On the eve of Leonard Bernstein’s 105th birthday last month, the faculty of the Brandeis University music department — which Bernstein had helped to establish in the 1950s — was summoned to the provost’s office. In a meeting so carefully orchestrated it might have come from one of the department’s top composition students, Provost Carol A. Fierke read a statement announcing the imminent closure of the music department’s two highly ranked PhD programs: musicology, and composition and theory.
The administration’s clumsy, take-’em-by-surprise tactics were clearly intended to forestall protest. Instead, they fomented it. Word of the closures spread prestissimo con fuoco on social media; The Boston Globe picked up the story; and an open letter written by PhD alumni racked up more than a thousand signatures over the weekend.
The situation was not helped by the timing of the announcement, as news broke widely on Aug. 25, Bernstein’s birthday. Three days later, Bernstein’s children released a scorching statement accusing Brandeis of “rel[ying] on the Leonard Bernstein name to lend lustre to its brand, as well as to raise funds,” all the while “cut[ting] off [Bernstein’s contributions] at the knees.”
As the chorus of condemnation suggests, this isn’t just any old music department. Bernstein may be its poster boy, but Aaron Copland, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and many other world-famous composers have also scratched on the blackboards in Slosberg Music Center. Brandeis PhD alumni and former faculty include tenured Ivy League professors, presidents of national scholarly associations, and multiple winners of the Otto Kinkeldey Award, the American Musicological Society’s most prestigious honor. Nor are the music department’s glory days behind it. Current composing faculty who have won Guggenheim Fellowships include, well, all of us; current musicology faculty, though young, have published their research in the field’s premier journals. The Brandeis music faculty has always punched several classes above its weight. It still does — and the doctoral programs are instrumental to that success.
The Brandeis administration does not dispute the department’s excellence. The decision to terminate its doctoral programs came at the end of an 18-month internal review, in which the university paid the company Academic Analytics some untold sum to produce performance statistics on all PhD programs.
The result? Out of 15 PhD-granting departments in the Brandeis Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the music department ranked as one of the best. It had the lowest rate of attrition and the best record of placing PhDs in academic jobs. In all other major performance measures, it placed among the top three or four Brandeis departments.
Throughout the PhD review process, Provost Fierke remarked on the need to shore up Brandeis’s grasp on the Carnegie Classification of R1, which indicates that a university is “highly research active.” One of the main factors determining an institution’s R1 status is the number of PhDs it produces, and the data proved indisputably that the Brandeis Music Department is very, very good at producing PhDs and placing them well. The department is an obvious asset to a university concerned about its research activity level. So why is it being cut?
While Fierke spoke of “metrics” the administration had used to come to its conclusions, she didn’t actually show faculty any. Instead, she offered the most minimal of rationales for ending two of Brandeis’s oldest and highest-performing PhD programs: “The university is simply not in a position to invest in the programs as is needed to sustain and grow them,” she wrote in a letter to the music department’s faculty. Translation: “We have cut you so often in the past that your faculty is now unconscionably tiny, and while against all odds you’re still producing great results, this is the only way we can figure out how to squeeze more blood from the music department’s stone.” Or as ABBA put it: “Money, Money, Money.”
But it isn’t about money, not really. Combined, the stipends for the music department’s graduate students cost Brandeis about $300,000 a year. (Currently 14 music department PhD students receive funding from the school.) Meanwhile, the university’s annual operating budget is well over a thousand times that, and according to tax statements, 13 Brandeis executives made over $300,000 in 2022. During the same year, IT expenses ran to $10.3 million, and Brandeis paid two consultant agencies upward of $2 million each.
Financially speaking, the music department’s PhD programs are little more than a grace note in a Mahler symphony. The real issues here are priorities and values, not funding. Brandeis president Ronald Liebowitz has said the university needs to “lean into the sciences.” Anything that requires money (no matter how little) and doesn’t fit that vision seems to be on the chopping block.
Who cares, you might ask; all university administrators think that way. But Brandeis has always purported to stand for something other than the easy dogmatism of “Only STEM Matters.” Brandeis was a haven for Jewish artists and scholars after the horrors of the Holocaust — during which, for so many, playing music was a rare source of solace. It is an institution founded on the principle that the arts should be at the core of the curriculum rather than at the periphery. (Brandeis’s first president, Abram Sachar, trumpeted the fact that it was one of the few colleges to include the creative arts in its requirements.)
Brandeis is, precariously, a small liberal arts college that is also a top research university, where “vertical connectivity” between undergraduate and graduate students is the keystone of its educational approach. Indeed, in a 2020 document titled “The Framework for the Future,” the administration asserted that “the mix of cutting-edge research, scholarship, and creative work [read: PhD programs] on the one hand and a deep commitment to undergraduate liberal arts education on the other fosters a unique learning environment for Brandeis students.”
This year is Brandeis University’s 75th anniversary, and it’s time it embraced its special identity. Now more than ever, the world needs conversations among scientists, technologists, humanists, and artists. Those conversations actually happen in Slosberg Music Center. Music faculty teach almost 15 percent of all campus undergraduates every semester (and add to that all those who perform in ensembles without academic credit), and the vast majority of those students major in something other than music. Such multidisciplinary classroom experiences are immeasurably enhanced by music graduate students, who guide, facilitate, and enrich class discussions, thus realizing the lofty ideals outlined in “The Framework for the Future.”
As its history shows, and as the current outrage demonstrates, the music department lies at the very heart of Brandeis’s worldwide reputation. It is an indispensable part of the Brandeis brand. The university promotes itself with a paraphrase from the Passover Haggadah as “different from all other universities,” but a decision to blow the whistle on the music department’s graduate programs will call this difference into question. Will Brandeis really shut its ears to its heritage and responsibilities?
Eric Chasalow is chair of the music department at Brandeis University. Emily Frey is assistant professor of music at Brandeis.