by ALEXANDRA RETTER

 

After Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (SMU) announced earlier this year that it would cut 11 majors, including many of its arts and humanities programs, and lay off 13 faculty members, some students expressed concerns about the future of arts groups on campus and the communication they have received from the university about completing degrees. 

SMU leaders said they are phasing out majors over the next few years due to low enrollment. They also said they want to focus on what they feel are more marketable degrees. SMU leaders said they are committed to helping students in the eliminated programs complete their degrees and that they would like to continue incorporating the liberal arts on campus. “In response to what we’re hearing, rest assured, we believe, as you do, music, theater, dance, and art add richness and texture to our lives. We are committed to pursuing ways these can be available to enhance the student experience academically and extracurricularly,” SMU said in a tweet. 

Students are not so sure. Junior Gianna Henningsen, who is majoring in music education, is part of a music fraternity and concert choir.  

“The morale is just low,” Henningsen said. “We don’t feel like, especially the students that are having their majors phased out, we don’t feel like there is any care for us as individuals from administration. Personally, the only support I’m receiving really is from the few professors I have left.” 

Henningsen said she is the last music education major on campus, and the majority of her classes are independent studies. “I love the one-on-one. It’s probably given me a better educational experience, but it’s not the education that I signed up for and the community that I envisioned my college experience to be,” she said. Henningsen said she is trying to finish her degree this year, a year early, before professors may leave the university. “… There’s not really much music on campus, so there’s not really many interesting involvements for me to continue to pursue. There’s nothing really keeping me here except for finishing my content area. So if I can finish this year, I will, because honestly, besides the friends and connections that I’ve made on campus, there’s really not much else for me here,” she said.” 

Henningsen is taking some classes at Winona State University because SMU does not have the faculty to offer them, she said. She said that in general, there seem to be fewer electives available now. The music department previously had seven professors, she said, and now has three. 

Senior studio art major Rebecca Smart is part of the jazz band and a music fraternity. She said that as a senior, the cuts do not impact her major as much, as she will complete it before too many changes happen. She did note that she feels the cuts are causing her professors increased stress. “These professors that I’ve known since my freshman year … they’re still amazing professors, but I can just see now how much more anxious and frustrated and sometimes a little depressed they are,” she said. “And that’s incredibly difficult, because I’ve developed these relationships with them and I care about them.” She said it may be more difficult for students in the years below her to finish their degrees due to the number of courses that would be available. She said there are fewer classes available in her major this year, and some classes are only offered every other year now. This means she was not able to take a photography class. 

Junior history major Patrick Derleth, who is the pep band music director and a member of the jazz ensemble, said there were previously three history professors, and this year, there is one, with adjunct professors filling in. He said the classes he chose for this semester have not been affected by professors leaving the university. 

Describing the situation on campus from his perspective, Interim Provost and Dean of Faculties Dr. Matt Gerlach said, “Overall, we’re off to a good start this year. We’re trying to make sure to keep an eye on the student, what they need … So from what I’m hearing, students are doing really well. And as we learn of anything, we’re always weighing in from feedback and listening for any concerns they have.” 

Gerlach said students will soon register for classes for next semester. To develop next semester’s schedule, university leaders worked with faculty to take into account what classes students in eliminated majors need, he said. Students all have advisors to work with to determine their schedules, he said. “We’re kind of reassessing as we’re going, too, to make sure that, again, all the needs are really provided for,” Gerlach said. He continued, “… If we anticipate some students will linger on in those programs and be able to finish after next year, we’ll continue to reassess what are the course needs, what are the faculty needs for those classes, to ensure the students get all the requirements for their programs.”

Derleth said that while he thinks university leaders are still working through plans to help students complete their degrees, he wishes they would provide students with more updates. 

Henningsen said she has received little communication about university leaders’ plans for helping students in the impacted majors complete their degrees. “It’s mostly all come from what my professors are saying is happening,” she said. “I haven’t heard any direct words of support from leadership or any direct words of having any plans set from leadership.” 

