Commentary: Brandeis University Axes the Arts

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Gutting a venerable department — particularly a world-renowned one that, by all accounts, delivers — in the name of belt-tightening is shortsighted and foolish.

Cutting Back: Professor Karen Desmond teaches a musicology seminar for graduate students. Photo: Brandeis University

Fittingly, it was rainy and chilly last Friday night when news started to leak out that Brandeis University was putting its PhD programs in music composition and musicology “on hiatus” with the intent of permanently shutting them down. The administration’s reasoning was, as always, financial, the end goal as predictable as it was exasperating: whatever savings come from partially dismantling the music department (undergraduate music is safe — for now) will be redirected to the school’s science programs.

Without more specifics, speculation is foolhardy. Yet it’s hard to imagine how closing two PhDs benefits Brandeis in the long run (the music department posted a statistic noting that the costs of both programs — around $300,000 — amounts to a whopping .07 percent of the university’s $430 million annual operating budget). Eric Chasalow, the music department chair, certainly doesn’t think it will, telling the Boston Globe that “this is not going to save the kind of money [the administration needs] to really change things.”

Then again, Brandeis has a history of turning on the arts when finances are tight: during the 2008-09 financial downturn, the university proposed closing and selling the contents of its Rose Art Museum. A public outcry and lawsuits eventually brought about a change of heart.

Now, though, academics themselves are under the hammer. In an email to the Globe, Brandeis interim senior vice president of communications Julie Jett wrote that, over the last 18 months, “it was determined that the two music PhD programs needed more investment than Brandeis could provide,” hence the decision to abandon them.

Given that these are small, highly competitive tracks with impressive job placement records and that, according to internal metrics, both PhDs have consistently ranked among the school’s best overall graduate programs, such a decision is, to put it nicely, mystifying.

At the same time, given the economics of falling enrollments, bloated administrations, ballooning deficits, and cultural illiteracy, it suggests something far more insidious — namely that Brandeis, of all places, considers an arts education at the highest level expendable. Taking into account the legacy of the university’s music department, that’s a chilling conclusion at which to arrive.

From the beginning, music loomed large at Brandeis. It was, in fact, one of the first disciplines for which the fledgling university offered a graduate degree. The music faculty, in particular, reads like a who’s-who of leading postwar, mostly Jewish artists: Irving Fine (who founded the department in 1948), Serge Koussevitzky, Harold Shapero, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Berger, Yehudi Wyner, and Martin Boykan all served at one time or another.

This heritage — particularly the relationship with Bernstein — is conspicuously rich and one that Brandeis has, over the years, advantageously capitalized upon. The recent turn of events, though, makes the whole affair ring a bit hollow.

To be sure, a new reality seems to emerge in a decorously seething statement put out by Bernstein’s children that, while acknowledging the importance of the sciences, notes that the mind and the soul need to work in tandem. “It’s the artists of the world,” they quote their father saying, “who will ultimately save us, who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing, and shout the big dreams.” And they call on the Board of Trustees to reject the proposed cuts.

Let’s hope the Board listens. True, this is ultimately a question of values, and Brandeis needs to figure out where, as it turns 75 and looks to the future, it stands. But there’s no way around the fact that gutting a venerable department — particularly a world-renowned one that, by all accounts, delivers — in the name of belt-tightening is shortsighted and foolish.

It’s also wrong. With the rise of AI, ChatGPT, and who-knows-what-else, there’s a special imperative today for institutions — especially ones with a history like Brandeis’s — to stand firmly alongside composers, writers, scholars, and artists of all stripes. Indeed, the academic world should be a front line in the defense of human creative endeavors, not the first to crumble.

Surely there are more creative and effective ways for the university to balance its budget. It needn’t sell its soul in the process. Because if something like this can happen at Brandeis, then, well, who needs Ron DeSantis? It can — and will — happen anywhere.

Full disclosure: Through my education as well as my composing, teaching, and performing experience, I’m tangentially or directly familiar with several people currently on the Brandeis faculty, including David Rakowski (who taught my former teacher, Dalit Warshaw, when she was at Columbia), Mark Berger, and Joshua Gordon. I’ve also studied with or worked alongside graduates from both of the programs on the chopping block and can attest from a professional angle that, by and large, these folks are among the best colleagues, teachers, and scholars I’ve encountered in the field.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


  1. Ken Field on August 30, 2023 at 9:29 am

    Well put, Jonathan. Thank you.

  2. Timbo on August 30, 2023 at 10:11 am

    “impressive job placement records?” According to the department’s website, only two of its PhD alumni in the last ten years (i.e., since 2013) have secured tenure-track appointments. There is an overabundance of PhDs in the humanities and more departments ought to follow Brandeis’s example.

