Benjamin Millepied left the Opera de Paris because of racism in the ballet world

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In February 2016, we learned – quite suddenly – that Benjamin Millepied had left his position as dance director of the Opera de Paris. While it’s true that all of us blogging gossip-mongers normally don’t follow the comings and goings of the ballet world, Millepied’s exit was international news for several reasons. The biggest reason is that he’s married to Natalie Portman, and she had made such a big deal about moving to France with Benjamin and how the French were so much better than Americans and she loved France, etc. And then suddenly after Millepied’s exit, they moved back to America and everything in America was the best. Millepied’s exit was also interesting because the gossip for years had been that he was less of a ballet expert and more of a self-promoting fundraiser – that he had gotten the position at the Opera de Paris because of his celebrity connection and his ability to raise money, not because he knows everything about ballet. The gossip in Paris was basically that Millepied left before he got fired for being a terrible manager.

Well, apparently someone made a documentary about Millepied’s brief tenure at the Opera de Paris, and why he really left. The way Page Six makes it sound, the documentary seems to be just Millepied’s side of things?

Earlier this year, Natalie Portman’s husband, Benjamin Millepied, abruptly resigned as dance director of the Paris Opera Ballet for reasons that were never fully explained. Now, a new documentary sheds light on his troubled tenure in one of the biggest gigs in the dance world, which lasted just two years.

In “Reset,” which hits theaters on Jan. 13, Millepied — who paints the centuries-old institution as highly respected but outdated and out of touch — claims that when he arrived in late 2014, he was horrified to find racism there. “I heard someone say a black girl in a ballet is a distraction. If there are 25 white girls, everyone will look at the black girl. Everyone must be alike in a company, meaning everyone must be white,” he says in the film — which follows the creation of his triumphant debut production, “Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward” — adding of the task in front of him, “I have to shatter this racist idea.”

According the movie, during his short time in the job, “For the first time at the Opera de Paris, Benjamin Milliepied [gave] a mixed-race dancer the lead role in a classical ballet.” He also sniped in the FilmRise flick that the medical care provided for the dancers is out of date and said the company’s reputation had lost its sheen. “This company, from the 1800s to the 1950s, was reputed for its phrasing, for the way the dancers moved,” he says in the film. “This is sorely missing from the school today.”

The criticism expands on more oblique remarks he made when he announced his departure in February. While his official statement said he was quitting for “personal reasons” and to commit himself “100 percent to artistic and creative expression,” he also said in a press conference that, “I’ve realized that it’s too hard to turn this [organization] into what I think is most relevant for ballet today.”

[From Page Six]

In the past few months, Misty Copeland and FKA Twigs both discussed the racism they encountered in the ballet world, and how ballerinas of color are discouraged early on from pursuing careers in ballet. So I do believe that such a conservative old institution like the Opera de Paris would have old-school notions about having only white ballerinas. That being said, I don’t believe that racial issues were the only issues Millepied dealt with in Paris.

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Photos courtesy of Fame/Flynet and WENN.

 

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97 Responses to “Benjamin Millepied left the Opera de Paris because of racism in the ballet world”

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  1. Ramona says:

    I dont see a reason to disbelieve him unless theres objectively verified evidence of this so-called mismanagement. Its pretty expected that ballet types will gripe when an outsider is appointed. But much like most executive positions, you dont need to know how to make sausage just how to manage the business. And if he was pushing against centuries of racist practice and of that theres evidence, of course they will sling mud. Status quo always resists. But stuffy status quo resists bitterly.

    • Birdix says:

      Why does everyone doubt his expertise? He was a principal dancer at New York City ballet and had left to start his own company. Yes, he did not know the Parisian bureaucracy but the idea when they brought him in was to shake things up. But they didn’t really want the shaking.
      The ballet world is archaic. Benjamin is doing lots to drag it forward, and has had a tremendous impact in revitalizing dance in LA, through his own company and through his bringing like-minded colleagues into places like the Colburn school. He may be married to Natalie Portman, but he’s no dilettante.

      • Little Darling says:

        That’s where I’m at. I’m no fan of Benjamin, he seems pretentious and stuffy and kind of annoying, and him and Natalie together are just too much for me sometimes.

