Live in Taipei long enough and you’ll meet someone who went to, or works at Taipei American School. Get to know them well enough and you’ll definitely hear a TAS rumor or two. While I have good friends who went to TAS, I didn’t go there myself. I’ve never even set foot on its campus. I am, however, a huge sucker for stories that aren’t what they first appear to be. And this is definitely one of those stories.
In July 2020, during summer break, seven 8th grade students at Taipei American School were expelled by the Head of School. This was followed in August by the Head of School announcing her resignation due to health reasons. These two seemingly unrelated events likely wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows if not for a public petition started by a group of anonymous parents. I’ll get to this online petition later.
The incident that caused the students to be expelled happened on June 27, 2020. Late in the night, two female TAS students posted videos of their classmates to Instagram. The videos showed seven 8th grade boys. Three of the boys said the n-word while the rest were filmed trash-talking during an online game of Fortnite with a stranger. The posts quickly began circulating and some of the boys received threats and cyberbullying from their classmates. In a few hours, news had reached TAS administrators. Within two weeks, all seven 8th graders in the videos were expelled.
Current TAS parents, faculty and alums I spoke with all said the punishment was heavy-handed. Instead of addressing the cyberbullying and racist behavior, TAS administrators effectively “canceled” all 8th grade boys, going against its own counseling philosophy that “all students are capable of change and growth”. This decision hasn’t been reversed for any of the kids.
(TAS makes a special point not to use the word “expelled”. The words the school uses are “forced withdrawal” and “separated,” as if we’re all Scientologists.)
From the outside, this probably looks like an open-and-shut case of stupid 14-year-olds facing the consequences of their own stupidity. But there’s a bit more to the story when you start to poke around.
For the uninitiated, TAS is a 70-year-old independent school with an American-style curriculum and a sprawling campus in the Tienmu suburbs of Taipei. Depending on who you ask, it’s also the school for the kids of Taiwan’s richer and richest, in particular those who happen to have an extra non-Taiwanese passport in their back pocket.
While it’s classified as a US non-profit, TAS holds almost $120 million US in net assets, according to its 2018 tax filing. It’s built on government-owned land, which it rents for below market rate, and it’s subject to the Taiwan Private School Law under the Ministry of Education. TAS has a special relationship with the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy, due to its original role as the school for US diplomatic and military families stationed in Taiwan. However, this relationship has become less official over time. No AIT representative has taken a TAS Board seat in years, and the current AIT Director, Brent Christensen, has declined an invitation to take an appointed Board seat.
[Update: TAS has since added Juliana Finucane to their Board of Directors. She is Visa Chief at the Consular Section of AIT.]
Not surprisingly, TAS is the most expensive education you can buy in Taiwan. A diploma is pretty much a ticket to a US college, and that doesn’t come cheap. In 2020, a student’s first year of school at TAS costs almost $1.2 million NT or $41,000 US including all registration fees and tuition. It only goes up from there. The average fee increase over the past five years has been 5.2%.
We might shriek at these numbers, but they don’t hurt demand. This year’s student body is the highest it’s been since the 1970s, with 2,437 students enrolled. For those experiencing sticker shock, it might help (or totally not help) to know that these prices are comparable to similar schools in Asia. TAS tuition fees are higher than the American School in Japan, but they’re lower than Shanghai American School. But what makes less sense is that parents are expected to make cash donations to the school too. And this is a perfectly common practice in elite private schools.
The tactics can be a little intense. Two separate parents I spoke to said they’ve received phone calls from the TAS “development” or “advancement” office — euphemisms for fundraising — because they didn’t make a donation. One parent said the person on the phone tried to extract just $2,000 NT from them. Teachers and other faculty are also expected to donate to their own place of work. Staff participation at TAS is typically at 100%.
The fundraising program at TAS has become a lucrative business. For the 2020 fiscal year (which runs from July 2019 to June 2020), the school had raised nearly $184 million NT, or more than $6.3 million US, by the end of April. The headline event is the annual TAS Gala Ball held at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, sponsored by Taiwanese companies big and small from just about every industry. The 2020 event was canceled due to COVID but planning is already underway for the next one in March 2021.
