A Call to Arts

Amid signs students are paying more attention to culture when picking a college, institutions respond with ambitious plans.
February 3, 2006

There’s a new arms race in higher education -- involving elite private universities and not-so-elite publics -- in the arts.

No doubt, universities have long been meccas of creative and dramatic programs and art museums. But, today, in an era of reduced government funding for the arts -- and an increased interest from students who want to major in artistic fields -- many university leaders are feeling like the stakes are higher than ever before.

According to College Board data compiled by the Art & Science Group, an enrollment consulting firm, there was a 44 percent increase from 1996 to 2005 in the number of high school seniors who say that they plan to major in visual and performing arts. For business and commerce majors, the gain was much less modest, at 12 percent, while the percentage who plan to major in social sciences and history has decreased by 15 percent.

Data on ACT takers show the same pattern, according to Richard Hessel, a principal with the Art & Science Group. “In 1997, 45,344 students specified visual and performing arts as an intended major,” he says. “In 2005, 60,666 stated an intention to major in visual and performing arts, an increase of  33.7 percent.”

With this increased interest, plus the interest of students who want to study and not major in the arts, some administrators say that they’re feeling a lot more burden on their shoulders when it comes to promoting artistic creativity in American society. Shirley M. Tilghman, president of Princeton University, frames the issue in simple terms: “If universities were to withdraw support, the arts would collapse in the U.S.”

Princeton, the latest in a long list of institutions to heavily focus on arts development, is currently getting the lion’s share of artistic attention. This month, alumnus Peter B. Lewis gave the university $101 million “to enhance the creative and performing arts” at the institution. With this large commitment, Tilghman says she can’t help but keep her eyes focused on the artistic efforts other leading institutions.

“When I log on to the MIT Web site and see a picture of a dancer pop up on the screen,” says Tilghman, “I know that schools are taking the arts seriously. It’s a powerful statement that an institute of technology has such a strong focus.”

MIT, in fact, now offers what some in the field have deemed a “model public art program. ”This week, for instance, students organized a runway fashion show titled "Seamless: Computational Couture," which highlighted an array of “technologically experimental” clothing created by students from MIT and several other universities. The project, according to student organizers, was intended to “interpret the conceptual goal of a seamless relationship between technology and fashion.” One creation by Diana Eng, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, called a “blogger hoodie,” stylistically incorporates a heart rate monitor and camera. The camera takes pictures when one’s heart rate reaches a certain level, and is intended as a fashionable way to capture “involuntary blogging.”

With micro- and macro-level artistic innovations staring her in the face, Tilghman, in spring 2005, established a task force to determine ways to strengthen creative and performing arts at the Princeton. As a result, Tilghman declared that “the university’s programs in the creative and performing arts are not large enough to meet growing student demand today.”

In 2004-5, Princeton enrolled nearly 1,000 students in creative and performing arts courses. Tilghman says she’d like to see those numbers increase by 50 percent over the next five years.  With the Lewis gift now in hand, the university will actively pursue that goal, as well as increasing the number of fine and creative arts faculty members, and inviting more artists from across the country to teach courses at the university, while they also work on their own artwork.

“I think that the drivers for this were partly pragmatic and partly philosophical,” she reflects, noting that governmental funding for the arts has generally dwindled. Despite the National Endowment for the Arts’ outward commitment to arts development, Tilghman says that she hasn’t seen the kind of support necessary to sustain a creative overall culture. “I would be enormously pleased if this country would find ways to provide more government support for the arts,” she says. 

The Yale School of Music also recently received a large donation -- $100 million -- from an anonymous donor in 2005. Administrators will use those funds beginning in the 2006-7 academic year to fully pay for the tuition for all students, currently about 200. Vincent Oneppo, a spokesman for the music school, says that applications have more than doubled this year. He says that there are no plans to increase enrollment numbers, though, because there is a “hesitancy to change the nature of the institution.”

