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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

What If Wednesday!

Here's the latest in my continued series of provocative questions about music higher education. Have a "What If" question you'd like me to tackle? Send me an email and we'll talk about how to feature it in a future post.

This week we ask:

What if a school’s value was measured by innovation and engagement?

I was recently appointed to the University of Colorado’s campus budget committee. And every time I’m in a meeting I feel like maybe people are giving me the side-eye. I realize I’m probably just paranoid, but we all know the truth about music schools and budgets: faculty-per-student, students-per-square footage of space, and by just about any other financial measure you can come up with, we’re the most expensive unit per student on campus. Meanwhile, we get treated to periodic directives from the Provost on developing better metrics for our performance – metrics that are invariably designed by scientists or businesspeople to effectively measure activity in the sciences and business. So when it comes to money and traditional performance metrics, music schools come out looking bad. Really bad. And guess what: the bean-counters are onto us.

BUT…what if a music school’s value were measured by innovation and engagement rather than the traditional metrics used to evaluate academic units on campus? This is not just a question of music schools reframing their value propositions, of music schools getting better at articulating the value they bring to their campuses and communities. It’s about a fundamental shift in culture – for both the music school and the institutions of which they are a part. For our institutions, it means measuring more than just credit hours, facilities costs, papers published, awards won, and research dollars raised. And for our music schools, try this on for size: think about how focusing on innovation and engagement would change what we teach and the way we teach it! What if our ensembles and chamber groups spent equal amounts of time rehearsing and performing off campus? What if classes in teaching artistry and audience engagement were just as important as those in theory or history? What if composers had to compose not just virtuosic pieces for the school’s new music ensemble, but also compose a Grade 3 piece for an elementary school orchestra or choir? What if your senior recital were graded on musical performance, attendance, and novel presentation?

And here’s the final benefit: I believe that one of the main reasons music schools are so often resistant to fundamentally changing is that there is no institutional incentive to do so. We know how to measure what we do now, and we’ve figured out how to communicate those measurements to the higher-ups. So why change, even when the outside world is sending us increasingly clamorous messages that change is necessary; even if we know, over the long run, that the status quo will fail us? So, an institutional culture that measures our success by innovation and outward engagement might be the only way to force us to make the kinds of changes we need to be making. Without incentives, change almost never happens. Assigning value based on innovation and engagement goes beyond changing how we measure what we do; it forces us to change the very thing we do and how we do it.

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