Brandeis cuts musicology and composition Ph.D. programs
The decision has been met with backlash from many members of the Brandeis community.
On Aug. 25, Brandeis University released a statement informing their faculty that per the results of a Ph.D. review, the musicology and music composition doctorate programs will no longer be accepting new students.
The Justice obtained a follow-up statement sent to faculty Sept. 6, detailing the University’s decision to begin phasing out the program. The statement is signed by Provost Carol Fierke, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Wendy Cadge, and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Jeffery Shoulson.
The statement explained that the review was a “systematic examination of information about all nineteen of the university’s Ph.D. programs” that occurred between March 2022 and August 2023. The investigation included discussions between division heads, the Graduate Council, the Committee on Academic Standards and Policy, Directors of Graduate Study, Provost Fierke, and Dean Shoulson.
While the musicology program was initially supposed to go on hiatus due to concerns regarding insufficient student support, this review led the University to recommend officially closing the Musicology and Music Composition programs instead.
“The Music Department does not have enough faculty to easily and consistently fill dissertation committees, especially in Musicology, where all three tenured and tenure-track faculty are essentially required to serve on the dissertation committee for every musicology Ph.D. student,” the statement explained.
Fierke, Cadge, and Shoulson also expressed concern regarding the consistency of student graduation. During the review period, they found that over 40% of graduate students in these programs were within their sixth year or above. “This is a long progression to [a] degree and longer than the national average for comparable programs,” they wrote.
“The University is not in a position — especially given undergraduate enrollment demands in other departments and disciplines — to invest in the programs as is needed to sustain and grow them,” the administration's announcement said. “This self-reflection is not only best practice — it is the right thing to do for our students, our faculty, our alumni, and our future.”
In response to the University’s decision, many faculty members, alumni, and community members expressed disapproval.
A petition compiled by alumni has amassed over 100 pages of signatures, including the support from students, faculty, and chairs of music composition and music theory from Cornell University, Columbia University, Berklee College of Music, the New England Conservatory, Boston College, the University of California — Los Angeles, DePaul University, Manhattan School of Music, the Juilliard School, Michigan State University, Harvard University, University of Michigan, and many more institutions.
The alumni called into question what the decision symbolizes: “What message does it send when an R1 [tier one] institution, founded on a liberal arts ethos, implies that the arts can be sacrificed on the altar of the hard sciences, instead of understanding the symbiotic role between the arts and sciences as part of a holistic approach to the university’s mission?”
In a Sept. 10 interview with the Justice, third-year musicology student Marie Comuzzo explained the uncertainty that the Music Department is experiencing. “It’s causing us a lot of emotional struggle and exhaustion and also a lot of labor to write letters, to share information, to contact newspapers, and talk [with] each other. Many of us have been completely heartbroken by the decision and are flabbergasted or in shock,” Comuzzo said.
The Department of Music released a statement expressing their outrage on Aug. 28, posing the question, “Why should we aim to become a second-rate MIT when the world so desperately needs a first-rate Brandeis?”
The statement criticized the decision to protect the University’s R1 status at the expense of “two of its oldest, most famous, and highest performing-performing Ph.D. programs.” The Music Department corroborated this statement with evidence proving that music is one of the top-ranked Brandeis Ph.D. departments by many metrics. The department boasts an academic job placement rate of 71% and a low attrition [drop out] rate of 8%, placing them first in the entire university. Their students also have the third highest matriculation rate and fourth highest graduation rate. “Our renown extends far beyond the Brandeis campus, as a recent article in Nature ranked Music’s graduate programs ninth in the nation,” read the statement.
The Music Department argues that it has suffered a shortage of faculty members since the financial crash in 2008, and has alternated between five and seven and a half lines for nearly 15 years. “Our tenure-line faculty — remains smaller than those of our colleague Ph.D.-granting departments in the Brandeis Divisions of Humanities and Social Sciences,” the department explained. They insist that their long history of being understaffed has led them to operate all the same.
During a Sept. 9 interview with the Justice, musicology fourth-year Alexandra Burkot expanded on how the department thrives despite the obstacles it faces. “The faculty and administration, they are superheroes. Somehow they have managed to make [the department] work on a skeleton crew and threadbare budget for years. It has just been frustrating because they have the potential to do so much more with funding, which the arts rarely have.”
In their statement, the Music Department also highlighted that from a budgeting standpoint, Brandeis can afford to keep the two programs afloat. The programs cost around $300k per year — 0.07% of the University’s $420 million operating budget — or 0.2% of the $145 million that the new engineering building is projected to cost.
“The arts [have] this undeserved connotation of being superfluous,” Burkot stated. “Administrators will often chop the arts if they need a little bit of cash, and arts doesn’t even have that much money to begin with, so they’re not really getting that much out of it.” Burkot highlighted the irony of cutting the arts to conserve funding when music, in particular, has proven to compliment a student’s academic performance.
According to the Music Department’s statement, many of its doctoral students take seminars and incorporate their music studies with other disciplines.
For instance, Comuzzo is in the midst of pursuing her master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality at Brandeis while being a part of the musicology program. She stated that one of the driving forces behind her choosing Brandeis to pursue academia was because this was one of the only institutions that would allow a student to work towards a master’s in WGS while pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology.
Comuzzo believes that musicology in its own right is critical to education, not just in respect to other studies. She finds that many people overlook the dedication and work that artists need to become successful.
“Something so profoundly important is to feel that your work matters and people care about it. The very institution that provided me with [that feeling] is also taking it away from people who are like me — who could have never afforded a program like this and could have never dedicated their life to the study of music without an institution like Brandeis,” Comuzzo said.
“The administration is stealing from them,” Burkot said. “They’re stealing from the future generations of students who come to Brandeis. That is truly the greatest tragedy here.”
The ill-timing of the announcement on the eve of Leonard Bernstein’s 105th birthday only served to further exacerbate the reception to the decision. Bernstein, largely considered to be one of the most important conductors of his time, is best known for his internationally acclaimed works, “On the Town” (1949), “Candide” (1956), and “West Side Story” (1957). He served on the Brandeis Department of Music faculty from 1951 to 1956 and was a prominent supporter of the University in its early days. In 1952, he founded the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts, an annual tradition that continues in his honor.
His children Jamie, Alexander, and Nina published a response to the University on Instagram stating, “For decades, Brandeis University has relied on the Leonard Bernstein name to lend luster to its brand, as well as to raise funds. It is unseemly, to say the least, that his contributions to the institution are now being effectively cut off at the knees. That the Brandeis Board of Trustees made this decision in the institution’s 75th anniversary year seems particularly tone-deaf.”
The three called on the Board of Trustees to rethink their decision, attracting the attention of many current and former students alike to the post. Kristin Chenoweth, a Tony-award-winning Broadway actress, commented on the post, “This is a travesty happening more and more.”
Brandeis’s decision to cut its doctorate programs in musicology and composition is part of a larger trend in institutions around the world who are leaning toward the sciences and away from the arts.
Jamie, Alexander, and Nina concluded their post with a famous quote from Bernstein: “It’s the artists of the world, the feelers and thinkers, who will ultimately save us; who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing, and shout the big dreams.”