San Diego State University’s Performing Arts Plaza / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
San Diego State University’s Performing Arts Plaza / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This story has been updated.

When she was studying music at San Diego State in 2014, Jasmine Gonzalez says one of her professors made a humiliating request.

Gonzalez has brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair to get around. Yet the professor asked her not to use the wheelchair lift, a mechanical device like a small elevator, to access the classroom. She asked if he wanted her to crawl down the stairs. He asked if someone could carry her down instead. She didn’t feel comfortable with either option, but the professor was so insistent she not use the lift, she relented, and crawled down the stairs.

“I had to ask some stranger to carry my wheelchair down, and they did,” Gonzalez said. “It was mortifying.”

Two fellow students who were in the class that day confirmed Gonzalez’s account.

That professor was Patrick Walders, the director of choral studies at SDSU who is currently on paid administrative leave pending a separate investigation related to an allegation he had a sexual relationship with one of his female students.

Walders also runs a choral nonprofit with his wife and works with other performance and church choir groups in San Diego. He’s a prominent figure in the choral world locally and nationally, and he recently made his debut as conductor of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus. He told the Union-Tribune the new position is a “benchmark in my career.” Walders is now working alongside La Jolla Symphony & Chorus music director Steven Schick, one of the most lauded musicians and conductors in San Diego.

But over the past several months, former coworkers and students of Walders have come forward to share stories of how they say he wields his influence in inappropriate, sometimes disturbing ways. Multiple people told Voice of San Diego they were bullied by Walders.

Emails and phone calls to Walders were not returned. In a written statement, Walders’ lawyer, Matthew English, said any student with complaints about Walders should use the university’s internal grievance procedure: “Any of Dr. Walders’ students who have elected to do so have had their grievances heard and resolved. Dr. Walders has no comment about any individual grievant; such matters are the private and personal concern of the individual student.”

In the fall of 2015, Gonzalez had another uncomfortable run-in with Walders.

At a choir concert rehearsal at College Avenue Baptist Church, Walders asked her if she could leave the stage by going down the ramp facing forward in her wheelchair instead of backward. She told him she has more control, and felt safer going down the ramp backward, as she had been doing. She said Walders insisted she instead face forward down the ramp, because he said it looked bad having her going backward and would make the audience worry.

The day of the choir’s performance at the church, Walders told Gonzalez that she would either have to go down the ramp facing forward or remain onstage in the back corner until the end of the performance. Gonzalez said sitting on stage by herself during songs she wasn’t involved in would make her feel uncomfortable, but she said Walders threatened to fail her if she refused.

So she hid in a corner onstage while other students performed. She said she felt singled out because of her disability.

“He made me feel humiliated and ostracized,” she said.

Carly Cummings, a student who also performed in the church concert, confirmed Gonzalez’s account.

After the concert, Gonzalez filed a complaint with SDSU, alleging Walders discriminated against her because of her disability. There are federal and state laws, plus California State University policy, protecting students from harassment and discrimination, and requiring public universities to quickly and effectively investigate all claims.

In April 2016, Gonzalez got the official results of SDSU’s investigation. In the document, obtained by Voice of San Diego, SDSU investigators called the behavior “highly inappropriate” but said “the behavior more than likely angered and/or upset Gonzalez, which does not constitute an adverse action” and noted the investigation “did not reveal any evidence to substantiate that Walders engaged in behavior that was discriminatory.”

“I left San Diego State after that,” Gonzalez said.

Relationships With Students

Not long after Gonzalez’s troubles with Walders, another female student had a very different experience.

In 2016, Walders was having a sexual relationship with a graduate choral student, according to a copy of a Title IX investigation obtained by Voice of San Diego. SDSU investigators found that Walders and the student were engaged in a consensual relationship that violated a California State University policy barring professors from being in relationships with students they oversee.

The school has yet to discipline Walders. SDSU officials would not comment on the case, citing employee privacy rights.

“Dr. Walders is not at liberty to discuss the details of any ongoing administrative proceeding at SDSU,” English, Walders’ attorney, wrote in a statement. “He respects the integrity of the administrative processes, and wishes to allow any current matter to proceed unimpeded to a fair and just conclusion.”

The student Walders had an affair with spoke with VOSD but asked to remain anonymous because of the professor’s influence on her professional career. She said the sexual affair started after a night when Walders invited her to join him for drinks.

“He claimed that he didn’t start seeing me as attractive until I had recently ‘turned the corner’ in my conducting and singing and had come into my own,” she said via email. “This forever imprinted the association in my mind between his professional approval of my skill set and his sexual attention. We began a sexual relationship that lasted a few months.”

