Former Roosevelt BFA student Netta Walker receiving a Jeff Award, in June Credit: Joe Mazza

Roosevelt University is welcoming a new executive director of its landmark Auditorium Theatre this week—but the face is familiar. The new CEO, hired after a search that had some painful moments, is Rich Regan, the Auditorium’s well-regarded general manager from 1999 to 2006. He’s been hired away from Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he was vice president and general manager of Presentations and Events.

Rich ReganCredit: Courtesy Roosevelt University

Regan will be filling the vacancy left by the July 2018 departure of Tania Castroverde Moskalenko after less than two years on the job. And he’ll be facing the imminent loss of the theater’s longtime anchor tenant, the Joffrey Ballet. In spite of the fact that there will be no more perfect setting for its acclaimed White City production of the Nutcracker than the 1891-vintage Auditorium, the Joffrey’s moving in with Lyric Opera next fall.

This is a sort of musical chairs, but less fun. The CEO search process became so contentious it triggered the resignations of 16 members of the Auditorium Theatre board of directors—including the chairman, John Svoboda. In a letter from eight of them, dated June 3 (posted by Crain’s Chicago Business), the departing directors complained that the university—which won a bitter legal battle with a previous board contingent over control of the theater years ago—was hampering their efforts. They pointed a finger at Roosevelt University president Ali Malekzadeh.

After meeting with the president, two prime candidates for the CEO job withdrew from consideration, the board members wrote, while their own efforts to meet with Malekzadeh were stymied. Under the circumstances, they concluded, “we lack confidence in the future outlook for the Theatre.”

And that wasn’t the worst disruption in Roosevelt’s summer. On that same June day, Netta Walker, a dropout from Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, won a Non-Equity Jeff Award for outstanding work in Raven Theatre’s production of Yen and was inspired to go public with her own complaints about discrimination and abuse in the program. Her June 4 Facebook post attracted hundreds of comments amplifying her complaints, and led to a petition on demanding the ouster of faculty member Sean Kelley, who’d been the longtime associate dean of CCPA’s theater conservatory. (Attempts to reach Kelley were unsuccessful.)

It’s no secret that Roosevelt, like many tuition-dependent private colleges, has been struggling. The refinancing of $195 million of debt last year—most of it attributable to the cost of the 32-story Wabash dormitory and classroom tower that opened in 2012—bought it some breathing room. But attendance is down from 7,600 in 2008 to less than 4,400. And for a school whose mission since its founding in 1945 has been to counter the quotas that kept Blacks, Jews, and other minorities out of other colleges, the kind of charges made by Walker are especially egregious.

Here’s part of an early paragraph from Walker’s Facebook post: “The BFA program at Roosevelt University 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. This program is still heavily run by white men, and has not changed any of these practices.”

Comments added to the post pointed to sexual harassment as well—mostly inappropriate comments, touching, and unwanted kisses planted on young men—and a “toxic” environment in some classes that, even when reported, those posting said, was ignored. In an interview last week, Walker, who dropped out after her junior year, said she’d watched a student get “waterboarded” in class, supposedly in order to elicit an emotional response. “You expect an element of vulnerability in a theater class,” she said. “But when you cross the line of physical and emotional abuse to get a response, that is not technique. You don’t need someone to call you a slut or tell you you’re worthless in order to learn how to act.”

Within a week, the university issued a statement on its own Facebook page saying it took these accusations seriously and was investigating. This was followed, a few weeks later, with an announcement that “the faculty member against whom the majority of the allegations were asserted is no longer with the university.” In addition, “all new and continuing faculty and administration in CCPA will receive training, on at least an annual basis, regarding important issues such as discrimination, harassment and complaint handling.”

This, Walker said, is “one massive step in the right direction.” But “it wasn’t just one teacher,” she added. “It spanned years, with multiple people. It’s about fixing all of the structural issues, and that’s not going to be an overnight thing.” v