What happened after a U of M music professor was arrested on sex abuse charges
Thursday morning, on a quiet Ann Arbor street, agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Child Exploitation Investigations Unit arrested a master violin teacher and former longtime University of Michigan music professor at his home.
Stephen Shipps, 68, was charged with two counts of transporting a minor girl across state lines in 2002, “with the intent that such individual engage in sexual activity,” according to an indictment unsealed the same morning.
In interviews, prosecutors attempt to paint a picture of a man who closely mentored talented female musicians from a young age – girls and young women who dedicated their whole lives to making it in the competitive, insular world of conservatories and classical music.
“What's important to know about Steven Shipps is his reach went far beyond the University of Michigan,” Matthew Schneider, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said in an interview. “He was a world-renowned professor of violin. And he especially interacted with many, many young girls across the globe.... And so we're really concerned about the fact that there could be other victims out there.”
Facing up to 15 years in prison if convicted, Shipps appeared in a Detroit courtroom later that afternoon, wearing a white face mask and a green Oxford shirt, his thick head of white hair bowed. In an arraignment hearing via Zoom, Shipps’ attorney, John Shea, told a federal judge he and his client hadn’t had a chance to discuss the charges yet, since Shipps was arrested just “hours earlier.”
The judge agreed to reschedule the hearing for next week, and released Shipps on a $10,000 bond with numerous conditions, including that he submit to GPS monitoring and not have contact with minors.
“Stephen, call me when you’re released, please,” Shea (who later declined to comment on this case) told Shipps. “Your wife is on the way.”
The woman who was willing to put her name on the record
The same morning of Shipps’ arrest, Associate Professor Maureen O’Boyle was preparing for a packed day of teaching music students at the University of Tulsa. Then she got a call from her sister. “And she told me. And then I had to go to school, and I’ve been teaching ever since,” O’Boyle said by phone Thursday evening.
Two years earlier, the student newspaper theMichigan Dailypublished a bombshell investigation revealing decades of sexual misconduct allegations against Shipps, including O’Boyle’s.
The article was the first time O’Boyle had spoken publicly about what she says happened in the late 1970s, when she was a talented 17-year-old violin student in Omaha, Nebraska. At the time, Shipps had been her mentor, she says, and she’d babysit his daughter and take lessons at his house. Then one night, Shipps sexually assaulted her, she says, after getting her drunk and high. Things changed after that.
“I babysat regularly, often spending the night in the spare bedroom,” O’Boyle told the Daily in 2018. “Sometimes we had violin lessons; sometimes Steve just wanted a blowjob on the couch.”
On Thursday, in Tulsa, O’Boyle recalls being contacted by the Daily during the paper’s investigation into Shipps. The paper needed a source willing to use their full name, she recalls.
“I was like, ‘Oh, yuck. No.’ [And then] what I realized is that they were looking for a way to stop something that is still happening now,” O’Boyle recalls.
“And when I saw that [Shipps was still teaching at the time in 2018], I was horrified. I think there was a part of me that somehow thought, ‘Oh, that must have just been me,’ or I don't know, it was such a weird situation. And so to get some information like, no, this is still essentially happening. And the only way to get this article to come out and have some impact is if there's somebody willing to give a name. I was like that, ‘I can totally do that. I'm totally going to do it.’”
The student reporter who brought down a professor
Sammy Sussman learned about Shipps' arrest while he was working the register at a bubble tea cafe in downtown Ann Arbor. His phone started pinging with texts and emails from sources he’d been in touch with ever since Sussman, currently a 21-year-old classical composer and bassist, started investigating Shipps.
“It’s pretty insane. I’m not really sure that I've had kind of the time to think about it, or that I could cogently put it all into words,” Sussman said, walking home from work Thursday afternoon.
“At the time that I was doing that reporting, I was a sophomore in the [University of Michigan] School of Music, [Theater & Dance.] And so I would walk by [Shipps’] office every day and watch my female colleagues, some of whom I was friends with, go in and out of that office. And I would just question if the 40 years of alleged abuse I was uncovering was continuing in those lessons.”
