Proposed cuts to music PhD programs at Brandeis spark grief — and outrage

A sign marks the entrance of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. in 2010. (Josh Reynolds/AP)
A sign marks the entrance of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. in 2010. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

Days after Brandeis University proposed cutting two doctoral programs in music, faculty, students and staff are pushing back, arguing the move will hobble one of the school’s oldest and best-performing academic departments.

The school confirmed the proposed cuts in a statement to WBUR Monday. The development was first reported by the Boston Globe late last week.

Brandeis intends to stop admitting new doctoral students in musicology and music composition this year, setting those programs up for eventual closure.

In a statement, a Brandeis spokesperson said that following an 18-month review, university leaders concluded those PhD programs “needed more investment than Brandeis could provide to maintain the excellence they have been known for.”

The university plans to refocus efforts on its "outstanding undergraduate music program," the statement added. But Brandeis will continue to ”fully support current students and ensure that they are able to complete their PhDs.” The department’s website lists 27 current doctoral students.

The news comes just weeks before the Waltham institution plans to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Non-sectarian but founded and supported by the American Jewish community, the school enrolls over 5,500 undergraduate and graduate students and is known, among other things, for its liberal arts philosophy and historic progressivism.

The proposed cuts will need final approval from the university’s board of trustees at a forthcoming meeting.

In the meantime, students, faculty and alumni — along with one famous Brandeis-affiliated family — are loudly challenging the logic behind the move.

An eight-page statement published Monday and attributed to "The Brandeis Department of Music" called some of the administration’s arguments for the cuts  “staggeringly untrue,” “impolitic” and, simply, “bonkers.”

Department chair Eric Chasalow confirmed the statement had been signed and approved by the university’s entire music faculty.

The statement argues that the two endangered doctoral programs cost Brandeis only around $300k per year — or less than one-thousandth of the university’s annual operating budget of over $380 million in the 2022 fiscal year.

Faculty also argue that the academic job placement rate and low attrition rate among its music PhDs rank are at or around the best among university departments, based on Brandeis’ own internal review.

The letter disputes the financial explanation for the cuts, attributing them instead to the university’s plan to “lean into the sciences.”

“Why should we aim to become a second-rate MIT,  when the world so desperately needs a first-rate Brandeis?” the authors ask.

Brandeis administrators could not immediately be reached to comment Tuesday on the claims in the faculty statement or other open letters on the subject.

Students react

Anna Valcour, a third-year doctoral student in musicology at Brandeis, described herself as “oscillating between all five stages of grief” since hearing the news last Thursday.

In interviews with WBUR, students in the affected programs acknowledged a national trend toward refocusing higher education on STEM subjects.

But they questioned the wisdom of following it at Brandeis and beyond. “It’s something that we need to be really careful of as a society — this lean toward the sciences, [and] towards economics, as the sole justification of value,” Valcour said.

“Writing new music matters a lot. Concerts matter a lot,” added Marie Comuzzo, another third-year doctoral student in musicology. “A society cannot survive with only engineers and doctors and biologists.”

Niko Yamamoto, a fifth-year doctoral student in music composition and theory, argued that cuts to PhD programs in music will harm undergraduates, too.

They recalled that in one classroom, 10 students — consisting of three graduate students and seven undergraduates — had a “vibrant conversation” about electronic music. “Where else on campus is that happening?” Yamamoto asked.

Valcour and other current students have drafted their own open letter to Brandeis administrators, urging them to reconsider the cut.

In a separate letter to administrators, hundreds of Brandeis music alumni noted the program’s national reputation and storied history.

From 1951 to 1956, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was an early member of its music faculty. Composers Irving Fine and Aaron Copland have also been part of the faculty and served as visiting lecturer, respectively.

On Facebook Monday, Bernstein’s three children lambasted the proposed cuts to the doctoral programs in music as “rash and short-sighted.”

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



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