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When New York University announced last month that it would suspend admissions to its undergraduate music education program, students were shocked.
They weren't worried about whether they would still be able to graduate; the email sent Nov. 1 by Marilyn Nonken, who chairs the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions, which includes music education, specified that the pause would not affect current students' ability to complete their studies.
Nonken's note said the pause would allow the department to rework the undergraduate curriculum, but students already found the curriculum challenging and rewarding. Besides, the department had changed the curriculum before without stopping admissions.
"I'm a junior now and in my three years of being in the program, this is the year where all the curriculum has been connecting so well class-to-class," one current music education student, who asked to remain anonymous, told Inside Higher Ed.
More than anything, the students were worried about their own development as music educators. The department relies on a mentorship model, in which older students direct younger students in bands, choirs and orchestras to gain the skills of leading large ensembles.
With no incoming class, they wondered, who would they conduct?
The student who spoke anonymously to Inside Higher Ed did the math: this year's sophomore class -- next year's juniors -- consists of only six students. The sophomore class traditionally studies abroad in Prague during the spring semester, so with no freshmen coming next year, each junior would have only their five classmates to conduct in spring 2024. Typically, the student said, they oversee about 20 students.
Students wrote a letter to MPAP administrators asking for the decision to be reversed. They outlined their concerns about the lack of transparency and communication with the program's students and adjunct faculty -- who were only told about the admissions pause after the email went out to students.
"We are not satisfied with being consultants and observers in changes that will impact us," read the letter, which was signed by the majority of the current music education students. "We trust that the committee in charge of this decision will work with and for us, the students, to best support the Music Education program by directly including our voice. We stand ready to collaborate and share the goal of ensuring that our stellar program continues to thrive."
Administrators met with students via Zoom on Nov. 17 to answer questions and assuage concerns, but attendees said the meeting succeeded only in raising additional concerns.
"[I]t felt very frustrating as administrators gave lengthy answers with no substance," a junior music education major, Samuel Wu, said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.
During the Nov. 17 meeting, of which Inside Higher Ed obtained a recording, Nonken tried to assure students that the department would come up with a "creative" solution to the question of how they would practice conducting ensembles without any underclassmen.
"If there is not an incoming class, what can we do instead? We are creative people, we're innovative thinkers," she said. "There can be more than one way to do things and I'm absolutely interested in finding solutions to what you see as problems in this transition period."
Wu said administrators have mentioned the possibility of allowing music education students simply to conduct a group of NYU students who are studying instrumental performance. But in his view, that removes a critical educational element from the equation. Usually, the upperclassmen instruct an orchestra of younger students learning their second or third instruments, which allows the conductors-in-training to correct their developing technique as they might for elementary, middle or high school instrumentalists. Conducting an orchestra of accomplished NYU performance students would teach a very different skill set.
"Personally, the mentor model has helped me as an upcoming educator," Wu wrote. "Being able to work with my peers who are at a beginner level on secondary and tertiary instruments gives me first-hand experience on what it is like to troubleshoot and fix in ensembles."
During the Nov. 17 meeting, the students also repeatedly questioned why NYU thought it necessary to change what they saw as an especially strong and innovative program. The student who requested anonymity told Inside Higher Ed the program goes above and beyond classical music to include more contemporary courses on pop music, music technology and jazz theory.
Nonken said in the meeting that the department hadn't yet decided what changes to make, and that those determinations would be part of the curriculum redevelopment process. She cited a lack of resources as one of the program's biggest shortcomings; the music education program operates with two full-time faculty members -- down from four just a few years ago, according to one senior on the call -- and no dedicated advisers.
In a statement emailed to Inside Higher Ed via an NYU spokesperson, Nonken discussed changes in the field of music education that helped compel MPAP to reimagine the program.
"NYU established the first school of pedagogy in the United States; we believe that music and arts are vital to primary and secondary education and we want to be in the business of training music teachers," she wrote. "But music teaching and learning now often occur outside the classroom -- in cultural institutions, community centers and libraries, to name a few examples. While our program historically focused on training teachers for New York City schools, we want to expand our mission to reflect the changing field and to give students the ability to explore related areas such as music technology, music therapy and arts administration. This approach will also tap into the expertise of the talented faculty in our other programs."
As for why the program had to pause admissions to implement these changes, Nonken said in the meeting that she expected it would be easier to take a break and start back up with a new curriculum than to phase in those changes. She also noted that other NYU programs had taken similar steps when reworking their curricula.
No Input from Adjuncts
Nonken told the students in the meeting that she considered the perspectives of full-time faculty members within MPAP, including professors from different disciplines. But music education courses are taught almost exclusively by adjuncts. The only full-time faculty members of music education are Alex Ruthmann, who has worked mostly at NYU's Shanghai campus for the past several years and doesn't know most of the current music education students at the Washington Square campus, and Jason Thompson, the interim director of the program, who has been busy reworking the curriculum for the master's program. (Admissions to that program have been paused since spring 2021.)
Both men were involved in discussions about pausing admissions, Nonken said -- although some sources in the department claim that Thompson was unaware of the decision until the day before the students were informed. Neither Thompson nor Ruthmann replied to Inside Higher Ed's request for comment.
None of the 14 adjuncts in the music education program was consulted, and, in fact, they did not learn about the admissions pause until after the students were informed.
In the Nov. 17 meeting, Nonken noted that the adjuncts would not be involved in the curriculum rewrite in an official capacity but would act as unofficial consultants.
Students questioned why adjuncts, who work with students on a daily basis, had not been included in major decisions about the program. Nonken said their contracts disallowed them from doing unpaid service to the university, such as sitting on the working group that would develop the new curriculum.
The adjuncts themselves have criticized the administration's lack of transparency and voiced worries about how the admissions pause might impact their jobs. With fewer students to teach, it's unclear if all 14 part-time professors will be needed going forward.
"It's just really apparent to me that [NYU administrators] really don't care and that it's really a corporate mentality here about making money, rather than what's good for people, what's good for students, what's good for faculty," one faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their job, told Inside Higher Ed. "I don't know what's going to happen but, already, there's just this feeling that people are really down."
When asked during the Nov. 17 meeting if there was any chance the decision to halt admissions would be reversed, Nonken responded with a definitive "No"; the decision had already been made and approved by NYU higher-ups, including Steinhardt Dean Jack H. Knott and Provost Georgina Dopico. The website for the program now features a banner declaring, "To best meet the needs of our students, we have decided to suspend enrollment in the Bachelor of Music in Teaching Music, All Grades: Initial Certification."
The process of reworking the curriculum is underway, and a working group comprised of Nonken, Thompson, Ruthmann and full-time faculty from other MPAP programs is currently developing preliminary ideas for the reimagined program, ostensibly to be presented to the dean by the end of December. As of now, students and adjunct professors will not be officially represented in the group.
The timeline for reopening the program remains uncertain.
"I would like this to move quickly. It depends on many things," such as what level of approval the proposed changes require, Nonken said during the meeting. "What we're asking for is to take this time to really assess changes that we can make for the better to create a more robust program."
She underscored that the program is changing -- not disappearing.
"We are not abandoning the program," Nonken wrote in her statement. "Our students and faculty are enthusiastic about it and we are committed to improving it."