What I’ve Been Watching (And the Emmy Goes To…)

It’s September, and the Emmy Awards were given out this past weekend.

I am very pleased that three of my favorite current show — Mr. Robot (currently in season two), Game of Thrones, and VEEP did so well. (I am also pleased that The Good Wife received a few awards; it’s another of my favorite shows, and I will miss it.)

Surveying the nominees and winners lists, it is clear that the television that critics and audience most love right now is mostly being produced by and aired on pay channels and other platforms beyond the big three networks. I still watch a few comedies on the BIG THREE, but I’ve almost stopped watching drama on them (The Good Wife was an exception).

All that said, congrats to Rami Malek from Mr. Robot for winning Outstanding Lead Actor / Drama Series . That was well deserved. Malek’s character is complex and compelling, and he plays the part flawlessly. If you have not watched an episode of Mr. Robot, do so just to experience how expressive (and pained) Rami Malek’s eyes can be. Congratulations, too, to Mac Quayle for his well-earned prize for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (e.g., Mr. Robot). I was not sure that a series that had such an amazing twist in season 1 would be able to sustain interest in season 2; but Mr. Robot is not just plot-driven and twist-driven: it has characters that I’ve really come to care about, even though I feel like we have nothing in common with each other. And who doesn’t like a good conspiracy show with a non-linear narrative?

I am also so pleased that VEEP won best comedy and that Julia Louis-Dreyfus won Outstanding Lead Actress / Comedy Series. VEEP is amazing: the writing is perfect, the ensemble cast is stellar, and  Louis-Dreyfus as lead is simply astonishing. She’s developed perfect timing for comic delivery, and when her petite character mouths off with the best of the male politicians on the show, it is stunning. There was a scene this past season when she absolutely crushed a stereotypical, holier-than-thou, midwesterner, and it was priceless! (And I saw that as a holier-than-thou midwesterner!) While I am not yet so cynical as to think there is no good in government, big business, or large organizations generally, the unrelentingly savage depiction of organization incompetence is exquisite if for no other reason than it is a powerful demonstration that we live in a society that protects the right of people to create a series that savages the incompetence of government, big business, and bureaucracy generally and the hubris (and stupidity) of the agents of those entities. It is therefore fitting and right that John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, which also received a number of nominations for awards, follows VEEP on Sundays on HBO, because that show also unrelentingly savages real-life organizational and governmental incompetence.

As much as I love Mr. Robot, I am pleased that Game of Thrones received the award for Outstanding Drama Series. This sixth season was tremendous. GoT received other awards, too, and numerous nominations — not surprisingly, many of those nominations centered on two of the most powerful episodes this season: “The Door” and “Battle of the Bastards.” Game of Thrones is also unrelenting (like VEEP) in refusing to whitewash the worst aspects of human nature, but at least it presents those worst aspects within a richly textured imaginary world that is a joy to see, with morally complex characters acted by a stellar cast, all accompanied by great music. Congrats to all the GoT actors and actresses who received nominations. You are tops in my book!

OK, back to the sofa for more viewing…. Tomorrow night is the season finale for Mr. Robot.

Stan Pelkey

September 20, 2016

 

Saving Money by Cutting a Music Program is Harder than You Think!

Hello, Readers!

This is a slightly edited version of a post that I published in May 2016. I hope you find it useful.

Stan

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I was recently talking with several graduate music students about threats of underfunding or complete elimination of a music program or unit at a college or university by senior administrators looking for ways to save money. Such risks are real because music programs do tend to cost more to run than do many other programs: we have specialized equipment and our studio model of individualized lesson instruction is expensive.

I began thinking about these issues about a decade ago when the provost at one of my prior colleges considered eliminating a studio faculty line when a senior music professor retired. In higher education today, provosts routinely pull back faculty lines after retirements—it is one of the ways they can reshape priorities and programs. But for music programs large enough and of high enough quality to have full-time faculty covering most, if not all, studio areas, the loss of the one studio faculty line for a particular instrument (e.g., the one trombone or the one viola faculty position) undermines the quality of the whole organization because each studio feeds into the overarching ensemble superstructure of a serious music program.

