The Future of the Arts in Higher Education: Finding a Path Forward (Thoughts of a Music Department Chair)
In January 2017, my administration announced that programs in literature, traditional theatre, and music were being cut. Ever since, I have lamented this short-sightedness. I have watched the landscape of the arts and humanities in higher education drastically change. I have heard of many other institutions taking similarly drastic measures and it is happening on a regular basis.
There is no denying the significant challenges that currently face higher education – declining numbers of potential students, rising costs, a shift toward job training, and the list goes on. These obstacles are magnified for programs in the arts and humanities. Most academicians and business people would have a hard time arguing against the value of the information and skills learned through courses in history and writing. But the challenges of advocating for the value of courses in the arts often seem insurmountable, and the arguments that we use to advocate for arts education are not nearly as effective as we think they should be.
Administrators, faced with the harrowing task of balancing the budget, often have to make difficult decisions as to the comparative value of one thing versus another. In advocating for the arts, I have often reiterated that we are willing to invest in the things that we value. We say that we cannot afford something, when in reality we are simply making decisions as to what we value more. We must choose X or Y. Unfortunately, the economic realities that we face often lead us to realize that we cannot afford either. This is the stark reality facing many administrators in higher education, public education, and in the general arts community. If something must be eliminated to save money, someone has to make decisions based on a hierarchical value system. Therein lies the tension.
I am not justifying decisions to cut programs in the field or raising awareness of the complexities of the decisions that administrators have to make. I believe that arts education has essential value to the health, stability, and even future economic growth of our society as a whole and to our local communities equal to that of other fields. The challenge is to find new ways of advocating for the value of the arts in higher education, public education, and an increasingly challenging economic environment.
I have heard calls for music educators to stop trying to justify the field based on quantitative data. Some argue that the value of the arts is qualitative and seen in the understanding, appreciation, and creation of “beauty" - that its value is not quantifiable but intrinsic. While I agree with this ideology, I have participated in enough meetings at various institutions, to know that this type of advocacy is ineffective. Thus, we must analyze and address three essential principals if we are going to find a path forward for the arts in higher education – 1) advocacy, 2) sustainability, and 3) collaboration.
First, we must understand the necessity of “speaking the language” of our audience. If I am going to convince a non-English speaker of anything, I am not going to be successful using my own language, but success will only come through speaking their language. While I may personally believe that there is equal value in the beauty of a painting, the mastery in a musical performance, the logic in a math equation, or the complexity of a diagram of a molecule, my STEM-trained dean and many others do not see these as being equal. Our administrators may not dismiss the beauty of all of these, but they will assign value based on what they see as essential versus that which is merely beneficial. This becomes the standard by which they make decisions. Most administrators will avoid the argument that there is no academic value in arts education, but most will contend that, with a limited budget, a math class is more essential to a student’s current and future success than an arts course.
With overall decreasing enrollment, with increasing numbers of students majoring in STEM-related fields, and with decreasing numbers of students majoring in arts and humanities majors, our arguments of equality are often overshadowed by “the bottom line.” Arguing for the existence of the arts-based entirely on its intrinsic value will inevitably fail. Most of our administrators speak a quantitative language. We must speak in the language of statistics, facts, and other figures in order to ensure our survival. It is unfortunately true, that a large percentage of the value of arts education is lost in this manner, but it is often the only language that is heard.
Sports programs cost a lot of money, but most of them yield a positive return on investment. The return may be distinctly monetary, but can also be evidenced in student recruitment, retention, and alumni involvement in the institution. Most arts programs rarely yield a positive monetary return, which is what most administrators see. Therefore, the survival of the arts hinges on our ability 1) to offer and create programming that attracts more students and that provides a more realistic hope for future employment; 2) to participate more fully in the curricular and extra-curricular life of the institution; and 3) unfortunately, to begin to understand our programs as non-profit businesses and manage them accordingly. We must become experts in the art of donor relations, grant writing, and similar skills that non-profit business managers have come to rely on. We cannot merely take the budget allocated to us and accept it as the reality of our circumstances. We must become somewhat self-sustaining. As departmental budget managers, we must understand what it costs to run our program, factor in the institutional contribution, clearly articulate the monetary return we yield from the number of students we enroll, and then find ways of creating a revenue stream that helps to justify our existence to those concerned only with the “bottom line.” While this is indeed not the way we should understand the value of education, this is the way that we have to fight for our survival. Furthermore, as artists, we must find ways to create patrons of the arts if we hope to have a future. It is not enough to train creators and performers; we must develop an audience. We must cultivate community members that also value the arts. We must create patrons of the arts on our campuses and in our communities. We must help those who do not share our passion, to find value in the skills taught through the arts and in the beauty that we create.
Finally, collaboration is essential. It is critical for us to share the resources that we have. Before my current institution decided to eliminate the music program, I had successfully worked out agreements with several other more prestigious and selective schools to use components of their curriculum to enhance our program. One school had online courses in music business, recording, and production. Another school offered online courses in arts management. Both schools had agreed to a partnership that allowed for a no-hassle transfer process. I was also working on a partnership with a school that offered a master’s degree in music therapy, yet did not have an undergraduate music department of their own. We were discussing how our programs might be mutually beneficial. I initiated similar discussions on campus regarding other interdisciplinary majors. It is essential that as artists we learn to step outside our area to build bridges with other disciplines, and to make connections with artists and organization in the broader arts community. Through these connections we will have an opportunity to demonstrate to those around us the value that the arts bring to academia and to our communities.
Some final thoughts: 1) Can the arts be justified on the grounds of quantitative data? Maybe. But advocating strictly on the grounds of intrinsic value and qualitative data is futile. Advocacy needs to be both qualitative and quantitative. However, to persuade those with the power, we must speak the language of our audience. 2) Should we have to find our own means of sustainability and constantly defend the existence of our disciplines within the academic community? No, but should and must are often two very different issues. Finally, 3) Why is it such a struggle for us to see that we are stronger together than we are apart? Collaboration in the arts has existed since the dawn of time. It is this very concept that became the catalyst for groups like the Florentine Camerata to develop the ideas that led to opera. Rather than fighting for the same limited resources within a community, we join together to advocate for resources and to reap mutual benefit from their use. The foundation on which we fight for arts education must be characterized by creativity, team-work, communication, community, and collaboration.
Kevin D. Smith, DMA, has a professional career in higher education spanning more than twenty years in education, church music, and musical theatre. In the past 15 years, he has served as Music Department Chair, Director of Choral Activities, Director of Music Theory, and Coordinator of Music Education at schools in the Midwest and Northeast. He has B.S in Music Education (Eastern Nazarene College), an M.S.M. in Choral Conducting (Emory University) and a D.M.A in Conducting (Louisiana State University).