The news hit with a thunderbolt: on August 25, the Boston Globe reported that Brandeis University would wind down its Ph.D. programs in music by no longer accepting applicants in musicology and composition and theory. The decision was striking for myriad reasons, not least of which was the university’s deep connections to Leonard Bernstein. It also tells us something about the state of academia, American culture, and our national character.

News reports pointed to funding as the issue, as well as the university’s desire to focus on the undergraduate music program. This reasoning rings hollow. For one thing, undergraduate music programs often depend on graduate students to assist professors with classes and to mentor younger students.

To a casual observer, the closure of a Ph.D. program at a small private university probably merits little more than a shrug. Why should we care about intellectuals studying music theory? Indeed, given classical music’s deep roots in European culture, which has fallen into disfavor in certain quarters these days, some may ask why we should study it at all.

We ought to care because Brandeis’s decision will legitimize the broader national dethronement of the musical arts and culture as central components of a university’s mission. The axing of a Ph.D. program is just the beginning. Questions will come next about the relevance of the music program altogether. Why not focus on other departments, ones that diversify the portfolio away from what led to the founding of the institution in the first place? It’s a kind of educational deaccessioning, a wholesale destruction and dismantling of core humanities.

Brandeis’s connection with Bernstein makes the decision especially shocking. A Massachusetts native and a true genius, Bernstein was essentially a founding father of the university—think of him as Brandeis’s Thomas Jefferson. His involvement in the university’s early years gave the endeavor the legitimacy it craved and needed to survive. Though Bernstein was peripatetic, he always returned to the institution because he believed in its relevance.

Bernstein’s life and legacy may be more closely intertwined with Brandeis than with any other institution. The New York Philharmonic, for example, existed for a century before Bernstein made his debut with the orchestra in 1943. Bernstein’s connection with Brandeis dates to 1951, a mere three years after the university’s founding, when he became a professor then a trustee and continued in some form until the end of his life. In 1952, he produced the Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis, which became an annual event. According to the Brandeis website, the Festival was dedicated to the notion that “the art of an era is a reflection of the society in which it is produced, and through creative endeavors the thoughts and expression which characterize each generation are revealed and transformed.” Brandeis’s decoupling from Bernstein’s legacy is perhaps a reflection of that society today.

Does the university’s leadership even remember what the first Festival of the Creative Arts included? The Brandeis website lists “premieres of Mr. Bernstein’s opera ‘Trouble In Tahiti’ and Marc Blitzstein’s translation of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ performed by Lotte Lenya” and “dance performances by Merce Cunningham, music by Aaron Copland and Miles Davis, poetry readings by William Carlos Williams, and symposia on the state of the arts.” Any major city in any era would envy such a festival.

The focus of a forthcoming motion picture starring and directed by Bradley Cooper, Bernstein once again looms large over American culture. Brandeis might have harnessed this moment for the benefit of its Ph.D. program. It could have reached out to Bernstein’s children, active in all efforts to promulgate their father’s achievements, to see if they could help find financing for the program. (Instead, the university’s abandonment has prompted from them a statement of dismay.) It’s hard to imagine that the university would not have been able to find philanthropists willing to fund the program in Bernstein’s name.

The character of a nation depends crucially on its educational institutions. On the eve of the 75th anniversary of its founding, Brandeis University’s leadership has turned its back on one of its forefathers, on those who followed in his footsteps, and on its own roots. Music students and alumni have voiced their disapproval, but many others at the university may not care. Their apathy won’t last forever, though: it won’t be long before fiscal or ideological pressures encroach on other core programs that made Brandeis the institution it is today.

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images


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