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University turns down $33 million gift because it doesn’t want a music conservatory

The University of Texas may be renowned in many fields of research, but commonsense does not appear to be one of them.

Sarah and Ernest Butler, who have supported the university for almost 30 years and gave $55 million in 2008 for a music school that is named after them, offered an immediate $33 million for the school to be hived off from the faculty of fine arts and given the independence and prestige to challenge the best conservatories in the country.

No thanks, said the university. The music school stays where it is. We don’t want a stand-alone conservatory. What we believe in is ‘closely integrated interdisciplinary interactions rather than narrowly isolated disciplinary silos’. Can you believe that?

Read all about it here.

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  1. UT Austin music & fine arts has always had a reputation for being slightly dysfunctional.

  2. Actually, this makes perfect sense, and I applaud the cool-headed self control of the UT-Austin administration. Yes, it’s tragic to decline so generous a gift, but think of the professional lives ot the vast majority of the graduates of that conservatory! They will be deprived of a well-balanced education and cut loose in a world of rapidly dimishing traditional opportunities. The education that UT-Austin currently provides is a tremendous asset in such a rapidly evolving field. Better that the gift goes to the Austin Symphony, perhaps turning it into an orchestra that actually can pay its players a living wage. And for crying out loud, when will arts philanthrophy stop living vicariously through the lives of young artists (only to cut them off when they come of age) and finally begin to take the DEMAND side of the equation seriously? That’s where the real action is. The rest is just ego.

    • Applying market-forces logic to music and art will lead to the end of both. I say that as a professional musician. Ego my foot, the arts has always needed angle donors.

      • Market forces grind exceedingly slowly, but if you study carefully the trends in the classical music field over the course of several decades, you will see that the only segment of the classical music business that’s really growing in the United States is the professional training of more young musicians. How many full-time orchestras are down-sizing or shutting down entirely? What percentage of their seasons are still devoted to classical concerts? How many regional opera companies are shortenting their seasons, switching to over musical theater or going out of business? How many piano recital series still exist compared to 20 years ago? How many university-based music presenters still present classical music as their core product? And let’s not even talk about the classical recording industry…

        There is a vast bubble growing between the output of professional classical music training institutions and the entry of those graduates into the careers such training should lead to. Every time another billionaire decides to endow a new world-class training institution the bubble grows. You can only add conservatories and subtract orchestras for so long before the bubble bursts. It’s clear from the other posts here that the Butler’s generous gift will be coming anyway in time. That’s wonderful. But would the simple accelleration of their gift somehow magically win for UT-Austin a better quartet-in-residence than the Miro they already have? Or a more gifted voice teacher than David Small? Or better pianist than Anton Nel? Will they somehow attract better students, and will those students have better careers? With the intense and growing competition that’s already out there, I’m not so sure. But I am sure that the accelleration of the Butler’s gift would add not add a single orchestra job for a UT-Austin graduate.

        I’m a professional musician, too, but I’m also a fund raiser with many years of experience with angel donors. One of the most disturbing market forces in classical music is the failure of so many aging angel donors to instill their high artistic values in their wealth-inheriting children. Before the parents all die off, I hope that somewhere, sometime, someone with a 10-figure bank account will figure out that the music they love will last longer and reach more people if they drop their $33 million gifts on institutions that are effective in reaching as many new people as possible with this great music. Then they will be giving to all those young musicians the one thing that today’s music conservatories are unable to offer but a handful of their students: hope.

    • What you speak of here is not at all the issue. No one is saying that the school should be at all separate from UT Ausin, only separate from the College of Fine Arts. The degree will still be a well rounded degree and the school can then lead itself forward and become more competitive with other top University Music Schools like North Texas, Indiana University and the University of Michigan. These days a top music school at a University can be completely competitive with the top conservatories. The Dean incorrectly says the word conservatory just to get you off the trail. Simply the school has the ability to compete w the top schools but is being held back because of the short sightedness and the bureaucratic mindset of Dean Dempster, Provost Steven Leslie and President Bill Powers. They are working to keep this story quiet and to go back to the pre Glenn Chandler days of corporate music school, small steps only, governance. This is he truth and unfortunately the faculty feels unable to speak up because they have been told to keep quiet OR ELSE! Ugly…

      • Having attended two different conservatories as well as a liberal arts ugrad program, I would say that far too many conservatories do, in fact, divorce themselves from the broad-based education being had at the rest of the university. I am very glad I got a liberal arts education and I often wept for the students I saw as ugrads in the conservatories who graduated not knowing how to do anything other than play the oboe.

