Rob Stokes is a senior at George Washington University.
On March 20, George Washington University administrators announced a 5 percent budget cut across all departments, effective this fall. The belt-tightening will prompt changes in many departments, but at least one will face extreme hardship under the new budget: The cuts will scale back GW’s music program by nearly 50 percent, according to some estimates.
For non-music majors and minors at the school, there will no longer be instrumental or vocal study courses or lessons available. For music minors, the fees for these courses and lessons will increase. Some school-backed musical ensembles for vocal and instrumental performers are being nixed, and access to practice spaces eliminated. Cuts will have a drastic effect on department faculty, too—the workloads of professors who typically worked 20-30 hours per week are being reduced to four or five hours. This information was presented to students with only five days before the start of fall registration, and the administration is encouraging students in bands and music groups that have lost their funding to find other places to perform and practice their art.
Outraged about the cuts, students launched an online petition and organized a 24-hour concert last Thursday and Friday as a final stand. Students Samuel Pfister and Steve Arnold coordinated 29 different student music, theater, and dance groups to perform in the protest. Initially, the students set up in Kogan Plaza, which regularly opens itself to student events and demonstrations. Less than two hours into the protest, the university cut the power to the plaza and made the students leave. The protest pressed on at a backup location a block away as the GW Jazz Orchestra played its rendition of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” and student speakers came forward to open public discussion about the budget cuts.
Music continued until 12:45 a.m., when it started to rain in Foggy Bottom and protest leaders postponed the later acts until 8 a.m. the next morning. As the sun came out on Friday, so did prospective students and their families, who were greeted with a public reckoning of the university’s support for the arts. One father of an incoming first-year student told me that he was disappointed and frustrated to learn that his son will not have the ability to take lessons or study music at the university as a non-major, as was promised.
My band, ROBSTOKESBAND, which is made up of non-music majors, performed a set on Friday afternoon that included appearances from local hip-hop artist Ace Cosgrove and GW producer Cautious Clay. Clay says that, over his four years at the university, the weekly open jams, organized by the music department, have been a constant source of inspiration and education that fostered a close community of artists. It’s another program that will go dark this fall under GW’s new music-department budget.
As a musician and artist at GW, I feel like there is no longer a place for me here. The cuts will fracture the department that welcomes some of the school’s most creative individuals to the GW community every year, a safe haven for a group of like-minded people to unite among their shared love for art. The importance of music to the GW community cannot be understated.
The bigger issue is that the administration sees arts programs as easily expendable and superfluous components of a GW education. The administration fails to realize how valuable the music department is to the university experience, even for non-majors, a mindset that sells GW’s potential short.
For now, as at the protest concert, budget cuts are bringing the GW arts community together. But if they go through as proposed, for the first time, musicians at GW will have to declare a music major or minor to receive any support from the university. Prospective students who are under the impression that they will be able to be a marketing major while still being involved with the school’s music scene are in for a rude and frustrating awakening.
“[The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences] is very committed to the arts and indeed has been expanding its footprint in this area in part thanks to the Corcoran,” Dean wrote in an email to the GW Hatchet. No one would look at the new music department and call it an expansion, or a demonstration of commitment. Let’s call it what it is: a debilitating blow.
Photos by Hannalee Wade and Julie Bessler