Friday, January 17, 2014

The Profuse Use of Adjuncts Changes the Nature of Academic Institutions

   I’ve previously written—though not on this blog—about the hazards of using large numbers of low-paid adjuncts to do a significant amount of the teaching of undergraduates.  There are issues there of quality control, of fairness to instructors regarding pay and benefits, and more.  But I have not seen discussions—admittedly, I have not looked all that far—about how these changes affect the very nature of academic institutions.
   The classical organization of a college or university has the faculty determine educational policy, a big and complex topic.  In my day, there were wild and woolly discussions on that subject,  particularly when we moved to change undergraduate requirements fairly early in my stint as dean of arts and sciences at Northwestern.  Some contributions to those discussions should be called “political,” since there were faculty members who voted to support policies primarily because they would steer more students into their departments.  But, maybe surprisingly for skeptics, many of the discussions and votes were much more “high-minded,” in that participants expressed their often thoughtful beliefs as to what a good undergraduate education should be.  I was very pleased with the outcome at Northwestern and pleased that many of the reforms instituted around thirty-five years ago are still in place.
   Now, I don’t want to mislead anyone.  The discussions by the entire faculty (who had to vote on them) about requirements and similar issues were not exactly scintillating.  Educational policy couldn’t hold a candle to bread and butter issues.  However, the committees charged with formulating curricular proposals were indeed focused on those issues, articulating different points of view and coming together on thoughtful final recommendations to be voted on at meetings of the faculty of Northwestern’s College of Arts and Sciences.
    None of these discussions were hi-falutin’ debates about grand theories of what a liberal arts education should consist of.  Pace Mortimer Adler!  Some participants had thought a lot about that, many more had not.  But just about all of the faculty members who took part in these deliberations  had extensive experience teaching undergraduates.  
   What is taking the place now, when the faculty population has changed so radically?  How are the features of undergraduate education determined under the current dispensation?  There are two possibilities, neither of them very attractive.  The first has only the tenured and tenure-track faculty have a say on the undergraduate curriculum.  Makes sense?  Yes, as fulltime at their institution, they are so to speak the keepers of their college or university.  But on the other hand, it doesn’t make sense: a significant fraction of this elite doesn’t teach undergraduates at all or they teach only such advanced courses as senior seminars.  In short, many of this regular faculty lack experience with the students for whom educational policy is to be formulated.  They have the choice of staying silent, waiting for the issue to pass, or they may sound off nevertheless.  The latter is the more likely alternative, since ignorance seldom trumps a deeply ingrained habit among academics: to speak up.
   The other alternative is to have adjuncts, who actually teach those undergraduates, participate in those curricular discussions.  There are two serious problems with that course.  From the institution’s point of view, is it appropriate to have its policies determined by people who have no stake in its future?  No business would tolerate an analogous arrangement.  Looked at from the other side, why should underpaid adjuncts, rushing off to teach another class at a distant institution, stay around to expound their on educational policy pertaining to undergraduates at this place?  They are paid for teaching courses—usually not very much, usually without any of the benefits granted to “regular” faculty.  Even if an institution invites their participation, why indeed should they bother?
   My conclusion is not a happy one.  The replacement by adjuncts of tenure-track faculty does not simply change the economics of institutions of higher education, but transforms those institutions in a much more fundamental way.   When Eisenhower addressed the Columbia faculty just before assuming that university’s presidency, Nobel physicist, I. I. Rabi, responded to him by saying:  “Please, General, don’t address us as if we were the employees of the university, we are the university.” 
   That is no longer an obvious statement.  Not only has the cadre of “genuine” faculty shrunk radically, but the number of administrators of all kinds has veritably exploded.  (A couple of years ago, I tediously counted faculty members and administrators at a top-rated New England college and found there were more or the latter than of the former.)  At the same time, presidents of colleges and universities are no longer paid generously augmented professorial salaries, as used to be the case, but a great many of them now receive salaries and benefits not unlike those of CEOs of business companies. 

   In short, colleges and universities—not all of them yet; but just wait a few years—are progressively taking on the characteristics of commercial enterprises.  That is not a good thing.  However, why it is not, calls for another discussion.            

