Dean of the School of Music
Composer, performer, conductor, interdisciplinary artist, author, and educator David Rosenboomhas been Dean of the School of Music and Conductor with the New Century Players at CalArts since 1990. During the 2010-2011 school year, Rosenboom served as acting co-president of CalArts.
Rosenboom, known as a pioneer in American experimental music, has an impressive history of professorial work at institutions such as the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY in Buffalo, New York’s Electric Circus, York University in Toronto, University of Illinois, Mills College, San Francisco Art Institute, and Bard College, among others.
On April 6, 2012, Eye contributor and Music student Stefan Kac asked Rosenboom about his perspective on administrative duties and interdisciplinary opportunities at CalArts, his response to recent budget debates, and his own artistic practice.
SK: Did the experience of being acting co-president of CalArts last year change your outlook and approach as Dean of the School of Music?
DR: It broadened my perspective. I was able to try to start some things and try to get a few initiatives rolling that I’m trying now to keep going, particularly with respect to venture thinking for CalArts and entrepreneurship. That’s an area that I believe strongly must be in our future, and I’m trying to come up with ideas for ways in which an art school can benefit from that kind of thinking without in any way ruffling or undermining the pure art-making impulses that are so dear to this place.
SK: This school year, there has been a lot of harsh criticism of the CalArts central administration. Do you have anything to say about specific criticisms or about the current state of the relationship between the student body and the administration?
DR: First of all, I’ve been doing this for a long time—well over forty years in higher education in various institutions, and I’ve seen this kind of wave of friction develop many times. I believe everyone is coming from a genuine concern about the future and about how we might survive it.
On the student side, of course, the economics these days are horrendous and they’re very, very different than they were a decade or two ago. This habit of cost inflation that the U.S. has gotten itself into is egregious. It needs to be stopped and turned around. That said, how do we do it? We live in a country in which public support for culture in general is among the lowest in the Western World.
Serving as acting president helped me see more from the administrative side. I came back from that job feeling like I’m working with a group of people who really, really work hard for CalArts; they really care. On the other side, we have the faculty members, and they’re great, and they’re working hard, and they’re devoted to the mission of this place. Everybody is trying for the same outcome. So what’s the problem?
Part of it is we need more communication across those divides. One of the things that Steven Lavine and I talked about a lot after he came back was ways for members of the administration to understand more what it is like in the educational trenches and vice versa. How can somebody in the classroom really understand what it means when the Fire Department says you have to spend “x” millions of dollars upgrading your system or we’ll shut you down? And on the administration side, how do they really feel what it’s like when you walk into a classroom that’s in total disarray…and nobody is cleaning it up?
I have seen improvements: the more frequent town halls, the question system that was tried. The online system recently was an interesting experiment. I’ve worked in large state universities, both in the United States and Canada, and in private colleges, and I have never seen a more open budgeting process than I have experienced at CalArts. That said, there is no reason it can’t be more open. We did spend many hours in meetings this year staring at projected spreadsheets on the walls. The Academic Council, Deans Council, and various other groups participated in this. That doesn’t happen in most institutions; that’s very, very rare. So I do see progress on the communication side. We need more, still.
SK: At the recent town hall, President Lavine stated that besides the School of Theater, all Schools at CalArts are under-enrolled relative to the Institute’s goals. First, why is that? Second, how would we accommodate all those students?
DR: I believe that statement is wrong, or at least misinformed. My guess is that this was a misunderstanding; next year, there is an increase in the overall goal for the Institute, most of which is being taken up by an increase in the acting program in the Theater School. That’s the plan for next year.
Two years ago we were significantly over-goal, and we tried to pull that down for the current academic year. We did come in almost right on target this year. The economic exigencies are such that the Institute, as a group, moved towards this plan for next year to increase enrollment over the current academic year, which moves back towards what it actually was in preceding years, most of which is accounted for by the theater school taking higher goals.
Now the trick is to hit that goal when we’re dealing with continued stresses on the outside, such as the changes in subsidized loans that are coming from the Federal Government in July and the risk of Cal Grants and state budgets being cut. We don’t want to be over-enrolled, but the consequences of being under-enrolled are difficult because we budget so tightly that we end up having to cut budgets in the current year if the enrollment goals are too far below the target. So how are we going to accommodate it? We need more practice rooms. Do we have the money to build them? No, we don’t. But of course we need them.
One thing to understand that I think is important about economics: if you look at the Institute as a business, what industry sector is it in? It’s in education, but it’s also in human-services-oriented sectors. The standard economic model of business growth in the capitalist society of the United States is that every year you have to improve your efficiency; you have to figure out how to make more and better mousetraps with the same or reduced resources. But we’re a human-based, a person-based, industry. It’s very difficult to increase your efficiency when education is about human contact.
By far the biggest portion of our budget is people, so it’s very difficult to say we’ll go along growing as a business by increasing our efficiency. The only way we can do that would be to increase the student-to-faculty ratio. It has gone up a little bit, but we don’t want it to go too far. On the other hand, there are probably lots of ways we can get certain kinds of efficiency, such as having the Schools cooperate more in teaching certain subjects that can be taught in larger classes at the beginning level, like computer programming. When you get past the beginning stage and you want to branch out to specific applications, then of course it has to be smaller.
