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“Dinosaurs, Elephants, and Dragon Slayers” – Barriers to change in our schools

College Music Society Summit on 21st-century Music School Design

Morning Remarks:
Will May – Dean, Baylor University School of Music
Mary Ellen Poole – Director, Butler School of Music, University of Texas-Austin
Jeffrey Nytch – Director-Entrepreneurship Center for Music, University of Colorado-Boulder 

[Author’s note: I was honored to be asked to participate in the Sunday morning plenary session on overcoming barriers to change in collegiate music schools. Though the three of us had had several meetings to prepare and coordinate our remarks, I quickly discarded my notes when I arrived at the conference: the conversations were so engaging and stimulating that I felt I needed to start from scratch; by the time Sunday morning rolled around, I had a notepad filled with scribbles, cross-outs, arrows, and circled phrases. I was a little uneasy speaking extemporaneously to such a distinguished group of colleagues, but I think it turned out okay. Several of my colleagues asked me to write up my remarks, so below is my best reconstruction – with some editing and tweaking for clarity and conciseness. – JN]


Good morning! It was with some trepidation that I accepted David Cutler’s invitation to join this panel today, given that I would be sharing the podium with two such wise and experienced leaders in our field. But since I’ve had some success changing the culture around entrepreneurship programming at CU-Boulder, I hope I can contribute something of value to our conversation. To that end, I thought I’d just share a few things I’ve learned and observed over the last few years, and use that to frame one possible approach to initiating change in our institutions.

Throughout this weekend one thing that I’ve heard again and again is frustration over the prospects for truly transformative change back home in our various institutions. It’s easy to point fingers, too: it’s their fault – that is, those colleagues who aren’t here this weekend and would never dream of attending such a thing. But the reality is more complicated than that, and in any event I think it’s a red herring. As Aaron Dworkin pointed out on Friday, there are always going to be 20% of the faculty who are ready for change and support anything that advances it, 20% whom you’ll never convince no matter what, and 60% who are on the fence. I’ve found those same percentages to hold roughly true at both Colorado and the many other schools I’ve visited over the past 7 years to consult on entrepreneurship programming. So while those entrenched 20% can drive one crazy, can be disruptive and sometimes even damaging, I think it’s a far more effective use of our energy to focus on that 60%. They are the ones who are open to changing their minds, but they’re looking for a reason to change. What’s in it for them?

As I was thinking about how we could best to reach those 60%, I decided it might be useful to frame the challenge in terms of pressures that our institutions are all facing, pressures that exist on three levels. The first consists of internal pressures – issues within our schools of music. The second two are both external – first, from the institutions of which we are a part, the second from the broader culture. All three greatly complicate the process of change; but if we can find a way to alleviate those pressures through change, change becomes a much easier proposition to sell.

Let’s look at the internal pressures first. It’s fine to say – as many of us have this weekend – that the desire to maintain the status quo is an enormous pressure within our schools of music. My colleagues here with me this morning have enumerated many of these with great clarity. But for me the question remains: how did we get here? How did the status quo become established? If we can understand that, we might gain some insight into how to tackle the problem.

So…I have a theory. It’s not one I’ve ever heard anyone else offer up, which I figure means either I’m on to something interesting or I’m completely off-base! You decide; here it is:

One of the great unintended consequences of the GI Bill was the enormous growth it fueled in schools of music. Now, I’m not criticizing the GI Bill – I think if you were to list the top two or three most successful government programs in our nation’s history you’d have to put the GI Bill on that list. But it played out in some problematic ways. For one, the explosive growth in higher education – especially at the public universities – meant there was a corresponding explosion in schools of music. After all, if you want to have a top-tier comprehensive institution of higher learning, you needed a top-tier music school. For awhile, the growth in music students, and the graduates that resulted, was able to be absorbed by a corresponding explosion in the number of orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music groups nationwide that we saw during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. All these new faculty lines – especially in woodwinds and brass – also meant creating ensembles to keep their students busy…and hence the explosion in wind ensembles and symphonic bands, ensembles that had almost no professional corollaries. Those who wanted to go on and get doctorates in their field could likely find a job in the growth industry of higher education.

