Students occupied the front steps of Evans Hall on Thursday afternoon to protest the University of Oklahoma’s decision to close the American Organ Institute and eliminate the organ technology concentration.
A group of students and alumni allege the university has not been honest or transparent about the process to close AOI. OU stands by its decision, saying it was taken after a multiparty review and multiple efforts to try and keep the program, which offers instruction on maintenance and repair of pipe organs.
“What we need is your continued support,” Nolan Reilly, OU organ alumnus and director of music at St. Thomas More University Parish, said to the crowd. “This cannot be a flash in the pan thing where we all go home and stop thinking about it.”
Supporters of AOI planned a rally for Thursday to start at 2 p.m. Once there, the crowd took seats on the steps of Evans Hall — which houses the offices of Interim President Joe Harroz and Provost Kyle Harper — and Reilly said the plan was to remain there until the building closed at 5 p.m.
In June, OU first announced its plans to close AOI because the program lacked long-term funding. That sparked a rally of students and alumni from Catlett Music Center to Evans Hall, but at the time classes were not in session so student attendance was difficult.
Thursday’s sit-in included more students, along with local and OU community supporters that included members of the clergy. AOI was also contracted by churches across the state for organ maintenance and repair jobs, which provided revenue and real-world learning opportunities for organ technology students.
“It’s the saddest I’ve seen in a long time,” Michael Bedford, president of the American Guild of Organists who was in attendance, said. “When I was a student at TCU, I would have given anything to have had this kind of program there.”
Following the announcement that AOI would close, a group of alumni and students met with Harper, Harroz, and Dean of the College of Fine Arts Mary Margaret Holt over the summer to try and find a way to keep it open. A university statements says these meetings did not produce a long-term solution.
“The decision to close the organ technology and repair program was a difficult, but necessary one,” a university statement released Thursday reads. “The closure comes out of an extensive evaluation of the program’s sustainability, as well as a high-level, comprehensive financial review of the entire university in an effort to achieve fiscal responsibility. OU took steps to reconsider the closure after multiple meetings at all levels with concerned supporters, students and employees; however, a long-term plan did not develop.”
AOI supporters said they are upset the decision was made through a committee process that lacks transparency. Suzette Grillott, former dean of the College of International Studies who filed a lawsuit against the university over her dismissal from that role, said the college went through the same committee process.
“My college went through this,” Grillott said. “It is not a transparent process.”
In addition, Reilly said that since the last of those meetings between administration and the student-alumni group — during which the university said $8.5 million would be substantial to keep the program open — millions of dollars in donations have come in to support AOI and a trimmed down budget has been drawn up for the program. But Reilly said no further meetings to discuss that have taken place.
“If we can raise $6.6 million in a month, we can raise the $8.5 million in three years,” Reilly said. “Give us the time we need to do what we need to do.”
When OU announced the organ technology program would be discontinued, administration also said current students in that concentration would be taught out and could compete their degree. But AOI supporters said students who started class this week recently received emails from advisors suggesting they change majors since the courses they would need no longer exist.
At Thursday’s rally, Director of Media Relations Kesha Keith said no students had informed the university about the emails they received. Noah Smith, a freshman who decided to attend OU because of the presence of AOI and the organ technology program, showed the Transcript a copy of the one he received.
Smith said he heard rumors that AOI would be closing in June, but he was not informed by the university about its pending closure “until after I paid my tuition and moved in.”
“This email was the first thing from the university about the closing of the entire institute,” Smith said.
Smith said he would not have applied to attend OU as an organ student had AOI not existed, but now that he is here, he doesn’t see himself leaving due to the popularity of organ professor Dr. John Schwandt. AOI’s 100% job placement rate for graduates was also an attraction given the difficulty of finding a job in a competitive music industry, Smith said.
The AOI website was taken offline Wednesday. Vice President for Marketing and Communications Lauren Brookey said the decision was made to avoid confusion over AOI’s status.
“It described the institute and the program that won’t be available,” she said. “So the intention was to not mislead people.”
Brookey, Keith and Holt came to the Evans Hall steps on Thursday to meet with protesters. Holt said the college is working on a plan for current organ technology students to continue the education they expected to receive.
“I appreciate your passion for the American Organ Institute, I share your feelings of support and I am so glad to see your passion,” Holt said. “We’re devising a plan to help each student enrolled in this program and how to provide them with the best opportunity.”
Holt told the crowd that when she first joined the “dark side” of administration 25 years ago, she learned a reality of life in higher education.
“In those 25 years, if I learned on thing, it’s that we very often cannot follow our hearts and often we have to follow our heads,” Holt said.
Bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in organ performance will continue to be offered at OU. And Reilly said the effort to keep AOI open will continue.
“I’m not going to give up hope until it’s over,” Bedford said. “If you quit, you lose.”