by Max Brantley
I reported some tough remarks yesterday by Arkansas Tech president Robert Brown in defense of the university's closure of a theater workshop. They drew tremendous response in our comments thread from supporters of the theater program and, today, an update from Ardith Morris, a full professor at Tech and director of the theater program for 29 years.
Good news (UPDATE: a full news release is on the jump). She said space had been found in a vo-tech facility owned by the college near Russellville High School as alternate workshop space while solutions are sought for the crowded workshop closed after a fire marshal's inspection. It should suffice for this semester's stagecraft class and to meet needs of a coming production of "Candide." I learned a bit more about, but not the specific objections to, an agreement on use of "Candide" delayed in the university's review of the contract. Morris said, in case these were the problems, that no one appears nude in Bernstein's musical and it requires no weapons. Arkansas Tech, it turns out, has banned use of weapons in plays since a dustup several years ago over use of a prop pistol in "Assassins." Brown wanted to prohibit production of the play. The ACLU intervened and it eventually was performed.
Brown, while insisting his only interest was student safety in the workshop action, still seemed to hold some hard feelings over the "Assassins" controversy. He said he'd been targeted unjustly for criticism that he meddled in theater content. He also declined in the interview with me to express confidence in the theater faculty.
Morris took the high road today. She said:
I don’t want to engage in blaming anybody or name calling or dsparaging the intentions of the university. If there’s going to be a resolution to this issue it has to be between two groups of people who know and trust and have mutual respect for each other.
Morris has been interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education about the latest controversy. She told the publication that she'd reported annually on the inadequate space and facilities for the workshop. She also wanted to elaborate on Brown's comment that he'd offered to provide space for a small theater 10 years ago. She said she'd never seen plans for a theater and had only a brief discussion with the then-department head. But she said that was ancient history. "What matters now is that it's quite obvious we need an appropriate theater space."
Yes, a university such as Arkansas Teach should teach theater and have a suitable place to showcase students' work. For this reason, Brown's vow to have a state review of the program seems more threatening than productive. Likewise his implicit public criticism of faculty. (Content restriction on weapons isn't such a sound idea, either, but that's probably a fish best fried on another day.)
Brown insisted his sole concern was about student safety, though it seemed clear to me that the "Assassins" episode still rankles. He still says his objections were about safety and a potentially explosive theme at a time when campus violence was a major news story.
Evidence of Brown's feelings about the play: I learned today that Brown put on hold issuance of a diploma to a student who graduated in 2008, Ken Zumwalt. This followed Zumwalt's refusal to shake Brown's hand during graduation ceremonies because Brown's action had interfered with his senior project, work on "Assassins." Zumwalt said that he inquired at the student accounts office when a month passed without receiving the mailed copy of his diploma. He said the office told him it had been put on hold by the president and that he'd have to schedule a meeting with Brown before he could receive it. "I told them that was not going to happen," he told me. Zumwalt told the university employee he would get in touch with his ACLU lawyer again. About two weeks later, he received his diploma in the mail.
ARKANSAS TECH NEWS RELEASE
RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (October 6, 2011)—Arkansas Tech University administrators and faculty members have worked together and identified spaces for Tech theatre students to continue their studies following the closure of the Techionery theatre workshop.
“In education, we must always put the needs of the students at the forefront of our thinking,” said Dr. John W. Watson, vice president for academic affairs. “It was that principle that caused Arkansas Tech to close the Techionery theatre workshop due to safety concerns, and that same principle has been in practice this week as we have worked to resolve the associated issues. On behalf of the university, I would like to offer my appreciation to Dr. H. Micheal Tarver, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, and Anthony Caton, interim head of the Department of Speech, Theatre and Journalism, for their leadership during this process.”
Watson said that the following steps are in place to accommodate the needs of the Arkansas Tech theatre program for the remainder of the 2011-12 academic year:
(1) Classroom space has been identified and assigned for all theatre classes for the
remainder of the fall 2011 semester, and similar arrangements are being made for the spring 2012 semester with no anticipated problems;
(2) All course work regarding the construction of sets —- to include any welding and woodworking that might be necessary —- will be performed at the Arkansas Tech Career Center (ATCC) on Highway 7T in Russellville, and students will do that work with ATCC equipment under the supervision of ATCC faculty members;
(3) Students will utilize Witherspoon Auditorium for their fall 2011 production of “Candide,” which will go on as scheduled;
(4) Students will use Witherspoon Auditorium for rehearsals to the extent that is possible based on availability of that facility, and alternative space for rehearsals when necessary has been identified;
(5) Arkansas Tech is engaged in an assessment of the space inside the Techionery occupied by the theatre workshop to determine the best course of action for cleaning the facility and addressing the safety concerns raised in the Sept. 9 report by the Russellville Fire Department (RFD), an assessment that Watson stated will be a “lengthy process.”
Due to concerns resulting from the RFD report, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education (ADHE) has agreed to conduct a review of the theatre option within the Bachelor of Arts degree in speech at Arkansas Tech during the 2011-12 academic year.
That review process had been scheduled for 2017-18, but since ADHE already had plans to review the Arkansas Tech Master of Arts degree in multimedia journalism during the current academic year it agreed to review the theatre program concurrently.
The reviews, which as a matter of procedure will also include a review of the Bachelor of Arts degree in speech communication at Arkansas Tech, will be conducted by independent persons from out of state who will be selected by ADHE.
“There are no plans to discontinue the theatre program at Arkansas Tech,” said Watson. “The program review is not directed toward discontinuing the program. It is a process that is required by law, and it is a deliberate and thorough process. We do not anticipate receiving any report concerning the program review until late in the spring of 2012.”