Barbara Shailor, deputy provost of the arts at Yale, indicates that the university has tentative plans to spend $500 million on the arts over a several-year period for the following: renovating the landmark Paul Rudolph-designed Art and Architecture building, which now houses the School of Architecture; creating a new building for the history of art department; renovating and expanding the Yale Art Gallery; creating a new facility for the university’s sculpture studio; and creating a new sculpture gallery.Yale also plans to raise money to increase scholarships to students in arts schools other than the music school.

Jeff Kimpton, president of the Interlochen Center for the Arts, a youth-focused art school in Michigan, says that all the building and innovation results from “a generational concern over the future of the classical arts and culture in this country.” 

Kimpton, who has led several discussions with college administrators nationwide on arts development, says that more universities “are seeing their faculties embracing greater interdisciplinary research, exploration of the arts through history, literature, medicine, wellness and healing. “[T]here’s a new spirit of inclusion that is giving arts programs, and in particular the contemporary arts, greater respect and visibility,” he says.

“There is a younger cadre of academics now who have grown up in an eclectic world,” adds Kimpton. “And universities are wanting to meet their expectations -- reaching more broadly than ever.”

Sean Buffington, associate provost for arts and culture at Harvard University, says that “some of the hungriest consumers of the arts happen to be scientists and mathematicians.” The university, he says, is currently in the planning stages for a range of arts and cultural facilities in Allston, the site where Harvard plans a major expansion of science facilities and programs. The Allston plans, says Buffington, reflect the convergence of arts with other disciplines.

“We also have a strong view that arts and culture are what make a university and community a smart and interesting place,” says Buffington. “We have a real sense that arts matter intellectually to our students."

That view isn't confined to institutions that receive $100 million gifts.

Montclair State University, in New Jersey, like many other public universities, has seen an increased demand from students for artistic and visual arts programs, says Geoffrey Newman, dean of the university’s school of the arts. According to Newman, the university wants to appeal to the “regular Joe” type student who wants a quality arts experience. To help charm Joe, Montclair recently spent $25 million on a new 500-seat theater, with no state funds going to the effort, says Newman. The Alexander Kasser Theater Building, with approximately 55,000 gross square feet, was constructed to be a state-of-the-art facility for performances of drama, musical theater, dance, orchestral concerts, solo recitals and chamber opera.

“We want the students to be entertained and entertaining,” says Newman. This month, the university will host a music therapy day, a theater day and an arts day program for college-bound students interested in a studying fine and creative arts. But students aren’t the only ones that the university is intent on impressing. Newman says that the university has also been reaching out to critics and artists from around the country -- even sending limos to meet them at Manhattan hotels -- to help attract them to the university and lend to its creative spirit.
Without multi-million dollar donors, Montclair has taken a unique route to raise funds.  Administrators, in 2002, introduced an “undergraduate per-credit hour fee, just like you’d pay an athletic fee,” explains Newman. About 8,000 full-time undergrads pay a “performing arts fee” of $45 each semester, to bolster the university’s arts budget. Part-time students pay at a rate of $3 per academic credit. In exchange, students can attend any performing arts production at the university without additional cost. With the increased funding, the number of productions at the institution has increased from 26 in the 2001-2 season to 54 scheduled productions in 2005-6.  And student attendance at performing arts events steadily increased from 8 percent of the overall audience in 2002 to 40 percent of the audience in 2005. 

Newman says that the School of Arts enrollment has been growing by about 33 percent for each of the last 5 years. He anticipates that the growth will settle, with about 2,500 students ultimately enrolled in the foreseeable future.

Other public universities are also in the middle of major expansions or improvements of arts offerings. Louisiana State University is focusing on a series of ambitious goals for its College of Music and Dramatic Arts. Ohio State University draws attention through its Wexner Center for the Arts.

Several public university administrators nationwide have been in touch with Newman regarding the Montclair State performing arts fee, and have expressed desires to create similar plans on their campuses. “We, of course, want to be competitive, but it’s also important to note that schools are working together to think about ways to share resources and even artists,” he says. “You can’t get more creative than that.”


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