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Fenway neighbors Berklee, Boston Conservatory explore merger

Performing arts schools longtime neighbors, allies

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Roger Brown (left), the president of Berklee College of Music, and Richard Ortner, president of The Boston Conservatory.

By Malcolm Gay Globe Staff 

For nearly 50 years, Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory have lived side by side as neighbors in the Fenway, sharing everything from faculty to food services. But now the two storied institutions want to become much closer.

The schools said Thursday that they have agreed to explore a merger, a union they say could create a national powerhouse in performing arts education, with rich programs in music, theater, and dance. Governing boards for the two schools have approved plans to pursue the potential merger, which could occur as soon as 2016.

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“The combined institution creates in one stroke the most comprehensive training ground for performing arts and related careers in the country, if not the world,” said Boston Conservatory president Richard Ortner.

Berklee would retain its name, and the Conservatory would become known as the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. The schools would maintain separate admissions processes and financial aid awards for the foreseeable future, but would share facilities, faculty, programs, and other assets, enabling students to take courses at each institution and possibly transfer between programs or earn joint degrees. The presidents of both schools would keep their respective titles.

“My commitment to Richard and his organization is we’re not going to try to tell you how to run your music, theater, or dance programs, we just want to find ways that your students can benefit from our offerings and our students can benefit from your offerings,” said Berklee president Roger Brown. “The grand strategy is not to increase the overall enrollment, but to enrich the experience for students and create more choices.”

The two schools have different — and potentially complementary — strengths and cultural identities.

Founded in 1867, the Boston Conservatory has an endowment of approximately $15 million and a total enrollment of roughly 730 students. It offers degree programs in music, dance, and theater — with a particular emphasis on musical theater — and holds admission auditions in about a dozen US cities. Famous former students include singer/actress Katharine McPhee, the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater star Kirven Douthit-Boyd.

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Berklee, by contrast, was founded in 1945 and has an endowment of $321.5 million and more than 4,000 students. Offering majors in everything from film scoring and jazz composition to music business/management, Berklee boasts a long list of Grammy-winning alumni including Branford Marsalis, Aimee Mann, and Esperanza Spalding. It also has a robust online degree program and a study-abroad program in Valencia, Spain. It holds admission auditions in 55 cities across 19 countries.

“We are looking forward to piggybacking on that infrastructure,” said Ortner. “It’s a platform we could not have developed on our own, and we’re happy to slide in at this moment when they’ve perfected it and see we can do with it.”

Under the agreement, the two schools’ endowments would be merged, as would their respective boards of trustees, with the Conservatory represented by eight of its current trustees and Berklee by its 35 members.

“There’s an obvious asymmetry in the size of the endowments and the size of the two organizations, but I don’t think anyone imagines we’re being absorbed into Berklee,” said Ortner, the Conservatory’s president. “We’re joining together to create something quite new in the world.”

Over the next three months, the institutions will solicit input from faculty, staff, alumni, and students about the potential merger via a series of surveys, online forums, and town hall meetings. A steering committee will oversee task forces devoted to academic issues and administrative and operating concerns.

“This is what the business experts would call a market extension merger — when two entities operate in the same space but they don’t really compete, but rather extend opportunities,” said Ortner, who noted that they had been formally discussing the possibility for about two years. “We wanted to make sure there were no hidden potholes before we engage the energies of our whole communities in exploring this.”

The combined institutions would likely hire more faculty and begin offering new programs that draw from each schools’ strengths, such as dance coupled with contemporary music, and expanded musical theater courses for Berklee students.

“Berklee is quite broad, but we don’t really have a music theater program, we don’t have a music dance program, and we really don’t have a classical music program,” said Berklee trustee Martin Mannion, citing some Conservatory strengths.

And in an age where colleges and universities are building state-of-the-art facilities and beefing up course offerings, board members say a merged organization would be more competitive. “Neither institution needs to do this,” said Boston Conservatory board chairman David Scott Sloan. But, he added, paraphrasing hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “A good hockey player plays to where the puck is, and a great hockey player plays to where the puck is going to be. We need, if we’re going to think strategically, to determine where is the future of performing arts education. We have to be there, and if it’s not defined, then we have to define it.”

