.

      • Anonymous

        That is the most twisted and dark commentary I have read in a while. How does singing a song prevent something from Never happening again? Isn't his action of NOT SINGING a better way to communicate this message? I did not know that being color blind was the prescriptive method to improving human "relations between all races." Wonder how humans would treat each other if we didn't see color. Oh wait, we can look at history….

      • fyre

        Whites have thought for thousands of years that people of other colors were beneath them. Up until quite recently, Africans were quite literally regarded as animals by whites, and the idea of allowing them to have any say in the government was ludicrous. Not even President Lincoln thought them to be the equal of a white man. These white men are a product of their racist times. That does not mean that we ignore thousands of years of inventions, culture and art and go back into the dark ages. You can appreciate the work separately from the creator of it and acknowledge that people and attitudes were very different back then and thankfully a lot has changed.

  • flower

    Sometimes we talk about things in classes at school to learn about the world view of certain people in a certain time. It does not mean that a professor shares the views of people we discuss, but rather is exposing knowledge to students so we can make decisions for ourselves based on successes and failures of those who have gone before us. Even if the poets or composers who created the works we perform were racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, or homophobic, that doesn't change their contribution to the art form. And by discussing them in classes, we as future professionals, can learn how to communicate our ideals and standards in our music for those who will hear it in the future.

  • You'veGOTtobekidding

    Timothy's past aside, I would implore WGN to get the facts right before reporting them, and stop spreading sensationalist stories that clearly show a biased point of view and offer no insight into the intricacies (and insanity) of this situation.

    It would also be nice to not see comments that offer a different viewpoint removed from this forum, as has already happened twice. I'm sure Mr. McNair is behind that, but WGN, stay strong – keep our comments up. We're trying to present the truth of this story and offer a truly journalistic second viewpoint.

    anyway, on with the show…
    This is an extraordinarily selfish attack on an extremely gifted choral conductor with whom McNair obviously has a personal beef. As a colleague of Timothy's at NU/Bienen I can vouch for the fact that Timothy is almost constantly disrespectful and self-centered. He has been a terribly inconsistent and destructive member of the NU choral ensembles, going so far as to drop out of a winter opera performance at the last minute and showing nothing but disrespect and a bad attitude towards Dr. Nally, who is wonderfully professional and diplomatic towards all students' needs. There is no way to do "extra credit" in a choir, for goodness sake. As was stated in a comment that has since been removed, being in a choral ensemble is about being a part of something bigger than oneself. It's about creating music that will transcend human boundaries, regardless of one's own personal beliefs. Muslims and Jews and atheists must perform music about a higher power different from their own when singing Bach and Händel. LGBTQ individuals must sing love songs aimed at those they are unattracted to, and perhaps by poets or composers who did not favor gay rights at the time of the music's composition. Whitman was a product of a different time, and while his supposed comments are undeniably racist and would be totally out of place in the 21st century, they were all too common in the mid-late 19th century when they were made. If Timothy decides he wants nothing to do with racists, he must never wear Tommy Hillfiger clothing again (who once stated he didn't want African Americans wearing his clothes), nor see a movie with Mel Gibson, nor perform anything written by Richard Wagner, a known anti-semite. He also shouldn't read or subscribe to the beliefs of anything written by any of the founding fathers, who all owned slaves. I'm sure you all get my drift.

    • Felice

      You should stop hiding behind the computer. As a colleague of Timothy's you should have addressed and PERSONAL problems with him in a professional manner, yet you come to chastise him on his personal beliefs.

      Although you are speaking from a biased point of view, we clearly didn't watch the same video because there was NO direct attack on Dr. Nally.

      STOP making things personal and present some non-biased facts…you know the same ones you are imploring WGN to present.

      • anon

        Funny, because I too am a colleague of Feli… I mean, Timothy's, and I've noticed that he seems only to be capable of hiding behind a computer…..

        just a thought.

      • Lauren

        Felice and Timothy are not the same person, as you are implying. I go to school with both of them, know both of them, and they are definitely different people.

    • Huh?

      It's sad to see graduate level music students @ Northwestern stoop to your level. Unbelievable. Perhaps the music school should require their students to take history and critical thinking courses or maybe you should just sing and not ever offer your unthoughtful commentary again. How does one create "music that transcends human boundaries regardless of one's personal beliefs?" Is this your construct or what you have learned at Northwestern?

    • Todd Pardee

      He should also have nothing to do with the other racists like Malcolm X, MLK, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They are as driven by black racism as Walt Whitman was by the white racism of his time.

  • Anonymous

    If people walked out of the classroom for the offensive things we learn about in history…a lot of people would receive failing grades…In the past, there were people who were a product of their time–not that their horrible, racist, antisemitic, ****phobic opinions are acceptable by any means–We need to learn about history and understand it to move on into the future and as we say in remembrance for the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust due to such terrible hatred "NEVER AGAIN."

    To ignore the past is to make it repeat again.

    I understand that this isn't a history class…but the music being sung is by no means racist. It is a song celebrating academia in America, as we should. Timothy should be singing this song and celebrate the fact that his people, such as Martin Luther King Jr., fought hard for him to be able to get an excellent education at such a celebrated institution as Northwestern University. He should sing this song and also celebrate the fact that Northwestern has a African American studies department that teaches students about how his people were oppressed in the past…so that it NEVER happens again and that we CONTINUE TO IMPROVE RELATIONS BETWEEN ALL RACES AND NO LONGER SEE COLOR!

