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Letter to Drury about decreasing humanities positions

A few days ago, this story broke at Inside Higher Ed. In the days that followed there was a lot of outrage toward and confusion about the idea that Drury will not be renewing some faculty contracts at the end of this year. My letter to the administration follows.

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Dear Dean Combs,

I'm afraid we haven't had the chance to meet, although I did recently receive a letter from the office of development bearing your signature (cf. http://kylev.net/combs). My name is Kyle Vanderburg, class of 2009. After graduating from Drury, I went on to pursue MM and DMA degrees in music composition at the University of Oklahoma, where I am currently on faculty. I owe so very much of my academic and professional success to the educational and musical opportunities I had while at Drury, and I have found that what I learned at Drury comes in more useful with each passing day.

Like many alumni, current students, and faculty, I have been dismayed at the recent news that Drury is not renewing the contracts of several full-time faculty members. Having been on both sides of the classroom, I understand that the decision to continue without these faculty members has been difficult and data-driven. However, one of the values of the Drury education involves making connections and the interrelatedness of different fields. With that in mind, I'd like to tell you a story.

As you may have noticed, Springfield, Missouri is surrounded by rural communities of varying size, including my hometown of Poplar Bluff. As a young musician, I looked up to the only professional musicians to which I had access: My high school band directors. The idea that someone like me could be a performer or composer was beyond my immediate experience. So I decided to get into Music the only way I knew was possible, by becoming a music education major. Although I did not continue on as a music education major, if the opportunity had not been there, and had Drury not employed Duane Harris (a predecessor to Dr. James Davidson) and the rest of the excellent music faculty, I likely would never have gone to Drury and some other school would be listed on the bio that I submit regularly for national and international performances.

I realize that my story is anecdotal, but part of the value of the music education program is that it recruits talented musicians that may (like many of us) change their major to music and later go on to become performers, conductors, and composers, which is a scenario that is not clearly outlined by any metric. What makes the Drury experience great is the ability to try out new classes, new majors, and make new connections. It is impossible to gauge the effect that removing these faculty positions will have on the undergraduate experience, and to release faculty contracts based solely on numbers is, at best, folly.

I of course realize that this decision comes from a financial necessity, and it is here that I do have some confusion. In your aforementioned letter, you mention that Drury is looking to expand with new majors and minors centered in media production, such as animation, digital media production, film and television production, digital design, and computer science and gaming. While these do sound exciting and contemporarily valid, I have concerns regarding the cost of starting these programs. As someone in the field of music production, I am (painfully) aware of the cost of starting and maintaining a production-capable studio. This seems like an unusual move for an institution that is losing 12 faculty members due to budgetary concerns.

Another point of concern is the recent division of Drury into multiple colleges at the undergraduate level. In my experience the creation of new colleges translates into new staff, and promoting professors to deans indicate higher salaries. While not inherently bad, it is, again, an unusual move for an institution that is losing 12 faculty members due to budgetary concerns. Additionally, sectioning Drury seems antithetical to the liberal arts mission. We should be building bridges, not walls.

I have spent time as an adjunct faculty member, and I see the validity of the possibility that adjunct faculty have had interesting jobs and careers, but given the current culture in higher education I'm afraid you may very well find the opposite to be true. With institutions granting so many doctorates, Drury may find itself filling positions with adjunct professors that have spent their lives obtaining a PhD and have less real-world experience than your hypothetical adjunct workforce. Drury deserves better. Our students deserve instruction from faculty that have a vested interest in the university, and our faculty deserves colleagues that are adequately compensated for their expertise and time.

The value of a Drury education has less to do with individual majors and more to do with the manner in which the program of study is philosophically based. When I moved from Drury to the University of Oklahoma, I suffered degree envy in that all of my newfound friends had Bachelor of Music degrees, and here I was with my BA from Drury. That lasted precisely until I realized that the students without a liberal arts degree hadn't had the opportunities that I had, and didn't possess the knowledge that I possessed. As more Drury alums have followed me to OU, I've heard the same thing. One put it succinctly, that “nobody here knows how to do anything outside of music.”

In short, the music curriculum at Drury is as top-notch now as it was when I was a student, but it will not continue this heritage of excellence if positions are removed. The current faculty are stretched to their capacities. The removal of an entire position will cause the program to suffer and will have the opposite effect of your goal of “making a degree from Drury University even more valuable over time”. I can only speak to my personal experiences with music, but I am sure that other departments facing faculty cuts will suffer the same fate.

In a world that is becoming increasingly specialized and vocation-driven, the power of a liberal arts education–to make the connections between fields that specialists cannot–is not immediately obvious. One of the major selling points for Drury when I was being recruited was the Global Studies minor and the GP21 curriculum. Getting a guaranteed minor? Yes please. I'm afraid that I don't know much about Drury CORE, and in perusing the website with the mindset of a perspective student I'm afraid I still don’t know much. The recruitment materials at http://choose.drury.edu doesn't focus much on academics. Even from the admissions site, the list of majors seems quite disjunct from Drury CORE. There are great things happening on the 88 acres in Springfield, and from my vantage point, we're keeping that secret to ourselves.

With all of this in mind, I urge you to look at alternatives to releasing faculty to alleviate the budget shortfall. Perhaps a change in recruitment strategy. An increase in tuition would not be inappropriate. Adding new majors–especially those that do not require large startup budgets for equipment–is an additional option. Increasing graduate degree options, especially in strong programs, may be possible. Increasing student residency in campus housing is a possibility.

Perhaps these have all been tried and have been found wanting, but the lack of transparency and information through this process has been troubling. I first heard about Drury's faculty cuts through Inside Higher Ed and emailed a former professor to confirm. As you move forward, I would implore you to keep alumni and students in the loop. Whether or not malice was intended, the fact that so many of us found out through news organizations instead of through Drury comes across as a slight, especially given that the university has access to many of our email addresses. A university that does not do an adequate job of keeping its alumni and student base informed of massive changes via email is ill equipped to increase communication and technology-heavy media production programs. I leave you with some words from Drury's first president, Rev. Nathan J. Morrison: “Not scholars, not surveyors, not discoverers, not lawyers and clergymen, but complete men and women. Drury's first care, therefore, of the youth committed to its guardianship, will be the culture of the intellect.” Rev. Morrison knew what generations of Druryites know: Academic specialization is no substitute for academic breadth. We sacrifice this idea at our peril.

Sincerely yours,

Kyle Vanderburg '09, DMA
Composer and Sound Artist, NoteForge
Director and Programmer, Liszt Systems
Instructor of Music, The University of Oklahoma