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Business Mentality in the Arts? Unkind Cuts?


From many sources we learn that Brandeis University proposes to place its PhD programs in composition and musicology on hiatus “until financial conditions improve,” according to Assistant Professor Emily Frey Giansiracusa’s account in Slipped Disc of Provost Carol Fierke’s pronouncement. Current candidates will be able to complete their work, and no faculty will be let go. Will the University’s bottom line take the slightest notice of this? Will the Lydian Quartet be shrunk to a trio? Is this what the President Liebowitz called “a lean into science”? Will science studies actually benefit? Our correspondents think not. Is this the beginning of an assault on the Arts?

The directors of beloved institutions don’t always make the best decisions. Community hue and cry did not save Boston’s magnificent Opera House from Northeastern University’s wrecking ball, though powerful artistic opinion-makers managed to reverse Emerson College’s intention to morph Clarence Blackall’s stunning and historic Colonial Theater into a college dining hall. In 2009, when Brandeis University president Jehuda Reinharz promulgated plans to close the school’s Rose Museum of Arts and plunder its collection, it took a successful lawsuit to prevent that philistinism. One has to wonder why the arts are the first to be cut and the last to be restored these days. It was not so at the formation of Brandeis. The founders would be very displeased by the announced plans to demolish the Musicology and Composition PhD programs there. Perhaps this is not an impending catastrophe on the level of the aforementioned episodes; the number of injured individuals is small, and at least 50 universities offer similar programs, nevertheless, this proposal indicates diminishing valuation for the liberal arts, and bureaucratic management of cultural institutions. Many aggrieved parties have weighed in; BMInt has not received an official response from the office of provost Carol Fierke or the office of the president.

 Composer and Brandeis Composition and Theory Doctorate holder Scott Wheeler:
I think it’s misleading for Brandeis to characterize their cutting of PhD programs in music as a move to support the sciences. The STEM budgets are already so much larger than the arts that no one in those areas would notice the difference. Scientists themselves are among the greatest supporters of the arts, especially music. The enemy of the arts is not science, it’s the business mentality that has taken over college administrations. Those us of in education have seen it creeping up for years, along with the administrative bloat in almost all colleges  — Powerpoint presentations, hiring of consultants, illiterate memos and reports filled with business jargon. These are the people in power who show such contempt and condescension toward scholars, teachers and of course artists. If science gets more respect from our businessmen-administrators, it probably has less to do with any genuine understanding and respect for scientific work and more to do with science’s ability to attract outside grant funding. 

The fact that the administration has a business mentality doesn’t mean they make good business decisions. This is just the latest example of a bad one

Irving Fine taught at Brandeis from 1950 until his death in 1962.

Eric Chasalow, Chair of Music, Irving G. Fine Professor of Music:
I am the current chair of music and have been teaching and serving as an administrator here for over 30 years.  We have two small but excellent doctoral programs (composition and musicology) and are highly regarded across the profession.  We educate musicologists and composers who go on to lead at all kinds of colleges and universities and have done so since the graduate school was founded. But you must already know all this. These programs are highly competitive with the very top programs, such as Yale, Columbia, UC Berkeley, UCSD, etc. but are only able to support one or sometimes two new students in each program every year.

No one is losing their job – as Yu-Hui already wrote.  The Provost has decided that, in line with the President’s “vision” to “lean into the sciences” we will no longer have PhD programs in composition or musicology and the jury is out on accepting masters students.  We will continue after the board votes on this, educating our undergraduate students with the care and attention they have always received here.  The savings to be had by terminating these programs is minimal and will have little effect on the needs of the sciences here. Our science colleagues are on the whole aware of this and supportive of our department. 

The administration fails to recognize the importance of top research in the arts in a major research university and that the overall quality of what we do for all students is affected by the mix of graduate and undergraduate students, taught by faculty who are at the top of the profession. We are already hearing from all of our current students and alumni with testimonials about how important this mix is and has been to their experience and to their decision to come to Brandeis.

It is our hope that the board of trustees sees what a bad decision this is for Brandeis and decides not to approve it.  

