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Curtains for Stanford's Drama Dept.? : Stage: Beset by budget woes, the university's acclaimed drama program faces severe cuts . . .or elimination.

December 26, 1991|JOHN BOUDREAU | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALO ALTO — Stanford University's venerable department of drama, facing the most difficult act in its 55-year history, is fighting the possibility of elimination amid a $43-million campus budget crunch.

University officials plan to slash operating services and administrative staff to reduce their $362-million campus budget. But academics must shrink spending by $10.8 million.

"We are examining possibilities in the department of drama for significant reductions, including closing the department," wrote humanities dean Ewart Thomas in a recent memo to faculty.

"We are hemorrhaging at such a rate we have to make cuts first, then think deeper thoughts of structural reorganization later," says Richard Zare, a chemistry professor heading a faculty committee analyzing the budget woes. "Ideally, we want to do it the other way around."

Other arts programs--music, photography, design and black performing arts--could also face hits; disciplines from earth sciences to engineering are being reviewed for cutbacks.

But the drama department--and its $1-million budget--could take one of the biggest hits. The department, unlike other college theater programs in the United States, combines a doctorate program with performance experience. Its alumni, among the campus's most successful graduates, hold prestigious positions at major theaters and universities across the country and in the film and TV industries.

They include Carey Perloff, recently named artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, Robert Egan, associate artistic director at the Mark Taper Forum, Ted Koppel, Ted Danson, Sigourney Weaver, Universal Studios executive Tom Pollack and producers David Brown, Richard Zanuck, Gale Anne Hurd and Roger Corman.

"The possible loss of theater in such a prestigious place as Stanford," said Egan, "is a dangerous signal to sound to other universities in similar financial trouble.

"It's the old lamentable story," he continued. "In times of crisis, the first victim is culture, the most expendable program is the humanities. The training I got at Stanford in critical methodology and theory has been invaluable to me in developing new plays. Stanford gave me the cognitive and verbal equipment to work with diverse playwrights. It's unthinkable that Stanford would drop theater."

With only three tenured professors in its ranks of instructors at present, though, the department is easier to dismantle than others, say members of the program.

"To inadvertently tell generations of students, 'The arts are not important,' which is what the absence of curriculum does, would be a travesty," says drama department chairman Michael Ramsaur. "It would be the same as canceling an English department and saying people will still read."

A campaign to save the drama department has kicked into high gear, including a letter campaign.

Producer Harold Prince urges Thomas "to extend the life of your drama department. . . . It matters enormously, not only to those of us working in the theater but for the endangered quality of life in our country."

Composer Stephen Sondheim pleads "that drama programs as comprehensive as yours must find some way to survive."

The Stanford Alumni in Entertainment, with 250 influential members based in Hollywood, has started its own letter campaign.

"Do you think Yale would eliminate its drama department?" asked Stanford grad Faryl Reingold, a development executive in the motion picture industry. "I don't want to say one day that 'Yeah, I went to Stanford when then they still taught the humanities.' Until the drama department is out of danger, I'm not contributing any money to the university."

Stanford's fiscal crisis is rooted in part in the federal government's decision to reduce the rate it pays for research costs. That decision alone could cost the university as much as $20 million a year. To make up for the shortfall, library, athletic and student services will be reduced. Tuition increases are expected as well as reductions in overseas studies, tougher financial aid requirements and scaled-down building projects.

"We hope we can preserve the strength of our academic programs," says provost James Rosse, who will help make final fiscal decisions. "We're working hard to minimize the damage." But budget cuts will not be evenly spread around campus, he says. "We are not going to give haircuts to programs that are central to our process."

That could spell bad news for the drama department.

The campus' six non-medical schools will submit recommendations Jan. 17. (The Stanford Medical Center, which has a separate budget, is facing a five-year, $77.7-million deficit.) Administrators will then prepare a final budget and present it to the board of trustees in April. Cuts could begin to take place shortly thereafter.

Zare's panel suggests combining programs of similar disciplines. "You're going to make some tough decisions," Zare said. "We know they are going to be unpopular."

Stanford's position as one of the country's premier universities with a top-notch theater program magnifies the consequences.

"If Stanford would (close the department), then several schools with fiscal problems would do it," says Carl Weber, Stanford's professor of directing. "It would be a very, very unfortunate precedent."

Zare says that Stanford, without strong arts programs, could someday resemble the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "I value at Stanford more than its strengths in the sciences. I don't want Stanford to become Caltech or MIT. I don't want universities to become factories that train people. They are supposed to represent the highest ideals of mankind . . . where people are trying to understand truth and beauty."

Ray Loynd contributed to this story.

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