    This song celebrates the importance of education…not the "superior Anglo-Saxon" race.

    Timothy…please re-look at the importance of a piece of music like this by HERBERT HANSON (not Walt Whitman)…It is about the importance of educating every American…not just one race…

  • Muckraker

    I am thoroughly disgusted that WGN felt the need to not only report this non-story with atrocious sensationalism and bias but did so as the leading story of the day on their broadcast.

  • Somebody Out There

    Maybe if we continue to downvote Tim's multiple personalities commenting on this post he will… I don't know what he could do to make this okay in any way.

  • kirby1414

    Great post – Couldn't have said it better…

    If I walked out of every situation in my life that I didn't agree with or was uncomfortable with, I don't know where I would be…Learn to deal with it – it's LIFE ! ! !

  • Me, Myself and I

    okay … a lot of people from the past as well as the here and now have personal prejudices! It doesn't mean its okay but it makes us human. If the songs are not racist, then he needs to either man up and do his homework OR take the failing grade. If i felt that strong about it, I'd take the failing grade…. BUT to take it to court, thats a little too much.

  • Professor

    Mr. McNair needs to sing the song and move on with his life. This is America, and many of the works that he will sing and read (e.g., in the sociology class referenced in the WGN story) were likely written by racists. This should come as no surprise to a student in a graduate program the caliber of Northwestern University.

    I could understand if a first or second year undergraduate made such an argument, due to the intellectual immaturity of the typical freshman or sophomore. In fact, I once had two undergraduates refuse, on moral grounds, to read an article about drag shows and answer a few questions about it in one of my sociology classes. Like McNair, the students asked for an alternative assignment and I informed them that was not an option. They took the zero instead.

  • Kate Lasswell

    This seems like a surprisingly immature response from a graduate student. One would expect a better sense of self as well as a more profound understanding of education from a young man of his abilities. Nothing about the performance would belittle him. The same cannot be said for a spurious excuse for not doing the work necessary to achieve a graduate degree at a prestegious university under the tutelage of some of the finest professors in the country.

  • Professor

    While possible for an undergraduate to recover from such foolishness, a failing grade for a graduate student would be absolutely devastating. Having attended Georgetown University as an undergraduate and The University of Chicago as a graduate student, I have seen the adverse effects of a single bad decision on one's academic and professional career. Racist or not, Mr. McNair should make a selfish decision and sing the song. He will thank himself later when he is old and wise enough to appreciate both intellectually and culturally what his professor is trying to get him to learn.

  • Mtrig

    The evolving concept of not judging people by the color of their skin, eyes or hair is relatively new. People a few generations ago mostly accepted the idea that one culture or one race was better than another. Thankfully we are making strides to break down some of these concepts, small strides but still strides in the right direction. To reject Whitman by the standards of the 21st century is turning your back on education and art and makes the world worse off. Would you reject studying Wagner because he was a dyed in the wool anti semite? Would you not study Jane Austen because she was an Anglo elitist?
    There is some flawed logic in this young man's argument.

  • WillieTheWildcat

    What I find to be so utterly terrible about this situation is Timothy's complete lack of empathetic concern for everyone he has met at Northwestern University this past year. He could have spent his first year at Northwestern making positive connections with faculty & students, being friendly, and contributing to the wonderful musical community that exists here in Evanston. Instead, he managed to alienate himself from everyone with whom he worked and turned almost every student against him with his absolutely foul, holier-than-thou attitude.

    Truly, it's sad that he has not been able to make many friends. I know that if I were to go to a new school and not make a successful transition, I would be frustrated. But he is being nearly sociopathic with his complete lack of regard for anyone else's feelings by attacking a beloved, respected professor like Dr. Nally. He has attempted to disrupt the music making at Northwestern with this ridiculous display of vanity and self-centeredness, and has failed to do so.

    I think Timothy should leave Northwestern quietly, and eat a big piece of humble pie before the non-academic music world chews him alive and spits him back out. What is he gaining by acting this way toward people that openly embraced his talent by giving him a spot at their university? How is he being a mature person by attempting to sully the program that had so much faith in his potential that they gave him a full scholarship? It's insulting to everyone already at Northwestern that he is doing this and validates all feelings of skepticism we have developed towards him as the year has progressed.

  • Anonymous

    What a disgrace, not only to the music community, but to the African-American community as well. How long will this student be allowed to pull the "racism card" to disguise his ineptitude as a musician and as a human being? Shame on this young man.

  • Mindforms

    We can only assume he would not read or sing the Declaration of Independence since it was written by a slave holder and abuser of black women.

  • msgmoney7

    Is he not being a racist himself? He needs to fail if he does not complete his assignment. Too bad for him that he is allowing his emotions to run him. In order to be complete and a scholar you must be able to critically think. He seems more focused on his own agenda and winning. Your professors are masters and scholars and this has noting to do with oppression or racism. If your in college and achieving a higher education do as your instructed, that is what bothers me. The lack of respect for teachers or scholars who know so much more than students. Suck it up pal and do the work. Make the rest of us proud who went before you and did things we did not agree with either but learned from the experience. This is so ignorant. If you wanted to be coddled as a black man you should of attended a Historically black University like I did.. Be glad you attended an American Institution and learned more about all history and not just one. racism sucks. Unfortunately it occurs in all races and not just out of history. man it up and GROW up. You are asking for hate by bringing the race card into music for no reason other than what some person in history beliefs were. remember MLK and move your ass into a different realm. Shame on you.

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