A program unlike any other in the country is facing elimination.
The American Organ Institute was founded in 2006 at the University of Oklahoma, but the latest round of faculty and staff cuts will see the institution shutter its doors for good. That is, unless a passionate group of students and alumni can convince the university that the program is worth it.
Reportedly equipped with $1 million in unrestricted incoming donations and a plan to independently cover the AOI’s costs for the next two years, supporters will make the trip from Catlett Music Center to the president’s office at Evans Hall at 10 a.m. today.
Nolan Reilly, organist and music director at St. Thomas More and AOI alum, said the 23 students in the organ department, including three in the university’s perhaps soon to be defunct organ technology program, were not told by the university but found out Friday following an open college of fine arts meeting.
During that meeting, Reilly said American Organ Institute Director and OU organ professor Dr. John Schwandt laid out a financial plan that would allow AOI to continue.
Reilly said the plan would allow AOI time to seek donors to continue the program, but those pleas, to this point, have not been heard.
“All I know is that the university did not accept the offer,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. I really don’t know what the driving force is behind this decision. If I were to take a guess, I would say it’s simply ignorance of the program.
“I think it’s easy to look at a program that has [23 students and nine faculty and staff and think that it's a small program that’s not making an impact. But when you have students and alumni in some of the largest churches in the state and around the country and working for organ firms around the country and you have this institute that maintains most of the instruments in the state, there are literally thousands of people that this institute interacts with on a weekly basis.”
Lauren Brookey, OU vice president for marketing and communications, said she understands that the private funding deal developed as a response to the proposed cuts.
She said administration is interested in a dialogue and is receptive to anyone interested in underwriting the program.
“I think the plans will continue unless some information changes that’s significant … Obviously we have to cover the expenses of the program,” she said.
OU pays for 3.5 of the nine salaried employees and the building space. The rest of AOI’s costs are funded through donations and revenue from the organ shop.
Schwandt reportedly said in Friday’s meeting that AOI could continue for two years with that revenue and with the $1 million incoming donation.
When news of the AOI’s pending demise started circulating Friday, it didn’t take long for letters to start pouring in. To this point, Reilly said that number is approaching 200. They came from organ makers across the country, the organist at St. John the Divine in New York City and the organist at the Palace of Versailles, just to name a few.
“The AOI has a 100 percent job placement record,” W. Edward McCall, CEO of the Organ Historical Society, said in a letter. “Can any other department or program make the same claim? Closing the doors would be like firing the OU head football coach the day after winning a national championship.”
Edward Alan Moore, music director and organist at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, said, looking from the outside, that the move raises red flags.
“It makes you wonder what’s really going on," he said. "I would think that a lot of other schools would jump at the chance to have their own department offer funding options … That’s a head scratcher.”
For current students, it’s even more baffling as they are left to wonder what happens next.
Solena Rizzato came to OU to study meteorology but found herself drawn to the organ technology program. Like so many others, she said she was devastated by the news. Currently interning with organ builder Messrs Czelusniak Et Dugal in Northhampton, Massachusetts, she has been doing everything she can to help save the AOI and the people who she said have become her family.
“The AOI means so much to the organ world and the cultural world,” she said. “It’s very difficult to watch this from the student perspective. I have complete faith in the AOI faculty and OU that they will find a way for the current students to graduate with degrees in organ and organ technology.”
Still, she said, the thing that’s most upsetting to her is the possibility that future generations will never have the opportunities she had.
“That’s what hurts me the most,” she said. “I want to be proud of having graduated with degrees from OU. Something like this kind of conflicts that.”
Though there are only a handful of organ technology majors, and OU has not announced plans to cut the organ performance program, the AOI shop is a resource for all organ majors. Reilly said the program has consistently grown, and, without it, OU’s broader organ program would become “just another state school organ department.”
Sam Backman, an AOI doctoral candidate and organist at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Ardmore, said the only qualified organ service technicians in the state are at AOI. Apart from putting OU on the map in the organ world, he said the service it provides to churches across the state is crucial.
“It has provided an organ culture in this state that otherwise wouldn’t be possible,” he said.
He called the decision to pull the plug “disgustingly premature,” particularly as it pertains to current students.
“That would be my main grievance,” he said. “My hope is that this campaign that we’ve launched can change that.”