NORMAN, Okla. — Students and alumni of the University of Oklahoma’s organ program met with Provost Kyle Harper on Monday to try and keep the American Organ Institute alive.
The meeting at Evans Hall followed a rally and march by students, alumni and supporters of AOI from Catlett Music Center. OU plans to cut seven faculty positions and close AOI, eliminating its one-of-a-kind organ technology degree program and a resource for institutions that house a pipe organ.
“OU has a proud tradition of teaching organ music, and that tradition will continue,” Harper said, noting that the bachelor of music for the organ will remain available. “However, we have a responsibility to have sustainable funding behind all operations. It is not fair to ask OU students, many of whom work or take on debt, to subsidize an organ maintenance program that is very expensive and lacks sustainable funding.”
There are currently six undergraduate students studying organ technology, plus another 17 who take organ technology classes to complete their degrees. It costs about $400,000 a year to support the faculty at AOI.
Many of those students also work in the AOI shop, and they say it gives them invaluable experience for future jobs. For others, its a source of income.
“The shop is why my graduate assistantship is there,” Andrew Woodruff, an organ technology graduate student, said. “Me working there is how I’m paying for school, so the whole reason I’m here and staying here at OU is because that shop is open.”
Ben Clark, a doctor of musical arts student, said learning about the inner workings of a pipe organ has helped him perform.
“It makes me, I believe, a better player and a better musician in how to operate the instrument more effectively,” Clark said. “I can only get that at the shop.”
Nolan Reilly, director of music at St. Thomas More University Parish in Norman and OU graduate, organized the rally and led the contingent of students and alumni into the meeting with Harper. He said too much focus is being put on the six organ technology students and not enough is placed on AOI as a resource for the organ program.
“We’re looking at the small number here studying technology,” he said, “but the fact is OU is the only institution in the world right now producing students who, if you’re in a church recital or performance and the organ shuts down, instead of calling a tech, you’re going to get your butt up there, get your wrench out and fix it yourself. I don’t think students from any other university are equipped with that, without studying outside of their university.”
In addition, AOI is a resource for organizations that house organs, such as churches or concert halls, across the state, if not the country. Roland Lohmann, a former OU organ student and AOI donor and supporter who now owns Lohmann’s Good Things at 710 W Main St., said the institute has repaired and refurbished organs from across the state.
“They’ve rebuilt several organs. One is in Trinity Lutheran (in Norman),” he said. “An organ is going to be dedicated in Duncan that the institute rebuilt at Assumption Catholic church. They’ve left their mark all over the state and worked very closely with major organ builders, as well. It’s an ideal situation, and we’re just not going to see it disappear.”
If, as planned, AOI disappears, these churches will go back to fending for themselves.
“They would have to go back to whoever they can find, rather than an organized shop,” Lohmann said. “For example, a church could take a rank of pipes to the shop, set up in a rack, and have them completely re-voiced, refurbished and brought back to the church with a new sound.”
Reilly even came to Monday’s rally and meeting with international support. One of the 200 letters written to support AOI came from the Palace of Versailles in France, which houses an organ in its Royal Chapel that was built in the early 18th Century.
Another came from the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. All voiced support for AOI and some asked what they could do to help.
“What we need now is for you to continue your efforts of showing support,” Reilly said. “Write to the president, write to the provost; and also, donations are wonderful.”
Reilly said OU Interim President Joe Harroz has agreed to meet with the group of alumni and students about AOI’s future “later this week.”
"There are 40 pipe organ shops waiting to hire our students right now," Reilly said. "OU is looking for ways to keep students here to make an impact on the state, and there are a large handful of graduates who now have a full time position in this state and are making a difference, making the university look good."
OU cut the positions at the same time it slashed 69 other jobs last week, most of which came from the transfer of OU's CART services to the City of Norman. However, the same cuts forced the permanent closure of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art shop, Muse, and a change in the museum's hours of operation.
The museum will now be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Troxtell writes for The Norman Transcript, a CNHI News Service publication.