To keep this in perspective, the school’s 2019 Annual Report used 30 of its 116 pages for the Annual Giving section, with exhaustive lists of who gave how much money (in order of most to least), where it was spent, and creative ways to donate even more. Administration only spends two pages every year to inform parents about school revenues, expenses and tuition. The report doesn’t include an additional section of audited financials.
But some parents overlook the high costs and murky financials because TAS comes with opportunities that other schools in Taiwan simply can’t match. Whatever the students are into — whether it’s performing arts, journalism, robotics, Varsity sports or filmmaking — TAS has a club, program, or state-of-the-art facilities that are well-funded for its enthusiastic members. Sure, there are maybe a dozen other accredited American-style schools in Taiwan, but do those schools have Model United Nations teams that travel to debate in Doha, Geneva, The Hague and Berlin?
If only deep pockets and endless resources could solve all of the problems at TAS.
On August 25, 2020, the Head of School, an American woman in her 70s named Sharon Hennessy, addressed the Board of Directors in a public board meeting held virtually over Zoom. She began her remarks speaking about the 300-long student waitlist and the 1,000-plus applications received for the 2020-2021 academic year.
It was the first time Sharon Hennessy spoke publicly since she sent a schoolwide email on August 14 — only the second day of the new school year — announcing her resignation from TAS. Her resignation would end her current contract to lead TAS until 2022-2023. The reason stated for the urgent departure was “serious physical illness”. The Board Chair, Tina Koo, wrote in her email about Hennessy’s resignation, “Her doctors, here in Taiwan and in the United States, have insisted that she stop working as soon as possible. Her physical health no longer allows her to do the job she has done so well for so many years.”
Hennessy’s final day at TAS is this Wednesday, September 23, following her final Board meeting on September 22. She’ll fly back to the US on the weekend.
The resignation confused people and raised questions. Why would she risk going back to the US during COVID? And was it really necessary to resign? After all, Hennessy had taken lengthy health sabbaticals before. The most significant one was a full-year break during 2017-2018 when she had double hip surgery in the US and stayed there to recover. Public tax filings show Hennessy was still paid full salary and benefits in 2017 despite being out of office and overseas for around 12 months. That year, her total reported compensation was more than $759,000 US. Her highest at the time.
(Not surprisingly, Hennessy is the highest earner on the TAS payroll. Her total comp in 2018 was $768,000 US. The second highest earner last year was Kathryn Limmer, who earned $485,000 US in total comp. Limmer runs all of the fundraising programs at TAS, and has the title, “Assistant Head of School for Advancement”.)
After sharing updates on the student waitlist and application numbers at the Board meeting, Hennessy switched gears to address the public online petition I mentioned earlier.
This petition, titled “Request for Open Dialogue at TAS” was started by an anonymous group of TAS parents on August 10. It currently has 632 signatures and 113 comments. (I don’t know who’s behind the petition and haven’t spoken to them, as far as I know.) The parents implored Hennessy for communication and transparency around the discipline review process that led to the kids being expelled. The petition letter is polite and straight-forward, with bullet points of their requests, posted in both English and Chinese.
The comments section, however, was a total shitshow. Anonymous commenters took the opportunity to treat the petition as an open intervention, calling out specific members of faculty and the Board. Some were so explosive they were hidden from public view just days later. But there were plenty of comments written under real names that were significant as well, especially from previous faculty and board members.
An August 14 comment from Jeffrey Williams stood out. Williams served on the TAS Board from 1994 to 2000, and is now at Harvard Kennedy School. He wrote: “Parents should not be surprised that the school no longer responds to the wishes of the parent community. To restore accountability will require more than a petition: parents must organize, put up candidates to oust the current board, and then revise the bylaws to return to a structure more recognizably accountable and transparent.”
There’s a reason the Chinese culture invented the concept of saving face and not whistleblowing. No one airs their dirty laundry like this unless things have gotten seriously ugly.