        BUT I have mad respect for anyone who’s willing to call on racism, especially in an establishment so old as the ballet world.
        I will definitely see this film.

        And if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend Misty’s movie, A Ballerinas Tale.

    • Greenieweenie says:

      I believe it. I think awareness of racism is very low in France, Germany, the Netherlands, etc. I hear black French people say things like, “I have never experienced racism.” But you have! You have, and you don’t know it. I’ve read Ruth Negga saying the same thing about Ireland–that she hadn’t eexperienced racism growing up. You did! You are not even conscious of it! I heard an interview with Zadie Smith a few weeks ago and she nailed it, noting that black political consciousness is so much stronger in the US. In Europe, everyone just seems to obliviously congratulate each other on the lack of racism (ha!) or emit shock when someone uses a racial slur (the only racism that’s recognized, and even then only half the time).

      No black ballet dancers. No black Prime Ministers or Presidents. Hardly any black ministers, period. No black Lords and Ladies or whatever banal title. That’s racism, people.

      • ems says:

        We dont have black people in our institutions because we are not nations who have black people. People of color immigrated here recently. Stop victimising yourself and your race. You are part of the problem!!

      • Wellsie says:

        @EMS:

        Trolling or for reals? Because… no.

      • fanny says:

        @ems. “We don’t have black people,” really? France colonial empire in Africa covered Mali, Sénégal, Congo Brazzaville, Ivory Coast to name a few. France invaded Africa, with no invitation may I say,WAY before African immigrants came to France. Education is not as costly in France as it’s in other countries so your lack of knowledge is baffling. Franchement , éduquez-vous.

      • fanny says:

        @Greenieweennie: Don’t let the French fool you. They are amongs the most racist people I know. I should know as a 24 y.o black woman in France. It’s just a lot more hypocritical: they don’t insult you but they will cough systematically when they see you, the educational system use the lack of knowledge of immigrants to gather their “unwanted” children in trash educational courses. I could not tell you the number of surprised looks I get when I say that I have a master’s degree in economics from a well known institution: one has even had the nerve to anto MY FACE ” I don’t even have that kind of education”? , and that was not in a complementary way . I could go on about the looks I have received while interviewing : there ‘s always a 3 minutes period where their looks say ” Hugh a black girl with this kind of diploma?” I have had the pleasure to meet a former French minister ( Brice Hortefeux) in a public bus, who at the view of Senegalese workers getting off at the stop, mumbled with a clearl voice “These buses were not made for Africans” . All in all they are racists

      • M.A.F. says:

        Kind of hard to say black people emigrated to Europe when Europe was the one who colonized Africa and FORCED Africans onto a boat.

      • SM says:

        I think the reason a lot of people here call him out because he does look like pretentious, self centered prick, as annoying as his wife who thinks she is smarter and better than the average person next to them. This is the vibe I get from them. So yes. It is fantastic when someone stands up against rasism, I just think that something else happened like egos clashed and now that he is out he is pulling this story as an argument just to appear like a person with high morals. Or maybe he is and I apologise then for my doubts

      • Greenieweenie says:

        @Fanny, exactement, c’est comme ça. I completely agree, the French are hypocritical and most Europeans are in general when it comes to race. Europeans do not understand how much more honest the US is about racism, and they mistake this honesty for racism. (Don’t get me wrong, the US has plenty of racism. I am just pointing out European hypocrisy and lack of understanding about their own).

      • Greenieweenie says:

        @Ems, stop victimizing myself and my race? Let me break this down in terms that your profoundly dull metal capacities can grasp:

        Racism is not a black problem. Racism is a WHITE problem.

        Now go back to the corner you came from, think hard, and return when you have something remotely intelligent to say.

      • Hanna says:

        I live in the Netherlands, there is a lot of racism here, look at the extreme nationalist political party/parties, where white Dutch people are voting for. Look at ‘Sinterklaas’ ‘Zwarte Piet’ and you will know a lot of that slave mentality. Foreigners get picked on everyday, and get the blame of everything that goes wrong in the country. Al lot of foreigners don’t get jobs because they are not white or Dutch. This also applies to Germany, France, and pick a country in the world who isn’t healthy. Sad, but true. That’s why in a negative world i don’t have children of my own, but rather take care for foster children.