In October of 2018, Sussman – who had written for the Daily's art section previously – began digging into the existence of a 2017 email sent to the then-dean by an anonymous woman.
“She said [in that email,] ‘I allege that I experienced statutory rape at the hands of your professor, Steven Shipps. I'd like you to address that,’” Sussman says. “I'm paraphrasing here, of course, and I've reported this. But the University of Michigan took over a year to respond to that email. The University Michigan Police Department finally responded to that email, after they became aware of my reporting in November, about two weeks before it was published.”
From there, Sussman worked his way back through Shipps' career, from his time at Omaha in the 70s, to years teaching at prestigious North Carolina music program, to being hired at the University of Michigan in 1989. The sources he spoke to described a consistent pattern: Shipps would take them on as his students, working closely with them in intensive, physically demanding lessons at competitive programs.
One college student says Shipps tried to force himself on her. Others, ranging from a middle schooler at a preparatory academy in Ann Arbor to current U of M faculty, reported unwanted touching and inappropriate sexual remarks.
And another woman, called “Anne” in the 2018 piece, shared diary entries she’d made in the 1980s, when she was a 16-year-old student of Shipps’ in North Carolina. Shipps, who was in his 30s at the time, began “an ongoing sexual relationship with her,” the Daily reported.
As O’Boyle learned of the other allegations, she felt somehow responsible.
“It just really makes me sad that I didn't have a way to even attempt to do anything about it at the time,” O’Boyle says. “That was the thing. For a couple of months, I really was like: Forty years! Forty years I gave him the chance to keep doing that. So then sometimes, I feel like I sort of have a duty to do what I can at this point, having done nothing at all.”
The massive piece was published December 10, 2018. That same month, Shipps was put on leave.
“The University of Michigan strongly condemns all sexual misconduct,” University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said in an email to Michigan Radio on Thursday.
“Whether this reprehensible conduct takes place now or took place in the past, it is unacceptable. Stephen Shipps was placed on administrative leave Dec. 7, 2018, shortly after the university learned of these allegations about him. He was instructed at that time to have no contact with students, never returned to campus and retired from the university effective Feb. 28, 2019. The university cooperated fully with the federal investigation.”
The ripple effects, then and now
For Mauren O’Boyle, seeing that article come out in 2018 was a more visceral experience than learning of the criminal charges now facing Shipps.
“Him being arrested feels less real than him being taken off campus, you know? I teach at a university. I know what every professor’s door looks like: you’ve got stuff on there from like 1983. And the picture that led that headline the day that he was off campus, was a blank bulletin board of a blank door. And that to me was a gut reaction of, ‘Ok, we’re done.’”
Since her story became public, O’Boyle says she’s received mixed reactions. Women around her age have shared their own similar experiences, she says. But others have brushed it off.
“The men that I talked to, men who are friends, are like, ‘Well, I don't think that's really that bad,’” O’Boyle says. One told her it sounded like sexual fantasy. “I've had a lot of men react that way.... It was kind of like, ‘Well, you know, what are you gonna do? You’re a teacher, you’ve got beautiful young students, what are you gonna do?’”
“I'm like, ‘I don't know. You have a violin lesson. That's what I do. That's what I usually do during violin lessons.’”
Sussman says he’s encountered unexpected reactions in his own life, too.
“I've also noticed in the music school, I've seen how the way that people interact with me, especially some of our older faculty, has changed in light of this reporting,” he says.
Currently, Sussman is taking a year off from school, given how challenging in-person musical training has become during the pandemic, he says. But when the story came out in 2018, Shipps’ removal set off waves of anxiety in the music school, he says. Classical music is not a world that’s welcomed accountability, Sussman believes.
“There was one professor that I worked with very closely right around the time this report came out. And he said, ‘Am I next? Are you going to write about me?’ And I didn’t know what to say at first,” Sussman says.
“And I tried to say, ‘If I start talking to your former students, are there going to be, you know, eight to 10 people who are going to allege sexual misconduct against you? And then 40 or 50 people who are going to allege that they were aware of that misconduct at the time?’ And he said, ‘Of course not.’ And so there’s such a misperception there.”