Editor’s note: This article discusses a relationship between a former faculty member and a former student and contains other sexual references. Reader’s discretion is advised.
Walking down the corridor in the Bryan Center where the theater studies department hosts classes and rehearsals is a glimpse into the department’s history. On the wall are posters advertising the department’s productions — among these are posters for shows directed by Jaybird O’Berski, an assistant professor of the practice of theater studies until 2018.
O’Berski was on the faculty at Duke for 19 years, going from lecturing fellow to assistant professor of the practice. He directed three mainstage productions and 10 “extracurricular shows” throughout his time at the University, he wrote in an email. He acted as faculty advisor for the student group Antic Shakespeare and occasionally traveled to China to teach there.
He has also been accused of behaving inappropriately with students. One alumnus said O’Berski made them feel uncomfortable while directing a student production. Another told The Chronicle that she was in a relationship with O’Berski while she was his student, a violation of faculty policy.
People who knew O’Berski told The Chronicle that this alleged behavior with students was the reason for his departure. However, the University declined to release any records concerning alleged misconduct between students and faculty.
Kimberly Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity, declined to comment on whether the Office of Institutional Equity had ever opened an investigation involving O’Berski, citing privacy reasons. However, emails obtained by The Chronicle show that the University was aware of allegations against O’Berski and that Title IX officials had communicated with multiple people about him.
O’Berski wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the terms of his separation agreement prevent him from discussing his departure. However, a letter from O’Berski’s legal counsel to one person who published allegations against O’Berski characterizes the departure as “voluntary.” Neither O’Berski nor his legal counsel answered when The Chronicle asked them if the departure was voluntary.
Jeff Storer, who was chair of the theater studies department in O’Berski’s final years at the University, declined to discuss personnel matters with The Chronicle. Paul Grantham, assistant vice president for communications, declined to say whether it was typical for former employees to be unable to discuss their separation agreements.
Aside from basic details about his time at Duke, O’Berski directed inquiries to his legal counsel, Michael Pelagalli of Minc Law. However, after receiving a list of questions from The Chronicle, Pelagalli declined to comment, stating that the questions were either “inappropriate and irrelevant” or based on false assumptions. He also asserted that O’Berski was never found responsible for misconduct by the University.
It’s not clear how frequently faculty are accused of, or found responsible for, inappropriate behavior with students. A new report released by OIE says 15% of reports filed in the 2021-2022 fiscal year were filed against faculty, but it’s not specified how many of those reports were by students. It’s also not specified how many of those reports related specifically to sexual misconduct or consensual relationships between faculty and students.
‘Felt like his world revolved around me’
A former student of O’Berski, who requested anonymity because she feared professional repercussions and who The Chronicle will refer to as Jane Doe, said that she became romantically and sexually involved with O’Berski while she was enrolled in his class. The relationship continued after the student graduated in 2018.
At the time of the relationship, faculty were prohibited from pursuing relationships with any student under their authority, such as a student in their class. As of May 2018, faculty are prohibited from pursuing relationships with any undergraduate student. Doe said she never reported O’Berski to the University because she was afraid of personal and professional repercussions, but that she is now ready to share what happened.
“I had a good time while it was happening. It felt like his world revolved around me.” Doe said.
“He was very close with a lot of students, and that really worries me,” she added.
During their relationship, Doe said she and O’Berski often spent time with O’Berski’s wife, Dana Marks, and an unnamed professor who O’Berski “encouraged” the former student to befriend. Marks was also a faculty member in the theater department at the time.
Doe eventually realized there was a power imbalance in her relationship with O’Berski when he sent her a “threatening letter,” she said.
Doe shared a text thread from 2019 in which she and O’Berski appear to discuss the contents of a Facebook post by Adam Schultz, a former member of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, the theater company where O’Berski worked.
That post described Schultz’ experience at Little Green Pig as well as allegations about O’Berski’s conduct in the theater community. It was updated multiple times with information others shared in the comment section on the post.
On Oct. 10, 2019, Schultz posted on Facebook a message he reportedly received from an anonymous person, in which the person described their relationship with O’Berski.
“It was intoxicating and felt amazing at the time. Completely consensual and lovely. From where I stand now, I wish he had loved me enough to stand firm on an important boundary,” the message read. “Despite our feelings, we should not have engaged in a romantic/sexual relationship. I was his student. Now I’m left in a confused place, where I’m not sure where relational boundaries should stand.”