      • LAK says:

        Greenieweenie: Speaking for UK, there are over 137 members of parliament out of an intake of 650. 62 of them are life peers with title of Baron/Baroness. 20 have held cabinet office ( ie Ministers) since the 80s. 5 have been UK Ambassadors to countries as varied as Australia and South Africa. One organised the bid and eventual staging Olympics 2012 – not many realise that Seb Coe is Anglo- Indian mixed race.

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_minority_politicians_in_the_United_Kingdom

        In terms of ballet, the most revered star is Costa Acosta with sell out shows. Granted we had to go to Cuba to find him, but he is regarded with the same reverence as a Nureyev.

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlos_Acosta

        There is also a ballet company called Ballet Black that specialises in black and Asian dancers. They put on shows populated with their company dancers, but they also strive to get traditional ballet companies/productions to hire their dancers.

        http://balletblack.co.uk

        One of the most acclaimed people in architecture was a Persuan woman called Zahid Hadid who died earlier this year.

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaha_Hadid

        Opera Superstars
        Jesse Norman
        Sir Willard White

        Novelists
        Too many to list. Zadie Smith and Monica Ali are 2 of a very long list of celebrated Black/Asian writers.

  2. Almondjoy says:

    “In the past few months, Misty Copeland and FKA Twigs both discussed the racism they encountered in the ballet world, and how ballerinas of color are discouraged early on from pursuing careers in ballet.”

    So true. I remember reading those posts about Misty and Twigs. So many people were denying that this could be true or trying to find other reasons as to why this was happening. Will people believe this now that Millepied is talking about it? 🤔

  3. Lingling says:

    Honestly, it’s a pretty well known fact that ballet is incredibly prejudice. I completely believe his side of things. I’d need proof there wasn’t bigotry where he was before I’d come close to doubting him.

  4. Peanutbuttr says:

    I see another Colin Kaepernick situation: taking what is a real and serious issue and using it to distract others from your real failings.

  5. Ankhel says:

    If he was great at his job, I don’t believe they’d give a damn if he hired dancers who weren’t white – it’s not like they haven’t done it before him. Still, many will undoubtedly believe this.

    • Odette says:

      Wait, what? If I am reading this correctly, let me respond with a question: Why is it so hard for you to believe / understand that the ballet world is still exceptionally racist?

      • Ankhel says:

        Well, I believe the ballet world is free of racism because… wait, I never said that.

      • Odette says:

        Then, please, can you explain what you meant by this: “I don’t believe they’d give a damn if he hired dancers who weren’t white”?

      • original kay says:

        I read it the same way as you Odette.

        The point was they DID mind, and why would you think otherwise?

      • Ankhel says:

        I never meant to say they don’t care about skin colour, period. However, had he been great at his job, they would’ve let it go – him hiring a non-white dancer for a main role, that is. Hope that clarifies my meaning.

      • original kay says:

        I think you need to stop thinking about it and just read and listen and absorb what people are saying, here on this thread, previous threads about this issue and the broader issues of subtle/overt racism.

        I’ll try one more time- the point of this entire conversation is that he WAS great at his job, and they DID mind so he left the position.

        It doesn’t have to be so overt as “Don’t hire him/her, hire the white one instead”, but the racism is there.

      • Bridget says:

        Reportedly among ballet followers (apologies if you folks are one and I’m mansplaining) Millepied was NOT fantastic at his job, but instead got it because he was a self promoter. So I at least understand the point that Ankhel was trying to make. That said, I don’t agree that all would have been forgiven had he been more successful, because I think that ignores how deeply ingrained the prejudices run. And he shouldn’t need to earn the right to hire dancers of color. I think that Millepied can be both: an opportunist who was a terrible fit for POB AND that he truly believes in this.

      • Odette says:

        You said: “had he been great at his job, they would’ve let it go – him hiring a non-white dancer for a main role, that is.”

        From the article: “I heard someone say a black girl in a ballet is a distraction. If there are 25 white girls, everyone will look at the black girl. Everyone must be alike in a company, meaning everyone must be white.”

        See how you’re ignoring / dismissing the racial problem in the ballet world? You’re saying, “yeah, race has nothing to do with this; if Millepied was better at his job, hiring black dancers wouldn’t be a problem.” Which…huh?

