NORMAN, Okla. — A crowd of students, alumni and supporters of the American Organ Institute have gathered on the steps outside of the president’s office at the University of Oklahoma on Monday morning, days after the university announced dozens of layoffs.
Founded in 2006, AOI at OU is considered a one-of-a-kind organ music program with an emphasis on pipe organ construction and improvisation, along with organ performance.
AOI supporters feared the latest round of faculty and staff cuts will shut the institution’s doors for good.
“At this point, it seems imminent,” said OU alumni Nolan Reilly. “There were seven positions that were eliminated. Four were given 60 days, and three were given a year, which effectively cuts everybody at the American Organ Institute except two organ professors.”
Reilly, current director of Music St. Thomas More University Parish in Norman, earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from OU. He met with a university provost on Monday and said AOI has received more than 200 letters of support “with more pouring in” following OU’s announced plans of reducing 69 employees positions.
“I think we’re looking at the small number of people here studying technology, but the fact is the University of Oklahoma is the only institution in the world right now that is producing students that… if you’re in the middle of a church service or a recital and the organ malfunctions, instead of calling a tech, you’re going to get your butt up there, get the wrench out and you’re going to fix it yourself,” Reilly said. “The American Organ Institute has a 100 percent job placement rate for its graduates. There are 40 pipe organ shops that are waiting to hire our students right now.”
According to the university, the 69 employee positions are primarily focused on the school’s Norman campus. It is expected to provide an estimated $4.2 million in savings and will “continue a university-wide effort to identify operational efficiencies.”
“These actions are only occurring because they are necessary and ensure the future health of the university. We are mindful of our students and the financial realities they face. Because so many of our students borrow substantial amounts of money to finance their education, we have a responsibility to remain affordable while providing the excellence they demand,” said OU Interim President Joseph Harroz, Jr. in a statement last week. “These employees are co-workers, dear friends and, in many cases, long-time contributors to the success of OU. They have families and lives we know will be changed by this reduction action. We are committed to assisting them in the transition with severance and benefits.”
On Monday afternoon, OU confirmed it will close the organ technology and repair program.
Officials said they will teach out students who are currently enrolled in the organ maintenance emphases. However, they said the program was originally designed to train individuals who already had a degree path in organ music.
“With six undergraduate students currently enrolled and nearly $400,000 a year in operation costs, the university’s financial position cannot infuse large funds into the program. Unfortunately, a permanent source of funds never was established when the program was created, and sustainable private sources are not available,” read a statement by the university.
Officials said the bachelor of music program for the organ is not affected by the closure.
“OU has a proud tradition of teaching organ music, and that tradition will continue. 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. We will continue to be mindful of our responsibility to be good stewards of citizen and student resources,” said Kyle Harper, OU senior vice president and provost.
Reilly said the small amount of students currently enrolled "is really not the point."
"Every single student that just sat in the meeting with the provost said they would not have studied at the university if it weren’t for the AOI," he said. "OU is looking for way to keep its students here so that we can make an impact on the state, and there are a large handful of organists even here that are even graduates of this program and now have full time positions in this state and are making a difference."
According to a press release, there are six students who major in organ technology and 17 who take organ technology courses for their major in pipe organ music.
Reilly said he hopes to meet with the interim president later this week.