Gerlach said some aspects of the university’s plans for helping students complete their degrees have yet to be determined, as SMU will continue working with students to see what their needs are.  

Gerlach said students have received communication from the university about connecting with advisors for registration. “We also encourage students if they feel like … they haven’t received enough communication about it, or if they’re looking for extra assistance, we have advisors who are able to step in and assist if there are extra needs,” he said. He added, “And we did know that it’s important to have a lot of those courses offered sooner rather than later so that they’ll be finding out, ‘OK, … they’re offering two sections this next semester, that ideally I would take that, make sure I can take those classes as they’re offered.’ And so part of the teach-out is to say, ‘How can we help them to complete those majors and minors as efficiently as possible?’” 

For students concerned about the level of communication they have received, Gerlach said, “Please come and talk to us. Let us know what your needs are, if you’re feeling like you need more assistance, you need more help, you need more clarity.” He also encouraged students with concerns about needing to complete their degrees more quickly than expected to connect with their advisors. 

Extracurricular arts groups are also facing changes. Derleth said there remains uncertainty about the future of the arts. While administrators have said they want to maintain some presence of the arts on campus, he said, he does not feel that statement reflects the reality he sees on campus in terms of what professors the university is retaining and how it is marketing itself. 

The concert choir’s previous director left the university, Henningsen said, and another music professor stepped in to direct. She is not sure about the future of the choir, she said. “Because I feel as though we’ve all been so caught up in, ‘OK, we need to figure out plans for this year. What are we doing this year?’ … So now, I feel like we haven’t had time yet to plan for the future,” she said. She continued, “I haven’t heard anything from leaders again, [it’s] solely been professors at this point.” 

Senior psychology major Dani Mengel is the president of the women’s music fraternity and a member of the jazz ensemble. The jazz ensemble wanted to perform a bigger show, as it could be its last year, she said, but there was not much of a budget for new music, so the group is trying to find other, older pieces. Rebeccca Smart echoed difficulties with funding for new music. “It’s definitely an emotional impact on the [director] … We can see it in all the music professors, that they’re trying their hardest to stay positive, but it’s hard. And so we’re all trying to stay positive with it,” Mengel said. The future of the music fraternity is also uncertain, she said, as a university needs to have a music major to have a chapter of the fraternity. It may be possible to turn the group into a club, she said. The group currently has two advisors, she said, with one being in the music department and one not. She said that the music professor would be leaving, so the other advisor is in place just for this year, and the group would need to find another advisor if it continues on campus. “We would just want something to still be able to share music with others on campus and the community,” she said. 

Gerlach and several students mentioned that a group of faculty, students, administrators and representatives from Winona organizations was meeting to discuss the future of the arts on campus. “We don’t want to take those away completely from the student experience … If anything, we want to expand access to students to continue to engage in music, theater and things like that,” Gerlach said. 

Mengel expressed frustration with the level of communication students and faculty have received from university leaders about the future of arts groups. “It’s just frustrating when we don’t know what’s happening and nothing’s being communicated,” she said. She said she felt the university was trying to keep students aware of plans by providing opportunities to attend arts planning meetings; however, she said, “It just doesn’t really feel like they are telling anyone what’s going on.” 

Gerlach encouraged students to take part in the group discussing the future of the arts, if they have concerns about the communication received from the university about the future of arts groups. He noted that the university is in the beginning stages of gathering ideas for the future of the groups. “So we wouldn’t want to start to make people feel like we’re going a certain direction in a particular way that we’re offering something or a program if … that hasn’t been worked through properly,” he said. 

In the meantime, however, the uncertainty can be a bit taxing, students said. “Students in the arts … are the people leading the clubs. We are the people planning activities. And I know for a fact that a lot of us are getting burnt out, because we are dealing with, honestly, being undervalued, as well as, there aren’t others like us coming in to continue these clubs and organizations and activities,” Smart said.

Education@winonapost.com