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

What’s in a Name If It’s the Name of a Composer?

   While a rose may smell just as sweet whatever it is called, there are plenty of contexts where names matter.  Who is named as the composer of the works announced to be on the next symphony program will affect the size of the audience, independently of the actual style and merit of the selection named.  Simply put, many potential audience members associate  style with composers’ names: Mozart, melodious classic;  Schönberg, dissonant modern.  People who devise programs know this very well and where funding and even survival depends on getting a decent audience, close attention is paid to this presumed association of name with work.
   When some years ago Lorin Maazel did all of the Tchaikovsky symphonies during a Pittsburgh Symphony season it virtually guaranteed a respectable audience, even though the seven symphonies vary considerably—let’s say in stature—while the unnumbered Manfred Symphony is a long work and, in my view, mostly on the dreary side.  (I don’t go as far as Leonard Bernstein who called it “trash.”) But it is by the popular Tchaikovsky whose name draws.  So, of course, does Beethoven’s, though, except for the overture, most of the incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont I heard not long ago left me fairly bored.  If others agree with me, then even the greatest of names is no guarantee of the highest quality and interest.
   “Who cares?” those makers of symphony programs might say, “it’s all positive if the names of composers attract audiences.  Moreover, if that gets audiences to hear music that is less than great, that’s also good and perhaps will be an unarticulated lesson in discrimination.  In any case, a proper meal will include vegetables and potatoes to accompany that great roast.”
  Everything about this envisaged response sounds right to me.  If familiar composers’ names get people to come to concerts, splendid!  The odds are good that they will enjoy the concert; there is even a chance that they will enjoy a work on the program not by a composer familiar to that listener and if she enjoys it as well, it will have been another lesson in an unplanned course in music appreciation. 
   The real problem with going by names is in the other direction, where names keep audiences away.  What prompts this entire discussion is a program played early in December of last year by the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional (OSN), here in Mexico City.   It consisted of Anton Weber’s Im Sommerwind, Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs, and Alexander Zemlinky’s Lyric Symphony.
   I doubt that anyone will disagree with me when I assert that this program would never be found in the season of an American symphony orchestra, prominent or minor, with the possible though unlikely exception of the orchestra of a major conservatory.  (That  improbable concert would have to be at a ­major music school, since the three works require large orchestras and two of them very accomplished singers.)
   What’s in a name?  That!  Weber and Berg are known, even to those only superficially acquainted with the literature of music, to be atonalists, composers who please nobody who is wedded to the traditional variations of major and minor scales, harmonized appropriately.  So, no Weber, please, and no Berg.  Zemlinsky?  That name doesn’t sound familiar.  He’s surely not of the 19th century; no doubt he is a member of the dissonant bunch with not a recognizable melody within earshot.
   Plausible guesses, but wrong.  Im Smmerwind was  written in 1904, when Weber was indeed a student of Schönberg, but it is actually a gorgeous late-romantic piece for large orchestra, never published or performed during the composer’s lifetime.  Berg’s seven songs of 1905-08, too, were written while the composer was studying with that fountainhead of atonality, but their style derives mostly from Richard Strauss, Mahler, and even Debussy.  To be sure the orchestral version I heard was produced considerably later, probably making the harmonic origin more obvious than in the piano version, never heard by me.
   With Zemlinsky, the relationship to Schönberg is reversed.  The latter is a few years younger than the former and Zemlinsky taught Schönberg counterpoint, thus becoming the only teacher the inventor of the tone row ever had.  The seven-movement Lyric Symphony was written considerably later than the other two works, in 1922-23, and counts as a major late-romantic work that never becomes quite as engaging as most of the Mahler symphonies.  But it also never dips its toes into the atonal pond of the composer who had by then become his brother-in-law.
   In short, that OSN concert featured three major late-romantic works of the highest quality, each one of which is very infrequently performed.  For me, it was so special treat, getting me to go both to the Friday and the Sunday performances.

