Music education major phased out

SPU programs and departments look inward for solutions to budget and enrollment concerns

Ella Beth Sessions, Staff Writer

Sarah Ferguson plays the cello in a park. Sarah is in the Seattle Pacific orchestra. (Courtesy of Sarah Ferguson)

The Seattle Pacific University music department announced to their students on Jan. 5, 2023 that due to low enrollment and budget concerns, the music education major is being eliminated from SPU’s curriculum. This decision, made internally, was rooted in months of consideration and planning.

As enrollment numbers fell drastically low, Christopher Hanson, director of music education and orchestral activities at SPU, considered whether keeping the music education major was pragmatic.

“Over the past five years in particular, the music education program has struggled to have consistent enrollment,” Hanson said. “Going into [this] winter, there were zero new music majors. In fact, all the classes that I was slated to teach were canceled.”

After extended consideration and attempts to increase enrollment, the music department officially decided and announced to all music students that for the good of the department, the music education major was to be phased out.

“Running a program, staffing it with faculty and adjunct, maintaining state and national standards for accreditation – that’s a huge undertaking and expense. And if numbers are not there, those expenses [are] to the detriment of the institution and the department and the program,” Hanson said. 

Hannah Marsh, a sophomore majoring in music education, is set to be one of the last graduates out of the program.

“I love this major. I always just really wanted to help people and I grew up performing in a family of educators–my grandpa actually taught in the music ed department here before I was born,” Marsh said. “I can tell you from a student perspective, it was surprising. It’s not the end of the music ed department, but it’s the end to what we know it to be.”

Campuswide, individual programs and departments are likewise looking at enrollment numbers, budget constraints, class sizes and changing statistics in order to make efficient internal decisions. Karen Gutowsky-Zimmerman, also a leader in SPU’s Art curriculum, is the chair of the art department and director of the visual communications program.

“Our conversations are around how many sections we offer in time schedules, how do we think about lower enrollment with our majors and so forth. We’re working on aligning with low enrollment,” Gutowsky-Zimmerman said. “I don’t want to project fear, because the arts are really important and I’m hoping the university understands that.”

Although no one is excited to cut programs or remove faculty, SPU is facing a harsh reality. Entrenched in a lawsuit and general condemnation concerning their hiring policy excluding LGBTQIA+ faculty, SPU is facing budget cuts, lowering enrollment and hiring difficulties, reflecting both campus-specific difficulties and a wider national trend.

“We are defending our programs,” Hanson said. “But there’s no one with a hatchet. Nobody wants to trim and cut, but there is a harsh reality of enrollment and costs. It’s not personal, it’s not emotional, it just is.”

Without enough enrolled students and a budget already spread thin, programs at SPU are having to look even further at where to prioritize funding.

“If you don’t have enough students to run a class, you don’t get to run the class. You can and arguably should be upset about that, but you can’t run the class,” Hanson said. “Higher education is a business. Anyone that says anything otherwise just doesn’t know it’s a business yet.”