Mike Lawson • August 2003 • August 1, 2003

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Perhaps, as a public school music educator, teaching at the collegiate level seems a remote possibility – while striving to reach the upper echelons of a school of music seems even less obtainable. But this is not necessarily the case, as three deans of colleges of music have found.

Alan Solomon, who now serves as the dean of the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, began his career as a music therapist in the 1970s. At that time, he recalls, professors of music therapy were in great demand.

“There weren’t many people available [to teach], so I actually had several schools call me and ask me if I was interested in college teaching positions,” Solomon remembers.


Solomon, who calls his career “a series of serendipitous events,” accepted a position at the University of Evansville in Indiana. He then became the chair of the music department for 12 years. During this time, one of the vice presidents suggested Solomon pursue the dean’s post and helped him seek leadership training to prepare for the role. Four years ago, he took over as dean of the Crane School of Music.

“I never thought in my life that college teaching was something I’d do, and I ended up teaching college,” he remarks. “As a young college professor, I never thought that college administration would be something that would interest me, and shortly thereafter, I was serving as chair of the department. Early on, starting as chair, I never thought that becoming a dean would be something that would interest me much, and here I am serving as dean.”

Mark Wait, dean of Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music for the past decade, also never expected to head a school of music. He acknowledges that, as an associate professor of music at the University of Colorado in 1983, he had a general interest in university administration, so he sought a volunteer internship in the office of the vice president for academic affairs.

“I had always been interested in what makes a university tick,” Wait explains. “I don’t know that I ever aspired to be a dean, to tell you the truth.”

The timing for Wait’s internship coincided with the university’s move to establish entrance requirements for new freshmen – to replace the existing “guidelines.” This initiative became his main project and led, six months later, to the position of assistant to the vice president for academic affairs. Simultaneously, Wait continued with his professorship and was promoted to a full professor in 1987. He worked full-time in the president’s office from 1984 to 1993.

“I’d never really imagined being the dean of a music school, but Vanderbilt University contacted me in 1992, and the more I learned about Vanderbilt, the more intriguing the position of dean at Blair School of Music became,” he states. “Somewhat to my surprise and delight, I ended up here in 1993.”

Wait explains why he never envisioned himself as a music school dean.

“I was really enjoying what I was doing in academic affairs, generally. My impression had been that many schools of music have a rather limited perspective on the world. They seldom look beyond their own four walls. They seldom consider ways in which they might interact with the rest of the university. The thing that appealed to me precisely about Vanderbilt is that it’s an outstanding liberal arts institution and the School of Music here is and was integrally tied into the rest of university life.”

William Hipp, dean at the University of Miami School of Music for 20 years, had an idea that he was headed for university administration, but didn’t know quite where. He began his career as an instrumental music teacher in the public schools – first in the town of Ingleside, Texas, teaching grades four through 12, and then as a middle school music teacher in Corpus Christi. His career path led him next to a faculty position at Del Mar College, a community college in Corpus Christi.

Hipp’s interest in administration had grown so strong by 1969, when he took leave to pursue his doctorate at the University of Texas, that he sought permission from the faculty to create an emphasis in administration as part of his D.M.A. in music education. At the same time, the dean of the UT College of Fine Arts took Hipp on as an administrative assistant.

“I picked up a lot of concepts and insights from that experience,” Hipp recalls.
His beginnings in public school music education were also beneficial along his career path to dean, Hipp adds.

“I think music education is a good foundation to do most anything you want to do in music, whether it’s teach in a school or a university or be a composer,” he points out. “People who are in music ed probably get the broadest training, in terms of degree preparation.”

And, Hipp still looks back upon his early teaching days as a very rewarding time in his career.

“I was inspired by the kids and their loyalty and their willingness to work very hard to produce what it was I was asking them to do,” he says. “I still get e-mails from kids I taught in 1956 – my first year – which is really neat.”

A Dean’s Responsibilities

Among their many responsibilities, music school deans are, in essence, the chief academic and chief financial officers of their schools. They deal with issues concerning the faculty as well as budgeting, fundraising and alumni development.

“Going from a chair to a dean was really a light-year jump in terms of responsibilities – the size of the enterprise here, the number of people that I’m responsible for, the size of the budget I’m dealing with. They all grew at kind of an exponential level,” Solomon explains.

Solomon describes one of his roles at the Crane School as that of an advocate for the school to both on-campus and off-campus constituencies.

“One of the most difficult challenges that college administrators work with is that they’re always dealing with people,” he points out. “The human issues, personnel issues, everyday, on-the-job issues are the most difficult and challenging kinds of issues. In our case here, we have 70 people working in a very close environment and they all care deeply about what they do, and they all have views about the way things should be done. Making that all work and getting them all to work together to move the enterprise forward is a daily challenge for an administrator.”

On the financial side, the struggling economy has posed a challenge to the deans in recent years.

“Funding is one of those things that comes and goes,” notes Solomon. “Right now we’re at a point where funding is more of a difficult challenge than it is at other times. I’m hoping we’ll dip out of that, as all other college administrators do, and that we’ll come into a time of plenty again before too long.”