There Is a Coda
   I said at the outset that the people who put together programs for symphony orchestras know well the basic principles informing these thoughts: First, that the names of composers both bring people into concerts and, more poignantly, that there are names that discourage potential audience from showing up.  While I’ve said nothing about composers that are just not known to many of a  potential audience, my discussion of Zemlinsky may suggest a not uncommon phenomenon, expressed in a familiar German saying:  Was der Bauer nicht kennt das frisst er nicht: If the farmer doesn’t know it, he won’t eat it. 
   Second, what a potential audience member supposes to be the case may be quite wrong.  In short, by having potential concert goers act on ignorance or misinformation, orchestras risk reduced audiences, during an era when many non-musical factors tend to depress the number of “consumers” of live orchestral music.
   What do program makers do in response?  The (very) rare ones ignore the hazard and devise varied programs: scary composer-names be damned.  While the OSN concert I’ve discussed was quite well attended on both days—if not as well as the full house that is achieved when a famous violinist is scheduled to play a popular concerto—the OSN, like most Mexican and European orchestras, is funded by the state and can thus risk a poorly attended concert, if not poor attendance in the long run.  US orchestras are dependend on ticket income and, above all, on donations from private citizens; and those two are very much connected: donations will not come to orchestras playing to empty seats.  So, with exceedingly rare exceptions—perhaps the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the relatively brief Levine years was such a one—artistic managers eschew risks, to coin a euphemism, to the point of limiting the programming to the Top Forty, as my late friend Gideon Toeplitz referred to the most popular works in the classical repertory.
   But is that all that is possible?  The diagnosis of the problems I have been describing is ignorance; the solution is universal musical education of the highest quality.  But such a utopia is not remotely available for mathematics and reading comprehension, subjects universally acknowledged to be part of the cake, so it will surely not be granted to musical knowledge—which is regarded as icing at best or dispensable altogether.  But a knowledgeable audience is not mere icing for symphony orchestras struggling to stay in existence. 
   No doubt most orchestras mount programs—most probably on their websites--that tell potential listeners about forthcoming programs.  And granted that I am not well informed about what American orchestras do actually to educate this select population about the music to be played, the odds are that these programs or publications make much of descriptive adjective—cheerful, emotional, dramatic and plenty of others that usually spring from the heads of development staff--labels that don’t convey much that is useful to potential listeners.  My modest proposal is to have such “program notes” advise concert goers not only what to listen for, but, given the subject of these reflections, combat frontally the presumed prejudices of many in their audience and take a crack at the likely ignorance of the Zemlinsky sort.  
   The artistic managers of orchestras know about those “failings” of their potential audiences and I am suggesting that they tackle them head-on in local publications and on the internet, aided by YouTube and the ever-growing wizardry becoming available.  A quick “topic sentence,” by way of example, to be much elaborated and illustrated.  “Yes, Schönberg has written a lot of difficult pieces, but the work, Verklärte Nacht, that our strings will be playing next week, is a deeply  romantic and melodious work that was used as the score for the Antony Tudor ballet, Pillar of Fire.  Come and hear us.”
    If such “lessons” became regular pre-concert features in the orbit of an orchestra, they might become habit-forming, with a chance that they would bring more people into concerts.  Many more?  Probably not.  But aside from the fact that everyone counts, such an educational enterprise would be a more worthy effort than staying alive by programming, over and over, the Top Forty or otherwise catering—or shamefacedly pandering—to that dwindling audience.  God helps those who help themselves. 
   I can’t resist concluding with a few sentences on a much bigger topic that certainly requires a full discussion of its own.  The premise is that in the US music education in primary and secondary schools is broken—for budgetary as well as deeper reasons.  Why not have some symphony orchestras step into the breach and either take over music education in some localities or collaborate with educational establishments in others.  Logistically and diplomatically complex, but surely not impossible everywhere.  If this would require some orchestra members to fulfill a part of their contractual obligations as teachers rather than as players, it would call for symphony programming to include more of the many works that are not scored for full orchestras.  The result would be a case of win-win.  The kids of the community would be accorded a decent education—at least in music appreciation—while their parents would get to hear music, some of it quite wonderful, that is now performed only very seldom.  To conclude with another much used saying: In tough times, it’s necessary to think out of the box.