Music department hiring decisions, curriculum shifts concern students

Emily Lin-Jones

Illustration: Erika Zinser

A series of end-of-year curriculum changes and hiring decisions in the music department have left many music students feeling like they don’t have a voice in the future direction of the department.

Whitman Orchestra members were perplexed by the decision not to rehire Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Jeremy Mims as orchestra conductor and by a general lack of transparency in Whitman’s hiring process. The two candidates for the position of orchestra conductor were reviewed by a faculty committee and a student committee before a final choice was submitted to the Dean of Faculty for approval.

“I kind of wish it was more transparent. [The department’s decisions] make sense if you hear the reasons, but they are so secretive about it and it’s kind of frustrating because we are the primary ones who are getting affected by it,” said sophomore and music-math major Minseon Song.

First-year Mary Welter, another orchestra member, agreed that more transparency and student feedback would improve the process.

“I think that a written evaluation would have been really nice,” she said. “We were told that evaluations at the end of the year were still important and really determined a professor’s standing, but they didn’t give us an opportunity to fully articulate our thoughts on Professor Mims again before hiring a new candidate, which was an interesting discrepancy.”

Students who worked with Mims observed that he has made a noticeable commitment of effort to the music program during his time at Whitman. In February he took the orchestra to a statewide convention for the first time in recent memory.

“The thing that stands out to me the most about him is that he’s so connected to the students,” said junior orchestra member Rachel Ramey.

Though Mims has been rehired as conductor for Whitman Chorale and the Whitman Chamber Singers for the next academic year, some students point to the situation as an example of the lack of commitment to conducting and performance positions in the music department. Many students are dissatisfied with the dwindling number of tenured music faculty in recent years, especially in conducting positions.

“When I decided to be a music major, the music department was very stable. It has been upsetting to be in a department that has gone through a lot of really difficult changes,” said senior music major Carissa Wagner.

Sophomore Kristi Von Handorf, a music major and member of Chorale, pointed to the fact that Whitman’s largest musical ensemble has been directed in recent years by a visiting professor.

“The chorale is such a big group, and this person influences so many people over the course of their time at Whitman that it doesn’t really make sense that [the position of conductor] is going to change so often,” she said.

Catharine Gould Chism Chair of Music Susan Pickett explained that the lack of tenured professors in the department is set to change in the future, but that the process of hiring long-term faculty is a slow one.

“It would certainly be ideal for the choral position to be one of our tenure-track positions, I just don’t know how all the change is going to shuffle out in the future,” she said.

Concerns have also been raised over the perceived attempt to shift the department’s focus away from performance and put more resources toward teaching theoretical and historical aspects of music.

“There are definitely a lot of improvements to be made [to the department], but I don’t think one of them is reducing the size of the performance part of it,” said Wagner.

Pickett explained that an external review of Whitman’s music department, led by music educators from other universities, called for the department to place less emphasis on performance and more on theory. Currently the department strives for a compromise between the two.

“The Whitman administration and music department came to an agreement that a balance between performing and non-performing courses was desirable,” she said. “Maybe we don’t always agree exactly what that balance should look like . . . but that is our philosophical goal.”

Alumnus Stephen Beus ’04, a graduate of Whitman’s music program who is now a professional concert pianist, emphasized the importance of performance within music curriculum.

“I think it is a tragic mistake to shift emphasis away from performance in a music department. The study of music history and theory is essential but loses a great deal of value when it is divorced from performance,” he said.

Music students expressed a general desire for more transparency from faculty and administration, especially in hiring professors and choosing a future direction for the department.

“You always have more confidence in the system when it’s completely clear, where there’s a deliberate attempt to make things as clear as they can be . . . Transparency is always good,” said Welter.