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UM music department battles financial constraints in efforts to improve services to its students

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(Matthew Harrison/Collegian)

The music department at the University of Massachusetts consists of fewer than 250 undergraduates and 50 graduate students and represents the impact of financial constraints on a department that has shown a level of high ambition and in-depth planning.

Three and a half years ago, Jeff Cox was hired as chair of the UMass music and dance departments and was immediately faced with the task of getting the department renewing their accreditation with the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM).

The accreditation process forces the department to do a comprehensive self-study. Cox, along with the help of other faculty members, garnered student and faculty input about the department, answered a long list of questions from NASM and submitted a plan intended to improve the department during the next several years.

“We created a document that addresses all the basic standards and expectations that the association feels that a quality music program should have,” said Cox. “They approved us.”

The document that was produced spanned hundreds of pages and can best be described as similar in thickness to the health care proposals currently being debated in Congress. Much of the report boiled down to three main issues: a lack of tenure track faculty, issues with student recruitment and old facilities in need of renovation.

After gaining these results, members of the department made several changes aimed at fixing the department’s stature.

Currently, the music department has five major ensembles, which include two main chorals, two wind ensembles and an orchestra, in addition to its marching band. Student music majors belong to at least one of the ensembles for a majority of their undergraduate career.

Music majors are among the busiest people on campus. They practice their instruments, rehearse in at least one ensemble and take studio lessons on their instrument – on top of a regular course load. Because of this, one of the department’s main initiatives is to transform its students’ schedules to make it easier for them to complete their requirements in four years.

According to the self-study, undergraduate music degrees range from 125 to 157 credits, depending on the specific major.

Cox likens the music department as being very similar to sports programs that have specific needs and must rely on recruiting in order to fulfill specific opening spots.

“They need a quarterback; we need an oboe,” he said.

It is difficult, however, for UMass to recruit students because they have a very limited budget for scholarships and tuition waivers. For a four-year period, the music department has about $160,000 to hand out to prospective students in the form of tuition waivers. In comparison, in 2006, the University of Iowa’s music department had $450,000 in scholarships to hand out to help recruit a number of students to help fulfill their specific needs.

Tuition at UMass also does not account for a student’s entire bill. A tuition waiver does not reduce student fees, a significant portion of the cost to attend the University, whereas a scholarship can be applied to fees if needed.

Understanding that the department did not have too much power to offer financial incentives, Cox and some of the other professors introduced outreach initiatives of their own. An increased number of outreach trips to K-12 schools were introduced.

James Patrick Miller, who was hired as conductor of the wind ensembles, has placed a big incentive on outreach.

“Some of the trips are here in Massachusetts. Some are out of state in New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and even Maine,” he said. ”I’m in all of those states this year.”

Miller will often bring an ensemble or a selection of students to a school like he did during a trip this past semester to Warwick, N.Y.

“[Warwick] is a great school system where they have big ensembles and music is very healthy,” said Miller. When an ensemble goes out to perform for a school it allows those students to see what the UMass music department is doing while giving the music education majors the ability to work with students in the public schools to show them what their experience will be like upon graduation.

“The department as a whole has a fairly aggressive program to not only recruit, but also to provide our various communities to access to what we do,” said Benedict Smar, the coordinator for the music education major at UMass. “Our performing ensembles do concerts in schools.”

According to some alumni, Jeff Cox brought a new energy to the department when he was hired and made a real effort to change a “stagnant” UMass music program. Cox understood that for a university that is limited financially and cannot employ the pure muscle of money to pull prospective students to the University, that his outreach initiatives were vital to the advancement of the department’s recruitment efforts.

Tony Thornton is a visiting professor from Los Angeles who is in charge of the choral ensembles for the year as a tenure track search is being conducted to fill his position for the upcoming academic year. Thornton is one of the finalists for that position.

Thornton said he has seen the amount of people who audition for his ensembles increase by “more than a third” this semester over previous years.

The chorals have been involved with outreach along with the other ensembles. A recent event that occurred this semester where, “Over a 100 high school students [came] for a daylong festival,” according to Thornton. “The more that we can bring students to our campus… it will be great for us in terms of recruiting efforts,” he said.

There has been a strong incentive to demonstrate to public K-12 education institutions that UMass has something positive going on and that, when these students apply for college, they should consider UMass Amherst.

“A lot of the people who should be observing our program aren’t right now,” said Miller. “My goals for my students and the ensembles are to get out there and do great stuff musically so that people take note of what we are doing … because that has artistic ramifications. It has recruiting ramifications, and it has most importantly, a significant impact on our students that are here now and the students who used to be here … our alumni.”

Both Miller and Thornton have been hired (or are looking to be hired in Thornton’s case) for a highly coveted tenure track position in the UMass music department.

“In the wind ensemble symphony band positions, it’s been about seven years [that we have had an interim person in that position],” said Cox. “It’s really exciting; it’s a period of growth.”

During the course of the NASM review in 2006-2007, then-Chancellor John Lombardi stated that he wanted the UMass music department to compete against schools like Indiana University. According to senior Jill Gilfoil, programs like Indiana University are among the most competitive music programs in the country.