      • Bridget says:

        Or they could just hire a production of 25 black girls if they really want to keep it uniform.

      • Chinoiserie says:

        There are reports that he was not good at his job so you have chosen to ignore those reports and solely believe this one. You should see that other people like Ankh might feel differently and believe the rumours that he was bad as his job and this issue is just on top of it. Racism does not need to be so severe, sometimes there are issues like “I feel this person was hired for poc reasons only” type or racism. It happens had it might not have been big deal enough for him to leave (expecially this is nothing new in the ballet world) rather it is how this was spin by his people to say why he left.

      • Odette says:

        @Chinoiserie – I am not ignoring reports that he was bad at his job. I tend to believe he probably wasn’t the greatest, since he was known as a promoter, prior to getting the position. I just don’t understand the argument that his being better at his job, would have somehow stopped the racism in the ballet world.

        I don’t think racism was the only reason he left, or was fired, or whatever. I just thought it was an odd comment to say that the company would have been fine hiring black principal dancers if he was better at his job. Doesn’t make sense.

    • Lena says:

      Actually if you had read the article you will see (at least according to the article) that he was the first at this particular company to do so.

      • Ankhel says:

        I did read the article!? And I only said they have hired non-white dancers prior to Millepied, which is true, even if they were few and never got the main parts.

      • Who ARE These People? says:

        “Even if they were few and never got the main parts” — that says it all.

      • Ankhel says:

        I think it says a lot, which is sad, and I hope it’ll change.

        Finally; Millepied came into the Paris Opera with a major attitude. He simply could not shut up in interviews (while hired!!!) about how boring and stiff the dancing was, how badly everything was organized, how the Paris ballet was no longer world class, which… He didn’t understand why he, as director, couldn’t fire or promote dancers at will. He was criticised by auditors for his personal spending. He was absent a lot, and was criticised for that too. Worst of all in a way, he wanted a revolution, stirred the pot – then left in a year. Good boss?

    • Maria says:

      @ankhel

      That’s a bit too simplistic. People who are great at something leave their job all the time for various complicated reasons.

      I am not saying he’s the greatest but you are majorly simplifying the politics and power play that goes on in a big cultural institution. The people who tend to do well aren’t always the best or most original minds. And if you want to change things you often end up pissing off people who have been at the institution for a long time. They are rarely receptive to change.

      • Ankhel says:

        It’s not so difficult. If you keep publicly badmouthing the company you work for, and making it very plain you don’t thrive there, then in the end, someone will more or less politely tell you you might be a better fit elsewhere. Once, he memorably compared watching some of the performances with watching wallpaper…

  6. It'sJustBlanche says:

    The two of them seem well matched. That’s not necessarily a compliment.

    Unrelated, but for 12 euros you can see this amazing ballet company. The seats are terrible but the dancing will spoil you for all other companies for life. Just incredible.

  7. Kate says:

    If that was actually why he left, he wouldn’t have ever been doing this job in the first place since everywhere else he’s worked has the same issues.

    He did a lousy job and he got pushed out.

  8. Val says:

    Suuuuure… jump on an important issue, make it yours, and pretend that THAT was why you got fired for your job. Not for being a diva, or a bad investment, or an arrogant prick… right.

  9. Hannah says:

    I may have read this wrong, but the way he says, it sounds like he put a mixed race ballerina in the show just to promote his “I’m not racist” view, no coment on this person talent. Again, I may be completely wrong, it’s just the way it sounds.

    • Lena says:

      Why do you assume she wasn’t talented? do you seriously assume a non talented mixed race woman would be able to get any jobs in such a racist field?

    • peanutbuttr says:

      That ballerina was on an upward trajectory before Millipied got there and was already getting good soloist roles. Also, while not black, there were other minorities who became Etoiles (the highest rank) within the company (Charles Jude a half Vietnamese for example).

      A big reason why Millipied was being pushed out was because it was the dancers themselves who hated him. Even those who were getting increased prominence spoke out publicly against him.

    • GreenieWeenie says:

      @Hannah, it’s very difficult to say who is deserving or has real talent within a structure that is designed to reward talent that might be associated with one race over another.