I’ve also been involved in campus-wide budget development and campus-wide program review, which included conversations about resource reallocation. The reality is that for many smaller colleges and universities today, budgets remain very tight, and music and arts programs take on the appearance of “low hanging fruit.”

Here’s the catch: I am not going to make the case to save a music program on the merits of the arts generally or of music specifically or of student well-roundedness in the abstract. Arguing from the “inherent value” of the arts or the quality of your specific program is pointless in this situation. If your president or provost believed in the inherent value of the arts (not to mention the value of a well-rounded, liberal arts education), you would be having a different conversation! They would be looking for other cost saving measures or efficiencies, or they would be hitting the pavement to find more donors committed to the arts in higher education.

My argument takes as its starting point the belief that your only chance of winning this debate is with data that demonstrates that eliminating your music program will not generate the hoped-for savings!

Let’s begin with some basic financial numbers. Assume we are teaching at a mid-sized, private liberal arts university of about 4,500 students. We’ll call it Presbyterian College of the West, and with 4,500 total students, it is not unrealistic that it would have 150 music majors. On a cloudy Monday morning, the chair of the music department let’s her faculty know that PCW’s provost is considering closing down the music program. It is too expensive, and resources are needed elsewhere.

So let’s investigate the potential cost-savings by considering the basic financial data: At most small- and mid-sized colleges and universities, the single largest cost in an academic program

is usually its fixed faculty salary commitments. Assume 150 music majors are being instructed by about 20 full-time music faculty. According to recent national data, for faculty in the arts, the average Associate professor salary at masters-level institutions is $63,438.  (https://www.higheredjobs.com/salary/salaryDisplay.cfm?SurveyID=32). Assume a 35% add-on for benefits, and for 20 music faculty, PCW is spending around $1,712,826–a tidy sum of money that could be saved if PCW’s provost carries through with his plan to close down the music program and eliminate the majority of those music faculty lines.

Furthermore, for the sake of the argument, and to be as “generous” as possible in terms of assumed savings, let’s also factor in staff costs. There are probably 6 full-time staff working with 20 music faculty and 150 music majors faculty (assuming a 1:25 ratio between music majors and music staff). If the average staff salary is $48,000 and total compensation with benefits is about $64,800, then PCW is spending $388,800 on staff in the music program. Lastly, we’ll assume that the rest of the music unit budget runs to about $250,000 per year and covers remaining adjunct salaries, equipment repair and purchase, and production costs. The total expenses for the music program would thus run to about $2,351,626 per year.

At the same time, the average annual tuition at four-year, private colleges is currently about $32,405. Average room and board adds about $11,516 to the annual bill (see http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/average-published-undergraduate-charges-sector-2015-16). If most music majors at PCW are getting about a 50% tuition discount (which is not unrealistic today, especially at private colleges), and if only half of the music majors are living on campus, then PCW would be collecting about $3,294,075 from 150 music majors. Now do the math: for a savings of $2,351,626 in music faculty, staff, and other costs, PCW risks a net loss of tuition and room revenue totaling $942,449.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Why assume all that tuition and room and board revenue will be lost to PCW just because it shuts down its music program?”

The answer is simple, though it may be hard for some senior administrators to accept: Music majors—at least in my experience at four different higher education institutions—choose to become music majors and THEN select and apply to target colleges with the studio faculty, ensembles, and music degree programs that they wish to pursue. Most do not choose a college or university and then enroll there, regardless of whether or not there is a (quality) music program.

In other words, music is not a “landing” program; music is not a major that students stumble into once they arrive on a campus with which they have fallen in love. This certainly does not happen on campuses with serious music programs that require auditions of its prospective students.

Music is a “destination” program.

So if PCW closes down its music program, its potential music majors won’t suddenly decide to come to PCW anyway but become nursing majors or psychology majors instead. No, those young musicians will decide to go to one of PCW’s regional competitors.