Wait’s role as dean differs slightly because the Blair School of Music has an extensive pre-collegiate program, in addition to its collegiate program. One of his main objectives is looking at the school’s programs in their entirety to ensure that they are serving the student body’s needs.

“In my first year here, I realized that Nashville, of course, has some of the world’s leading musicians in folk, country-western and pop music,” he says. “Particularly, there was a fiddler named Mark O’Connor, who lived in Nashville at the time. I heard him play at a club here about three weeks after I arrived, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is an amazing talent, and we’re missing the boat if we don’t make this available to our students.’ “

While the Blair School of Music is rooted in classical music, Wait felt that the students could benefit from O’Connor’s musical contributions. He hired O’Connor to be the school’s first director of the fiddling program, which serves the collegiate and pre-collegiate students. As a result of that program’s success, dulcimer and mandolin were also added to the school’s repertoire.

Additionally, Wait points out his determination to ensure that the School of Music plays an active role in the intellectual life of all of the students at the university – not only the music students.

“If we do believe, as I do, that music is an integral part of the western cultural and intellectual tradition, then I think we have an obligation to present courses that are academically rigorous and challenging – and I don’t mean the typical music appreciation course.”

At Vanderbilt, nearly 1,000 non-music majors, out of the university’s 5,800 students, are enrolled in a music course at the Blair School. Among the more popular music courses for non-music majors are Music, the Arts and Ideas, and Beethoven and the Beatles.

Hipp, at the University of Miami, has taken particular care to chart a course for the future of the school’s music programs.

“We’re always looking to the future – and we always have – but I think it’s being reemphasized because of what’s going on in the music industry: what’s happening in terms of support of the arts nationally, the issues regarding symphony orchestra financially, the record industry being in big trouble, all the issues about electronic property,” he states. “We’re always looking at those kinds of things and what they might imply for the future of music education. How do we respond to that? How do we stay on the edge?”

Hipp explains that the school’s programmatic balance – 50 percent traditional and 50 percent contemporary – allows the faculty to address as many of these issues as possible with the students. In fact, developing the faculty is one of the most important aspects of his job, he adds.

“A school is only as good as its faculty,” Hipp says. “Shaping the faculty, building the faculty is the most important thing a dean can do. With a good faculty, you’re serving the student body at a level that the students deserve and need.”

High Aspirations

As established deans of schools of music, Solomon, Wait and Hipp all understand the challenges that lie ahead for other music educators seeking the same career. Each has career advice to share with aspiring deans.

“I think they should look within to see if they feel they have the qualities that potentially could make for a good administrator,” Solomon suggests. “Those qualities are those things they admire in others who are deans or chairs. Maybe that person’s a good public speaker or maybe they admire the way a person handles a difficult situation. If they feel that they have the ability to do that, then it’s something they should pursue.”

Solomon advises those interested in the dean’s career path to seek out leadership opportunities within their department.

“Oftentimes, a faculty member will go to a music chair and say, ‘If you ever have a special assignment that you think might interest me, please let me know’ – because they have an interest in just developing the experience in doing something in the administrative area,” he notes.

He also recommends attending leadership training seminars – like those offered by the National Association of Schools of Music at its annual conference – in fundamental areas of personnel and budgeting.

Wait agrees that becoming familiar with college administration is extremely helpful in the long term.

“Learn as much as you can about how universities function,” he advises. “While my career track was a little bit unusual, I don’t think it was a bad one. I must say that matters of budgeting and personnel were – for me – a lot less daunting when I started this job precisely because I had had semi-contact with that world before.”

As a dean, Wait stays active as a pianist – a move he finds both personally and professionally satisfying.

“It helps me relate to my faculty members. I understand what they’re doing every day. One of the reasons I keep playing is that I think it’s important for me to do what we expect them to do all the time,” he says.

Having climbed the educational ladder from public schools to the dean’s office, Hipp recognizes the importance of not skipping any steps.

“To get into administration, 99.9 percent of the time a person has to work their way through the ranks. You have to teach and get tenure and work your way up through the system.”

Being a dean also requires people skills, he adds.

“You have to be consultative. You have to be a good listener. You have to be a problem-solver in working with individuals. And you have to try your best to make working conditions good for your faculty. Your role is really a support role. You try to set up conditions under which the faculty can do their work as best as possible.”

According to all three deans, the rewards outweigh the challenges of the job.

“[Being a dean] is very rewarding. Obviously, I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t enjoying it; I would be teaching full-time,” Solomon says. “The challenges are great, but the way you get to those great rewards is to deal with those kind of challenges and help to overcome or resolve them. It’s very satisfying. You don’t win every battle and you don’t resolve every problem, but it seems to be worth the effort and I enjoy what I’m doing.”

Wait says, “It’s an interesting life and one that I enjoy. I have never for one instant regretted having followed this path. It’s been rewarding all the way and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.”

And Hipp adds, “I’m very lucky to be where I am. I’m as excited about the future of this school as I was the day I walked in the door – even more so because it’s going very well.”


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