      For example, consider black gymnasts before Simone Biles–they were critiqued for being strong but not graceful (while Simone undeniably combines strength and grace). Strength is associated with black athletes, and grace is associated with white ones. So when you are assessing who has talent, who is deserving–how are you assessing it?

      Diversity should be pursued simply for diversity’s sake. You need black or mixed race dancers and athletes to show you what your sport could be. So even if a black ballet dancer is perceived as less qualified or deserving, you should give her opportunities simply for the sake of seeing the artform/sport evolve. In some future state when there is real diversity at the highest levels, then you can implement a true meritocracy.

  10. N says:

    I am black and I sort of understand the whole distraction thing but isn’t there ways to get around that? Some black ballet dancers have worn white makeup and white nudes and from afar no one could tell.

  11. Kiki says:

    I always believed BM and I can’t say I am surprised. It’s bad enough that ballet schools are stiff up the lip and people really believe the pretentious stature of their valued commodity. Therefore I am not surprised that are excluding black ballet racer from their schools for whatever “snot nose” reason and of course institutional racism. This is probably why Ballet is becoming a dying artform. However, I believe the people fire him because of his ego and his lack of self composure.

  12. ash says:

    i kinda admire the guy on this….. literally leave on bad terms, and then SPILL DAT TEA.

    I have definitely been at jobs which i’ve since resigned and wanted to SPILL DAT TEA.

  13. Lulu says:

    I don’t really follow his career but based on the stories told by FKA Teigs, Misty Copeland and even Michaela DePrince (please Google if you don’t know) this is not a surprise. Racism in the ballet world is real and ballet is an expensive sport. I doubt any of the women of color he wanted to cast as leads would’ve made it so far if they werent talented and deserving, like any of the white ballerinas that are there. Also it doesn’t surprise me that if you are in what you think is a position of power and not allowed to make changes, you would want to leave a job. My friend is a black female lawyer and was part of the hiring committee and they passed over women of color for white women even thought they had the same experience. She doesn’t want to stay in that environment. I know this man is not perfect (the way he and NP got together is sketchy af) but if he was trying to fight for diversity then I salute him. That’s not to say there may not have been other issues with his leadership but that doesn’t mean he didn’t also try to fight for diversity. Both are possible.

  14. Slowsnow says:

    My experience – through my son, who wants to be a professional ballet dancer – here in London is that there are black kids in high rated schools here. So there’s a change. But I often wonder if they’ll get to be picked as leads in the professional world, especially the girls. So far in the school they have.
    The ballet world is changing bit by bit. It needs to reflect the public and its expectations.

    On BM’s subject, regardless of his opportunism/good faith (will we ever know?), it’s good that at least these issues are being raised. I wouldn’t be surprised if what he described was true.

    I lived in Paris for almost a decade and find that as a society it has not changed much.
    My kids went to state schools and they were not mixed at all – or at least there was a social divide.
    Here in the UK we live in a slightly more upgraded area and the state school they go to is highly mixed and all the kids hang out together.
    Of course there is a tendency for certain communities to stick together but it’s their choice or sometimes the family’s imposition. I find Paris a very removed city from issues that we deal with and discuss much more freely in the UK. But it might just be my experience, of course and I may be wrong. I also work in a somewhat elitist context so there’s that.

  15. Ellis says:

    Real change is made from the inside. You go into an organization and fight for what’s right. It’s a pain, and it’s a fight, but that’s the only way it happens. One production does not change make. If he was really so upset about it, he should have fought to the death, of his career, or their archaic practices, especially if he was going to leave anyway. Making a documentary about it is just finger-pointing.

    • Who ARE These People? says:

      It’s hard to fault someone for choosing to fight the way they want to fight. Perhaps a documentary is the way he chose to expose the problem. If race was part of the problem – and it’s likely that it was – then the company management was going to make it very hard for him to succeed on every level, and every flaw he had as a manager was going to be magnified. They would have made it impossible for him to “stay and fight to the death.” Especially as an American working in a different culture.

  16. dumbledork says:

    My daughter watched a Barbie movie last week, Swan Lake I think? His name came up in the credits. Maybe he can do some more Barbie movies.

