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Tune Out UCI Disharmony

June 02, 2002

Discord in the workplace is grating under the best of circumstances, but the acrimony that is dividing UC Irvine's music department is particularly disconcerting. The feud began in the early 1990s as classically trained musicians and their jazz counterparts argued over the department's focus. The dissonance has grown to the point that it is keeping department members from doing their jobs, much less making beautiful music together.

The dean of UCI's Claire Trevor School of the Arts has taken the extraordinary but necessary step of putting the music department into receivership, a process akin to a failing business seeking shelter in Bankruptcy Court. Dean Jill Beck has handed the leadership baton over to two administrators from the school's dance and drama departments, who will run the troubled operation for the next three years.

Receiverships represent a last resort for dysfunctional university departments. A visiting UCLA music expert who conducted a 1999 audit described a crisis-ridden department trapped in a "downward spiral." The toxic brew included low staff morale, insufficient funding for programs and an overall lack of vision on the department's direction.

Faculty members can't agree on whom to hire, so no replacements are arriving as war-weary veterans depart. A festering debate continues on whether the department should concentrate on music theory or performance. Some faculty members apparently have crossed the line and lobbied students to take sides, and the most recent department chair's term was cut short by the dispute.

The UCLA visitor cautioned that it would be "criminal and educationally unethical to allow this department to stay in its present condition, or worse, erode farther." Unfortunately, things have gotten worse; the faculty shortage prompted the department not to accept new voice majors during the current academic year.

Since we're talking about a music department, let's for a moment consider a school of the arts to be an orchestra. If the cello section isn't playing the score, the orchestra suffers, as do the paying customers. The restructuring provides a forum to ask and answer key questions, including whether the music department focuses on music theory or performance, the future blend of instrumental and vocal instruction, and how to eliminate any residual bad blood created by the jazz versus classical rift.

The dean of the school of the arts also might consider ordering remaining music department faculty members to lay down their drum sticks and violin bows and troop over to the UCI Little Theater, where undergraduates are performing "The Skin of Our Teeth." The message in Thornton Wilder's satiric play about the human will to survive might strike a chord with warring faculty members.

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