Teresa Merriman keeps busy in the University of Montana’s arts scene.
“I’m president of the UM cabaret, I’m a member of the Chamber chorale, and I’m a member of the opera theater as well,” she said. A junior with a vocal performance major and theater minor, she’s confident her education at the University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts will serve her well in the future. “I plan on being a vocal professor, teaching voice and music to people of all ages and being an active member of the community and the arts,” she said.
Merriman and other UM arts students and supporters have been on a wild ride since Saturday, as concerns about budget cuts spurred a massive show of support for the University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“It has been very impressive how the arts community has reached out,” said Provost Jon Harbor Monday afternoon.
Harbor is helping guide a years-long effort to treat UM’s well-documented financial and enrollment ills. Fall enrollment figures released last week showed UM at its lowest level in 25 years.
“We’re looking to reduce the instructional budget by $5 million by the end of fiscal [year] 2021,” Harbor said. This past Friday, the provost had what he called a “general meeting” with the deans of the University’s colleges about upcoming budget targets.
Stephen Kalm, dean of Visual and Performing Arts, came away from the discussion alarmed. He emailed the directors of the college’s schools — Music, Art, Media Arts and Theatre & Dance — voicing grave concerns about the College’s future. Those concerns went viral Saturday in a public letter written by School of Music Director Maxine Ramey.
“This [budget] cut, in no uncertain terms, would mean a reduction in our faculty to the levels where we would not be able to offer accredited degree programs in Music Education, Performance, Composition, or a host of our other Bachelor of Arts in Music degrees,” stated her letter, which she says quoted Kalm’s email.
“The potential losses to then [sic] entire CVPA would be that the arts on UM’s campus would be terminated or minimized to the point of being just service departments. The BME, BM and BA degrees would be gone as would all degrees in Music, Theatre & Dance and Art.”
“We were all kind of blindsided” when the news broke, Merriman said. She remembers that one freshman “broke down in tears … her future was uncertain.”
University policy guarantees students the right to graduate in their enrolled major, but current students and graduates also have a stake in preserving their degree programs, explained senior Audrey Daniel, a music and environmental studies double major.
UM is one of three Montana institutions — Montana State University in Bozeman and MSU-Billings are the others — accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music.
“Employers want to see that you had good programs and structured programs,” Daniel said, “and if your degree doesn't have an accreditation behind it, how do you tell an employer that you had a meaningful schooling and you learned the critical information you needed to learn?”
In Daniel’s view, preserving these programs isn’t just good for the students. Having played the bassoon with groups on and off campus, she’s seen UM reap the benefits of its investments in the arts.
“We got to go to California, we made it to a huge competition and got to compete, so we're spreading UM's image around the country, essentially, and I think people don't realize that … we're making a huge impact and we matter.”
That sentiment proved widespread as Ramey’s letter spread on social media, and as students organized a protest and reached out to the Missoulian to voice their concerns.
“Missoula and the larger state of Montana has an amazing arts community,” Harbor said. “It’s very clear when there were concerns about the college that the arts community made their voices heard.”
However, he also said that “It’s unfortunate that Dean Kalm took some of what I said at that meeting, which was in general terms … and shared that with his department chairs.”
“The final decisions [on the budget] have not been made,” he stressed, adding that the process of mending the university’s finances continues.
Kalm acknowledged as much after another meeting with Harbor Monday. In another email to College Faculty and Staff early afternoon, he wrote that “I am pleased to report that my fears for the future of art, music, and theatre and dance at UM were unfounded.
“I learned in my meeting with Provost Jon Harbor this morning that the budget targets are more closely aligned with the plan that I presented last spring. … The plan allows us to maintain accreditation and the continuation of UMArts.”
Hard choices could still lie ahead for this college and others. On Wednesday, the university will release new budget targets, then give deans and department heads a month to decide how to fit within those figures.
But whatever challenges lie ahead, UM's arts programs will have a loyal group of supporters — a backing clear to the School of Music’s Ramey.
After her concerns about the college went viral, she wrote, letters poured in. “from all parts of Montana, the US and even Hollywood and Vienna, Austria where we have award-winning alumni."
“Montanans are everywhere, and they love UM and the arts,” she reflected. “It is what makes UM and Missoula very special.”
A gathering on Friday at noon at the UM campus Oval, originally intended as a protest over the cuts, will still take place as a celebration of the university's arts community, according to student Isabel Quintero, one of the organizers.