You’d think the groundswell of comments from frustrated parents, alums and ex-faculty would be a clear signal the tide was shifting, but Hennessy had none of it. She scolded the parents and even hinted at threats to the students’ futures, saying in her remarks at the Board meeting: “The school’s reputation…is precious to every student — current, past, and future. Damaging that reputation damages the value of the TAS diploma and may limit options and opportunities we have strived to maximize.”
Hennessy also ignored references in the petition to recent changes to the bylaws. (A bylaw is a rule made by a company or society to control the actions of its members.) Previously, parents and faculty had the right to appeal to the TAS Board for a process review in cases of expulsions and faculty firings. But on April 28 this year, the Board voted to remove language from the bylaws that allowed parents and faculty to appeal, and the responsibility of the Board to resolve disputes. This change gave the Head of School full and final say. Parents — at least those who didn’t read the minutes of the April 28 Board meeting — didn’t find out about this until they opened their kids’ copies of the Code of Conduct.
Following the suggestion of Jeffrey Williams’ comment on the petition, I looked in the TAS tax filings for other bylaw changes that may have slipped under the radar. On the very last page of the 2018 filing, there’s an ominous-sounding note dated May 2019: “The School’s governing document were amended to grant a majority of the Board of Directors with the right to determine, among other things, amending the Bylaws, merger of the corporation, transfer of all or substantially all of the assets or properties of the corporation, and dissolution of the corporation.”
A year earlier in March 2018, the Board had attempted to give themselves greater power through referendum. They presented to parents the so-called “TAS Strong Slate Referendum”. The most significant change they wanted was allowing the Board to propose just one new candidate for an appointed Board seat instead of two, avoiding an open vote and ensuring their pick would be seated. The Board itself campaigned strongly for this, even coming up with poster designs and a slogan to push its own agenda: “Strong Slate, Strong Board, Strong School”. Posters were literally hung up around the school prior to the election date. But still, the parents voted no and the referendum failed. It’s clear now that the Board sidestepped democracy and went ahead a year later to change the bylaws themselves.
On a smaller scale, these unauthorized changes to the bylaws gave the Head of School the sole power to expel students for any reason under the sun, and the power to fire any member of staff at her own discretion. On a bigger scale, the Board now has the ability to appoint their own people, and to green light the sale of part or all of Taipei American School, and its assets.
This wouldn’t be totally outside the realm of possibilities. There are already two examples just this year of international schools in Asia being bought out by private equity: one is Canadian International School in Singapore, which was fully bought out in June 2020. The other is CIA First International School in Cambodia, which was bought out by a Malaysia-based firm in July 2020. The international school market in Asia has also been a topic of interest for real estate investors.
Who knows why TAS works so hard to solicit donations from parents (and where it all goes exactly), or why the Board has been acting all cloak-and-dagger behind the scenes with changing the bylaws. Having a seat on the TAS Board doesn’t pay any money, but it does come with power and influence. Maybe it’s a coincidence that one of the expelled 8th graders is the son of Alex Niu, who was just elected by TAS parents to join the Board in elections held this past April.
Alex Niu is a well-known local celebrity who was one of three candidates to win seats in the latest Board elections, and due to start his term in the new school year. In mid-August, I found his photo and introduction already uploaded to the Board section of the TAS website. Niu wrote, “I will strive to represent all families as we tackle some of the present concerns towards the school.” He ran for the Board on a platform of financial transparency and open communication.
Alex Niu’s page has since been taken down because he was kicked off the TAS Board of Directors by all eleven Board members on August 14, 2020. The meeting notes from the Board Meeting that same day list him as “Absent with Apologies”. A source close to Niu said he was never informed of that meeting.
If you keep up with Taipei private school drama, this may sound very similar to what happened at Taipei European School in early 2018. The story was covered in three articles by a reporter at the Taipei Times. No such luck here. You’re stuck with me.
One of the craziest things I found amidst all this TAS mess was the true story of Ryan Mueller. He was brought on by Sharon Hennessy herself into the newly-created position of Director of PE, Health and Sports K-12, despite having no previous work experience in education or in schools. He answered directly to Hennessy, bypassing what she described as the “traditional organization alignment”. After four years, he left TAS very suddenly in February 2018. Mueller’s total comp from TAS added up to more than $1 million US.