The text exchange between O’Berski and Doe, which took place on Oct. 24, two weeks after Schultz’ second post, suggests Doe was the original author of the anecdote Schultz shared. Doe confirmed that she was the original author of the anecdote.
In the exchange, O’Berski told Doe that it was “[her] turn to be honest” and asked her to send him what she planned to say to Schultz in response to the message being posted.
The former student shared her response: “I need you to edit the post. Add a line at the top that says, ‘I AM NOT A VICTIM. I was not coerced into doing anything.’ I would not like to be further contacted by you or Monica [Byrne]. Please respect my decision and privacy.”
Doe then asked, “Is that okay?”
O’Berski then told the former student to include certain details in her message. When Doe asked O’Berski to write out exactly what he wanted her to say, he responded, “No, THAT’S coercion.”
Throughout the exchange, O’Berski made several emotionally charged statements, such as accusing the former student of betraying him.
“You really don’t care what happens to me, do you?” O’Berski wrote.
“Yes, I do,” Doe responded. She then sent O’Berski another draft of her response to Schultz.
“Please add that you were pushed to make a statement and now regret doing so,” O’Berski wrote. Once the former student did so, he wrote, “That sounds like the truth to me. Do you agree?”
“Yes,” Doe responded.
O’Berski then wrote that he was saving their conversation and that he would contact Doe’s parents and employer if “anything else comes up.”
On Oct. 25, 2019, Schultz shared Doe’s new statement: “I am the Duke student who shared my story with Adam. I’d like to add that I was not coerced into doing anything. I shared this because I was scared and confused, but now I understand my responsibility in the matter. I was pushed to make a statement and now regret doing so.”
The same day the new statement was posted, Doe texted O’Berski, “thank you for helping me fix this.”
On March 12, 2023, O’Berski sent Doe an email with the subject line “Apology.”
“I regret not respecting my role as your teacher and elder at the time,” O’Berski wrote in the email obtained by The Chronicle. “I have no excuses beyond the fact that I lost all clarity due to the love I was feeling from you and for you.”
Theater studies encounters
A Duke alumnus, who requested anonymity because they were previously doxxed for an unrelated matter, said they worked with O’Berski in Antic Shakespeare and eventually grew uncomfortable in that environment.
O’Berski tended to be very hands-on as a director, the alumnus said. Antic Shakespeare reportedly did not have any fight choreographers or intimacy coordinators, which are common in acting to ensure safety, but the alumnus did not push back because of “the pre-existing pressure of whatever the director says goes.”
“If things went too far, went scary, there was no way to stop the scene,” the alumnus said. “You were seen as being the character, but it was like, ‘no, I actually can’t breathe.’”
R. Darren Gobert, chair of the theater studies department, wrote in an email that all department-affiliated productions have had fight and intimacy coordinators since his arrival in 2019.
The alumnus said they started feeling uncomfortable around O’Berski after they were cast as one of two leads in an Antic Shakespeare production. The two leads were doing “light making out,” the alumnus said, but O’Berski kept pushing them to go further.
“At one point he was like, ‘Be louder when you cum,’ and I was like, I didn’t know that was what I was supposed to be doing,” the alumnus said. “He was basically asking me to fake an orgasm.”
O’Berski also allegedly called in another student to give the cast tips on having lesbian sex, the alumnus said.
“I think he’s brilliant and great at teaching theater,” the alumnus said. “But he’s also very attached to the idea of ‘the real,’ and he would trash talk students and faculty that weren’t ‘real.’”
The alumnus claimed that O’Berski believed other theater studies faculty were mounting a campaign to push him out of the University, and that it felt like “siding” with any of those faculty members ruined a student’s chances of working with O’Berski.
“There was definitely an element of isolation,” the alumnus said.
Scene Shop Supervisor David Berberian said that while his firsthand knowledge of the allegations was limited, he had witnessed O’Berski treat people “pretty poorly” while at the University. He said that a student he worked with in the Scene Shop frequently approached him in tears while working with O’Berski.
Berberian also said that when O’Berski left, the reason for his departure was not immediately clear.
“He was let go from Duke and it was all very hush-hush. We didn’t really know why,” Berberian said. “And then things started to come out.”
Title IX involvement and O’Berski’s departure
In March 2018, Monica Byrne, a former member of Little Green Pig, contacted University administrators about O’Berski.
