Where the music and theater arts department stands after budget cuts

Students share their perspectives, the theater division seeks a new major and the the Confluence Arts Center brings hope


Photo by Amanda Thao

To create another source of revenue, Dr. Alan Rieck, the leaving chair of the music and theater arts department, said they implement a $35 fee to students each semester to use the practice rooms. “That actually saved us because it created the possibility for us to maintain some of the things we would have lost otherwise,” Rieck said. Vocal performance student Ian Rucker practices piano in a practice room on the second floor of Haas Fine Arts Center. To him the fee is worth it.

This is the second installment where Erickson will look at the effects budget cuts are having on students’ academic lives.

A $250 million cut in state funding to the UW System left UW-Eau Claire with $12.2 million  to cut from its 2015-17 budget.

When one music performance student made the decision to attend UW-Eau Claire, she said she had two reasons: the scenery and a full-ride scholarship to play violin for a university string quartet.

Now senior Hannah Kennedy said she finds a new reason to be here every day, despite the changes she’s noticed within the music and theater arts department as a response to budget cuts.

Noticeable changes

Music education students Ali Abraham and Matthew Miller both agree the added stress their professors wear is the biggest difference they’ve seen in the department since they first arrived in the fall of 2014.

“We have a stronger relationship with our professors than most students might,” Miller said, “and to see them in stressed out situations does directly affect us. Whether or not it’s intentional,  doesn’t matter; we end up getting a lesser experience from it.”

While Abraham said this has made the learning process less efficient for her, it hasn’t impeded the creative and intellectual impact professors have on her everyday.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s still a fantastic school and I’m glad I’m getting an education in Haas because they’re still so knowledgeable,” Abraham said, “but it’s like knowledgable under a time constraint.”

Department Chair Dr. Alan Rieck said as professors have retired or left for regular reasons, they haven’t been able to replace them with the same tenure-track positions due lack of financial resources.

With full-time positions being replaced with part-time faculty, he said curriculum had to be readjusted so they could teach larger GE and LE classes that used to be around 25-30 seats and can now be anywhere from 80-120.

The difference in a part-time instructor is they don’t serve as advisors or on committees, not because they don’t want to, Rieck said, but because they don’t get paid for it.

“We try to protect them,” he said. “So it means everybody is working harder, not that we weren’t already doing that, but it’s draining.”

Arthur Grothe, assistant professor of theater arts and artistic director of theater, had one year of experience on campus before the budget cuts started taking effect, but he knows the department is a product of decades trying to build the departments up. The department needed what they had before the cuts, he said.

Grothe’s music appreciation class has gone from 30 students to 45, a tolerable number he said could grow if it’s taught in a bigger space.

“I generally prefer classes to be more discussion oriented and interactive,” Grothe said. “To me that’s what college was supposed to be for, the debate of ideas. That debate gets harder to navigate the larger that number becomes.”

Lost positions

One of the greatest hindrances Grothe notices is the lighting design faculty position that wasn’t filled after Kevin Gawley took a job elsewhere.

Not only did Gawley teach lighting design classes, but he designed most productions and mentored students along the way. With no one to teach these skills to students, he said it has put additional stress on the technical director.

Jamison Wendlandt, junior music education student with a choral emphasis, said the lack of lighting design and technical skill hurts their performances as well. But his biggest concern moving forward is continuing to attract high quality professors who make the department what it is.

The department’s financial specialist was cut as well, Rieck said, as a result of the voluntary separation incentive program, where employees over 55 could opt for retirement and a one-time payment of 50 percent of their base salary.

It was a staff position that took care of financial records, instrument rentals, stage crew and music rentals – responsibilities that were added to academic department associate Nichole Miller’s workload.

She had no choice but to delegate most of the non-finance or confidential related work of Gawley’s job to students. Now she only has time to get projects done that are on a strict schedule.

After a dance professor left at the end of last year, the department wasn’t able to afford hiring another full-time professor and hired a 40 percent-time professor, losing several dance opportunities and the dance minor along the way, Rieck said.

New dance students will soon be able to earn a certificate, but dance students who started the minor can find a way to finish, including senior Clara Kennedy.

When Kennedy, who’s majoring in theater arts, found out the minor was cut at the beginning of the summer, she said she only had one dance class left to fulfill her dance minor, but Rieck helped her find a replacement class.

New department chair  

Rieck has served as department chair for the past three years, and will be leaving the position on Oct. 21 for a job at Penn State as assistant vice president and assistant dean of undergraduate education.

It’s a decision that wasn’t a response to anything negative on campus, Rieck said in an email to students in the department. However, he wouldn’t have been as actively searching if it hadn’t been for the current situation, he said.

“I love this job,” Rieck said. “I’ve loved it since I’ve had it. I have not loved the circumstances in which I’ve had to function and I really need to be in a place where I can be creative and innovative. While I’ve had some of those opportunities here it felt like sometimes those things were being squeezed away rather than enhanced.”

Looking forward

Last Friday it was announced Dr. Gary Don, professor of music theory and the music theory composition coordinator, would be filling the chair position until the end of the academic year.

Don said he accepted the position when Dean David Leaman of the College of Arts and Sciences told him he could continue teaching his 12 credits for the semester and have other faculty fill in at meetings he can’t attend.

His 16 years on campus also means he has experience with new budgets and understands how the cuts he’s seen over the years accumulate to shape the future, he said.

“As an interim chair I want to help our faculty to be able to help our students,” Don said. “I think that’s one of my most important jobs.”

Senior Michelle Miller said she’s excited Don  and his “level-headedness” will fill in the chair position.

“I think he will do a great job. He’s the perfect person I could picture for the position,” said Miller, who’s majoring in intersponal communication and minoring in music.

Meanwhile, the theater division is hoping to add a musical theater major by next fall using the courses they already offer, Grothe said. It’s already gone through the department’s curriculum committee and the college curriculum committee will vote on Friday.

With the Confluence Arts Center breaking ground this week, the music and theater arts department has something to look forward to, he said.

It’s a project that has been in the works since 2007 and will bring a new theater, art gallery and other facilities to the downtown area.

“I think it has the great potential to unite the university and the community to be a center and focal point for theater within the northern Wisconsin region,” Grothe said.

There is a potential danger without having the lighting design professor to teach students how to run the new systems and technology, Grothe said, but there are already efforts in place to  make sure the new facility is used equitably.

Don said he’s hoping to get a technology certificate started while chairing the department so it’s available once the Confluence Arts Center opens.

Hannah Kennedy said they can’t complain, they’re getting a brand new facility.

The overarching change she’s noticed in the department between when she started to now is a positive one – two years ago she said the standards for music around her grew as young and energized faculty were added to the department.

She can add that to her growing list of reasons to stay in Eau Claire.