Organ students make new plans, ready for AOI's spring closure

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Nolan Reilly, director of music at St. Thomas More University Parish, speaks to students as they sit on the steps of Evans Hall on Aug. 22, 2019, during a rally of support for the American Organ Institute. OU is eliminating its organ technology degree program.

For most American Organ Institute students, the shock and sadness have set in.

Now, they’re left awaiting the inevitable.

Spring 2020 will mark the AOI’s final semester at the University of Oklahoma, its home for nearly 14 years. After months of statements and meetings over the summer, the university fell silent over the fall, leaving the institute’s students and faculty to accept the worst.

OU will still offer organ education through bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in organ. The institute, established at OU in 2006 by John Schwandt, added organ building and technology courses, along with an operational organ shop, to the university's existing organ education program. After this semester, students won’t have access to the organ technology degree concentration, organ building classes or shop.

With just a few months left for the institute, some students have been forced to rethink their academic futures. While the AOI technically does not shutter until the end of the spring semester, many of the classes, concentrations and features that came with it are already gone.

Justin Dana, a musical arts and organ technology senior who planned to receive his master’s degree in organ technology, said he’s considering different universities now. He would have finished his undergraduate degree in winter 2020 — he took an extra semester to spend more time in the organ shop, which is now nearly defunct — but now looks toward other options to continue his organ education.

As an out-of-state student, Dana said he can’t afford to continue paying for a program that will no longer offer what the university promised him.

“It’s really not fair, because I don’t see how you can be expected to pay full tuition for this,” Dana said. “...As a student, you have to give something to get — you have you pay tuition, you have to keep up your grades, and you have to be a representative of the campus in a good way. I’ve upheld my end of the bargain, and they’re supposed to give a consistent form of education in response to that. That’s where I’m left.”

When the university announced plans to shutter the institute, OU said students currently in the program would be able to finish their degrees. But as faculty members and classes are stripped away, students who have committed to staying at OU have had to forge new paths forward.

Luke Staisiunas, a first-year master’s student, said he received an email a week before the fall semester began informing him that he could not complete his master’s degree with a focus in organ technology, as that track no longer existed. Freshman Daniel Gauger got an email the day after he moved in at OU letting him know that he could no longer pursue a degree in organ technology, as it was no longer available.

“For me, as a young freshman who was really excited to get started with the college experience, it was really crushing,” Gauger said. “It was disappointing. I was pretty heartbroken, and at the time I was angry. I was also kind of scared as well, because I didn't know what was going to happen.”

Ben Clark, a doctoral student, has had to shift his organ technology-focused doctoral path toward other classes, since he can no longer pursue the organ tech classes he planned to take.

“Since those classes are not offered anymore, I've had to fill in with other classes that I might not have necessarily wanted to or thought that I would take," Clark said. "...I'll certainly benefit from them, but it wasn't what I wanted, and it's frustrating because when I came to OU I was expecting to do these things I had written down on my degree sheet. I had plans for all of this under advisement, and now these classes are not offered anymore, and I have to replace them with other things.”

For AOI students, the initial news of their program’s closure was a shock. In June 2019, when the university announced plans to shut down the institute, students couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

“Nobody thought it was actually going to happen,” said David Anderson, a doctoral student with the AOI. “We thought, ‘surely they just don't understand how successful this program has been and how widespread and how much influence it has in the Norman community. Also, in the Oklahoma community and the national scene, it has been making waves for a few years. And surely if they understood that, then they would change their minds.’”

Members of the administration did not change their minds.

The university attributed the AOI’s shutdown to financial issues, and told AOI leadership it would take about $8.5 million to keep the institute running. Soon after the university's announcement, an AOI fundraising effort secured $6.6 million in donation pledges, and that the institute reported it had $1.2 million in the bank and a cost-cutting plan to move forward.

But the university continued with its plan to shut down the AOI, telling the community that the funding still wasn’t sufficient, and more was necessary. AOI supporters haven’t accepted the explanation, especially after the fundraising drive that quickly raised millions.

“The main issue we've been having, the one that's really making us upset, is transparency,” Gauger said. “The university just really has said why they can shut us down, but they don't really tell us any more details. They say, ‘Oh, it's an economic decision.’ And it's like, well, we were giving you profit and we had millions in donations coming in — we're going to help you in your economic situation and yet you're just going to turn us down? I mean, it just doesn't sound like an economic issue at all.”

While some members of the program were able to meet with OU’s provost and the dean of the College of Fine Arts in the summer, Gauger said AOI’s leadership has not had a meeting with OU’s interim president, and the university has not issued any updates or held any new meetings since early fall. AOI members protested the closure in late August, but since then, things have been fairly quiet.

“After September, after we did our protest and after we made our presence felt, we had to get to work,” Gauger said. “I mean, we had to study — it's not a major where you can just relax for a week and do other things... we as students decided, ‘OK, let's just get our work done, and maybe something will happen.’”

The university maintains that the program’s closure only affects six undergraduate students, but AOI members say at least 20 students are somehow impacted by the sudden lack of AOI concentrations and classes. Multiple students said OU still has not offered them an explanation for the institute's closure that makes sense to them, especially because the AOI was also bringing in revenue through the organ shop.

University spokeswoman Kesha Keith said in a statement that OU’s choice to close the AOI “was a result of a high-level, comprehensive financial review of the entire University and a more specific evaluation of the program’s sustainability.”

“The process was extensive, involving a faculty-led committee and careful consideration of the program’s expenses, enrollment, and long-term sustainability,” the statement read.

At this point, with just a few months left in the program’s lifespan, students said they’re mostly resigned to the AOI’s fate. Several faculty members have already been cut from the organ department, and one more will leave at the end of the semester. Students who plan on staying said they’re doing so because of their ties to and respect for faculty members like Schwandt, who will continue to teach at OU.

“I decided, for the sake of the people that were here and the professors, there's still so much that I can learn,” Clark said. “Dr. Schwandt and Dr. Spritzer, the two tenured faculty, they are staying, they are both superb musicians and wonderful teachers, and I've already learned so much from them. And I want to stay for the sake of that.”

The students who remain are now concerned about the organ program’s recruitment future. The AOI offered the only university organ shop and organ building program in the country, and drew recognition from across the nation, students said.

“The university loses an international drawing card, because we were the only one in the country — we had students coming from all over the world to be part of this,” said Rev. Jason Haddox, rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, where AOI students often played. “We lose that particular unique offering in the world of higher education.”

Staisiunas was drawn from his home state of Pennsylvania by the AOI. He said he likely would never have considered OU without the institute, and knows the program has drawn others like him.

“It was unique, and it was one of those things that brought a different focus to a university like OU,” Staisiunas said. “Whenever I go home or travel for concerts, I do talk to people who are surprised that Oklahoma had a thing like this...but most everybody in the organ world was familiar with this program, and it sort of brought focus to OU that otherwise it wouldn’t have.”

The loss of the AOI will not only affect the university, but the surrounding Norman and Oklahoma communities, Haddox said. Organ students were often placed in churches throughout the community, and the AOI organ shop took on projects from across the region.

As a community member who has gotten to know multiple AOI organists, Haddox said AOI students brought “an enthusiasm for the whole experience of the organ" and a “delight” in the entire instrument that enriched spaces beyond the university.

“Being able to encounter people who had that level of expertise both as performers and as creators of the thing — I mean, what other instrument does the one who plays it also build it?” Haddox said. “This was something completely unique — there was nothing like it in this country — and the shortsightedness and the stupidity of the people who decided that this was not worth bothering with is just epic.”

Emma Keith


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