Furthermore, many of the current music major are going to expect that PCW “teach out” the music major until most—if not all— currently matriculated music majors are finished. (PCW’s state may even require such a “teach out” period.) Depending on PCW’s president’s tolerance for lawsuits, threatened or actual, the teach out might take four or five years. That length of time minimizes whatever savings might come from closing down the music program and delays when those savings actually hit the university’s financial bottom line.

Five years is a long time – long enough to move through a national or global business cycle, with all of its impact on demands for certain types of majors, and long enough for a college presidency to run its course.

OK, so if the reality of the financial data does not scrap the plan to close PCW’s music program, how about football?

“Football?”

Yes, football.

If PCW’s president is trying to reallocate money from music and the arts or “low performing programs” to fund other programs that could “raise the profile of the university,” then athletics is certainly on her mind.

But if the music program is eliminated, there will be no marching band. And if a marching band already exists to support an existing football program, what will the booster organization think (and do) when the marching band program begins to erode and the football experience is diminished?

You cannot sustain a substantive marching program without a core of strong players from the music major.

So far in our scenario, cutting the music faculty and program has resulted in a net tuition loss because music majors (potential and current) will begin to go elsewhere. And the boosters are upset by the loss of their beloved marching band program. But here’s the next major problem: What will PCW’s administration do with that empty music building?

PCW’s provost is not going to just start having biology or chemistry labs in an un-renovated music building that—let’s be honest—is likely to be old and outdated if the music program has been struggling! Science laboratory buildings today require modern and sophisticated ventilation systems and ample electrical systems to power expensive equipment, things that will probably be missing from PCW’s music building built in ca. 1965.

And your music building classrooms are not going to suddenly host an overflow of humanities classes that do not need a lot of specialized equipment. If music is struggling on PCW’s campus, chances are the humanities are in much worse shape in terms of numbers of majors in those programs.

And PCW’s music building is most certainly not going to become a dormitory. Colleges and universities do not win today’s “amenities cold war” with renovated dormitory spaces! No freshman will want to live in a refurbished music practice room on an interior hallway with no windows!

So not only will the music building require massive amounts of investment to make it useful for something other than music, PCW’s president and provost will have…. tons of unused pianos to unload! In other words, there will be even more assets that have now become useless.

Cutting the music program ultimately saves very little because tuition revenue will typically outpace faculty and other instructional costs until the ratio of full-time music faculty to music majors (at a private college or university) reaches about 1:5. The exact ratio depends, of course, on a particular institution’s tuition rate and its “discount rate,” that is, the amount “returned” to students in the form of scholarships. PCW’s music major enrollment would have to drop to about 107 students before tuition revenue and unit costs (including faculty and staff salaries) balanced out.

It would be far better for PCW to make a renewed financial commitment to its music program in an effort to attract more tuition-paying students to use the facilities and equipment in which the institution has already invested. Granted, to get ahead financially, the music department would have to hold the line as best as possible on additional instructional costs. But as a moderately sized college, PCW’s budget would benefit from even as few as five or six more music majors.

In closing, here are a few more questions that music department chairs or concerned faculty members should be able to answer at a moment’s notice if and when talk begins about cutting into or eliminating the music program:

How many students matriculate into the music major, then drop the major but stay at the college?

How many students audition, are not accepted into the major, but still come to the college to participate in music ensembles?

What is the exact percentage of students overall who participate in music ensembles each year?

The answers to these questions may provide further evidence of how the quality of the musical life at your institution draws students to and keeps them coming to your college or university.

Stan Pelkey

May 2016

 

What I’ve Been Watching: Star Trek!

Happy Fiftieth Anniversary, Star Trek!

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for a long time — not quite 50 years (I’m not yet 45 myself), but since the late 1970s, when the original series was being shown in syndication (probably on Saturday evenings). I also have a few memories of watching episodes of the animated series on Saturday mornings. I knew enough about Star Trek as a small boy that I played it with neighborhood friends, and I went to see the first movie, the infamous “Motion Picture,” with my DadStanPelkey@1977
(This is me, Stan, in kindergarten, in the Fall of 1977. This is about the age that I probably saw my first episodes of Star Trek.)