Today is Leonard Bernstein’s birthday and as Brandeis uses the image and memory of Bernstein to celebrate the upcoming 75th – anniversary year, that is a cruel irony

Assistant Professor Emily Frey Giansiracusa wrote to Slipped Disc:
As some of you know, our Provost told us in May that the Musicology graduate program at Brandeis would be put on hiatus, with the intention of restoring it when the University’s finances improved. The administration told us today that BOTH Musicology and Composition will be put on hiatus following this year – now with the intention of closing them permanently and shifting their scant resources to the sciences. This recommendation was made in spite of the results of an 18-month-long review of all Brandeis PhD programs, which found that Musicology and Composition ranked at or very near *the top* of all programs by every metric the PhD review team claimed to value. These elements included job placement rate, attrition, matriculation, and many other measures by which we were found to be excellent.

Despite the fact that our President has a background in economics, the administration makes this recommendation contrary to all economic sense; comparatively speaking, the PhD programs in Music are dirt cheap to run, and they produce among the best results at Brandeis. This decision is based, rather, on values: the Brandeis administration does not believe that the arts and humanities are worthy of study at the graduate level. It’s an attitude that smacks of the techno-utopianism of 15 years ago – before Silicon Valley realized that it might have to think about the ethical and historical questions in which artists and humanists are expert, before ChatGPT and generative AI pushed questions about the nature of human creation to the front page of every newspaper. This is an exceptionally strange time to declare so confidently that the arts and humanities don’t matter, but here we are

Mark Berger, Assistant Professor of Practice; member of Lydian Quartet

The one-year “hiatus” means that Brandeis will not accept any new incoming PhD students this year.  All PhD candidates who are already in the program will continue with their coursework and research. What was relayed to all of us faculty from the provost is that they are going to recommend to the board of trustees that the PhD music programs not be continued, meaning the current students will be able to finish their degrees, but no new incoming PhD students will be accepted, and once the current students have finished, the program will no longer exist.  

The PhD programs are small, but highly competitive and extremely well regarded, as you know. Each year only about 1-3 new PhD students are accepted.

I can’t comment on the bigger financial picture of Brandeis, but I do know the PhD music programs cost the university pennies compared to what they already spend on the sciences.  

There is no drama of world music vs classical or anything curriculum related at play here, as far as I know. 

And I’m not sure what gave you the idea that the Lydians were being reduced to a trio! [my joke] We are alive and well, and as we understand, the cutting of the PhD programs won’t affect the quartet directly, although we have a long history of premiering new works by our grad composers every year, and the future of that collaboration with student composers is unknown. 

To be clear, it is only the PhD programs that are being threatened to be phased out, pending the vote of the board of trustees in October. But the trickle-down effects will be massive, and the upper administration doesn’t seem to want to consider the consequences. 

The masters programs will still exist, but its primary purpose was to raise money via tuition to support the fully funded PhD programs, as well as to feed master’s students into the PhD programs. I can’t imagine many students will want to do a masters degree here if there is no doctoral program that they can matriculate into. And the undergraduate music curriculum has always relied on the PhD students as teaching assistants and ear-training/musicianship instructors. If the PhD programs are cut, I can’t imagine the master’s programs will not be next on the chopping block. 

Cutting the PhD composition program will likely mean the end of the New Music Brandeis concert series (a series managed by graduate students, bringing in guest ensembles to premiere their works), a drastic restructuring of teaching assignments among faculty, and I fear it may lead to an early exit for many of our most decorated senior composers and musicologists. It would be a real shame, and a huge loss for the academic music world, not to mention the historical implications.  

The upper administration seems to have made up its mind, but we are hoping that outside pressure and media could provide some pressure and make them realize how badly this will gut the entire music department

Leonard Bernstein founded the University’s Festival of the Creative Arts and taught at Brandeis between 1952 an 1956

Yu-Hui Chang, composer:
We’re all quite exhausted from this trauma, so please excuse my brevity. 

First of all, the administration wants to permanently cut both of our PhD programs – Music Composition and Theory, and Musicology. It is not a one-year hiatus. This is despite the fact that our programs came out strong in a campus-wide PhD review process that took place since spring/summer 2022, and clearly in disregard of our long reputation and contribution in the music field. We’re cut because the university wants to move the money to science.