The school was first notified of the relationship after another student anonymously reported it in early 2017. That student, Michael Sakell, is friends with the female student and was Walders’ graduate teaching assistant. As a school employee, he was a mandated reporter, obligated to report harassment and other serious incidents to the school. The investigation didn’t really begin, though, until Sakell later walked in on Walders and the female student kissing during a school trip to Austria, according to the investigation document. Sakell also confirmed the account to Voice of San Diego. The father of the female student involved reported the incident to SDSU, and the student cooperated with the investigation. She said SDSU told her she should refrain from making public comments about the investigation until it was completed.

The student said that after the affair, she lost 20 pounds and became severely depressed. She said she now realizes Walders’ “penchant for using his position of power to manipulate,” and she regrets the relationship, even though it was consensual at the time. She has since left San Diego.

“I should emphasize that I do not feel like a victim, nor do I believe that any of my actions with Patrick were non-consensual in the traditional sense,” she wrote in an email. “I know that I am certainly not the first young woman he has preyed upon, but I am very hopeful that I will be the last. As long as he is allowed to work with organizations to which he has access to young women who are trying to advance their careers, are seeking a mentor, he will continue to be a predator.”

Walders is married to one of his former students. He taught in the music department at James Madison University in Virginia from 2004-2011, according to his SDSU bio. Katie Walders, his wife, was a music student at James Madison University from 2004 to 2008, according to her LinkedIn profile.

“Dr. Walders and his wife never dated while she was his student. Any such rumor to that effect is false,” English wrote in a statement.

Another former student at James Madison University I talked to confirmed she had a one-time sexual encounter with Walders while she was studying music under him. She also asked to remain anonymous, citing concerns about professional opportunities. She said she had sex with Walders one night after he asked her to come to his home to help him learn to speak French. James Madison University prohibits intimate relationships between faculty members and students in their classes or under their supervision.

“He was my biggest mentor,” she said. “The anxiety after we slept together was crippling. I was vomiting the next week — two or three times. I don’t throw up from anxiety. That doesn’t happen to me. It was awful.”

‘He Targeted People’

Some professorial candidates at SDSU have to teach a mock lecture or exhibit lesson plans before they’re hired. Siobahn Sung was an undergraduate student involved in a mock rehearsal and performance of a piece Walders conducted during his interview process in 2011. She said she had awkward encounters with him during that process and found some of his comments inappropriate, so she was vocal that the university shouldn’t hire him. He got the job anyway.

Because she was a music major, Sung had to take choir classes with Walders once he was hired. Sung said Walders required her to work in the choral library for 100 hours to complete her major. That meant she was required to spend even more time with him, and often it was just the two of them. She said Walders bullied her from the moment he started working at SDSU.

“Everybody who was at school at that time, they would say, ‘Patrick has a vendetta for you,’” she said. Sung said Walders quickly became known among music majors as a professor with a bad temper who would favor some students, and single out others.

Jess Barrera, another former student of Walders’, had a similar assessment.

“If you were on his good side and you did everything he asked, you got the good gigs and the special treatment,” Barrera said. “And if you went against him, it was just hell.”

I talked to seven other former students and coworkers who said similar things about Walders and his temper.

Michiko Lohorn, a former staff accompanist at SDSU who worked with Walders, said “he’s a person who wields power ungraciously.”

“He had a super temper and would just lose it,” Lohorn said. “He would just get livid about stuff.”

Allyson Glaser was a student at SDSU who took choir courses with Walders. Glaser grew up secular Jewish and said she wasn’t comfortable with Walders’ religious song choices, nor with performing at the Baptist church near the school where he often scheduled concerts.

Glaser said instead of bringing secular songs into the mix, Walders had her work in the music library when the rest of the students were rehearsing religious songs. At performances, she said he made her walk on and off the stage alone when the choir sang secular songs. She said the experience has given her performance anxiety.

“I started getting panic attacks after that,” she said.

Brandon Thibeault, another former SDSU student, had similar grievances when it came to Walders’ requirements to perform in churches. Thibeault said Walders required his class to participate in a church service as part of a performance.

“I told him that I was uncomfortable participating in a church service and would not be in attendance for the ‘optional’ service, and when I didn’t show up to the gig I told him I would not be attending for those reasons, he failed me,” Thibeault said via Facebook messenger.

He said he filed a grievance with SDSU’s student ombudsman, and said the investigators concluded that he should have been allowed to drop the course – but that Walders was not disciplined. SDSU declined to confirm or deny Thibeault’s account, but an employee at the school who was involved in the grievance process confirmed the incident.

“The school still didn’t take any action on that,” Thibeault wrote.

It’s not clear what SDSU will do, if anything, in response to its finding that Walders violated the CSU policy barring relationships between professors and students they oversee. CSU policy only says Walders is “subject to discipline commensurate with the violation.”

Update: After this story was published, the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus placed Walders on administrative leave until further notice, Diane Salisbury, the group’s executive director, confirmed Friday.

Kinsee Morlan

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture...

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