Making the Longy School of Music, an independent conservatory located in Cambridge, Mass., part of Bard College, a traditional liberal-arts college with its main campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., seems unusual when looked at as a business decision.
Some small art institutions such as Longy have faced tough questions in the last several years about whether they could find their students jobs and whether their finances could support their operations.
But that’s not how Bard President Leon Botstein looked at the situation. To Botstein, who has often taken unconventional approaches  to major higher education issues -- and who happens to be music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra -- the merger is more about the fate of the arts in America. Sure, the combination will create efficiencies, but what he thinks really matters is the educational benefit of joining forces.
Botstein and other leaders in higher education and arts education said they see partial or full partnerships between independent arts institutions and comprehensive colleges and universities, such as the one created by Longy and Bard, becoming more common as strained budgets, increased governmental regulation, and diverse student demands make it harder for small arts institutions to succeed independently.
“Noncommercial arts will require the prestige and refuge of universities,” Botstein said, noting that colleges and universities are some of the only institutions where the people who give money don’t do so because they directly benefit from the efforts. He sees art programs tied to larger universities deriving the same benefit that a theoretical physicist might reap. Such work is supported, whether by the government or by private donors, because its presence at the institution signifies that it is valuable. "It gives an imprimatur that an effort is worthwhile, even if it’s not profitable,” he said.
Longy was in the black, leaders stress, and the merger was motivated by educational, not financial, factors. But Botstein said it will help the school's long-term viability to join with Bard, which also operates a quasi-independent early-college campus at Simon's Rock (for students younger than traditional college age), as well as campuses in East Jerusalem and St. Petersburg. In the future, he said, cultural institutions like Longy will look to colleges and universities to provide economic benefits and existential legitimacy that would be uncertain if those institutions remained independent.
Challenges of Arts Schools
Only seven independent conservatories that focus solely on music still exist in the United States, said Kalen Ratzlaff, Longy’s chief of staff.
There are several reasons why small arts institutions like Longy have struggled to stay solvent during the past few years, but a major one is overhead. Arts programs are run differently from a lot of other programs in higher education, said Bill Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Art and Design, which represents 41 art schools.
Unlike university courses that can be taught as lectures, art programs require low student-faculty ratios, specialized equipment and space that often can’t be used for more than one purpose, as well as studio time for students. Music programs often have the lowest student-faculty ratios, and Longy has had some faculty members who worked with only one or two students a year -- though all of its faculty members work part-time.
“How many students are paying how much, and how many faculty and staff do you have to pay?” Barrett asked, adding that about 70 percent of costs at his institutions are personnel costs. “That’s your crucial number.” For these reasons, independent art schools often have to charge high tuition while keeping discount rates at a minimum. Last week several of the institutions that Barrett represents were highlighted by the U.S. Department of Education  for their high net tuition costs. And, on top of tuition, students often also have to pay for supplies.
Since tuition revenues are often devoted mostly to instruction, few arts schools have many of the amenities that are now common on college campuses, such as recreation and entertainment facilities.
Small independent arts programs also face challenges when it comes to fund-raising. Unlike universities with a wide variety of programs, art colleges tend to create just one type of graduate. And while they create loyal alumni, Barrett said, they don’t often create wealthy alumni.
Despite these challenges, Barrett said he does not see legal mergers like the one between Bard and Longy on the horizon for most art schools. Instead, he sees such schools looking to partner with nearby institutions to share services and facilities, which is already happening in several cities. In such cases, art colleges pay a fee to nearby universities to let students use gyms and participate in other campus activities. For example, Marquette University lets students at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design use some of its facilities.
Barrett said there’s a strong independent streak among art schools that will keep them from merging completely with larger institutions. “There are advantages to being a small institution,” he said. “You can be much more flexible and nimble in a way that large universities cannot.”
Longy had struggled to make its $7 million budget for several years before the college’s current leadership arrived, and was running a $1 million deficit. With Karen Zorn’s arrival as president in 2007, the administration began to address the issue. One of the steps to rein in the budget was the dismissal of almost 20 percent of the school’s faculty members, a move that made headlines in Boston .
Because it is located in Cambridge, Longy faces significant competition from several larger conservatories in the area, including the New England Conservatory and the Boston Conservatory. By the time Botstein and Zorn met in 2009, the music school had been looking for a partner institution for several years. “They have a very dynamic president who realized that for the program at Longy in Boston to grow … they had to become part of a larger educational institution,” Botstein said.
Administrators at the music school, recognizing that many of their students would likely enter teaching rather than performance, were interested in developing a music education program. “While we felt we did an excellent job at training musicians, we felt there was something about the reality of a musician’s life we weren’t preparing them for,” Ratzlaff said. “Not everyone is able to go out and just be a performer for their entire career.” They found an appropriate partner in Bard’s masters of arts in teaching program, which stresses actual teaching experience.
Now that the two institutions have merged, development of a teaching program based on Bard's but offered at Longy will be one of the first noticeable changes. The other benefits of the merger will come more slowly, administrators said. They hope Bard’s reach will bring Longy wider recognition and help with admissions and recruitment. Longy’s ultimate goal is to have a larger impact on music education in Boston and across the country, Ratzlaff said.
Administrators and observers said they think the Bard-Longy merger will go more smoothly than past attempts to fold independent arts programs into universities, mostly because Bard already has a strong arts program. “If we weren’t already prominent in the arts, this merger wouldn’t make any sense,” Botstein said.
Jeffrey Sharkey, the current president at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that when the institute merged with Hopkins in 1977, the two institutions spoke very different languages. “Music is done on a one-to-one basis and is really about the teaching, not about the research,” Sharkey said. "The university was founded on the German model, which really prized graduate institution and undergraduates didn’t come until later. They had very different priorities that took some time to iron out.”
While it is part of Hopkins, Peabody retains significant independent authority, which Sharkey said is key. He said such mergers can only succeed when conservatories can keep their ethos as centers for education and performance and aren’t treated like glorified music programs that the university funds to a level that’s “good enough.” “We support whatever we can fund-raise for,” he said, noting that the school does not get direct financial support from Hopkins.
While he thinks art institutions should retain this sense of independence if they merge with universities, he said there are advantages to being part of a larger institution. Donors looking to give to a creative outlet at the university are often directed to Peabody’s development office.
Administrators said Longy will retain much of its independence through the merger, especially because of the distance between the campuses. "You don't want to impinge on the good faith of the credit that comes from 100 years of name recognition," Botstein said. "It is part of their asset. It will be called the Longy School of Music at Bard College. The brand name will still be Longy."
And Longy might not be the end of Bard's plans for art-related expansion. Botstein said museums, theaters, and other cultural institutions could all be ripe for folding into colleges and universities. "We are always looking for opportunities to grow by consolidation and by building alliances," Botstein said. "We're happy to listen to any entrepreneurial ideas that come our way. We love listening to people with ideas, even bad ones. We always learn something from them."