As a child of the 1980s, Star Trek was for me really the cinematic series of the original crew, plus the Next Generation television series, which first aired when I was a sophomore in high school. Both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and especially Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home  were powerful movie-going experiences for me as a pre-teen and teen, respectively. Rosenman’s outstanding score for Star Trek IV remains among my all-time favorites. I also became a committed fan of the Next Generation. I can remember wondering as the season 3 finale’s cliff hanger unfolded whether or not I’d even be able to watch the season four premiere / resolution at college that fall. This was before cable TV was readily available in many college dormitory rooms! I was grateful that several of my new friends at college were also Next Generation fans, and even Heidi ended up watching a number of the later seasons with me.

StanPelkeyPiano@1989

(This is me in 1989 — late in high school: a serious piano student, and a committed fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as Doctor Who! I had also written my first fantasy / sic-fi novel by the time this picture was taken.)

I wasn’t a huge Deep Space Nine fan, but I loved Voyager. It remains my favorite series in the Star Trek collective. The ensemble cast of the Next Generation was amazing, but I liked the characters on Voyager just a bit more, and I thought some of the pairings among characters (often tense at that) gave Voyager a flavor reminiscent of the original series, with its ongoing tension between Spock and McCoy. I particularly liked the interactions and relationship between Kathryn Janeway and Chakotay (he is among my absolute favorite Star Trek characters); having been a huge fan of Spook, I also deeply appreciated Tuvok and his flawless portrayal by Tim Russ. By the way, can I admit that in my twenties, I had a huge crush on Captain Janeway / Kate Mulgrew? The “Chaotica” episodes were funny, though not my most favorite, but when Mulgrew portrays Janeway pretending to be Arachnia, the Bride of Chaotica, I am in movie-watching heaven!

And yes, I even liked Star Trek: Enterprise and was disappointed when it was canceled. True, some of the continuity issues bothered me a bit — I tend to be obsessed with continuity issues (and how, you might ask, can I be a Doctor Who fan given that admission?). But I enjoyed seeing into the pre-history of the Federation and, like the crew of Voyager, having heroes facing significant challenges far from the technological and political resources of a powerful space faring empire. But what do I know? I loved The Phantom Menace, too!

There are many reasons to like Star Trek. It taps into important tropes and topics within the science fiction traditions. Its endless optimism is refreshing, even for a fan, like me, of darker dramatic television (e.g., Dexter, Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot). Next Generation achieves a balance of plot, character, and reasonably sophisticated production values that was really revolutionary for television science fiction at the time. Doctor Who does much better today, but even 1980s Doctor Who was struggling to achieve more sophistication in terms of its effects. Star Trek made that leap much more convincingly and confidently in the 1980s. But I think what Star Trek has done admirably is to build dozens of characters over hundreds of episodes who are reasonably complex and keep rewarding our sympathy, our interest in them, and our time with them. Doctor Who does that, too, but its companions tend to stay on the series for less than half the time of most Star Trek ensemble members, and the trend since Tom Baker’s reign as the Doctor has been for the principal actor to also shift in less time that the average run of a Star Trek television series.

My personal favorite Star Trek characters:

Original series: Spock

Next Generation: Data

Voyager: Janeway and Chakotay

Enterprise: Trip

My personal favorite Star Trek episodes:

Original series: A Taste of Armageddon (1967); The City on the Edge of Forever (1967)

Next Generation: Yesterday’s Enterprise (1990); Cause and Effect (1992); Thine Own Self (1994)

Voyager: Unity (1997); Think Tank (1999); Endgame (2001)

Enterprise: Carbon Creek (2002); North Star (2003)

Perhaps my most favorite Star Trek episode of them all: Thine Own Self (1994) — and certainly the best and most nuanced story centering around Data. He ends up being so human without his annoying habit of trying TO BE human!

My favorite Star Trek movies (in order):

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Star Trek Generations (1994)

Stan Pelkey

September 8, 2016