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Cambridge music school cuts jobs, seeks partner

Longy may join N.Y.’s Bard College

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By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / April 1, 2010

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After years in the shadow of Boston’s major classical music schools, the Longy School of Music is looking to change course, transitioning from a small institution to a more significant player, perhaps as a satellite of Bard College in New York.

The change, occurring several months after a vote by teachers to unionize, has involved shedding more than 20 percent of its teachers, many of whom have taught for decades.

The school is negotiating to become a graduate school of Bard. If an agreement is reached, Longy would include Bard in its name and develop a master of arts in teaching program with the larger institution, a liberal arts college that also oversees two New York City high schools and has campuses in Russia and Jerusalem.

Longy’s president, Karen Zorn, said she could not talk about the details of the potential arrangement because the schools are in negotiations and bound by a confidentiality agreement. But she did confirm that an announcement could come as early as this fall.

Zorn said the talks with Bard emerged after Longy balanced its $7 million budget, which had been running a $1 million deficit when she arrived at the school in 2007.

“We’ve balanced our budget, and we’ve survived,’’ Zorn said. “But I want us to thrive. And for us to thrive, we need a partner.’’

The Bard talks are part of a shake-up on the school’s compact Cambridge campus, which includes a 19th-century building containing teaching studios and the 350-seat Edward Pickman Concert Hall. The school, founded by Boston Symphony Orchestra oboist Georges Longy in 1915, has balanced its conservatory training with a thriving community program that offers instruction to children and adults studying music nonprofessionally. Those programs are not slated to change.

But Longy this month restructured its faculty — cutting 37 of its 188 teachers — in order to streamline its staff. The entire faculty is part-time, though most of those 37 teachers had only one or two students, Zorn said, and were offering just three or fewer hours of instruction a week. A few had no students at the time. Zorn said she prefers that each Longy instructor be working with a group of students, building a sense of community as those students mingle.

“It helps you build a better program if you have faculty who are more committed to the school,’’ Zorn said.

This reduction, announced through letters sent out this month, has angered many of the laid-off faculty members, who say they were let go with little warning.

“I am surrounded by tears and hugs right now,’’ says Sophie Vilker, a violinist who has taught at Longy for 32 years.

“The way it was handled, it was just dropped on our heads,’’ said piano instructor Sally Pinkas.

The timing, the teachers say, is suspect, coming only months after the faculty’s union vote in January. The union was formed because the faculty felt its voice was not being heard by the administration, said violinist Clayton Hoener

“It’s not to say there’s nothing positive in [Longy’s plan],’’ Hoener said. “The problem is that while they’re doing this, they’re discarding people, not consulting with faculty. There’s a lack of democracy, transparency, certainly a lack of respect for the faculty and the students. A lot of the students are losing their conservatory teachers who they came to Longy to study with.’’

The union is looking into how it might overturn the school’s staff cuts, Hoener said.

Zorn said that 30 students will lose their teachers. Some, she said, may end up leaving the school. Others may choose a new teacher.

“There are some financial gains in having fewer faculty who are here more time,’’ Zorn said. “But that’s not what motivated me.’’

Zorn, a pianist, was hired in 2007 after seven years as associate provost at the Berklee College of Music. Upon arrival, she found the school immediately in crisis, with a $1 million deficit. This was largely due to its failure to meet fund-raising goals while giving faculty members raises, she said.

Zorn cut administrative staff members to save money and launched a recruiting drive to increase the school’s conservatory enrollment figures. To reach out, she friended students on Facebook and called every potential student offered a scholarship. Within a year, that enrollment rose from 171 to 214 students. She projects 230 conservatory students by next fall. Longy currently has a total enrollment of about 1,100, including nonconservatory students.

Last July, one of Longy’s trustees helped Zorn set up a lunch with Bard’s longtime president, Leon Botstein, at which she shared her thoughts on a potential master’s in teaching program. At about the same time, Longy’s faculty began its effort to unionize. On Jan. 20 the faculty voted, 51 to 32, in favor of forming a union.

Linda Cutting, who has taught piano and chamber music at Longy for 18 years and was not laid off, was one of those who voted against the union.

“I felt that, as a small school, that a union was the wrong way for us to go, and that it would probably make it more difficult to have input about curriculum,’’ Cutting said. “I also thought it would make it more difficult to implement some of the really creative individual projects faculty had come up with over the years.’’

Cutting praises Zorn, whom she calls “the most forward-thinking president we’ve had.’’

“I’m certainly sad about some of my colleagues not staying, but I understand if we’re about to merge with another school that we need to be a bit leaner and a little bit more efficient.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

Longy School of Music
Founded: 1915
Students: 44 undergraduates, 170 graduate students, 930 ?community?? students, who are in a non-degree program and come to the school once a week for a private lesson or class.
Faculty: 188 part-time. (No full-time)
Property: Includes a 19th-century building containing teaching studios and the 350-seat Edward Pickman Concert Hall on the edge of Harvard Square.
Famous graduates: Elliott Carter, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer; Anton Kuerti, pianist; Schuler Chapin, former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and dean of Columbia University School of the Arts.