Faculty to vote on future of dance’s academic status

At the May 13 faculty meeting a vote will be held to determine whether the dance program’s status will change from fulfilling physical education to academic credits. Currently, the program is part of the physical education program and not part of the academic curriculum. This categorization puts the College into a category with fewer than two percent of colleges and universities in the United States, according to an external review committee that visited the program in 2007.

The dance program was first created in the 1970s after the College became co-educational, as part of the physical education requirements, and has remained in that discipline until now. However, according to Bill Wagner, dean of the faculty, most of the resources and faculty activity are focused on performance ensembles, and not on the physical education aspects of the program. In September 2008, Wagner created an ad hoc committee to review the situation and to recommend ways through which the program could move out of the physical education sector and integrate into the academic and performing arts realm.

“The committee was charged with the tasks of determining what the place of dance should be at the College and how the program should be structured administratively and curricularly,” Wagner said. The committee is composed of administrators, faculty from the performing and creative arts, faculty committee members, staff from the Center for Theater and Dance and students.

After much analysis and discussion throughout the past several months, the committee has decided to recommend that dance be reestablished as a department without a major, while also still offering physical education credits. Currently, there are not any other academic departments that do not offer a major or a concentration; however, the theater department started out in this fashion in the 1970s. According to Wagner, there is not a current plan for establishing a dance major or concentration. “Whether dance evolves in either of these ways depends on a number of variables, including the level of student interest in such areas as the critical and historical study of dance, competing demands on College resources, [and] the general state of College resources,” Wagner said.

The ad hoc committee considered integrating the dance program into the theater or music departments, but concluded that there were no advantages to doing so, according to Wagner. The committee then decided that the best place for dance at the College would be in a separate department, versus as an academic program (in the fashion of linguistics or cognitive science) largely because “several years ago the faculty defined the essential character of programs as being their interdisciplinary nature and interdepartmental composition,” Wagner said. In addition, the transition may increase the morale of students and faculty involved in dance. “Symbolically, particularly for those engaged in dance, the designation of department would signify a status in the performing arts at the College that is on a par with our other performing and creative arts programs,” Wagner said.

Members of the committee have expressed mixed views about the possibility of dance becoming an academic department; many declined to comment for this article until after they vote on the final decision in May. “The primary [concerns from faculty members] are the viability and sustainability of a department with such few faculty and the possibility that as a department the dance program in the future might receive a higher priority than non-departmental – particularly interdisciplinary – programs for staffing and other resources,” Wagner said. “Some faculty also are concerned that dance could not be established as a department even now without additional resources and that its organization administratively as a department would inhibit its development as an interdisciplinary area of study and performance.”

According to Wagner, the proposed transition would not necessitate increased resources allocated to the dance program. As the program already has two regular faculty members, administrative and technical support staff, physical spaces, and an established budget, increased funding is not necessary, he noted.

According to Joe Cruz, professor of philosophy, who attended the faculty meeting in which these concerns were discussed, there was general acceptance among faculty members at the meeting “that dance is an area of rigorous and vigorous intellectual inquiry, and as such should be part of the regular academic curriculum.” However, disagreement arose from the specificities of that transition; namely, whether dance should be a separate academic department. Cruz and other faculty believe that dance would be better suited as an academic program, largely due to disparity in benefit allocations between departments and programs.

“Contrary to some of what was said at the meeting, programs and departments differ in their claim on resources at the College,” he said, mentioning departmental privileges including office and research space, complete control over hiring decisions, and funding given to department chairs. “To me, it would be a strange college, indeed, that has programs in neuroscience – linguistics and cognitive science, and a department of dance,” Cruz said.

However, according to Cruz, the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) does not see classifying dance as a program instead of a department as an option, due to the current definition of a program, which requires an interdisciplinary nature. “The claim that the faculty is bound by the current definition of programs is baffling to me. We made up that definition ourselves, and can readily just change it,” Cruz said, arguing that the College’s current academic programs (mentioned above) are no longer interdisciplinary. “I am happy to concede that what needs changing is the definition of a program at Williams,” Cruz said. “As my colleague – pointed out at the meeting, there is every reason to believe that a more expansive and fluid definition of program will be useful for moving into the future.”

“As I see it, the primary argument for making dance an academic department is that dance, as an art form, has the same amount of academic and intellectual rigor as every other art form,” said Jenny Danzi ’09, a dance teaching assistant who has been involved in the program throughout her four years at the College. “Since we have departments with majors for theater, music and art history and practice, it follows that dance should be housed the same way.”

However, Danzi acknowledged the mixed feelings towards the idea of the transition, and also believes that the program could use improvement. “Given that dance at Williams has never been in the academic realm, it is understandable that there is a lot of resistance to the proposed change,” she said. “The current program, while it has many strengths, is an unsuitable foundation for a major that meets Williams’ standards.”

She cited areas such as lack of feedback to faculty, denial of sabbaticals and insufficient reviewing of curriculum by yearly steering committees as facets of the dance program that should be improved, regardless of whether or not it becomes an academic department. “The dance program certainly enriches the College and its students’ lives, but it does not meet the school’s standards of excellence,” Danzi said.