After a Title IX investigation into his conduct became public last year, conductor Carlos Kalmar is suing the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he served as director of orchestral studies before “enter[ing] into a leave of absence” in September, for between $5 and $260 million in damages.
The federal suit was filed in the Northern District of Ohio’s eastern division on January 31, according to court documents. Kalmar and his wife, Raffaela—represented by Cleveland-based law firm Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP—are listed as plaintiffs. CIM president and CEO Paul Hogle, provost Scott Harrison, conservatory dean and vice president for academic and student affairs Dean Southern, former Title IX coordinator Vivian Scott, and the school are named as defendants.
The filings accuse CIM—and specifically Scott, Harrison, and Southern—of “illegal disclosure of Maestro Kalmar as the target of a federal Title IX investigation, including false and defamatory statements and inferences that he engaged in sexual misconduct before any investigation had occurred.” The filings also claim Kalmar’s leave was “involuntary” and charge CIM and Hogle with breach of contract for “constructively terminating his employment.”
Kalmar’s lawyers contend in the court filing that his professional reputation has since been “irreversibly destroyed” by the negative publicity surrounding the investigation, calling the students who protested his return to campus a “misinformed and misled mob.”
“Maestro Kalmar’s reputation, earned over a lifetime, has been ruined; he has been ‘canceled;’ his professional opportunities to earn a living, previously abundant and lucrative, have evaporated. The emotional toll on Maestro Kalmar and his wife, Plaintiff Raffaella [sic] Kalmar, has been profound,” the filing reads.
Susan Rothmann, the chair of CIM’s board of trustees, disclosed the lawsuit to conservatory employees in an email sent the same day as the court filings.
“CIM will vigorously defend itself against the allegations but will not issue any further comment on the matter at this time,” Rothmann’s email reads.
A CIM spokesperson confirmed that Kalmar had filed a complaint in federal court against the organization but declined to comment further, citing the litigation and confidential personnel matters.
The lawsuit comes at a time when faculty, students, and staff have deep reservations about the beleaguered conservatory’s future. CIM faces high staff turnover rates, flagging fundraising, and a projected $600,000 deficit as of last spring, despite its “moonshot” vision to reduce enrollment and become tuition-free by 2030. In the wake of what some perceived as a mishandled Title IX investigation, allegations surrounding Kalmar’s hiring process—which sources say circumvented typical hiring practices and resulted in an unusual multi-year contract, the latter now confirmed by documentation in Kalmar’s court filings—also became lightning rods for discontent.
The lawsuit follows a tumultuous fall semester at CIM. Trumpet department head, brass division chair, and Cleveland Orchestra principal trumpet Michael Sachs resigned abruptly from the conservatory in October, and three public petitions criticized the conservatory’s senior leadership or requested their resignation. A VAN investigation found at least six faculty members’ hiring letters were withheld in December, pending meetings with the school’s leadership or contingent on improved relations with upper administration. Four of the six have served on the executive committee of CIM’s faculty senate in recent years, echoing a public accusation by Rothmann in October that CIM owed its spate of bad press to a few disgruntled faculty senate members.
“No faculty members go in to talk with the provost or with Paul [Hogle] without a lawyer. It’s come to that,” said Lynne Ramsey, on faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music and a recently retired violist in the Cleveland Orchestra.
Nearly 20 sources spoke to VAN for this follow-up story. Most spoke under condition of anonymity, citing fears of retaliation that had worsened since VAN’s initial report. Most faculty—on one-year contracts, unlike Kalmar—remain particularly vulnerable at the institution.
“At the end of the day, we’re all adjunct,” a faculty member told VAN.
Despite the fracas, CIM reported several steadying benchmarks over the semester. According to internal reports and a December press release, applications are up, in keeping with current trends in American higher education. The school hired the multifaceted pianist Gabriela Montero as its inaugural artist in residence, and established a graduate saxophone studio. A $3.5 million scholarship endowment, announced on September 27, completed a planned gift from a late trustee already secured by the school. And according to a CIM press release, Rothmann, the CIM board chair widely targeted by public petitions and other criticism trailing the conservatory, was unanimously reelected last month.
A spokesperson said the application figures cited in CIM’s December press release remained accurate but declined to answer 10 additional questions posed by VAN for this follow-up, citing its policy not to comment on personnel matters.
As cited in Kalmar’s court filings, CIM was thrust into the spotlight last April when its former Title IX officer, Vivian Scott, sent an all-student email entitled “I need your help to do something about this!” In it, Scott announced she was opening a Title IX investigation into Kalmar, referencing “inappropriate behavior of varying degrees.”
