Last Wednesday, The Texan broke the story that UT officials had politely turned down Sarah and Ernest Butler’s immediate $33 million donation to the music school because the couple made it contingent on UT creating a stand-alone music college, a conservatory-like college within the university but apart from the rest of the fine arts programs, which the administration does not want to do. Currently, the Butler School of Music is part of the College of Fine Arts. The offer rejected, the Butlers’ donation will continue to be paid throughout the couple’s lives, and UT will lose the interest that could have accrued on the donation had UT accepted the money in one lump sum.
As justification for rejecting the money, Douglas Dempster, Dean of the College of Fine Arts released a statement explaining that separating the music school from the other fine and performing arts programs would incur administrative costs and diminish the advantages music students gain from music programs currently “woven into the curricular fabric of the fine arts.” He lists as benefits of maintaining that fabric, “collaborations in dance and music composition, teacher training in the fins and performing arts, digital arts and media, parts administration and commercial arts, opera, musical theatre and emerging fields in the performing arts and entertainment. These collaborations call for more closely integrated interdisciplinary interactions rather than narrowly isolated disciplinary silos,” Dempster said.
The argument made in favor of creating a music college by Butler alumni, students and staff (few of whom were willing to speak on the record for this article): The most prestigious, competitive programs, like those at Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and The University of North Texas College of Music, are standalone. Technically speaking, a UT switch to a stand-alone, conservatory-like program would mean simply a change in the nature of the reporting relationship between the music school administration and UT. But because the value of musical higher education rests so heavily on reputation, the argument for heeding to the Butler’s wish has merit.
The most persuasive reason for UT to create a standalone music college, however, is because Texas produces many of the best high school music graduates in the country, and given the opportunity to stretch its arms, the school could gain, by virtue of its geographic position, flagship school status. Few will argue with the contention that Texas music students are among the strongest. Texas Music Educators Association Robert Floyd said Texas bands, choirs and orchestras travel all over the country in spring to compete in national festivals in other states, and more often than not, a Texas ensemble is declared the winner. Around 1920, music became a part of Texas public education and a culture of excellence emerged that has only been strengthened and maintained since. Texas students routinely attend top music camps in the country for free. By turning down the Butlers’ offer, and those of previous standalone music school advocates, UT is denying itself Texas high school graduates, many already accomplished musicians, an opportunity to attend a public, Texan conservatory worthy of their talents.