    • Garrett Keast says:

      If you knew Sarah and Ernest Butler, you would know that this has nothing to do with ego.

  3. Norman,

    What you describe is not accurate…the Butlers were not offering an additional $33 million, but rather they wanted to give the remaining amount from the original $55 million all at once if the school broke off from the College of Fine Arts (which includes Theatre & Dance and Art & Art History). The School of Music is not losing the donation – the Butlers will still pay out the remaining $33 million over the course of the rest of their lifetime – and while they are losing the interest that would accrue if all the money was given at once, the “conservatory” would lose endowments that were given through the College. The link you gave was a student newspaper editorial – here’s an article:

    The University of Texas at Austin is a state school and while there are examples of conservatories within state institutions (University of Missouri – Kansas City Conservatory is a big one), the mission of the university is still broad-based (meaning the students still are required to take general education courses outside of music as opposed to conservatories which only focus on music). From a certain perspective, being lumped in with Art, Theatre, and Dance can be seen as distracting for those who want nothing but a focused musical education, but many might argue that the education one receives when art, theatre, dance, and music are allowed to work together collaboratively is a more appropriate educational concept in today’s world.

    I am a graduate of that program – I received my DMA in music composition in 2005 – and if anything my education was enhanced by that collaborative structure (my dissertation was a ballet that was produced and funded through the College of Fine Arts). “Prestige” has nothing to do with the Director of the School of Music having to work within a College…it has to do with the quality of the education one receives and the opportunities for students to prepare themselves for successful careers after graduation.


    • Thanks, Rob. I think that’s the link I gave. Anyway, I’ll update.

    • Garrett Keast says:

      Yes, but there is really ZERO reason why collaborations between different departments and schools could not continue with an independent school. That is not even a point. The Dean brings it up as he has no strong argument, he simply does not want to relinquish control of one of his properties. The strongest and only argument that I have heard is that installing a new dean and the requisite administration support would cost money that the University does not have. BUT, the school has more than just the Butler’s as friends, and this money could be put together. Collaboration of course continues, as it must throughout the arts.

  4. Please, could you send it in Belgrade, Serbia? State here didn’t try to invest any monay for music at last 5 decades..we bought last piano 30years ago….and could just dream about this things..oh, my god….and still, somehow it goes Nobody knows..
    Dreams, dreams……

  5. Although I do think UT’s decision here is short-sighted, a clarification needs to be made: the $33 million is already committed to the school as part of the original $55 million donation, which was originally promised over their lifetime. The Butlers offered to pay the entire balance of the donation immediately if the School of Music broke free from the College on Fine Arts. The Butlers have said they are still committed to funding the remainder of the donation, but it will be over a long period of time instead of in one lump sum.

  6. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Yes, I can believe it and think that it’s the right decision for THIS university which does not have the same mission as a conservatory. A conservatory can sometimes be a narrow combination of a trade school, a beauty pageant, and an employment agency which often highlights the worst qualities of these endeavors without providing a substantial artistic or Liberat Arts curriculum. A great American university strives to provide a broad education for all its students with cross-polination of ideas within its major schools and throught the campus and beyond into the community. UT Austin has around 50,000 students, I believe. There is also a marvelous performing arts complex which includes multiple performance spaces.

    This is a perfect example of a donor trying to exert pressure to achieve a personal goal which is at odds with the overall mission of the institution. The Butlers have been most generous and will continue to support the performing arts at UT, I’m sure.

    Harvard has no conservatory although the study of music is a serious endeavor there. Some Harvard grads well-known in musical circles as performers include Leonard Bernstein, Yo Yo Ma, and Alan Gilbert and a long list of important composers. Yale has no undergrad conservatory but does have a Department of Music which provides music courses in a variety of levels of study. Yale does have a conservatory called the Yale School of Music (c.200 students, each on a full scholarship) which is graduate level only (Masters, etc). Let each institution find its own way so that students can choose what best suits their needs. There are MORE than enough conservatories in the USA to meet current needs. I find this UT announcement shocking in the best possible way.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      For LB’s thoughts on his two schools, one a great university, the other a conservatory (Harvard and Curtis), please read the chapter “Memories of the Curtis Institute” a speech delivered at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Curtis in February 1975 in Philadelphia on page 316 of “Findings.”

