Final curtain for the theater program?

By Heather Beyer, Editor-in-Chief

An outside review of the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences recommends shutting down the theater program by 2016 and reassigning tenured theater faculty to positions not associated with the performing arts. The review was conducted this fall by an administrator at Ohio State University at the request of Arts and Sciences Dean Chand K. Midha, who also is UA’s vice provost.230926_10150168766869032_1688428_n Although the OSU administrator’s report to Mihda makes a case for eliminating theater, it also questions the conclusions of an earlier, internal Arts and Sciences review that recommended dissolving the School of Family and Consumer Science and redistributing its programs. Mark Shanda, divisional dean of arts and humanities in OSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, was on campus one day in October to gather information for his review. He focused on the four schools in Arts and Sciences’ Fine Arts division: Dance, Theatre & Arts Administration; Family & Consumer Science; Music; and the Mary Schiller Myers School of Art. The Buchtelite obtained a copy of his report. Among Shanda’s findings: • Faculty members in the schools that were studied feel “a lack of respect” by the university administration and want “greater engagement in the decision-making processes.” • Those faculty members see the university spending a lot of money on buildings and expansion while not adequately investing in faculty and staff. • The faculty in the School of Theatre, Dance & Arts Administration have been divided into two or more camps for years, creating dysfunction in the school. That situation is well-known to the faculty in the School of Music, the report says, and they are worried that merging Theatre with any other unit would “poison the well” of the newly created program. • The three tenured theater faculty members could offer general education courses in theater-related skills, but not as part of a degree program. The report suggests they might become affiliated with the School of Communication. Shanda’s report recommends that the theater production program “be shut down at the end of this academic year with the goal of completely eliminating the [undergraduate and graduate ] degree programs” over the next two years. Students who are juniors or seniors or in graduate programs should be allowed to finish their degrees, the report says, while freshmen should be encouraged to change majors or transfer to a school with a strong theater program. The theater program is not accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre. The Master of Arts-Theatre program is no longer taking applications, the report says. If the university can find the money to keep the Master of Arts-Theatre in Arts Administration program going, it should be moved to the School of Music, the report recommends. However, it also says that an internal assessment in April about the future of the School of Family and Consumer Science “fails to provide enough support” to justify the conclusion that the school should be closed and its programs sent to other departments. The campus community is waiting for Provost Mike Sherman to announce a list of programs that the university is targeting for “disinvestment” – another way of saying “elimination.” Some indicators suggest he will push to have his recommendations on the Faculty Senate agenda as early as Thursday. Due to holidays, the Faculty Senate does not meet again after Thursday until Feb. 6. The Board of Trustees, which must approve any changes, is scheduled to meet on Dec. 11 and then will not meet again until Feb. 5. Sherman said Monday in an email to The Buchtelite that the OSU consultant’s report was one of many sources of input over the years. He said it was shared with faculty but it does not reflect final determinations or decisions. The process of reviewing academic degree programs has been going on for years and is normal at any university, he said. Sherman said that since 2005, “our faculty, academic leadership and administration have worked together to identify degree programs where student demand has declined or market demand for graduates has declined—factors important in determining whether it makes strategic sense to continue to offer a particular degree program or to create entirely new programs.” Through that process, some programs have already stopped admitting new students, he said. For example, the Musical Theatre Program was eliminated in 2005. Over the next several weeks, Sherman said the administration will be determining which programs to phase out or integrate into other academic programs. Students and faculty should expect to learn some news at the start of next semester. “It should be noted that the elimination of a program does not mean the elimination of an entire course of study or a department or college,” Sherman said. “It does mean a reallocation of resources in a strategic and planful manner.” Sherman said the academic program review process also is designed to expand some areas of study where students can be successful. “UA students should not experience any significant change in their pursuit of a degree,” Sherman said. “Any changes to be announced will be phased in over time so that current students can successfully complete their program of study and earn their degree within a reasonable period of time.” Theater students, faculty and alumni have joined forces in campaigning to save the theater department. Zhenya Lavy was heavily involved in the department as both an undergraduate and a graduate student. She said that discontinuing theater program is a “disproportionately harsh action.” Among her many ties to Akron, Lavy was the founding member of New World Performance Lab, editor of Akron Magazine, adviser of the Tel-Buch staff, and served as the facilitator/lead-writer for the University’s Master Academic Plan crafted under former Provost Noel Leathers. Lavy currently works as the co-artistic direct Akropolis Performance Lab and is finishing her Ph.D. in Theatre History and Criticism from the University of Washington. Lavy said Shanda’s report “represents an inadequately researched opinion based on written documents submitted by the administration and a one-day site visit.” Although Shanda’s site visit did include two open forums with faculty, last-minute planning prevented full participation, she said. “Theater faculty received less than a week’s notification about the visit, and one of the three professors could not attend either forum due to teaching responsibilities,” Lavy said. “No forums were held with students, alumni or other collaborators or community members.” Lavy said that despite the “brutal judgment” Shanda leveled against the theater department, the program has still accomplished a great deal in the last 20 years. “The program has made impressive strides in the last 10 years to eliminate racial barriers and foster greater participation from among the African-American student population,” Lavy said. “UA Theatre serves a larger role in the cultural life of the community,” she said. “Elimination of the program could even have repercussions for the City of Akron and how downtown promotes itself. Shows in Guzzetta Hall are a marketing point.” Nancy Rylow, trustee of the Berea Education Foundation and a parent of a 2009 theater arts graduate, said she was sad to learn that the program may be shut down. “I believe that a smaller-size school enabled her to spend more quality time talking to her advisers,” Rylow said in an email to the dean and provost. “Some students do not do well in a larger school” such as Ohio State. Instructor Wendy Duke, who teaches at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts, received her B.A. in Theatre Arts in 1973, said the department gave her the training that has led to a very fulfilling life as a theater educator. “What is maddening to me, as a theater educator, is the great missed opportunity the University of Akron has brought about by not backing the theater department,” Duke said in email to the dean and provost. Some Akron-area schools, including Miller South and Firestone High School, could be official training schools for UA’s arts education students, which would benefit the public schools and the university and the students, Duke said. “We could be national leaders in arts education training,” she said. “I have done my best to initiate collaborations, but without a full faculty and no department leadership it feels like everything has been left to rot.” Duke believes that the emphasis on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) “has blinded many peopleʼs eyes to the creative powers inherent in the arts.” “The theater is the one place where we can, as a society, view our human foibles and human passions, reflect upon what our society is and could be, and where we must always be ready when the curtain goes up,” she said. Theater senior Nici Romo said in an email interview early Monday that she has found a home in the program. “I have never felt like I truly belonged anywhere until I walked into Guzzetta Hall,” Romo said. “There is a sense of community and family I believe cannot be found anywhere else on campus.” Director Jim Slowiak said in a phone interview on Monday the theater program trains students to be “creative and innovative citizens.” It “fills a niche that no other program fulfills,” he said. “We are extremely diverse.” Provost Sherman said the administration understands that change of any kind provokes anxiety, especially among those who have devoted their careers to certain programs. “But change also presents new opportunities for many people,” Sherman said. “We can assure our campus community that diverse voices have been sought and heard in this academic review process, all positions considered, and decisions will be made in the best interests of our students and their continued success.”