Supporters hope to save St. Cloud State University’s music department from budget cuts

A person makes their way
A person makes their way toward Husky Plaza Tuesday June 6 at St. Cloud State University.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News | 2023

St. Cloud State University leaders last week recommended eliminating nearly 100 majors and minors and 13 percent of its faculty positions due to a budget deficit.

Included in the proposed cuts are the university’s music department and all six of its faculty.

The potential loss of music at St. Cloud State has prompted a groundswell of support, including an online petition titled “Save the St. Cloud State University Music Department.” It had collected more than 3,300 signatures as of Monday.

“Newly appointed administration at SCSU has no idea how much music at SCSU has shaped the arts and culture in Central Minnesota and beyond,” the petition stated.

St. Cloud State administrators say the budget cuts are necessary to address a structural budget deficit caused by years of spending that outpaced student enrollment. The university lost $18 million last year, and would have lost $15 million this year if not for one-time state funding.

SCSU leaders flagged 46 majors with low enrollment numbers for potential elimination. Among them are music, music performance and music education, as well a recently approved music therapy degree.

St. Cloud State University campus seen
Husky Plaza on the campus of St. Cloud State University on June 6.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News | 2023

Acting St. Cloud State president Larry Lee, who took over on May 5, said he respects the passion of those who’ve voiced support for the music department. But a decade of student enrollment declines have taken a toll, he said.

Man smiles in suit
Acting St. Cloud State University President Larry Lee.
Courtesy of St. Cloud State University

“What I’m reading is individuals that remember a program that’s very different than it is today, regrettably,” Lee said.

The university’s three music majors have just 36 students, and instructional costs far outweigh revenue, he said. SCSU estimates it’s losing $371 per student per credit hour by offering the music program.

“We’re losing just a tremendous amount of money just because our class size is so small, and there just hasn’t been interest,” Lee said.

The structural budget deficit means having to make tough choices, Lee said. Administrators are recommending cutting degrees with low enrollment, leaving 90 programs in which 90 percent of students are enrolled.

‘A huge impact on our community’

Word that the department is on the chopping block was bitter news for Terry Vermillion, an SCSU music professor who’s retiring after 34 years of teaching everything from percussion ensemble to the history of rock ‘n roll. 

Like other faculty, Vermillion is also involved in the local music scene, playing in the St. Cloud Symphony Orchestra, local ensembles and bands. 

“To see the Department of Music eliminated would be a huge impact on our community and my personal life as a professional musician in this community,” he said.

Vermillion said he understands the administration is grappling with financial challenges. But focusing just on the numbers overlooks the broad benefits the music program provides to the campus and the wider community, he said.

“What they’re not looking at are the impacts this is going to have in central Minnesota, and the number of people the Department of Music engages with in our community on a daily basis, weekly basis, yearly basis,” Vermillion said.

The St. Cloud Symphony Orchestra, for example, includes many SCSU faculty, current and former students, he said. It rehearses and performs on campus.

For many students, music provides a sense of community and a home on campus, Vermillion said, and not only for students planning a career in music. Seventy percent of St. Cloud State students who participate in ensembles aren’t music majors, he said.

“These are future business leaders, future physicians, future lawyers, and they all value that participation in music,” Vermillion said.

The online petition stated it’s assumed ensemble musical groups such as choirs, bands and orchestras would also not survive. However, Lee said the university hopes it could continue to offer choirs, pep band or other music offerings, possibly by hiring adjunct faculty.

Cutting the department also would affect music education. A number of SCSU graduates are teaching music at schools across Minnesota.

Jim Jacobsen, who graduated from St. Cloud State in 1998, is now a high school band director in Hastings. He said he knows higher education faces financial challenges, but called it “ridiculous” to cut an entire program.

“It’s not looking at the whole picture, as far as what the program does to give back to the community, far beyond the classroom walls,” Jacobsen said.

A person wearing a graduation cap and gown while walking on campus.
Graduates walk with their families near Atwood Memorial Center during St. Cloud State University spring semester commencement ceremonies on Aug. 14, 2020.
Dave Schwarz | The St. Cloud Times via AP

Urging reconsideration

Supporters of the music department hope to convince the administration to rethink its plans. 

Many of those who signed the online petition wrote about how important music has been in their lives as a creative outlet, part of a well-rounded education and a community where they met lifelong friends or even spouses.

John and Rhonda Johnson both attended St. Cloud State beginning in the late 1980s. After graduating, they made St. Cloud their home, eventually opening a violin shop and music studio. Both play in the St. Cloud Symphony Orchestra.

“Education without the arts is, for me, is not really an education at all,” Rhonda Johnson said. “There are many people that their outlet is music, and that is the one thing that they can relate to in particular — music and the arts and theater.”

John Johnson said the availability of music was a big factor in his college choice.

“It’s certainly a lot less reason for students to come to St Cloud State,” he said. “If music is their big thing, they’re going to need to go somewhere else.”

The Administrative Services Building at St. Cloud State University
The Administrative Services Building at St. Cloud State University on June 5.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News | 2023

Music supporters say current enrollment numbers reflect the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the number of public school students participating in performing arts and music. That in turn reduced the number of students majoring in music in college. 

They say SCSU’s music department has worked to streamline its degree programs and modernize its curriculum, including developing a new music therapy program that was scheduled to launch in 2025. 

Peter Meyer was hired first as an adjunct professor in 2014 teaching guitar, then as an assistant professor two years ago to develop the music therapy program.

“With the pandemic, there’s obviously been a huge increase in mental health issues,” Meyer said. “Empathetic people were looking into ways that they could address that and help others through music.”

About a dozen students were ready to enroll, he said, and may need to transfer to a different college or university. Students in other SCSU programs recommended to be discontinued would be able to complete their degrees.

The faculty association is expected to respond to the budget recommendations sometime this week.

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