Ernest Butler

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.

UT officials are turning down an immediate $33 million donation for the music school because they say a string attached to the money would incur too many monetary costs. To get the donation, the University would have to separate the Butler School of Music from the College of Fine Arts.

In 2008, longtime music school patrons Sarah and Ernest Butler made a $55-million endowment pledge to the University’s Butler School of Music to be paid throughout their lifetime. This month, the Butlers offered to pay the remaining $33 million of their pledge in full if the school became its own entity. College of Fine Arts dean Douglas Dempster said UT President William Powers Jr. decided against the split because he felt it was not in the best interest of the school’s students and programs.

Dempster said if separated from the College of Fine Arts, the Butler School of Music would lose several hundred thousand dollars annually in endowments. He also said the action would increase administrative and operational spending.

“These expenses are now largely consolidated into the larger operation of the College of Fine Arts,” Dempster said.

Ernest Butler said interest from the immediate $33 million donation would create additional scholarships for students and research funds for faculty. Butler said he and his wife will continue to pay the endowment even though the University turned down their offer.

Butler said he gave the University no other conditions it would have to meet in order for it to take the rest of the endowment now.

Typically at UT, a college is a stand-alone entity with its own dean. Some colleges contain schools and departments, such as the College of Fine Arts. The Butler School of Music is considered a school within the college and has a director, not a dean, who answers to Dempster.

Proponents for establishing an independent UT music school say the school would benefit from having a dean, instead of a director, who is focused on the school exclusively.

Butler said he does not see a reason why the Butler School of Music should remain part of the College of Fine Arts. He said the top music schools in the nation, including the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, are not part of another college. He said separating the music school would elevate its prestige.

Butler said UT gave him a lot of excuses, but in his opinion they did not provide any concrete reasons for why the Butler School of Music should remain in the College of Fine Arts. He said UT is “caught up in this bureaucracy,” which it does not want to change.

Garrett Keast, a 1995 alumnus of the Butler School of Music, said this is an opportunity the University should not pass up. Keast said while the music school has achieved more prestige in the past years, the school still has far to go.

This is not the first time establishing the Butler School of Music as separate from the College of Fine Arts has been suggested. Dempster said separating the entities is a goal many faculty have had in the past, including the Butler School of Music’s former director, Glenn Chandler.

“It has been proposed many times to former deans, provosts and presidents, and each time the decision has been to preserve the College of Fine Arts intact, including music,” Dempster said.

Austin Ferguson, Student Government’s College of Fine Arts representative and music sophomore, said he understands both sides of the issue.

“By splitting off, we do get to be our own entity and we do get everything specialized, and I do think that would help our presence grow nationally,” Ferguson said. “But on that note, I do think there would be repercussions that would be negative in that we would not get all the benefits that are available to College of Fine Arts students.”

According to the 2011-2012 UT Statistical Handbook, the College of Fine Arts had 1,832 students in 2011. More than a third, 703, are Butler School of Music students. Music students make up the second largest number of students in the college, with the largest being theatre and dance students at 705.

Printed on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 as: UT declines Butlers' $33-million advance