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AMU Music Department Faces Rebuilding Challenge

Music students at Ave Maria University are wondering who will be teaching many of their classes this fall in the wake of firings and resignations that reduced the number of music faculty from nine at the end of the spring term to just four.

In late May, AMU announced terminations of two professors, department chair Tim McDonnell and Rebecca Ostermann – two of the department's three full-time faculty members. Departures of three part-time faculty followed including acclaimed tenor Bruce Ford and bass Jim Patterson, both of whom resigned, and Maria McDonnell, the wife of Dr. McDonnell, who was removed from the university website's faculty list without explanation. The music department currently has no instructors for voice, which is the concentration of the majority of AMU music majors.

About 40 AMU music students and alumni have sent a letter to the university administration and members of the board of trustees saying that they are "disappointed, distraught and outraged" at the dismissals of professors McDonnell and Ostermann which they say will "weaken and devalue" the music department.

Jacob Matthew, a music major who graduated in 2014, said the signatures on the letter represent "an effective majority of music majors and alumni."

Ave Maria University President Jim Towey announced the departures of professors McDonnell and Ostermann in a May 29 email to staff and faculty in which he said that "the music major needs revitalization." Mr. Towey said the department "has struggled mightily with retention – 28 percent of students who majored in music during the last six years left the program and either transferred to another Ave Maria major or left the University."

The letter from the students and alumni says that their own research determined that the retention is about normal for most music departments in the United States. AMU did not provide further context such as a national attrition rate for music majors or the retention rate for other specific departments. A university spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The attrition rate of 28% is not surprising to Jeanie Darnell, Associate Professor at Florida Gulf Coast University's Bower School of Music and the Arts.

"Music is a special field and a demanding major," said Dr. Darnell, who has taught music for more than a decade. "Many talented students enjoy music in high school, but when they realize what the discipline requires at the college level they decide it's not for them."

She said that she would not be particularly concerned about the attrition rate cited by AMU, especially for a small department. "I think that is probably more normal," she said, adding that she was sad about what happened at AMU. "Tim McDonnell is a wonderful person and a masterful musician," she said.

AMU has not commented specifically on the dismissals of music department professors, beyond citing "irreconcilable differences" and saying that the department needed "revitalization." Dr. McDonnell had disagreed with the university administration about its marketing efforts to attract more music students and he brought concerns to a meeting of the academic affairs committee of the board of trustees in February.

But one AMU alumni, Michael Johnson, sees more than a need for "revitalization" in the firings of professors McDonnell and Ostermann, as well as the termination of popular economics professor Joseph Burke, who also publicly critizied the administration. Mr. Johnson told the Naples Daily News that he thinks "most people that are somewhat knowledgeable of the situation know that this is retribution."

As for who will be teaching music in the fall, the university has said that it is conducting a "national search for two new talented faculty members."

The remaining full-time member of the music faculty, Professor of Music Susan Treacy, has been named chair of the department.

"I am honored to serve as a point of continuity for our wonderful music students," she said, "I am eager to build upon the superlative foundation laid by Dr. McDonnell so that Ave Maria University's music program will maintain its reputation for excellence in Southwest Florida and beyond."

Click here for a commentary in the Naples Daily News by three music alumni: Ave Maria graduates concerned about freedom of expression

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