We clearly are going to have to examine alternative models of access that let students more flexibly engage in part-time study, or ways to ease the fact that a lot of students have to work and go to school at the same time. On the other hand, I’ve been to a number of conferences recently—I’ve been trying to investigate this a lot—and I’ve seen some really interesting models of online cooperative learning environments. So, there might be ways to do that and get more flexible access to what is really unique about CalArts.
SK: Another issue discussed at the Town Hall concerned collaboration across disciplines being perhaps more difficult than the reputation of the school would indicate. I think we’re all aware of the practical dimensions of this problem, but have the philosophical or cultural dimensions changed in your time here?
DR: There has never been, at least in my time here, a time when there has been such a positive cooperative, collaborative spirit. The problems of interdisciplinarity here are all practical problems, not philosophical problems. Everybody wants more of it. I joke often that I have never been in a place where more interdisciplinary work actually happens and where at the same time more people complain that it’s not happening.
In our last round of strategic planning, there was a tremendous amount of discussion about interdisciplinarity. It was very interesting that when you talked to people about it at CalArts, no two people mean the same thing by that word. For me, I extract only two things that are common [to what] people talk about: one is giving oneself the license to develop a practice that is not an outgrowth entirely of extant practices; you build a new practice that may draw on inspirations from any dimension of culture or discipline.
The second thing is access; people want access to stuff and people in classes all across the place, and so that’s where we get to the practical side. What we need to do is find a way to soften the old structure of Cal Arts, which was a structure of six almost autonomous schools that operate with their own budget and scheduling mechanisms that have no relation to each other.
Tom Lawson [Dean of Art] and I chaired some meetings of school-wide curriculum and interdisciplinary committees in which for the first time we actually tried to get a top-down vision of the course schedule. All the people who do course scheduling from each school came in with big spreadsheets showing how they do it, and we laid them out on a big, giant table and looked at them all and just were aghast. They were all so different. So the will is there to try to get through that if we can figure out practically how to do it and find ways for things to emerge more naturally.
I’ve been in institutions where I’ve actually created interdisciplinary programs, and I now believe interdisciplinary programs might be wrong, especially at CalArts. As soon as you make an interdisciplinary program, you turn interdisciplinarity into a discipline. So we need to find a way to treat the entire Institute as something where there are more permeable boundaries and find better ways to crossover and better ways to share it. I have never seen a time when there has been more interest in doing that; the problems are all practical.
SK: Let me ask you about your own work. What’s on the docket for you right now, this being a school where the Deans are not only allowed but expected to remain active as artists themselves?
DR: That’s one of the reasons I’m here; I love this place and I love working on the school like it was a composition almost. It’s a beautiful thing to try to work on and shape and structure to support everything everyone is trying to do. I’ve thought many times of opportunities to go elsewhere, but I have chosen to stay here because of the nature of the place, and because the Institute does want its faculty and its Deans to be recognized practicing artists, and even though that’s really, really hard, at least there is moral support for it.
I’ve tried all sorts of tricky ways to balance my life so that I can insert times of creative activity in what I do. I use times when I have more blocks of time available, like the summer, not to finish stuff, but to get projects started so that when I have smaller bits of time when I’m back full-time I can move something forward without having to figure out how to invent it from scratch.
As far as my work right now, I’ve had a very lucky period of opportunities to release recordings and some publications, so I’m actually in a documentation phase. I’m recording a lot of work that’s never been publicly available. I have several CDs coming out in the next few months and it’s helping to fill in what’s available of my work. I have had a period of time of a lot of wonderful collaboration involving music and theatrical settings, especially with Travis Preston [Artistic Director of the Center for New Performance at CalArts]. I also have a book that I’ve been working on for some years called Propositional Music. I want to get serious about that and start really trying to pull that together.
SK: Finally, what is the toughest part of your job and what is the best part?
DR: One of the most fun parts of the job is teaching. When I came back from the acting presidency job, I wanted to be more hands-on with the Performer-Composer program, so I took on a lot of work there. I wanted to get back more closely in touch with students. I took on a very heavy teaching load for this semester, but I love it; it’s really inspiring. I do very much love teaching the kind of creative students we have. I’m very proud of our community, of our faculty and staff altogether and I very much enjoy working with all of them. It’s possible to think about new ideas and ways of reshaping the school and imagine you could pull them off, which is a luxury that you don’t have in a state university. We have less bureaucracy in that respect. We’ve been sort of, sort of under-the-gun of WASC and NASM recently in terms of accreditation, but it’s not that bad. We can do a lot to shape things here, and so that’s inspiring. So I spend a lot of time here and I enjoy it. You know I enjoy coming to work.
SK: I certainly run into you later at night than any other Music School Dean I’ve known, so you have my respect for that.
DR: Well it’s a great place and I would love to go to every concert if I could. I can’t get to that many, but I try to go when I can, and I work here often late because during the day it’s really busy, and it’s hard to get stuff done.
You asked about the hardest part of the job. The hardest part is actually finding time to sit at my desk and do work I need to do for the school, because I’m always meeting with people or teaching or going to meetings. Sometimes I feel like we have too many meetings around here, but if we didn’t have them, we’d have another communication problem. My to-do list is insane, but a lot of it requires me to sit in that chair and just work, you know, and finding time to do that is the hardest thing in this job.