Depending on your perspective, the University of Montana drama program is in the midst of producing a dark cautionary tale or a feel-good story of redemption.
At the end of the school year, UM learned its drama program did not pass a review conducted by its accrediting body, the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST). In a letter notifying the school that its status had been deferred—essentially granting UM time to address specific shortfalls—NAST noted the program did not meet minimum requirements regarding faculty-to-student ratio and that some of its production equipment was out-of-date and unsafe.
Some alumni and current drama students weren’t surprised by the news, but were no less perturbed; one 2007 graduate who requested anonymity cracked that the lighting equipment is “practically held together with Duck Tape.” Faculty and administration, however, preferred a more positive spin, emphasizing how the NAST review will focus overdue attention to the program’s funding.
“The deferral is actually based on things we knew were problems,” says Mark Dean, chair of the Department of Drama and Dance. “We talked before NAST arrived about how to approach these issues, and I think now we’re in a position to act on them…Ultimately, this is a good thing.”
Dean is currently in the process of putting together a bid proposal that will ensure a new lighting system for the Montana Theatre within the next year. In August, he says, staff will meet to evaluate graduate degree options to help bring the student-to-faculty ratio into balance. Dean expects to draft a letter to NAST by January 2008 outlining specific changes and, hopefully, prompting it to reaffirm the drama program’s accreditation.
Drama professor and Montana Rep Artistic Director Greg Johnson calls the review “a wake-up call.”
“Hopefully, this will lead to some positive changes,” he says.
The situation could spark change similar to the American Bar Association’s recent threat to remove UM’s School of Law from its list of accredited institutions due to insufficient facilities. That threat prompted a major public fundraising campaign, which, according to Dean E. Edwin Eck, has raised more than $13 million for a new building. A ceremonial groundbreaking will take place in September.
“This is a healthy process,” says Dean. “There’s a reason schools go through these reviews, and it’s to make sure we don’t get complacent, thinking we’re doing just well enough. As a program, it will only make us better.”