After a Showdown, Juilliard’s President Retains Support of Board

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

But earlier this year Kovner told Woetzel that an internal evaluation had found a lack of confidence in his leadership and asked him to resign by the end of June, a year before the end of his contract, according to a letter Woetzel sent to the school’s trustees that was obtained by The New York Times.

Woetzel fought back and succeeded in rallying support behind him, getting testimonials from several eminent artists including the trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, who directs Juilliard’s jazz program, and the pianist Emanuel Ax, a leading member of the faculty. And he wrote in his letter to trustees that the performance review “was extraordinary and highly inconsistent with best practice in nonprofit governance — it was conceived, initiated and managed by our board chairman.”

Things came to a head at a board meeting last month. The trustees, when informed of the evaluation and Kovner’s recommendation that Woetzel be eased out, declined to do so. Kovner, long the school’s biggest benefactor, is planning to step down this June after 22 years as its chairman, a move that one associate said had long been planned.

Kovner declined to comment, and Juilliard provided a statement from the board to The New York Times in which it said that “at its most recent meeting, the board strongly reaffirmed its support for President Damian Woetzel” and the 10-year strategic plan that the school created in 2019.

The statement said that 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 exceptional faculty, staff and management.”

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

Given Kovner’s immense influence as Juilliard’s biggest patron — and as an important figure at Lincoln Center, Juilliard’s home, where he serves on the board and has given large sums — some were surprised to see Woetzel prevail. One trustee likened it to a David and Goliath story.

Woetzel, 54 — who earned a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard while still dancing — has built a national reputation, having directed the Aspen Institute Arts Program and the Vail International Dance Festival and served on President Barack Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Kovner, 75, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $6.2 billion, has been something of a permanent government at Juilliard, having served as chairman for an unusually long time. With his wife, Suzie, Kovner’s gifts have included $25 million toward a new wing and scholarships in 2005; a trove of precious music 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 biggest donors to the redevelopment of the performing arts complex, serves on the board of the Metropolitan Opera and was formerly a trustee of the New York Philharmonic.

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

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

The review was designed and conducted by Kovner and J. Christopher Kojima, a vice chairman, Woetzel’s letter to the board said. His letter said that it was “not conducted at an arm’s length distance by an independent party as is best practice for nonprofit institutions of our scale.”

The responses included 143 comments, more than three-quarters of which were negative, according to someone privy to a summary of the report who was granted anonymity to describe this sensitive personnel matter.

The feedback amounted to several key criticisms, according to the summary, which was described to The Times: that Woetzel focused on performance instead of education; had weak administrative leadership; failed to consult faculty members on key decisions; and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

A question about confidence in Juilliard’s future met with a negative response from 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 communicated — on behalf of the Executive Committee — that my service as president would be terminated prior to the end of my contract, and that the decision was ‘irrevocable,’” Woetzel wrote in the letter to trustees.

“Having communicated to me this intent to terminate,” the letter said, “Bruce then emailed me an offer of a severance package that would include a jointly crafted statement that would create a false narrative that I was resigning as of June 30th.”

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

On Feb. 4, Kovner sent the results of the evaluation to the full board, saying the findings were concerning and would be discussed at the regularly scheduled board meeting four days later.

Woetzel marshaled support from a number of prominent artists and colleagues, who sent letters to the board in advance of the meeting.

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

“I feel how we are going about this brings our ethics into question,” Marsalis continued. “This attempt to remove him seems to be poorly thought out, poorly executed, and it will place a stain on our institution that even our love of resources and fragile spirit will not easily remove.”

The trombone player Weston Sprott, who is the dean of Juilliard’s Preparatory Division, warned in an email to Ax, an influential faculty member, that “a decision to terminate Damian will be incredibly harmful to the institution.”

“In the midst of managing the bumps and bruises that could be expected in navigating the national reckoning regarding racial injustice,” Sprott continued, “Damian has put together perhaps the most diverse, inclusive and successful leadership team in our industry — one that is respected by students and faculty and is the envy of its competitors.”

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

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

At Juilliard, Woetzel has made several noteworthy advances, securing a $50 million gift to expand the school’s weekend training program aimed largely at Black and Latino schoolchildren; filling several key positions; and guiding the school through the challenging two years of the pandemic.

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

Last June, students protested a planned tuition increase, occupying parts of Juilliard’s Lincoln Center campus and holding street demonstrations. (Several other leading music and drama schools offer free tuition.)

Kovner, who made his fortune as a hedge fund manager, has contributed extensively to conservative causes and has served on the boards of the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute, both right-leaning 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 headlined “The Revolution Comes to Juilliard: Racial hysteria is consuming the school; unchecked, it will consume the arts.”

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

Now Juilliard is preparing for the next chapter. This week the school’s Duke Ellington Ensemble was scheduled to perform a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Juilliard Jazz at the Chelsea Factory, a new arts space.