After donations and spending plan, OU refuses to budge on AOI

Adam Troxtell / The Transcript

Sam Backman, current doctor in musical arts student at OU, plays the organ June 17 in Catlett Music Center as a crowd gathers for a rally in support of the American Organ Institute. Assisting him is Abe Wallace, a recent graduate from OU's organ department.

The American Organ Institute's final note is fading out.

The University of Oklahoma has decided to go ahead with plans to shutter the program, despite multiple meetings with students and alumni over the summer. The original decision made in June sparked a rally of support that spanned the globe for AOI, but university administration -- Provost Kyle Harper, in particular -- continues to point toward its financial situation as unsustainable.

AOI supporters beg to differ. And alumnus Nolan Reilly, director of music at St. Thomas More University Parish, said he expects the coming week will bring a stronger rebuttal.

"We have a place at the table, and our first go round was in the middle of the summer when students were gone," Reilly said. "Students return to campus on Monday. The most powerful voices are students, and the administration can expect to hear from many students, not just organ students."

The university has a bachelor's, master's and doctoral of music degree programs in organ, and those will continue. But supporters of AOI said it offers more, including opportunities unique to OU for music students.

It was founded in 2006, according to its university-sponsored web page, and on top of music, AOI offers instruction in the construction and maintenance of pipe organs. It houses OU's organ technology program, which will eventually be discontinued.

In addition, churches and institutions from across the state -- and some beyond -- rely on AOI for organ maintenance and repair. Reilly said AOI averages $200,000 a year in these type of contracts, and that doesn't include other larger projects that AOI takes part in.

There are currently six graduate students studying organ technology, a number university officials cited when expressing the reasoning for shutting down the program. Reilly said that number is actually closer to 25 when taking into account students who take organ technology classes to complete their degrees.

With all of this in consideration, Reilly said a group of two alumni and three or four students met with Harper, Interim President Joe Harroz and Dean of the College of Fine Arts Mary Margaret Holt. In two meetings, Reilly said they were told that $8.5 million would be enough to keep the program open.

Reilly said AOI Director John Schwandt coordinated a fundraising effort that raised $6.6 million. In addition, AOI has $1.2 million in the bank and came up with a cost-trimming plan to rein in spending.

But since that money has come in and those plans have been outlined, no meetings have occurred, Reilly said.

"Since those funds have been raised, the three people who made this decision have not been available for a meeting with anyone," Reilly said. "The director (Schwandt) has not been able to get a single meeting with the president."

It costs the university $400,000 a year to run the program, according to figures previously provided. Kesha Keith, director of media relations at OU, responded to questions about the university's decision to go ahead with the closure last week and said university calculations still show the funding isn't enough.

"Supporters of the organ technology program and generous donors expressed their desire to see the program continue," the university response said. "This prompted an additional review of expenses, enrollment and long-term sustainability. The review reinforced the conclusion that both personnel and operational costs would continue to outstrip resources. Therefore, we are not able to reverse the decision made months ago."

Reilly said he does not understand why the university has gone ahead with shuttering AOI, despite what he sees as a show of financial stability. He is also skeptical after OU misrepresented the amount of students impacted by AOI's closure.

"None of that was taken into account in the [initial] press release, and we have to question how accurate the info is because they said we have six students when there is roughly 25, and between 8 and 10 are organ technology," Reilly said.

Four of the seven AOI faculty have been laid off, Reilly said, with the other three facing termination at the end of the fiscal year in June. And while OU officials have stated the remaining organ technology students will be taught and complete their degrees, Reilly said some have received emails to the contrary.

"Students have been receiving emails from advisors saying the program does not exist and they cannot enroll in those courses, and two students were sent emails instructing that they should change their major," Reilly said.

Keith said students will still be taught as originally planned.

Regardless, Reilly said he expects more action and shows of support from OU students will be on display in the coming weeks. The impact of the university's decision will still reverberate, at least for the time being if supporters have their way.

"We want the students to drive this," Reilly said. "It is their program and their voices are the most important. This is not about the termination of faculty and staff. This is about the students and their and education."

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