“I'm approaching you--officials at the highest level of administration--because I know firsthand of his abusive behavior specifically toward those who have confronted him at Duke about his treatment of students; subsequently, those people fear reprisal for speaking out,” Byrne wrote in an email to President Vincent Price, then Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek and then Dean of Trinity College Valerie Ashby.
Byrne was motivated in part by her own experiences at Little Green Pig, where she says O’Berski made inappropriate sexual comments toward her. The company shut down in 2019 after multiple members left following allegations against O’Berski, according to former member Caitlin Wells.
A January 2019 email from Little Green Pig to company members obtained by The Chronicle references “departures by valued ensemble members” and “criticism of Jaybird that has at times been disruptive to Little Green Pig.”
“Little Green Pig often infuses its work with eroticism, sex, and dark humor,” the email reads. “In light of recent misunderstandings and miscommunications on our part, we are doing better to keep our cast/crew in the know, up to date, and safe while continuing to make work of this nature. If this sensibility makes you feel too uncomfortable, our recommendation is to work with a company whose work does make you feel comfortable and safe.”
Emails obtained by The Chronicle show that Wasiolek referred Byrne to former Provost Sally Kornbluth, who connected Byrne with the Office of Institutional Equity.
On March 5, 2018, Byrne met with Howard Kallem, former assistant vice president of Title IX compliance, and Cynthia Clinton, assistant vice president of harassment and discrimination prevention and compliance.
Six days after that meeting, Kallem emailed Byrne, noting that “a few other folks” had reached out to the Office of Institutional Equity but were “still thinking about whether they will share information.”
On March 27, Byrne and Kallem spoke over the phone, emails show. In a later email from Byrne to Kallem, Byrne claimed that Kallem told her over the phone that several people had come forward about O’Berski but declined to go on the record because the office could not guarantee confidentiality. Hewitt wrote in an email to The Chronicle that under the Policy on Prohibited Discrimination, Harassment, and Related Misconduct the office cannot guarantee confidentiality during formal investigations. Reporting to OIE does not automatically trigger an investigation.
In April 2018, Kallem notified Byrne that the office was still gathering information.
“Thank you for letting me know. I know that at least one former undergraduate has told you their story, name attached, and I was very glad to hear that,” Byrne responded on April 24, 2018. “But I was distressed to find out from a friend that not only is Jay not tenured, but his contract at Duke is up for promotion next week.”
As O’Berski was a regular rank non-tenure-track faculty member, he would have been subject to periodic reviews either to renew his current title or receive a promotion. The criteria for those reviews would be set by the theater department, according to the faculty handbook.
Since O’Berski was an assistant professor of the practice, he was required to be considered for promotion after eight years in the position according to theater studies bylaws. Given that he appeared to have held that title as early as 2010, this would align with Byrne’s statement that O’Berski was up for promotion in 2018.
If an assistant professor of the practice is not promoted to associate professor of the practice after eight years, department bylaws stipulate that the faculty member is to be dismissed. Pelagalli declined to answer a question about whether O’Berski was, in fact, up for promotion prior to his departure.
In June 2018, Byrne emailed Kallem, asking, “Are you aware that Jay has been let go?”
“We have been in contact with the department,” Kallem wrote back. He did not respond to emailed requests for comment from The Chronicle.
O’Berski wrote in an email to The Chronicle that he left the University in August 2018.
Erin Bell, Trinity ‘10 and Fuqua ‘11, and former webmaster for Little Green Pig, said that O’Berski told her his contract was not being renewed due to “not having enough international publications.” Pelagalli, O’Berski’s attorney, did not answer questions about whether this was the reason given for O’Berski’s termination or if O’Berski had told anyone that this was the reason.
According to the theater department bylaws, assistant professors of the practice that are up for promotion must show excellence in scholarship and creative research, which includes productions, performances and creative writing. Work with international impact is taken into consideration, but does not appear to be required.
Byrne believes that the University should have been more transparent about the allegations surrounding O’Berski and the reason for his termination.
“One would hope that institutions like Duke University, with their vast resources, would do the right thing by communicating the reasons for Jay’s termination to future places of employment and education,” Byrne wrote in a blog post.
Editor’s Note: Nadia Bey, Trinity ‘23, is a former reporter and managing editor for The Chronicle. Reporting for this story began in February 2023, when Bey was a senior.
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Nadia Bey, Trinity '23, was managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume and digital strategy director for Volume 118.