In Feb. 2020, Emily Johnson, a renowned artist of the Yup’ik nation, struck an unknown cord with Jedediah Wheeler, the Montclair State University PEAK Performances Arts and Cultural Programming (ACP) executive director, during a conference call. The topic was about land acknowledgement, the first step a university like Montclair State can take to foster decolonization.
In her letter titled “A Letter I Hope in the Future, Doesn’t Need to be Written,” Johnson describes how Wheeler went from friendly to extremely hostile in a matter of seconds.
“Jedediah responded immediately and violently,” Johnson wrote. “His yelling relayed that he ‘calls the shots.’ That we are going to have ‘a problem’ if I continue to ‘come in here’ and make ‘demands.’ He screamed, ‘I don’t even know what this word, decolonization means.’ He yelled, continued yelling, and did not stop yelling until he hung up on us.”
Wheeler has come under criticism after Johnson went public about the verbal abuse. Now, others who have worked with him are coming forward to say Wheeler has in fact created a hostile work environment at ACP.
The ACP office is laid out in an open space filled with cubicles, which allows anyone to hear everything that is happening in the room. An anonymous source who works at ACP confirmed that the letter is accurate to what happened during the conversation.
“I think Jedediah did sound like the way Emily describes it in her letter,” the anonymous source said. “I think, at least in terms of [when] he went from calm to yelling at her, that [it] is accurate.”
The source continued to explain the workplace fostered by Wheeler is akin to walking on eggshells.
“The process [of Wheeler’s anger] as it goes is something [that starts with] a trigger,” the source said. “Something is disliked, something is perceived as a slight…it goes from it being a normal conversation to very loud and just the way she has described it, it just escalates. Then, there’s nothing to really do about it in the moment, other than just say okay and back down.”
According to multiple sources, this escalation happens on a weekly, if not daily basis when working with Wheeler.
Brett Wellman Messenger was the program administrator from March 2016 to Sept. 2018 and explains that he did not feel comfortable speaking out against Wheeler’s outbursts.
“You’re putting your income on the line,” Messenger said. “If you speak out against [Wheeler], somebody with a temper like that does not take kindly to complaints.”
Omonike Akinyemi was the Dance for Film project coordinator at Montclair State from 2014 through 2015. She worked on serval different films with student collaborators within the ACP and was one of the few who spoke out against Wheeler during her tenure.
In a letter to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a foundation that has provided Montclair State funding in the past, she wrote, “The behavior my employer (Jedediah Wheeler) exhibited which I believe to be racist, included the constant cutting me off when I would speak during staff meetings.”
Akinyemi continued, “In front of my peers and the students whom I supervise as part of the dance film project, he would display a patronizing attitude, once calling me a ‘child’ in front of a visitor, my former dance instructor from the Ballet Hispanico Dance Company.”
Akinyemi’s contract was not renewed.
“I was fired because I spoke out against Jedediah and what he was presenting,” Akinyemi said.
There is no evidence to support this claim by Akinyemi. Daniel Gurskis, the dean of the College of the Arts at Montclair State, says there is a process the university has to take with any personnel complaint.
“Any sort of situation complaint issue that involves personnel is a confidential matter; and there are processes within the university to handle those,” Gurskis said. “And they are handled, we don’t simply disregard anything that’s brought to the Office of the Dean, or the Division of Human Resources.”
Current employees believe however that they will receive retribution for coming forward and complaining to HR, or the dean’s office.
Amy Estes was the marketing and media specialist of ACP until 2018. She explains that while working there, she felt like her job would be at stake if she spoke up against Wheeler.
“I do think that…people who’ve pushed back against [Wheeler], have had more success in keeping his behavior in check, but when you are employed by someone and you feel like your job is at stake, it can be very difficult to push back,” Estes said.
Montclair State has begun a fact-checking investigation into Wheeler’s actions. Gurskis explained that the college could not respond to any more inquiries.
“People don’t know what they don’t know and they’re not entitled to know what they don’t know,” Gurskis said. “Much of this, if not all of it, is protected by confidentiality agreements [like] New Jersey state law and federal law.”
However, Estes explains that this behavior has been an ongoing problem with ACP and that it does in fact need to be addressed.
“I think that just about anyone who [Wheeler] became enraged with would be subject to this kind of behavior,” Estes said. “However, I also think that he is a person who uses whatever might be the most hurtful or offensive thing that he could say about someone when he’s angry at them. And I do think that that has led to a racist thing about people of color.”
Since the publishing of the letter by Johnson, Montclair State responded by defending Wheeler and PEAK on Feb. 4, 2021.
“The Office of Arts and Cultural Programming (ACP) at Montclair State University, under the leadership of Executive Director Jedediah Wheeler, works with highly diverse artists to provide a valuable opportunity for them to develop and present works on the stage of the Alexander Kasser Theater,” Montclair State responded.
Wheeler was unable to comment after multiple attempts to be reached. This is a developing story. Continue to check back at The Montclarion home page for updates.