The system was more or less self-perpetuating for more than three decades. But eventually, as growth in the number of music school graduates continued unabated, the system got severely out of balance: institutions needed students to justify expensive facilities and tenure lines; ensembles had to remain fully staffed. And so we now have to bring in far more students on every instrument than we might otherwise wish, and certainly far more than the marketplace can accommodate. What started out as a cycle of serving students has morphed into a cycle of serving the needs of the institution. And herein lies the first of the pressures I mentioned earlier: the pressure to maintain high enrollment in order to maintain faculty lines and preserve funding. And that in turn means that we’re making strategic decisions based on what will maintain our institutional structure rather than what’s best from an educational standpoint – and that’s never a good basis for decision-making.

The next pressure is from the institutions of which we are a part. The original rationale for comprehensive schools of music – that they are necessary ingredients for a well-rounded institution of higher learning – has been replaced by a business-like approach within the upper administration, an approach which sees music schools as the least cost-effective, highest cost-per-student unit on campus. They look at our expensive facilities and our high faculty:student ratios and they see an opportunity to slash costs, boost enrollment, or both. This problem is particularly acute at public universities; at CU, for instance, the Chancellor has recently given us a mandate to increase our undergraduate enrollment by 10%. In our case, that means 55 additional undergrads…with no mention of how our already-maxed-out facilities or applied faculty can accommodate them (not to mention what prospects those students have once they graduate). Once again, feeding the needs of the institution is put ahead of what’s best for our students. But the alternative is allowing the higher-ups to gut our funding and slash our faculty lines. Our schools have giant targets painted on them, the natural reaction to which is to circle the wagons.

And lastly we come to broader pressures from outside the university. While the changing narrative around higher education – from one of education for its intrinsic benefits to education as vocational training – has been going on for quite some time; the economic realities of the last decade have further ramped up the pressure for a college education to produce students who will get jobs upon graduation. Once again this pressure is particularly acute among public universities: taxpayers want to see the immediate benefit of their support for their state’s funding of higher ed, and in times of economic stress the argument of education for education’s sake doesn’t get very far. Our political leaders, bowing to these pressures, in turn cut funding for public education while mandating change that will result in what amounts to greater vocational training at the expense of “irrelevant” fields like the arts and humanities. (In Colorado, for instance, the state legislature now funds barely 2% of the CU system’s budget – while putting tight controls on tuition increases and micro-managing operations.) This is of course a purely political issue – no university can guarantee that Program X will result in Y jobs upon graduation, and we all know that training in the arts & humanities prepares students for all manner of careers across virtually all fields. But it is nevertheless the political reality, and we can either engage with that reality or put our heads in the sand and hope things get better. (They won’t.)


So how do we alleviate these pressures? Because if we want to convince our colleagues back home to embrace change, we have to be able to demonstrate how that change benefits them. If someone is able to hang out in their studio and do their thing, why should they consider changing the status quo? What incentive do they have? But if we can show how concerns that they have can be addressed, we can probably have a productive conversation.

In order to accomplish this, we have to look at reframing the narrative around what we do, why we do it, and most importantly, how it benefits our institutions and our communities. This is not just garden-variety advocacy – though we need to do a better job with that, too. I’m talking about specific issues within our institutions and communities, issues that we can address through our programming and activities. We need to flip the narrative from one of “what can our institutions and communities do for us” to “how can we serve our institutions and communities?” Rather than asking why more people don’t come to our concerts, we need to ask why they’re not coming – and then address that issue.

The prison story that Claire shared with us on Friday is a perfect example of this flipping of the narrative. Bringing music into the prisons isn’t about prisons providing us with the opportunity to perform (and fund) our music; it’s about partnering with correctional institutions to help address their challenge of reforming inmates and reducing recidivism. When we flip the narrative, we show how what we do can meet somebody else’s needs – and when we can do that, we reveal (and unlock) the value in what we do.

This is, of course, how entrepreneurs approach problem-solving. Value for our product isn’t found in convincing others of its intrinsic worth; it’s found in demonstrating, in concrete terms, how we can meet the needs of others, how we can create mutually-beneficial partnerships.

The same approach works within our institutions as well. What are the top challenges your school faces? What are the challenges your faculty face? Where is the common ground, and how can we engage in creative problem-solving to address both the need for change and the needs our schools and faculty struggle with? By focusing on the entrepreneurial principle of filling unmet needs, we can find the common ground necessary to alleviate these pressures – through the very change we desire to make. This approach will help us reframe the narrative around what we do and the value we bring to our schools, our institutions, and our communities.

Change is coming – either we can use that reality to proactively and positively reshape our role, or we can have it forced upon us by politicians and administrators who do not understand us. The choice is ours. Let’s make it a good one.

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