The current PhD students will continue and finish their degrees. We won’t be allowed to admit new PhD students.

Lydian is not involved and no one is losing their position. 

I can’t speak for the administration what other cut they have in mind or the institution’s financial situation.

Joel Cohen, founder of the Brandeis Early Music Ensemble:
I first heard of Brandeis as an arts destination way back in high school, circa 1957.  Brandeis was known as an arts-friendly school, that idea related to its declared rootedness in deep Jewish values. 

Pioneering projects helped put Brandeis on the cultural map. One example: Did they not, early on, give a concert performance of the Weill-Blitzstein Three Penny Opera before it went to New York? Conducted by then-faculty member/poster boy Lennie B. (whose office I inherited when I was teaching there, circa 1965-68)?

Another example of that admirable pioneering spirit: As a high school student, circa 1957, I owned a Columbia LP of their intercultural jazz-classical project, white and black composers writing pieces for a specially constituted ensemble.  That effort was years ahead of the curve. On that Brandeis-sponsored record I loved the Charles Mingus piece, and then the Harold Shapiro piece, rhapsodically riffing on Monteverdi’s “Zefiro Torna.”  I even brought the LP to music camp, trying, unsuccessfully, to convert the camp’s rigid orchestral conductor to an appreciation of jazz… 

So the deep question is: Brandeis began as a new, innovative, arts-intensive place… at its best, it opened minds, and souls. What has happened to that sense of mission since the start?  

Is Brandeis now the Jewish-tinged U. of West Virginia? Or is America coming apart at the seams, everywhere?


12 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. In a recent email discussion of the current scandal, with a friend who teaches music at the University of California, Davis, she writes re the Brandeis Music Department: “All of the UCD composition faculty, past and present, are grads thereof.”

    I wonder how many of the suits who have decided to axe graduate studies in music have even the faintest notion of what Brandeis has represented in the history of modern American culture. Or even, what American culture is.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 1, 2023 at 10:04 am

  2. I’ve never understood why my alma mater’s endowment is less than half that of all its UAA peers (and even six of its sort-of Nescac peers). For some reason I was recently thinking of my first course with Caldwell Titcomb, 56 years ago this month, and now I suppose I’m glad he’s no longer with us to see this sad development.

    Comment by David Moran — September 1, 2023 at 1:06 pm

  3. Har, the programs remain listed on the university website. Someone should apply pronto.

    Comment by David Moran — September 1, 2023 at 1:11 pm

  4. A small correction: Brandeis president Ron Liebowitz’s background is in geography, not economics (though his research did entail Russian politics and economics). As a Brandeis grad (PhD, musicology) and a professor of music (recently emeritus) at Middlebury College, where Liebowitz was formerly president, I can attest that his tenure there was marked by questionable academic decisions, made over loud protests from faculty and others, that in time proved to be financially unwise. Some people at Middlebury resented the business-oriented culture that became dominant in his years there and were glad to see him go.

    Comment by Larry Hamberlin — September 1, 2023 at 2:14 pm

  5. Please delete this but DO make a correction in Joel Cohen’s comment in the body of the posting: the spelling of Harold Shapero’s last name is correct in my rendering. “Shapero”. (Not Shapiro). Thank you. DF

    Comment by Daniel Farber — September 2, 2023 at 2:54 pm

  6. Here’s link to the letter by Leonard Bernstein’s three children re Brandeis’ dismissal of the graduate programs:

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 2, 2023 at 3:54 pm

  7. If it is a “lean into science” I wonder what will become of their fencing team, another noble skill that surely has a place in the modern workplace.
    Let me be the first to guess: nothing.

    Comment by Ian Pomerantz — September 2, 2023 at 5:16 pm

  8. I write to thank the BMInt Staff for providing a forum for valuable comments and clarifications from Scott Wheeler, Eric Chasalow, Emily Frey Giansiracusa, Mark Berger, Yu-Hui Chang, and Joel Cohen. Regarding the Brandies situation, I hope more of us will comment. We can turn to this dispatch (and hopefully others) to call out the heedlessness of a decision like this one.

