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Brandeis plans to shutter PhD programs in music

Brandeis University, seen here in this photo from a 2019 graduation ceremony, plans to put the two doctoral degree programs in its music department on hiatus and eventually close them.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Brandeis University has informed faculty members in its music department that the university’s doctoral degree programs in composition and theory, and musicology, would be put on hiatus this fall, with the intention of eventually closing them.

The Globe obtained a copy of a letter dated Aug. 24 and signed by Brandeis provost Carol A. Fierke and dean of graduate school of arts and sciences Wendy Cadge. Addressed to music department chair Eric Chasalow and department directors of graduate studies Yu-Hui Chang and Bradford Garvey, the letter praised the faculty and students in the PhD programs for their work with “very limited resources,” but stated the university was “simply not in a position to invest in the programs as is needed to sustain and grow them.”

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The letter also indicated that Brandeis’s graduate school of arts and sciences would continue to support the department’s existing PhD students, and that the changes would “allow the faculty to strengthen the undergraduate program in Music so it compares with those at elite liberal arts colleges.”

Reached via phone Friday, Chasalow said the university’s plan to cut the programs was “a shock to all of us.” He paraphrased a passage from Brandeis founder Abram L. Sachar’s 1976 book “A Host at Last,” in which Sachar explained why music was among the first graduate programs to be established at the university: “Music is important to Jewish values, and to an understanding of the world,” said Chasalow.

In an email to the Globe on Friday, Brandeis interim senior vice president of communications Julie Jette wrote that music would continue to be a “crucial part” of education at Brandeis, noting that when the university conducted a year-and-a-half long review of its PhD programs, “it was determined that the two music PhD programs needed more investment than Brandeis could provide to maintain the excellence they have been known for. Therefore, the difficult decision was made to place them on hiatus with the intent to close.”

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In Dec. 2021, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions in Higher Education projected that Brandeis would be downgraded from an R1 research institution, the highest level in the classification system, to R2, the second highest. Brandeis ended up keeping its R1 status, but the projected downgrade “created a kind of crisis,” said Chasalow. Throughout his years at Brandeis, crises have meant cuts for the arts, he said, referencing the controversial and ultimately shelved plan to close the university’s Rose Art Museum during the 2008-2009 financial downturn.

With this decision, said Chasalow, “they’re saying ‘our priority going forward is going to be the sciences, and we’re not going to make any bones about it.’ ”

Chasalow, who has been at Brandeis since 1990 and served as a graduate school dean for seven years, said he felt “empathetic” for his colleagues in the administration. “I understand when there’s a crisis of financial difficulty, and we do have financial difficulty. I’ve seen the budgets,” he said. “But this is not going to save the kind of money they need to really change things.” At present, there are 14 PhD students receiving funding from the school, with eight in musicology and six in composition, according to Chasalow.

Brandeis music composition PhD alumni Peter Van Zandt Lane and Emily Koh co-wrote an open letter dated Aug. 24 to Fierke; Cadge; and Brandeis’s president, Ron Liebowitz, protesting the plan. Signatories include numerous alumni and other supporters of the endangered programs.

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Brandeis has “long touted” its association with Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and other “giants” of American music who played pivotal roles in establishing the music program, they wrote. “By discontinuing this program, we risk severing a crucial link to a heritage that has not only defined our university’s contribution to the arts but has also enriched the broader cultural tapestry of our nation.”

Chasalow said he has been “inundated” with messages of support from alumni, current students, arts lovers, donors, and his colleagues across departments, including some in the sciences. “They’re outraged,” he said. “Scientists understand they can’t do their jobs without vibrant arts.”


A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her @knitandlisten.