    • Jonathan Blumhofer on August 30, 2023 at 11:21 am

      I can’t speak to what’s posted on the Brandeis website, but the department’s rebuttal (linked above) notes a “71% academic job placement rate” for students enrolled in these PhD programs between 2011 and 2020. Obviously, that’s not 100%, but given, as you point out, the shortage of jobs nationwide and overabundance of humanities PhDs (which is, I agree, a legitimate problem in academia, generally), it’s nothing to sniff at.

      • Ann Besser Scott on August 30, 2023 at 1:47 pm

        During that 10-year period, how many music Ph.Ds were granted?

  3. Jeff on August 30, 2023 at 12:16 pm

    I am a Brandeis PhD in composition, and I was placed in a TT position within the last 10 years. I’ve also seen at least four other Brandeis comp PhD’s obtain TT positions in the last five years as well, so I really don’t think the Brandeis website is up-to-date.

  4. Mark Favermann on August 30, 2023 at 12:16 pm

    As I stated when the Brandeis leadership wanted to sell their esteemed art collection, sadly the Philistines have entered the gates and reside there. Shame on the whole administration and board!

  5. Mark Rimple on August 30, 2023 at 5:25 pm

    Tenure track jobs are hard to come by in many fields today regardless of the pedigree. It’s partially because administrators haven’t approved tenure track lines over temporary ones. Composers don’t all go into an academic job, either. Some become successful outside of the academy.I don’t see how blaming the program is helpful or closing it is the only option. Seems that managers at the university are thinking of profit above all. And this is why universities have been ruined. Having to run education like a for-profit business is the reason for the dissonance. Do they need all their administrators? How much do the top brass get paid? Etc.

  6. Franklin on September 1, 2023 at 11:46 am

    Recalled this week in City Journal: “In 2017, the late Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen issued a dire prediction for American colleges and universities. ‘In 10 to 15 years,’ he told a symposium on higher education, ’50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt.’ Christensen’s observations drew from his and Henry J. Eyring’s book The Innovative University, which argues that economic trends and technological change will doom the traditional campus model of higher education unless institutions take astute industry-wide steps to avoid crisis.” This was before the covid closures and the widespread epistemic shutdowns of recent times, though only a few years after Aayan Hirsi Ali was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Brandeis.

    Nothing looks good for the colleges right now: demographics, economics, politics, technological trends, social trends, you name it. It’s a world of misallocation and bad incentives, and New England is ground zero for the correction. It’s sad to see a storied department like this under the knife but this is probably just the beginning of the contractions. One would feel sorrier about it if the schools had done a better job defending viewpoint diversity and imparting knowledge, but a 2022 survey by FIRE found that 64% of of students were worried that a misunderstanding of something they said would damage their reputation. It’s neither clear that the colleges can be saved nor should be.

  7. Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman '59 on September 2, 2023 at 12:35 pm

    It seems unimaginable that the University, when considering a cash shortfall for a program, would not consider raising the money from alumni – they don’t have to be graduates of the program. An explanation is that they want to save all their money-raising efforts for more valued uses. Didn’t the Rose experience teach anything?

  8. Dumpa Doo on September 2, 2023 at 9:52 pm

    Musicology PhD programs shouldn’t be conflated with music—a professional credential isn’t an art form. Just because a university does not offer a PhD in music doesn’t mean that it doesn’t value music or provide its undergraduates with an excellent musical education. In fact, jettisoning the PhD program may well enable Brandeis’s tenured and tenure-track music faculty to focus more of their teaching energy on undergraduate students (as the administrators wrote—to “allow the faculty to strengthen the undergraduate program”). It certainly may benefit undergraduate students, whether majors or non-majors, if they are able to enroll in more classes taught—and graded—by the department’s comparatively experienced faculty members rather than by graduate teaching assistants or adjunct lecturers with less experience and job security. The public response letter by Brandeis’s music faculty seems to be motivated mainly by their fear of losing status, whether in relation to the university’s science departments, in terms of the university’s “R1 status,” with regard to their self-image as affiliates of a doctorate-granting program, or in conveying “values.” Brandeis doesn’t bear responsibility for training the next generation of music faculty members—there are too many other universities pumping out PhDs. Its faculty members should worry less about being able to attend conferences with puffed-up pride in their doktor-kinder and devote more time and effort to designing, teaching, and grading undergrads. Stop whining and order up more blue books!

  9. Charles Giuliano on September 6, 2023 at 10:08 am

    When I was an undergraduate (Class of 1963) Brandeis was a visionary leader in the arts. There were superb recitals of the renowned faculty and students with an emphasis on new and experimental music. Sam Hunter was the founding director of the Rose Art Museum. With a small fund he acquired then cheap Pop art masterpieces. When that collection soared in value it became a target for liquidation.

    Lessons not learned from that debacle have now rolled over to a plan to dismantle the renowned music department. Yes, the humanities are in crisis mode in academia. But those of us who pursue lives in the arts do not do it for jobs and money. Brandeis inspired me to that life and dream. Now approaching its 75th anniversary there’s less to celebrate.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts