Let’s say you are the president of a state university in the wake of deep budget cuts by an austerity-minded legislature and Tea Party governor. Let’s also say that the Chancellor and the Board of Governors of your state university system has been drinking the universities-are-just-like-corporations Kool-Aid for about a decade and they seem more interested in producing ever more widgets…errr, I mean students…per faculty member than ensuring the quality and integrity of higher education. So, as the president, you have to find ways of preserving the uniqueness of your university while protecting the quality of your university’s programs. You need to make sure that graduates from your university have both a strong liberal arts education and high-quality education in their chosen fields. And, if you’re smart, you are going to look for high-profile examples of “excellence” that you can use to boost your university’s brand.
So, you take a long, hard look at your university and you begin to notice a pattern. Your university is located right in a region infused with the history of jazz. As a matter of fact, just four miles down the road is the oldest continually running jazz club in the country. Oh, and there’s that huge jazz fest every year. As it turns out, you can just take a walk across campus if you want to talk to an NEA Jazz Master planning one of the Master Classes offered on your campus. Oh! And, your university library has housed a cherished jazz archive for over 25 years! Then you remember that your university’s A Cappella group was invited to perform at the White House’s Holiday Open House just last year! And that’s the same A Cappella group that partnered up with your university’s Pop/Jazz singers to tour China in 2008, Toronto in 2010, England and Scotland in 2011.
Yes, you can see it. You’ve got yourself a plan. You are going to eliminate the music program and all music classes at the university!
Welcome to the Bizarro World of East Stoudsburg University’s president, Marcia Welsh. If all goes according to her plans, the day the music died at ESU will be May 9, 2015 – the last day of this academic year. I can’t confirm this, but I am hearing that Welsh might also have the three remaining music faculty compose and perform their own requiem during the graduation ceremony as a kind of Broadway version of a Machiavellian public execution.
Of course, this has become standard fare for Welsh – gutting academic programs on flimsy financial grounds; sending her PR handlers into tailspins with her Twitter obsession; and a reputation for retaliating against those who cross her. As much as Welsh would like to feign deep concern with crocodile tears when in front of the press, Welsh’s “concern” for East Stroudsburg University seems to end when it comes to grappling with the real causes of any “budget shortfalls” the university is experiencing.
Yes, it’s true that out-going governor Corbett took a hatchet to public higher education for three years. No one is denying that. But while Welsh dons the budget-cut-victim cloak, she refuses to acknowledge some of the deepest administrative failures that have cost the university millions. As Grace Kavanaugh reported last fall, in an accounting scheme worthy of Arthur Andersen and Enron, ESU purchased a building for a center for economic development and business incubator for $6.5 million. Yet, the building and the projects have been bleeding close to $600,000/year from the university’s budget. And where is Marcia Welsh getting the money to pay for her debt? Remember, we’re in Bizarro World, kids. OF COURSE! She’s paying debt on a failed investments through the Education and General Fund – you know, the money that is supposed be spent educating students.
This past Thursday, ESU’s chapter of the faculty union, APSCUF, held an open forum to discuss what’s happening to music at East Stroudsburg and ideas about what to do next. If Welsh is successful in her austerity plans, there will be collateral damage that will change the character of the university: there will be no gen-ed music classes offered at the university; the orchestra will be disbanded; the music fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi, will have to shut down; students will no longer to have the opportunity to perform at the White House, or England, or China, or…; and, the university will lose some of what has made it unique and distinct. And, worst of all, these cuts may only worsen ESU’s financial issues. As the Morning Call reported earlier this month,
Collette Ryder, president of the university’s alumni association and a 1996 graduate of its music program, said the decision would be a “striking blow” to the recruitment and retention efforts of the university.
About 75 students turned out for this past Thursday’s forum. Many of those in attendance came believing that Music was being axed solely due to a “budget crisis.” But, as Carrie Hillman, APSCUF’s Associate Director of Communications & External Relations, relayed to those in attendance, ESU is not that bad off financially. According to Hillman, the issue at ESU has more to do with priorities than it does with financial distress. At the beginning of the academic year, ESU was not alone in issuing another round of “retrenchment” letters – a total of five PASSHE universities were on the chopping block, some who have a more difficult financial picture than ESU. As of today, all but one other state university have rescinded their threats of retrenchment and have found other ways of dealing with their financial concerns. And, frankly, ESU looks in pretty good shape compared to the claims of budget shortfalls at Mansfield University, for example. But Mansfield has taken further cuts in programs and faculty off the table. How about that.
As we have seen in the PASSHE system over the past several years, the driving factor behind austerity policies are more reflective of the desires of administrators than they are the facts of “budget shortfalls.”
And if Marcia Welsh continues to insist on silencing music on ESU’s campus, it is time for students, faculty, and community members to bring the noise.