In this year’s State of the University address, Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger announced a number of forthcoming changes to BU’s academics, most notably rebranding the Decker School of Nursing as the Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences. Later in the speech, however, Stenger seemingly went off-script and suggested the possibility of doing something similar for BU’s fine arts programs — creating a new school.
Many have expressed a desire for greater investment in non-STEM programs at BU, including recent Nobel Laureate M. Stanley Whittingham, a distinguished professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering, who called for Stenger to provide language departments with more support. Students have also voiced their frustration at the lack of resources available to them, with innumerable fine arts classes unable to foot the financial burden of materials and software, things that are typically covered at other universities’ programs. Time and time again, the fine arts have faced the cutting block because they’re often the lowest priority for funding, and the struggle to provide sufficient spaces and adequate resources for fine arts students to do their work is exemplary of how detrimental it can be to their success.
Binghamton University first began as a liberal arts institution and only recently transitioned into a research-based academic campus. Nevertheless, it still maintains a reputation for its strength in select areas of study, such as its cinema department, which is known for producing several successful experimental filmmakers. If other fine arts departments could reach similar acclaim, its effects could go beyond benefiting the University alone. The hundreds of thousands of dollars that get funneled into STEM projects on campus are great for supporting the academics and finances of the University, but they don’t often contribute to improving relations with the community like arts programs can. With many local artists in the Binghamton area, a stronger fine arts program could assist in bridging the town-gown divide, a goal that’s made only limited progress through other avenues.
Knowing this, it’s pleasant to hear that the University has finally decided to invest in the Fine Arts Building by renovating it to adapt to student needs. One can only hope this results in a renovation unlike that currently underway in the University Union basement, which in many respects appears to be a shiny penny to show off to visiting families and prospective students. The University’s actions seem to indicate otherwise, however, based on their history of shunting fine arts as they make major investment in the sciences. Just last fall, BU’s department of art and design decided to temporarily suspend the graphic design minor, effective at the start of this semester, to compensate for their limited resources. How, then, could Stenger confidently imply that there will be a sudden change in the allocation of resources when the fine arts at BU hardly has enough staff to maintain the programs it has now?
Stenger answered this question by asserting that bringing a master plan for a new fine arts school to the SUNY system would be enough to get “the money to flow.” But this belief illustrates a naivety that the University can rely on the state to pay out — something that has been proven woefully incorrect in the past year. Since last fall, BU has faced a number of financial challenges after the state refused to pay for faculty raises stipulated during negotiations between United University Professions (UUP) and the SUNY system. In his speech last week, Stenger admitted that “we’re not out of the woods yet” with the monetary shortage that spurred a months-long hiring freeze. The lesson the University should have learned from this is that BU cannot rely on the state to provide enough funding to execute its grandiose plans. Instead, Stenger and the University should seek to procure funding with as little aid as possible, lest they fall into an even deeper monetary hole in the coming years.
BU has faced financial hardship, so it’s not surprising that some programs would meet the axe. What’s troubling is Stenger’s casual proposition of providing greater support to the fine arts. The potential benefits offered by a school dedicated to the fine arts are enough to consider making the jump, but its success is entirely contingent on how the administration chooses to plan its financial future — and given the University’s past actions, we’re skeptical that we’ll see it manifest anytime soon, if at all. Bolstering BU’s fine arts departments by giving them their own school is a great idea, one that would cater to a great many students — but it should be more than just a pipe dream.