As a 28-year-old mother of toddler twins, a recent graduate of Juilliard and Harvard, I found a job teaching piano at George Washington University.
I was excited to be teaching college students, and to be part of an intellectual community as an artist.
I was happy to have part-time work that would allow me to be home with my children in the afternoons when they started school.
Officially, the position was called ‘temporary part-time.’
That was 1987. Over the years, I have moved from teaching piano to teaching courses, including one on ‘dangerous music,’ a foil for looking at the power of music and its role in society.
This month, George Washington University is notifying adjunct faculty that many will be laid off next year, and many others will have their hours severely curtailed.
Adjunct teaching positions pose a quandary to intellectuals and artists: remarkable for being paid work in idealistic fields, and yet insulting compared to full-time faculty and university administrators.
According to the GW Faculty Association, full professors at GW average salaries around $150,000, and the GW university president and vice president have both been earning compensation over $1,000,000.
Adjunct faculty at GW are paid about $4,000 per course, often with no benefits.
Most adjunct faculty are ambivalent about that status, but they love teaching and don’t want to be fired.
GW claims to have a financial shortfall. Graduate school registrations are lower, the business school overspent by $13 million in 2012 according to the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, and the new Science and Engineering Hall and the purchase of the Corcoran were expensive.
GW says it is cutting back by 5 percent across the university.
But the music department, with many adjunct faculty, is being cut by a much greater percentage — by some estimates, up to 50 percent.
GW’s part-time faculty are members of the Service Employees International Union. Several music professors were lead union organizers on campus, on the bargaining team for the first GW contract with SEIU. Adjunct Professor James Levy, founder of the now-canceled Jazz Jam sessions, noted that after the union election, the university was found in federal court to have committed unfair labor practices.
This month, GW told many instrument professors that their hours for next year will be reduced from 10 or 20 each week down to just one or two, leading some to believe that they are being pushed to resign.
The reasons supporting the range of cuts are murky.
Douglas Boyce, the chair of the music department, says the layoffs are part of curriculum change, but he refused to tell faculty what the new curriculum is.
Contradicting Boyce, Dean Ben Vinson assured the community that the types of music courses would not change.
But the department in fact has cut its two popular survey courses for non-majors.
Many popular programs are being cut, including a chorus, a band, a popular weekly jazz jam session, chamber ensembles, class piano and private instrument lessons for people not majoring or minoring in music. Successful instrumentalists with years of teaching experience are being laid off.
Students are holding a 24-hour protest concert starting Thursday afternoon.
Jessica Bolger, a GW senior, laments that GW will no longer offer courses to support students who are interested in musical theater. Katie Borgman, a recent GW graduate who majored in international relations, found her career path in arts administration through combining music courses with social sciences. The reduced music department with its new focus on music majors will make synergy like that much harder to come by.
Why does it matter whether a college in downtown Washington has a good music department?
As we discovered in my ‘Dangerous Music’ seminar – now cut from the curriculum – music plays an important role in society, providing a way for people to explore ideas, values and feelings.
Music lets us know what people from other times, places and cultures cared about.
Music is an important learning tool for non-musicians, because music isn’t just about music: music’s structures can teach us to notice structures in other domains, other relationships between parts and wholes, whether those are in engineering, chemistry, or social dynamics, deepening our understanding of both the human condition and the physical world.
A college that is in the same neighborhood as the White House, the State Department and international embassies, the Kennedy Center, and close to communities of underserved youth, is in the perfect position to use music to bring people together to share and discover values and ideas, to experience joy and beauty together.
But not with me, evidently.
My “temporary” time is over.
After 28 years, GW has told me I’ve been laid off.
“Most music classes remain open to everyone; however, there has been a decline in student enrollment in private lessons and the department has decided to refocus its resources on students majoring or minoring in music by reserving private lessons for these students beginning fall 2015.
“As to faculty, we have plans to hire additional full-time faculty. These changes will impact the number of part-time faculty members hired next year. We also are currently developing a G-PAC course to guide non-majors into the program. However, I’m hopeful that these changes will focus the resources that we have on the core mission of the department and program.”
(A GW spokeswoman added a note: G-PAC is an acronym for General Education Curriculum-Perspective, Analysis, Communication.)
Dean Ben Vinson posted a statement online which read, in part:
“First, let me emphasize that there will be no change in the types of music courses offered, and the opportunity to participate in high quality ensemble performance experiences in jazz, chamber, choir, and band is not going away. Private lessons will also continue to be offered to students majoring or minoring in music.
As was announced, fees for private lessons, recitals and ensemble participation will now be charged; however, these fees will be waived for Presidential Scholars in the Arts and music majors and minors who declared prior to March 2015. This was a budgetary decision on the part of the college and it is in keeping with the fee structure of the vast majority of music programs across the country. Music programs that do not charge performance study fees often rely on endowed funds to subsidize these costs.
To support growth in the number of majors and minors, the Music Department is focused on having more lower-level music courses taught by full-time faculty. With that in mind, plans call for hiring additional full-time faculty to teach performance. As well, we will be creating a new course that will expose a greater number of students to performance study.
More broadly, we remain committed to the visual and performing arts and have been expanding our footprint in this area, in part, thanks to the Corcoran.”
And through an e-mail from a spokeswoman:
“In addition, I’m providing the following information about our part-time faculty and unions.
“Leading up to the decision in the music department we consulted with union representatives in advance. The George Washington University was the first university in the District of Columbia to agree to terms with a union to represent part-time faculty. Since we signed the initial collective bargaining agreement in 2008, the university has maintained good relations with unions and looks forward to an ongoing constructive relationship with SEIU Local 500.”