There are fewer tenure track faculty positions at UMass than at other institutions. As a result, these spots, especially because of their job security, are some of the most competitive in academics.

According to the NASM review and Cox, the UMass music department consists of about 50 percent tenured positions and 50 percent term appointments or lecturers. “The norm really in other flagship institutions would be to have a lot more tenured and a few not tenured,” said Cox.

The NASM report said, “One of the most pervasive themes throughout the analysis is the [department’s] need to move from term lecturer appointments to tenure track positions.” The report continued later on, “The [department] has become a training ground for young, talented faculty – only to see them taken away to tenure track positions at peer institutions.”

“That’s a sensitive issue; it’s true,” said Cox in regards to the above quote. There have been a lot of new tenure track hires every year since Cox took over as chairman. There are three current tenure track searches for the department: one for the choral conductor’s position, one for jazz studies and one position for a pianist.

Heather Teed graduated from UMass in 2008 with a master’s degree in performance. She said the reason the tenure track positions are so important is because they are some of the most highly sought after – and therefore attract the best candidates – of any academic positions.

“I think the department is going through a lot of change,” said Smar. “We have a lot of new faculty, and we have had a lot of faculty retire. I’m not suggesting that we have a lot of new positions, just a lot of new people.”

The funding for faculty is $3,766,048 for the current academic year. This is down from $3,982,702 for fiscal year 2007. When faculty members retire, the music department is not immediately granted a search to replace them.

“When there is any faculty position opening, the department must formally request to be allowed to search for a replacement,” Cox said in an email. “This requisition/request goes to the Dean of the College for his consideration. If we are granted the chance to search, and then are able to hire a new faculty member, the salary to pay that new faculty member is provided to the department.”

One of the restraints on the department’s budget comes from having to pay down a debt of $116,000 over a three-year period. The debt will be paid off by the end of the current academic year, according to the NASM review.

Among the interviews conducted, there was a theme of shared enthusiasm for the wind ensemble conductor, James Patrick Miller.

According to Gilfoil, crowds have increased and people are showing a renewed dedication to the wind ensembles now that Miller has taken over after an interim conductor held the position for several years.

“[Symphony band] is a great place to be and a worthy place to be, everyone has something to learn there,” said Gilfoil.

Erin Laman plays the Clarinet in the symphony band. “I remember the first rehearsal that we had for symphony band this year, we just sat down, and it just sounded so much better. Last year, I just remember watching the clock and thinking this feels like such a long class, but this year I don’t find myself watching the clock, and the class is over before you know it.”

It is by investing in the kind of tenure track positions Miller now holds that demonstrate the kind of people that can be brought to UMass to teach students. Cox has made an effort to advocate for the need for more tenure track faculty and by bringing it up the chain, he has been excited by the ability to search for new people.

Miller’s ensemble practices in room 36 in the Fine Arts Center. Outside of the room is a sign that reads, “Area of Refuge” advertising the area’s safe place if the campus were to be struck by a nuclear weapon. To get down to the practice room, three sets of stairs must be descended along down a hallway surrounded by poured cement. According to Teed, the environment can be described as “industrial.”

In the past three years, there have been significant renovations to the Fine Arts Center. The NASM review says, “Our facilities show the wear and tear of a 30-year-old building which necessitates constant repairs including makeshift solutions to heating and cooling problems, water seepage, and lack of adequate air flow in the building.”

Work over the summer did much to revitalize the Fine Arts Center into a more music friendly place. Many of the leaks have been fixed, airflow issues have been handled and the place looks cleaner than it had in the past because of renovations.

According to Massachusetts State Senator Stan Rosenberg, there has been a sharp reduction in funding for higher education in this state.

“Forty years ago, the state paid 90 percent of the UMass budget,” he said. “Twenty years ago, it was about 66 percent and now we are down to about 30 percent … The reduction in state spending on higher education appropriation is driving up the need for more student charges and increased financial aid.”

With the reduction in the amount of money going to UMass from the state, budgets are stretched, especially in this economic recession. The music department under Jeff Cox has set out a plan for their own development but the financial picture remains restrictive and unclear.

Cox has attempted to generate new revenue streams for the department by applying for grants. “What we can do is work real hard to try to establish new revenue sources to help us have more than just the basic budget allocation from the dean.”

Cox is applying for grants especially for the purpose of being more competitive with scholarships in order to bring in students, especially from out of state who pay higher tuition and can contribute to the school’s revenue stream.

Thornton talked about how he sees the changes in the department right now.

“We have an amazing department chair, Jeff Cox. In the past, there have been some pretty significant financial issues within the department. [Cox] has really gotten us back on course. We are on the top of the list in terms of recruiting out of state students.”

Right now, Cox has to wrestle with the plans he has and the realities of the budget.

“You have to plan. What makes it more complex right now, this is shared throughout the university, is all these concerns about what will happen to our budget in the future? You do plan for the future; one of the biggest things is to try to diversify our revenue sources.”

Michael Phillis can be reached at mphillis@student.umass.edu.

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