PASSHE’s state merger hits LHU’s music program

PHOTO BY THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE Michael Christlieb, 16, a student at Central Catholic High School in Oakland, practices on a Steinway piano Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, at the Seton Hill University Performing Arts Center in Greensburg. Seton Hill University has the All-Steinway status, meaning all of the pianos at the school are Steinway.

LOCK HAVEN — The comments were as damning as they were raw beneath a Facebook photo showing rows of Steinway pianos about to be hauled away from Lock Haven University.

“My heart is breaking right now,” one former student said.

“It’s like feeling the soul go out of the institution.”

“Shame on those in charge of these decisions….”

In 2008 — or, five campus presidents ago — Lock Haven made what seemed like a lasting statement to the music education world that it had become a player.

A donation of 22 pianos, and the sought-after all-Steinway designation that followed, coincided with a new bachelor degree in music education. It spoke to confidence there and across the State System of Higher Education, where enrollments were rising and campuses were putting up buildings as if unaware an enrollment bubble was about to burst.

What came next was not pleasant.

To some faculty, students and others, it not only was a campus miscalculation amid a revolving door of university presidents, but more broadly, a State System failure to properly quarterback a big decision made by a member school.

The bachelor of music education, created little more than a decade ago, has been eliminated as Lock Haven merges with Bloomsburg and Mansfield universities, two other system schools facing hard times. California, Clarion and Edinboro also are being merged in the west.

Music education majors at Lock Haven who once numbered about two dozen by some estimates are now at zero. Half of the much-heralded Steinways are being donated to other schools.

Ron Darbeau, Lock Haven provost, said it was obvious that the music program was not sustainable. Five years of enrollment data told him so.

“I can’t speak to why it was started. That was well before my time,” said Mr. Darbeau, who arrived on campus last year.

“It’s not a verdict on music as a field of study but rather a realization of demand, revenue and cost,” he said. “The program is simply not viable as a major.”

Some wonder how the school got there and why faculty positions were being cut at roughly the same time the program was supposed to be growing.

Campus leaders, in effect, “killed the program” through departmental reductions that were “ridiculous,” said Eddie Severn, 58, who lost his job at Lock Haven as full-time music teaching positions went from seven to two. “The whole culture on campus changed.”

Not long after the music program debuted, enrollments across the State System began falling, from a high of nearly 120,000 in 2010 to fewer than 89,000 today. Lock Haven’s enrollment, approaching 5,400 students when the program debuted, is half that now.

A well-rounded education

Competition for funding by the arts, the humanities, and hard sciences and business isn’t new. The issue at Lock Haven, though, also seems to be whether a state university system is obliged to offer the same breadth of academic choice to rural students — many first generation and not in a position to travel to nearby cities like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia to study — as students from metropolitan areas receive.

“Students at rural universities need a well-rounded education just like anybody else,” said Andrew Koricich, executive director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges and a professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina who grew up in rural Pennsylvania. “The liberal arts just aren’t throw-away majors.”

What bothers him is that the State System, he said, is creating winners and losers as it focuses on merging schools that are part of a larger problem of price, management and demographics.

“I’m not going to dress it up. I am not a fan of this,” he said. “I think it is incredibly problematic that the State System administration is attempting to solve a system-wide problem on the backs of these six rural schools.”

Lock Haven University, in Clinton County, sits on the west branch of the Susquehanna River in the central Pennsylvania mountains, about 110 miles north of Harrisburg.

The Steinway designation

Its music education bachelor program debuted roughly the same time that Margery Dosey, Lock Haven council of trustees vice chair and a 1966 alumna, donated the pianos to the school to support music and the arts, as did her late husband, Seymour Krevsky, according to university records. Officials with the university did not put a dollar estimate on the gift, but faculty members say it approached half a million dollars.

On Facebook, recent music graduates participated in what felt like eulogy as they talked about the top-of-the-line upright and concert grand pianos, trips to Steinway Hall in New York City and other musical events — feeling they were a part of something big.

Samantha Gates, now a band director in the Mifflin County School District and a 2008 Lock Haven graduate, says she was the first to leave there with the a music education degree. “They did a lot of work to get the program off the ground,” she recalled.

“The thing that made it a big sell was getting that Steinway designation,” she said. “If you have that Steinway designation, you have invested in the arts and really care about it. On top of that, to have a Steinway artist in residence — that was a big draw.”

That professor, David Curtin, is facing possible retrenchment, State System parlance for being laid off. Despite that, Lock Haven officials said the school expects to retain its all-Steinway status for the foreseeable future.

Lock Haven graduate Abe Nickle, 43, moved from Arizona with his brother to central Pennsylvania to build houses, only to be stopped by the Great Recession in 2008. But he had a passion for music and the university enabled him to put it to use.

Now, he’s teaching music in Utah.

“I spent countless hours on the practice room pianos and the Steinway in the concert hall. I have been teaching choir for over 10 years because of the things I learned there,” he said. ” I have been able to influence thousands of students in the world of music. It’s a shame that will no longer continue.”

The pianos found in world competitions

More than 200 colleges, universities and conservatories on five continents carry the All-Steinway designation in cities, including Beijing, London and New York. Not all are instantly recognizable. But many are, stretching from the Ivy League and large flagship public universities in the U.S. to smaller public and private campuses.

In Pennsylvania, those with the distinction include Duquesne University, Seton Hill University, Bucks County Community College, Franklin & Marshall College, Immaculata University, Moravian University, Cairn University, Chestnut Hill College, and three other State System schools in addition to Lock Haven – Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown and West Chester.

One of the largest inventories of Steinway and Sons pianos can be found at the House of Juilliard in New York City’s Lincoln Center. Of Juilliard’s 260 pianos, 248 are Steinways and 231 of those are Steinway grands.

Many schools secure them in part through donations. In its financial report last year, the New England Conservatory of Music noted it had entered an agreement in 2018 to buy 10 at a cost of $1,022,000.

At Seton Hill, planners concluded that the opening of a performing arts center in downtown Greensburg was a good time to pursue the All-Steinway designation.

“It does help with recruitment. It really does,” said Edward M. Kuhn Jr., music department chair at Seton Hill. “I think the message it sends is that the university is really behind music. That’s a really big deal.”

Robert Blocker, a professor of piano and dean of the Yale University School of Music, said, “These are the pianos that they will find in the world’s competitions and in centers throughout the United States and hopefully in their own practice areas.”

Qualifying for the All-Steinway designation requires a school to have at least 10 pianos, although in fact larger schools have inventories that top 200, said Piano Perfect LLC, a dealer in Georgia. “Ninety percent of the pianos must be Steinway, Boston, or Essex, part of the company’s umbrella of pianos.”

Lock Haven officials released a statement saying the donor supports the transfer of the pianos, eight to Bloomsburg and Mansfield and three to other schools and a church in central Pennsylvania.

One of the instruments is slated for Renovo Elementary School, about 25 miles outside Lock Haven. Building principal Betsy Dickey, herself a Lock Haven graduate, said she is looking forward to her students — “my kiddos” — experiencing an instrument that could have a profound influence.

“You never know what’s going to spark a kid,” she said. “This is a huge donation to our building.”


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