Although the Conservatory is much smaller than Berklee, its real estate, which Ortner estimated at $80 million, would allow the combined institutions to grow. The Conservatory, which recently completed a facility with six dance studios and an orchestra rehearsal room, has a buildable lot on its campus, and permission to build a 10- to 12-story building. Berklee, meanwhile, has permission from the city to build a 25-story building at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street, Brown said.

School officials said faculty members briefed on the merger idea have been enthusiastic.

Nancy Zeltsman, who holds joint appointments as a professor of percussion at Berklee and chair of percussion at the Conservatory, said she was “jumping for joy” at the prospect.

Following the exploratory period, Ortner and Brown said they would present a plan to their boards for approval.

“We both hope the boards will quickly coalesce, and work for the benefit of this new institution,” said Ortner.

Watch a video of the college presidents discussing the potential merger:

Letter from Berklee President Roger H. Brown found at berklee.edu:

Dear members of the Berklee community,

I am pleased to announce that The Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to explore a merger of our two institutions.

In support of Berklee’s vision for 2025 to “transform the future of music education,” our two institutions will work together to reimagine 21st century music and performing arts education, and to create the best possible educational environment to prepare our students to succeed in their careers. Agreed to in the MOU is that the name of the combined institution, should we finalize the merger, would be “Berklee,” with the conservatory known as “The Boston Conservatory at Berklee.” My role would be to serve as president of the combined institution.

Conservatory President Richard Ortner is a trusted friend and colleague whom I’ve known since he first welcomed me as president of Berklee in 2004. With our neighboring institutions and shared commitment to music and arts education, we continually look for ways to collaborate. For example, Conservatory and Berklee students share dining facilities, a number of faculty teach at both institutions, students regularly perform together in concerts and ensembles, and the institutions share campus security operations. The college and the conservatory also have a shared history as founding members of the ProArts Consortium and the Boston Arts Academy, and through the consortium, students can cross-register for classes. This MOU serves as a way to explore deeper collaboration.

The Boston Conservatory was founded in 1867—making it the oldest performing arts conservatory in the country—and has divisions in music, dance, and theater. The dance program was recently ranked number one in the country in contemporary dance, and number four overall, by OnStage. Alumni of the Musical Theater Department have received dozens of Tony Award nominations, and in 2013, a Conservatory alumni was a cast member in nearly every Tony-nominated production. And the Music Department has established itself as a leader in new classical music composition.

Leading up to the MOU, a number of constituencies and individuals were engaged to share their knowledge and insight. Among these were Conservatory program directors; Berklee’s deans and members of the chair group who have conservatory background, including Arnold Friedman, Kim Perlak, and David Wallace; Berklee AFT Chapter President Jackson Schultz; selected faculty—some of whom teach at both institutions—including Prince Charles Alexander, Marti Epstein, Jonathan Holland, Gus Sebring, and Eric Stern; and membership from leadership teams and boards at both institutions. Under discussion was how this partnership could create a unique 21st century educational experience that would prepare students for successful careers.

The overwhelming opinion is that Conservatory students would benefit from access to Berklee’s stylistic diversity, music technology, and entrepreneurship and business programs, while Berklee students’ access to dance, movement, theater, and conservatory training would expand their educational experience in key areas. All students would benefit from the shared community, comprehensive curriculum, and our deep music and performing arts culture.

The key word here is “explore.” While the team who formed the MOU sees enormous educational benefits for students, there are clearly many questions about what a combined institution will look like. As a community, we will take the next several months to explore, debate, and consider all the possibilities and complexities of merged operations.

To accomplish this, steering committees with representatives from both institutions will be formed to study the academic and operational implications. These committees will include a master steering committee chaired by David Mash with leadership from each institution, as well as committees focused on academic strategy, administrative strategy, enrollment, communications, advancement, creative collaboration, and cultural integration. As these are formed, we will engage our entire community for participation.

We will hold a town hall meeting at 1:00 p.m. on Monday, June 29 at the Berklee Performance Center. I hope you can join me as we begin our exploration.

Personally, I feel this is a tremendous opportunity for Berklee to take leadership in the creation of a new model of education for the 21st century musician and performing artist, and I am energized to do the hard work to envision and realize this for our current and future students.

Sincerely,

Roger H. Brown,

President Berklee College of Music


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay