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The Fountain School’s Underperforming Start

This spring, Dal’s Faculty of Arts and Social Science rolled out a new policy – classes with fewer than eight students will not be funded by the university. The consequences of this measure have been especially dramatic in the Fountain School of Performing Arts (FSPA).

Valuable classes have been cut without consultation with the student population, hurting the diversity of the school’s education, and leading to disappointment from students. This is a problem of transparency, misleading celebration, and a case study in the damaging effects of budget cuts to the arts within Dalhousie.

Never heard of the FSPA? Let me give you a brief history: the Fountain School of Performing Arts was inducted as the newest “school” at Dalhousie last spring when a $10 million endowment donation from the family of Dalhousie chancellor Fred Fountain allowed Dal’s Music and Theatre departments to join together under a new formal organization.

This meant one administration would serve all the “performing arts” students, the promise of more financial support to the school, and a few shiny new toys in the Dalhousie Arts Centre like a brand new baby grand piano and a big fancy projector for the Dunn Theatre.

However, very little seems to have actually changed, and the reality is that the school is in more dire straits than before – this, despite the celebration that “$10 million” brings every time the school says it (and they say it a lot).

The practice rooms are still not noise-proof, and they still have broken thermostats. The student lounge still has broken chairs and spray-painted plastic trees as decor. The keyboard instructor still asks for a few extra dollars from students at the beginning of each semester to make sure he has enough funding to print off the assignments he has planned for us. But, when presented with these concerns, university administration has routinely reminded us that the Fountain donation is for endowment, which means it cannot be used for operating costs.

So, back to the issue of the new eight-student minimum cap measure – what effect did this have on the FSPA? The biggest concern was that it put at risk the future of seminar classes, 5000-level courses that historically have floated around the eight-student mark.

To alleviate this stress Dr. Jure Gantar, Director of the FSPA, decided to eliminate the option of Special Studies for students. This is a highly specialized and independent class option which students could take one-on-one with a volunteer professor. The thinking was that by eliminating the option to take a Special Study, those students would be forced to take the seminar, thereby raising the population of that class and saving them from being under the 8-student minimum.

Without delving into whether that idea will actually work or not, I want to focus on primarily how this decision is detrimental to the school, and show how it’s a reflection of a school curriculum stuck in the past.

Firstly, this is detrimental as Special Studies are uniquely valuable. They allow advanced students to specialize their education, they cater to diverse interests that may not be available in other courses offered, and they pose little to no burden on the school as the professors paired with these studies take them on as volunteer hours. Removing them from the table limits the capacity for the FSPA to provide a meaningful education.

Secondly, this move puts the burdens of a dying Graduate Program on the backs of undergraduates. Without seminars, the Dalhousie Music Graduate Program cannot exist. Therefore, by making undergrads take seminar classes, undergrad students are supporting the existence of the Graduate Program whether they want to or not. Is this fair for undergrads? Definitely not. Is the Graduate Program worth saving? Probably not – this year, just one person was enrolled in the Dalhousie Music Graduate Program.

Finally, the removal of Special Studies is troubling as it reflects the limited scope that the whole FSPA embodies.

Looking at the Undergraduate Calendar for any given year, it appears as though that there is a huge range of classes, and that a four-year degree would be adaptable to many interests. That’s the impression I was under when I enrolled two years ago. But the reality is that the Undergraduate Calendar for the FSPA is grossly outdated, and that many, if not most, of the classes are not offered during any given year.

For example, during the 2015/16 academic year, the FSPA will offer only five 4000-level classes (not including courses for instrument specializations or special grad requirement credits), despite 18 being listed in the Calendar. This is not just limited to 4000-level classes. The issue of what’s listed in the Calendar versus the reality of what the school is considering offering is found throughout all years of study for many programs, and amounts to false advertising to incoming students.

What’s perhaps most troubling about all of this is the lack of transparency coming from university administration about these decisions. When I started talking to other students about the elimination of Special Studies from next year’s curriculum, they were stunned. Professors I went to, including a previous head of the department, had no idea this was actually taking place. No one except for the top level of the school’s administration seemed to know about the decision. I only found out after I went to the FSPA Academic Advisor with plans to pursue Special Studies next year and he informed me that it would not be possible.

My ambitions for what my education at Dalhousie would mean have changed dramatically since I’ve made these discoveries, and it’s time for the administration to acknowledge the FSPA is not all that they say it is.

It’s great that the school has received a $10 million endowment, providing us with more performance opportunities and projectors. But this money goes a pretty short way when they are cutting classes, programs are floundering, and the building we “learn” in provides an environment that is far from healthy.

Ultimately, Dalhousie needs to stop making cuts to Arts and Social Science programs, as it is these funding cuts that are leading to the internal cuts facing the FSPA. Until then, university administration needs to stop acting as though everything is great, and be honest with students. They need to start engaging students with these types of decisions, and refocus on the primary goal of university – providing a quality education.

This is a long and complex issue, but the path forward is clear. The FSPA administration must ensure the Undergraduate Calendar is truthful and accurate, they need to re-evaluate the value of the Graduate Program, and decide on whether it’s fair for undergrads to limit their education to keep that program above water. These are steps forward towards a better, and more honest, performing arts program for Dalhousie.

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