      Bernstein, Leonard, 1918-1990.
      Findings. – New York: Simon and Schuster, c1982.
      376 p : ill.; 24 cm.
      ISBN 0671429191

      It was a candid assessment which was not meant to win friends at either school.

    • Garrett Keast says:

      No one is suggesting the mission changes to that of a conservatory. The mission of a great music school only overlaps that of a great conservatory, and goes way beyond. UT already does this well. The Dean’s comments are misguided and self serving. He actually says nothing at all with his comments.

  7. Indiana University School of Music seems to do quite well as ‘just’ a school.

    • IU is an independent school, this is exactly what people want for UT. The Butler School is a school in name only, completely beholden to the college of fine arts Dean and protocol. This is unlike any top music school in the country. The UT Butler School of Music is in effect a department, it has a nicer name but is unlike the school of business or law which are able to call their own shots!

  8. Crystal Durham says:

    Echoing Rob Deemer, we at the Butler School of Music did not want to become a “conservatory”, per se. The plan was for the BSOM to separate from the College of Fine Arts and become its own COLLEGE. We (students) would still have to take all of the university core curriculum, like every other major in the university. From what I read in our university newspaper, the university turned the proposal down because it would take “deprive” the College of Fine Arts of some funding. I hope that they reconsider this in the future. The School of Music has the potential to go from good to great.

  9. The university may feel that interdisciplinary scholarship would suffer from such outside meddling. But interdisciplinary scholarship makes for strength at only certain parts of music: musicology/history/theory, electronics, perception sciences. It tends to be frosting on the cake for actual music-making fields.
    On the third hand, UTA may simply not want to compete with Oberlin, Julliard, University of Michigan, etc. and may want to stick to the scholarship league, like Stanford.

    I don’t see how my conservatory DMA deprived me of anything. I’ve been able to work as an engineer, just for instance…

    In any case, I’d welcome a fraction of that grant to help out orchestras that are interested in performing my work!

  10. I am a student who is perusing an undergraduate degree in performance at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, one of the more renowned music schools in the country. It has a very large academic requirement, so much so that the maximum amount of credits for music students is greater than the average student (though this is mainly because lessons count as 6 credits, a very large sum). As someone who is planning on performing for a living, I sometimes feel that coursework gets in the way of me practicing enough for me to feel prepared for my lessons and ensembles. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting my time taking classes that I’m not learning much from since I don’t have the time or energy to take in their full educational value.

    Honestly, the most helpful thing for a musician to be successful in their career is competence at their instrument… I think that should be the priority of any serious music school. Fortunately for me, Jacobs has such wonderful faculty, an abundance of high level players and good facilities that helps me improve my playing. But it makes me wonder how valuable a degree in music would be at a school where the level of music isn’t prioritized as highly as the academics. I personally think having a music school separated from the rest of the school would be of greater value to the students there so they would be more able to focus on what is most important to them.

    • Mark,

      With the utmost respect, I’d suggest that your priorities are somehat skewed. Indeed, your elevation of technical competence to the center of your studies is precisely what some schools seek to avoid. Many of your teachers and (future) colleagues would argue that this attitude inhibits a deeper musicianship, by robbing you of a broader awareness of history, literature, the sciences. These are the things that provide context and meaning when you work to find your way into a piece. (Even considering music in purely Apollonian terms means that you should know something about Apollo…)

  11. Wanting ‘closely integrated interactions’ is fine, but in my experience the school was already pretty isolated in the 80s. It was extraordinary to have interactions outside of music. I suspect this is much more about control by the university rather than what is best for music.

  12. If that cash was ear-marked for the precious Almighty God, Longhorn football, they’d accept that money like flies on a pile of dog excrement. To hell with you, UT!!!

  13. John Porter says:

    I think the right call was made. And the notion of challenging the best conservatories is absurd. First off, which conservatory is best? Second, $33 mm ain’t going to get them there up against the endowments at Juilliard, Curtis, Yale, and Colburn.

    Anyway, its not about conservatories ‘competing,’ but rather how the evolve from stone age curricula/programs to 2012.

  14. “Keep Austin Weird!” :0)

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