  17. Frannydays says:

    I kind of like BM. I remember him getting a little picked on on here like Jessica Simpson’s husband for being a moocher. But I don’t think he is :)

  18. Maria says:

    I don’t know why people necessarily believe he isn’t competent . He was a successful dancer at a prestigious ballet company when he met Portman there is no reason to say he doesn’t know “everything” about dance. You don’t have to be Baryshnikov to be a good artistic director. He may be flawed in his private life but I totally believe he’s more progressive than the opera in Paris which is known to be ultra conservative. Racism in the dance world is something that’s been recognised by many black dancer I applaud anyone who challenges it, particularly people in power who have the ability to change things. On a general note this seems to be a similar thing to what happened at Shakespeare’s Globe in London this year. They hired a progressive artistic director who left her position within a year because she clashed with the board about her ideas.Many of these prestigious institutions are steeped in traditionalism and don’t handle change well.

    • perplexed says:

      I think he may be a good dancer. I think what’s unclear is whether he’s good at the administrative side of things, which I assume is what his job in Paris was about. (Granted, what little I know about the administrative side of ballet comes from the movie “Centre Stage.”)

  19. thaliasghost says:

    I used to live with a roommate who was a ballerina. She also was as it turned out fervently right wing. Member of Opus Dei level right wing and came from a rich and privileged family. I once raised the issue of racism in the ballet world and Misty Copeland to her and she went ballistic on me claiming that a) racism within ballet didn’t exist, b) racism in the US didn’t exist and c) classism didn’t exist.

    She was really pretty, sweet, lovely, nice, cheerful…and at the same time a completely horrible person.

  20. ballet_tea says:

    Kaiser,

    He was also accused of abusing the Paris Oper Ballet’s funds. He spent hundreds of thousands of euros on expensive meals, private cars, and lavish receptions. Natalie Portman’s publicists silenced pretty nicely, though.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37387080

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/16/paris-opera-ballet-lambasted-auditors-taxi-meals-bill-france-millepied

    http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/103377020.html

  21. Elgin Marbles says:

    I think he’s credible and where dance is concerned, very principled. Also, so much of a gig like the one at Opera de Paris involves fundraising and a lot of that is wedded to self promotion. If people feel personally connected to you, they’re more likely to write checks for your organization. In light of that, it’s not wholly fair to criticize him because he’s good at putting himself out there … Or conversely, if he wasn’t raising enough, it could have been because he clashed with the board and big donors because he had a larger vision for the company.

  22. Greentea says:

    It’s interesting because opera, another kind of dead, old-school art, casts black, asian, and multiracial leads in productions where the character might have been written as a white person. You see it all the time. You’d think ballet would be more progressive than that.

  23. Henriette says:

    He left because she was soooooo bored in Paris, which can’t stand the comparaison with NY, Chicago or LA….and the whole administration of the Opéra, including dancers, couldn’t stand his management. I know it as my sister works for décoration there. He is such a brat and such a bad manager…

  24. kri says:

    when did natalie morph into jennifer garner?! and bs on the nobility of Benjamin. Yeah, whatever.

  25. Achoo! says:

    Interesting spin, considering the original reports were that he was asked to resign for padding his expense account. Not that the racism thing isn’t highly likely but I think it’s a PR spin to cover the real reason he left, that and the fact that Natalie wanted to go back to NY to live.

  26. S in Seattle says:

    I attended the LA Dance Project gala last month – he runs that organization pretty well, though admittedly it is much tinier. The gala dinner and party was exquisite and the performance was wonderful. He danced (his last on stage performance) and was excellent, and his choreagraphed numbers were absolutely breathtaking.
    He managed to get a ton of sponsorship support and watching him work the room, my guess is that he does very well at the administrative/fund raising portion of the role. FKA Twigs attended it, also, and seemed to be tight with him.

  27. Rico Shew says:

    I heard he came back to America so he could take over from Abby Lee Miller on Dance Moms when she goes to prison.

  28. K.T says:

    Have no idea really, but my tiny addition is that I vaguely know someone who worked with Milliepeid and, while they told me zero stories about their experience, I think they are pretty cutting edge and experimental and imo great. I wonder if his program just wasn’t ready for a new platform, or if he didn’t convince enough of the older board, to really cement his position? Racism, classicism etc. could all be part of this problem…