“It was with great horror that I read one of Carlos Kalmar’s course evaluations. This is not the first time that I have heard his name,” she wrote.
Scott was subsequently suspended from her position, then laid off along with four other staff members in July. A Title IX investigation, independently conducted by Cleveland-based law firm BakerHostetler, cleared Kalmar of wrongdoing, according to an August 8 announcement by conservatory dean and vice president for academic and student affairs Dean Southern.
Despite the investigation’s findings, many students still rejected Kalmar’s presence on campus. Though Kalmar was found innocent of sexual misconduct, campus sources alleged broader patterns of unprofessionalism and bullying during his tenure as orchestral studies director to VAN last year—behaviors, they said, that disproportionately targeted female musicians.
On September 13, the majority of the CIM orchestra attended the semester’s first rehearsal without their instruments. They were joined by approximately 100 additional student protesters in the audience of Kulas Hall, as well as several CIM faculty members.
As promised after the protest, CIM administrators met with students by the end of the month to discuss their concerns about the program. On September 26, Hogle and CIM provost Scott Harrison hosted a 90-minute “listening session” in Mixon Hall to field student concerns and plot a path forward for the school’s orchestral studies program.
The week before the protest, on September 7, more than a dozen Cleveland Orchestra musicians on CIM’s faculty convened their own meeting with Kalmar on campus. The 90-minute meeting was tense, according to five attendees. Musicians confronted Kalmar about his alleged bullying behavior towards their students, and, in one case, towards themselves: a Cleveland Orchestra musician accused Kalmar of making disparaging remarks after his audition for the Oregon Symphony years before, when he was beginning his career.
“We said some very, very blunt and frank things to him,” one musician told VAN.
Ramsey brought up a specific incident in which Kalmar had allegedly “belittled” one of her students, speaking to her in a mock baby voice about her seat assignment a few inches from her face. According to four sources who attended the meeting, Kalmar calmly maintained he did not recall this incident, nor others. (Kalmar did not provide a comment to VAN by press time.)
“I said this was incredibly upsetting to my student, and it’s incredibly unprofessional. He said, ‘I have no recollection,’” Ramsey told VAN.
On September 30, CIM provost Scott Harrison announced via email to conservatory students, faculty and staff that Kalmar had “entered into a leave of absence,” initially through the end of the semester—a leave Kalmar claims was involuntary, according to his court filings. Conductors Anthony Parnther and Sameer Patel replaced him on the podium for the two planned orchestra concerts.
“We know that this decision will disappoint many—including the faculty members, trustees and alumni who served on his search committee, and our students and alumni, who have been consistent and courageous advocates for Mr. Kalmar’s work to revitalize and elevate our orchestra program to its next level of achievement,” Harrison’s email continued. “We are grateful for his commitment to the conservatory and all that he has accomplished.”
After Kalmar’s departure, CIM’s leadership went on the defensive. In an email to CIM faculty, staff, and board members on October 5, Rothmann, CIM’s board chair, said a “few faculty senate members” were responsible for sowing discord at the institution. (For its initial investigation, VAN spoke with nearly 30 faculty, staff members, and students.) The following day, the conservatory published a webpage entitled “CIM Fact-Check.”
However, the webpage largely evades specific claims about the learning environment at the conservatory made by students, staff, and alumni. “CIM Fact-Check” contests allegations that former Title IX officer Scott—a joint hire with the Cleveland Institute of Art—was fired in retribution, instead saying that she was laid off. “CIM is not immune to the financial challenges facing educational institutions and, regrettably, found that this approach to a dedicated Title IX employee at CIM was not sustainable,” it reads.
“CIM Fact-Check” also sidesteps the claim that Kalmar’s search committee never went to a formal vote. Instead, it cites “email and text transcripts” of faculty, search committee, students, staff, and trustee endorsements which, the site says, “expressed resolute support for the hiring of Mr. Kalmar.”
“When negotiations began with Mr. Kalmar, CIM orchestra faculty leadership—many of whom served on the search committees—again expressed support for his hire, including the comments, ‘Great news! Thank you to everyone who helped make this happen…This is indeed very exciting news for the future of our orchestral program and the school altogether,’” the webpage reads.
The same week CIM leadership published Rothmann’s letter and “CIM Fact-Check,” Sachs, the principal trumpet of the Cleveland Orchestra and CIM’s brass division head, announced his resignation from the school in a public Facebook post. He said he tendered his resignation on October 6, shortly after receiving an email requesting to meet with HR and CIM’s legal counsel over “a statement which [he has] never made.”
