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Scores of colleges are struggling to cope in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Decimated endowments — some resulting from the Bernie Madoff scandal — and drops in donations are being blamed for the fiscal woes.
It is Brandeis University's turn to further tighten its belt.
This week a school committee released a report detailing proposals to re-structure and cut parts of its academic lineup, including the university's MFA program in theater design.
"I think everyone was shocked," said Debra Booth, the program's director. She said she is still trying to get her head around why a school with a sturdy foundation in the creative arts would cut its well-respected graduate program.
"I don’t want to see the graduate program go because I think it would be bad for the department and bad for the university," she said, adding, "I mean, it’s clearly bad for the university even on a PR level."
When Booth said "PR" she was referring to the public relations firestorm that followed Brandeis' announcement last January to close the school's Rose Art Museum and then auction off pieces from its modern and contemporary art collections.
"You know it's funny," Booth said, "after the Rose happened, so many people came up to me and said, 'Well, at least the arts will be safe from the next onslaught of cuts.' "
Now Booth, and many others, are saying the arts are, once again, being targeted by the university.
Adam Jaffe disagrees.
"If you look at the report it's just not true," Jaffe said. He's the school's dean of Arts and Sciences, and also chairs the restructuring committee, which includes faculty, staff and students.
He acknowledged the perception that the arts might be under fire. "Frankly, the committee debated when we were looking at theater design," he said. "(We thought we) should stay away from this because people were going to see it as some kind of signal of disregard for the arts, and the committee really felt like we had to do what was right for the institution."
Jaffe said the committee made some very tough choices, across the board. Departments all over campus would be re-tooled or phased out completely if the plan is approved, including undergraduate majors in Hebrew Studies, Italian Studies, American Studies and Immunology.
"I mean, the largest cuts are actually in the sciences," Jaffe said. Seven full-time jobs and six part-time faculty members would eventually be lost campus-wide, while the proposed cuts would save the university an estimated $3.8 million dollars annually.
Jaffe pointed out that eliminating the theater design graduate program would not be the end of theater at Brandeis.
"We’re still going to have undergraduate theater," he said. "We're still going to have graduate training in acting, and we're still going to have theater productions occurring at Brandeis."
But that is cold comfort to theater design student Ben Williams. He helped start a Facebook group this week called, "Save Theater at Brandeis."
Williams said he and his peers have their own financial worries. "Most of us are not on full-tuition rides," he said. "We don't get stipends from the school, a lot of us take a lot of loans to be here. What that means for us is that the decisions that we made, under the circumstances that we made them, are now changing very rapidly."
Williams wants an open dialogue with the university about the theater design program's fate. And he'll get one — Thursday — at a marathon of campus-wide open forums dedicated to the proposed changes.
The final decisions about the cuts at Brandeis will be made next month.
This program aired on February 24, 2010.
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