    Where I teach, our Master of Arts in Music degree program carries concentrations in Composition, Conducting, Ethnomusicology, Musicology, and Music Theory. Mark Berger’s point about prospective masters’ candidates not wanting to attend Brandeis with no doctoral program is a fact that our department suffers from perennially. We lose many of our most incisive, committed candidates due to the lack of tuition scholarships and the absence of a funded doctoral program in any of our musical concentrations. And this year, half of our committed masters’ students were forced to defer or cancel their masters’ matriculation due to insurmountable financial pressure. For the promising students who do manage to attend our program, the potential loss of these two Brandeis programs amounts to one more significant opportunity removed from play. Fewer programs, fewer opportunities. Additionally, Eric Chasalow is spot-on when he writes that “the overall quality of what we do for all students is affected by the mix of graduate and undergraduate students.” He could be talking about any music department in a liberal arts and sciences university in the country. The dynamic of people studying together from different vantage points vastly enriches the endeavor, further essentializing advanced doctoral study.

    Brandeis has moved in absolutely the wrong direction. If other university leaders captive to corporate, business-driven values make decisions devoid of adequate forethought, acting in the way Provost Carol Fierke has demonstrated, then they will simply serve their boards’ short-sighted money-accruing whims under the guise of supporting the sciences. Let’s at the very least obstruct future attempts like this from following inevitably—at Brandeis or anywhere else.

    Might we all agree that disinvestment in people committed to studying, writing, and analyzing music that documents myriad aspects of current culture, thereby contributing to the vitality of an ever-diversifying field of artistic inquiry, is always financially unwise?

    Let’s keep the call sounding and reverse this wrong-minded action.

    John McDonald

    Comment by John McDonald — September 3, 2023 at 2:53 pm

  9. As one who has lectured, served on a doctoral committee, and attended many concerts and professional academic meetings at the Music Department at Brandeis, I can certainly attest to the validity, academic strength, and professional respect that the Ph.D. programs have increasingly accrued over the decades. Some of the most renowned names in both musicology and composition have emerged from their graduate programs. The high standing of the founders, including Bernstein, Berger, Shapero, and Fine, has not dimmed with time. That the university claims inability to afford to continue the programs seems quite absurd, considering what else Brandeis has managed to find money for. It is certainly true that it’s more difficult than ever to find academic or purely creative jobs for Ph.Ds. in music, but Brandeis graduates have always done very well, even in Hollywood, sporting credentials and learning that they could have acquired at very few other institutions. To terminate the doctoral programs now for financial reasons would be nonsensical beyond stinginess.

    I remember that two-LP set that Joel Cohen mentions, including Harold Shapero’s On Green Mountain; and Milton Babbitt's All Set, as well as George Russell’s All About Rosie, with its fabulous solo by Bill Evans, from the Brandeis Jazz Festival of 1958. Is it too much to say that the Third Stream was born here? And Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, a chamber opera of genuine genius, took flight at Brandeis in 1952. These Brandeis monuments may not sport doctorates, but they are durable (Ratty boo. Sofa so far so. Automobee. Ought to be Moby. …Skid a lit Ada, Abarbanel: who but Abarbanel buys a visa).

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — September 8, 2023 at 8:22 pm

  10. Good to see George Russell get an acknowledgement in the Professor’s reflections.

    Comment by Bill Blake — September 9, 2023 at 9:56 am

  11. Perhaps the Brandeis board should take a hard look at its president. Besides the insanity of putting in jeopardy its PhD programs in the music dept., so superbly portrayed in this discussion, there’s the other recent scandal: the proposed closing of Rose Art Museum and dissemination of its collection. An 18th-c. pastel portrait of Aaron Lopez,the wealthiest and very important resident from Newport, RI, was lost when artifacts were transferred to another institution. Was it the only casualty? Has the board better take a hard look at its current administration?

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — September 12, 2023 at 5:43 am

  12. There have been three Brandeis presidents since Reinharz’s ill-considered move, now almost 15 years ago (, each leader struggling (usually with board backing) to address the university’s comparative financial hole, as pointed out in my earlier comment. I trust that each poster here gives Brandeis a thou or more annually.

    Comment by David Moran — September 12, 2023 at 7:31 pm

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