The Public Humanist

Between Tradition and Innovation

SMFA Painting Students

Painters in the now Tufts-owned SMFA. Photo courtesy of The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In December of 2015, Tufts University signed an agreement to take over the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. The following month, Berklee School of Music and the Boston Conservatory of Music took steps to merge. Though hardly the fast-paced, cut-throat scenario created by popular treatments of the financial world—think The Wolf of Wall Street— mergers do reflect financial distress in higher education. As in the corporate world, educational institutions look to this move to avert a range of hazards that can weaken or even kill an institution. For this blog post, however, I propose we think about these recent educational mergers within the overall rubric of border crossings—between need and want, between success and failure, between consolidation and expansion, between business and culture, as well as between tradition and innovation. Framing these events in terms of borders, boundaries, and their crossings opens the topic to broader considerations about the way fields, disciplines, and institutions shape the world beyond them.

Both these examples shed light on a new way of conceiving the humanities—with the arts prominently included—that bodes well for the humanities in general, and the increased wealth of cultural resources in our state. Further, these institutional links deepen and strengthen the humanities by locating them in a rich surrounding of choice and opportunity. Rather than shrinking options for students in the humanities, these visionary mergers provide an expanded role for the humanities as a focus of study, and as valuable resources in our region. The investments these institutions are making extend their reach, position the arts in a humanities context, and proclaim the humanities as a resource worthy of additional investment.

These mergers seem of a piece with the Boston area’s claim to be an incubator for innovation. Enhancing educational opportunities in the humanities—within a strong liberal arts context—emphasizes the importance of human capital and the power of ideas rather than focusing on delivering new products and services with an exclusive focus on workforce development, or job-readiness, for instance. What these mergers broadcast is a belief in what Michael Schrager calls “innovation attitudes,” where “the ethos is as much about culture as competence.”

Boston University Theatre, photo by Paul Marotta

Boston University Theatre, photo by Paul Marotta for BU Today

And here we might contrast the Tufts/SMFA and Berklee/Boston Conservatory mergers with business-related considerations made by two other local schools: Boston University’s plan to sell the Huntington Theater; and Emerson College’s consideration to transform the Colonial Theatre, an icon, into a dining hall and performance space, in order to accommodate the surge in enrollment and student’s service expectations. Unlike these proposals, the two mergers under consideration here are positive, proactive moves to strengthen the connections among and between fields of study, not to consolidate them. And looking further down the line, what offspring might these institutional marriages give rise to? In the Tufts case, students and faculty will enjoy an expanding base for research and study. Faculty from the music department, for instance, have already ventured to use MFA collection strengths in musical instruments to augment the teaching they do in Gambolin. As the Globe article explains, Tufts is now “one of the few universities in the country to offer an arts program affiliated with a major museum.” The way I see it, the choices these institutions are making result in significant enhancement for the schools themselves as well as the culture of the commonwealth.

In both cases, the merger’s purpose is to situate the arts within the context of a broad liberal arts education. The values behind the choice to merge reflect the advancing role that creativity and the imagination plays in an innovation economy. The curricular advantages—allowing a fully developed program of study that forges strong ties between the arts and humanities—project a more cohesive vision for the arts and thus for the humanities—writ large.

According to Roger Brown, Berklee’s president, “The grand strategy is not to increase the overall enrollment, but to enrich the experience for students and create more choices.” As David Ortner, the Conservatory’s president observes, “We’re joining together to create something quite new in the world.” The term Ortner used to describe the process—a market extension merger—also sheds light on the intended outcome: the open space occupied by the humanities writ large creates additional opportunities for collaboration. Ortner claims that the move is “the future of performing arts education”

What does that claim mean in the context of our region? As these institutions shore themselves up, we gain a more stable environment for the humanities and the culture that the humanities foments. These institutional formations suggest an investment in the humanities that will nourish the region and feed the future of the humanities as a deeply valued asset. We have yet to see what the impact of the mergers might have on public programming, or Boston’s culture, but the possibilities are clear—and so is the sentiment. These mergers are harbingers of a bigger change in higher education, and speak to an evolving purpose for the Humanities in the Boston area specifically. I am also hopeful that the actions taken by these private educational institutions will be complemented by an uptick in government funding. A recent study done by The Boston Foundation shows that Boston is running a close second with New York City in the rate of per capita support from private funders for the arts. Where we are trailing significantly, however, is in government support for these initiatives. Hopefully, the investments that these private institutions are making will also inspire our local, state, and federal governments to do the same—and more.


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