“This incident was not the first baseless attack by members of CIM’s administration on my character, reputation, and integrity. Because I will not tolerate any further such attacks, I made the decision to resign from all positions that I held with the Cleveland Institute of Music, effective immediately,” Sachs’s post reads.
Sachs wrote in a separate statement to VAN that his departure was “precipitated by a number of events,” but that “the final straw came for me when CIM ventured into the realm of making false accusations and legal threats to intimidate those who had voiced legitimate concerns.”
“When any institution crosses that line, it ceases to be a safe workplace,” Sachs wrote. “I loved and valued my 35 years on the faculty and sincerely hope that CIM’s board and administration can find a path forward that is guided by integrity.”
The day Sachs resigned, a second faculty member was accused of making the same statement—“we’ll burn this place down and try to rebuild it from the ashes”—in a nearly identical email from CIM’s vice president of people and culture, Tamatha Belton. In her email, a copy of which was provided to VAN, Belton claimed the phrase had been repeated over multiple meetings.
“In these times when every campus is on high alert with serious security concerns, I’m confident you’d agree this type of language can be considered incendiary and inflammatory. It could also be considered a conduct policy violation,” she wrote. (Belton did not respond to VAN’s requests for comment.)
The contents of the emails sent to both Sachs and the second faculty member were corroborated by more than half a dozen sources who had seen one or both emails. None of the faculty sources interviewed by VAN recalled Sachs or the second faculty member making the statement quoted in CIM’s email.
In interviews with VAN, Sachs’s colleagues and students seemed to be reeling from his departure. His regular repertoire reading sectionals for winds and brass exposed students to music beyond what was covered in CIM’s orchestra and became a “gold standard” in preprofessional training, a colleague said. The studio Sachs shared with Cleveland Orchestra fourth trumpet Michael Miller is likewise highly regarded inside and outside the conservatory: some 70 percent of its alumni still work in music professionally or semi-professionally. That such a privileged relationship “was allowed to deteriorate to the point that” Sachs left was shocking, a faculty member told VAN.
“The ease with which they accepted his resignation was extraordinary. They don’t understand how much this man had poured into CIM—his time, his talent, his organizational abilities,” said another colleague. “Is this what we’re worth as musicians?”
After his resignation, Sachs was hired by the Curtis Institute of Music for the 2024–25 school year—the same conservatory whose tuition-free model inspired CIM’s “moonshot” initiative. Three visiting trumpet faculty have been hired to temporarily plug Sachs’s teaching gap while the school searches for a permanent replacement.
“From its very inception, [the studio] has always been led by the principal trumpet of the Cleveland Orchestra. That’s kind of the whole point,” a faculty member said. “Students will study with whomever, then, on the weekends, they’ll go down to Severance Hall and hear Michael [Sachs] and say, ‘How do I get a lesson with that guy?’”
Shortly after Sachs’ resignation, two hundred of the school’s 350 students signed a petition—dated October 15 and hand-delivered to CIM trustees’ homes—calling on Hogle and Rothmann to step down. The petition claimed that five of the six students in CIM’s trumpet studio planned to withdraw; a source within the studio has since scaled back that count, with three “actively exploring transfer options” at time of publication. A petition organized by CIM alumni with 641 signatures followed, as well as another petition signed by 72 of Sachs’ current and former students.
Cleveland Orchestra bassist and former CIM parent Henry Peyrebrune posted his own letter to CIM’s board on Facebook a few days after Sachs quit. He told VAN he initially intended to keep his letter private between himself, the board of trustees, and a few CIM faculty members “who reviewed [his] letter for accuracy.” After sending it to the board, Peyrebrune said “several” more faculty members contacted him separately, encouraging him to share it publicly on their behalf.
“I was shocked and dismayed to read Tammie Belton’s threatening email to Michael Sachs, which falsely mischaracterized his opinions and prompted his resignation on Friday,” his letter read. “This seems to be part of a distressing pattern of departures from CIM driven by an intolerance for dissent or disagreement.”
That perception has only been bolstered by the most recent conflict over faculty contract renewal. Faculty members voiced variations on the same fear: If CIM’s leadership was content to let someone of Sachs’s stature leave, anyone could be next.
“We’ve entered a new era of ‘comply or be fired,’” a faculty member told VAN.
Class resumed at CIM earlier this month. The holiday break, students and faculty agreed, felt far too short. They return to a campus that’s as bitterly divided as it was in the fall, if not more so. Now facing a multimillion dollar suit, CIM’s fiscal prognosis, too, is cloudier than ever.
“It’s unsettling; it’s very distracting to our education,” said one undergraduate student. “We’re here to learn, not to protest.” ¶