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Sonoma State Star

The Student News Site of Sonoma State University

Sonoma State Star

The Student News Site of Sonoma State University

Sonoma State Star

    Conflict arises regarding funding for Theatre Arts and Dance


    Sonoma State continues to face frequent onslaughts of budget cuts, which has stirred conflict regarding funding for programs between the Dean of Arts and Humanities Hollis Robbins and Theatre Arts and Dance faculty and students.

    Though the Arts and Humanities program has been experiencing financial cuts along with many other SSU programs, it has one of the highest budgets on campus. The Center for Performing Arts is one of four permanently funded programs supported by Instructionally Related Activity funds, or IRA funds, that are paid for out of student fees. Through IRA, course fees, and donor funds, the theatre department at SSU receives more than 8 times the amount of funding than other departments on campus, such as Philosophy, English, Art, Communications, and more. That accumulates to 15.91% of the entire IRA budget, which is just over $565,000 this year, making it the second largest California State University Theatre Arts budget.

    Students and faculty within the program have repeatedly expressed discontent, anger, and fear towards the cuts, which led to two petitions being created in opposition of the budget cuts and reallocations this past month. “Save the Sonoma State Theater Arts and Dance/Music Departments From Unjust Use of Student Fees” was started by dance student Sierra Parkhurst and has gained 550 signatures in support, and “Statement of Support” was started by the Theatre Arts and Dance faculty and it has gained 154 signatures.

    Students and faculty within the department say they are upset with Dean Hollis Robbins for cutting their budget and are afraid of losing their program. In the description for the petition, Parkhurst wrote, “The Arts and Humanities Dean’s uncommunicated decision to move large operational salaries from stateside to IRA (Instructionally Related Activities) funds, is directly impacting the education of Theater Arts and Dance/Music students…” She claims that theatre and dance students are struggling with a lack of resources to support “fully realized” productions, including costumes, tech support, a design team, and guest artists. She also adds that there was a cut of several staff members, resulting in faculty taking on an overload of work, and therefore impacting students ability to feel supported by faculty. Lastly, she calls for transparency about funding for students, and explains her fear of the program’s ability to exist under these conditions. 

    Dean Robbins, on the other hand, has defended her actions and said she is faced with reduced IRA funding due to a lack of enrollment and made the decision to move, not cut, a portion of funding from the program with the most financial support at SSU and to instead use student talent on the productions instead of hiring expensive outside professional services

    Department chair of Theatre Arts and Dance Christine Cali has been very vocal about her discontent with the budget cuts recently made within her department, and she, along with other Theatre Arts and Dance faculty members, claim that Dean Robbins is the one to blame.

    Theatre Arts and Dance faculty released a statement on use of student fees and a need for oversight of administrators, which stated, “Since well before the pandemic, [theatre and dance] students have come to feel their education is under threat, as their Dean has repeatedly restricted, denied, or repurposed IRA funding….These students fear that there will be no publicity to bring audiences to witness their work; that there will be no accompanists or guest designers, which are standard to theater/dance programs; and that the Dean will outright announce cancellation of the season.” At the end of the statement, they added, “Unless the university honors the students’ trust, Dean Robbins’ actions risk becoming the template for handling IRA funds across the university.” The statement was signed by 9 different faculty members within the Theatre Arts and Dance department.

    According to the statement put out by the Theatre Arts and Dance faculty, Dean Robbins, “…repurposed 28% of THAR/DANC’s [Center for Performing Arts] IRA to pay permanent, full-time staff and management salaries.” 

    These salaries have been historically paid through state money, but with this new arrangement, at least half of the money will come from IRA funds, reports Theatre Arts faculty. 

    Cali says that the department has, “…experienced not only the reallocation, but also the withholding of IRA student fees that directly support students in creative process and performance. This also has a larger impact on our ability to present live performances for the campus community.” Cali also emphasized that the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance is “asking for transparency and accountability in handling funds.”

    Students and other faculty members are voicing similar concerns, as well – which is clear from the two petitions that were created.

    “[The budget cuts are] super disappointing,” says Packhurst. “We have to be worried about whether there is even going to be a production and how can we create work with no money. It’s just really frustrating and disappointing, and it makes us feel, as students, like we’re being undervalued.

     “We are having trouble working in this environment because we don’t know what tomorrow may bring,” said Tony Bish, director of the Technical Theatre Program.

    In response, Dean Robbins said that her decision to pull back some of the Theatre Arts and Dance funding was based on a close examination of their finances, and her work serving on the Student Fee Advisory Committee. 

    “I’ve been the subject of allegations that are very painful…I have worked on getting transparency and clarity on appropriate use of student fees for over three years on the Student Fee Advisory Committee …There’s nothing I could do with funds without the approval of everyone on this team,” Dean Robbins said.

    Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Laura Monje-Paulson added, “This committee is not complacent about how funds are spent…We are ready to be transparent and honest about it. There is appropriate accountability here.” 

    Dean Robbins has been raising questions of how the Center for Performing Arts has been spending its student fee funding for three years with the committee.

    Robbins asked: “Why are geologists or painters at SSU having to spend hundreds of dollars out of pocket for classes when theatre students are getting free costumes? The Theatre Arts department receives more IRA funding than any other program on campus.”

    When comparing the SSU Theatre Arts program’s IRA funding to other CSU campuses, SSU’s program receives more funding than almost all of the other CSUs, even though we have less enrollment than most of the other CSUs. The only CSU that has more funding for theatre arts than SSU is Fullerton, and they receive $657,831 compared to SSU’s $560,000 in funding. Information regarding the funding for the theatre arts program was provided by Tai Russotti, Administrative Manager for the School of Arts and Humanities. 

    “I roughly think I paid around $200-$300 for art supplies for my classes this semester and I’m just an Art minor,” said Jenna Zager, fourth year SSU student. She agrees that it is unfair that the art department receives so much less IRA funding than the theatre and music programs. 

    Robbins has said that the Theatre Arts and Dance department has been hiring professionals to build sets, make costumes, play music for the shows, and more. She argued that students studying those things at SSU should be more involved in putting on the shows – not professionals. She also suggests that it might increase attendance at the theatre shows, which have typically seen attendance at less than 10% of the theatre’s capacity, according to data of ticket sales shared by Russotti.

    At a student forum on Sept. 30, Robbins asked students, “Who gets to decide if musicals have student performers or professional musicians?” The students said that they should be able to decide this.

    Additionally, the Dean emphasized how many people are working on this issue of funding alongside her as a team, and questions why she specifically is the subject of allegations. Executive Director for Student Affairs Erik Dickson explained the long process of making these reallocations in a recent training meeting for handling IRA funds. “Voter pamphlets with election pros and cons written by various students are presented to all other students in an email, who then vote on the issue. The results go to President Sakaki afterwards, and the decision is ultimately left up to her,” Dickson said.

    “I know I’ve done the right thing by the students. I am trying to make funding more equitable for all of the programs within Arts and Humanities,” Robbins said. She then quoted Chancellor of the California State University Joseph Castro and said: “‘You have to do the unpopular thing, even if you are going to get pummeled.’”

    Administration continues to deal with uproar from Theatre Arts and Dance students and faculty due to campus-wide budget cuts and reallocations. In order to address these concerns, they will be holding open forums with students and faculty who want to voice their opinions on the issue. On Oct. 11 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., Dean Robbins will be a part of an open forum on zoom to discuss funding for the theatre, dance, and music programs. Students are invited to join the conversation. 

    Jessica Sternfeld contributed to this report.

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