Hennessy announced Mueller’s exit in an email she sent on February 5, 2018. She addressed him as “Mr. (soon to be Dr.!) Ryan Mueller” and wrote of his aspirations in politics, which would require him to leave Taiwan within the same week — “a bit earlier than expected but all well landed for.” She made a point to include that one of Mueller’s final obligations was hosting an inter-school Rugby/Touch Rugby tournament happening at TAS.
The problem is, a current faculty member told me he wasn’t even there for the start of the Rugby/Touch Rugby tournament. He had to be called back to TAS from his beach vacation in the Philippines. And allegedly, he left in such a hurry that his travel companion came back to Taipei angry that Mueller didn’t pay his entertainment bills before leaving.
I didn’t even go looking for this story about Ryan Mueller. But it’s hard to ignore when the 2018 TAS tax filing specifically says TAS paid him a severance payment of $258,942 US. So did he resign to pursue a PhD and politics, or was it “forced withdrawal”?
If you’re not in the TAS sphere, you’d probably have no idea Sharon Hennessy is arguably one of the most powerful people in Taipei. Her bio on the TAS website says she has 40 years of professional experience in education and she has five degrees, the most recent one from Harvard. She arrived in Taiwan in 2006 when Boston-based recruitment consultants, Carney Sandoe, placed her in the superintendent role at TAS. (Though back then the job was called superintendent.)
Her contract has been renewed twice since 2006, which the Board itself admitted was unusual. In the Fall 2010 Alumni News magazine, a letter from the TAS Board said, “The Board of Directors recognizes that such lengthy appointments are rare for heads of school these days but voted unanimously to offer Dr. Hennessy the longterm contract.” Now closing in on her 14th year, she’s the longest-serving person in that role in the history of TAS.
Hennessy’s background prior to joining TAS is easy to look up. Her previous school administration job was Vice Rector at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. St. Paul’s is an exclusive, 150-year-old American boarding school. A quick Google shows plenty of articles about possible reasons why Hennessy left St. Paul’s: outrage over alleged financial mismanagement, bloated compensation packages and a tax audit by the IRS.
An article in Vanity Fair said, “In her eight years at St. Paul’s, Hennessy’s salary as Vice Rector almost doubled. When she left, the role of Vice Rector was abolished altogether.” The 2004-2005 scandal at St. Paul’s was also reported in multiple stories by The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
When Sharon Hennessy left St. Paul’s in 2005, the official story released was she was taking an earned sabbatical, and all provisions in her contract would be honored.
Soon after she brought up the public petition in that August 25 Board meeting, Hennessy said something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. She said to the parents, “As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
It’s a very common saying, and it’s not surprising that she’d use it since she frequently sprinkles quotes in her speeches and emails. In a long-winded, sermon-like email about racial injustice she sent on July 13, Hennessy quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Confucius and Henry David Thoreau in succession. In a second email sent that month about racism, she even quoted Oprah.
However her choice of this specific quote, at this specific time about history repeating itself is amazingly ironic, because Taipei American School is currently — as in right now — undergoing a sexual misconduct investigation.
TAS administrators haven’t shared any further details, but thanks to a different online petition from a TAS alum, it’s public knowledge that the investigation involves a college counselor who worked at the school from 2009 to 2011.
This investigation is something that must be discussed openly. If we don’t, I have a feeling that Sharon Hennessy will be proved right: we’re about to see history repeat itself.
Continue reading: Truth to the Rumors: Part 2
Update 1: I contacted Taipei American School on October 6, 2020 for comment, prior to posting the Chinese 中文 translation of this story on October 13, 2020. TAS did not respond.
Update 2: TAS released the full sexual misconduct report by McLane Middleton on November 23, 2020. The report is available to the TAS community through their website (login required). Here is a PDF of the files I received:
If you wish to come forward with any further information regarding sexual misconduct or abuse at TAS, please contact me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image of the TAS Middle School gymnasium is from the TAS website.