Chancellor's Column: Despite cost-cutting, theater and the arts thriving at UMD

Lendley Black.jpg
Lendley "Lynn" Black.

There have been speculation and concerns over the past few months about the fine-arts disciplines at the University of Minnesota Duluth. As part of UMD’s $5.2 million in reductions last fall, the School of Fine Arts and College of Liberal Arts are merging into one administrative unit on July 1. This action reduces administrative costs in Academic Affairs — but it does not reduce academic programming in the fine-arts areas.

The departments and the outstanding programs of Art & Design, Music, and Theatre will continue to exist and will continue their incredible impact on the arts and culture of UMD, the Twin Ports, the state of Minnesota, and beyond.

Our majors and minors in these critical fine-arts disciplines have not been eliminated, and I hope we will continue to seek new majors and minors in the fine-arts disciplines that meet student demand and match the strengths and expertise of our faculty.

The graphic design and marketing major and the new arts administration major are two excellent examples of such programs. Our academic programs and artistic experiences are complimented by the Tweed Museum of Art, the Viz Lab, and the Motion+Media Across Disciplines Lab, as well as Weber Music Hall and the Marshall Performing Arts Center.

We need the arts to help us through troubled times, and the UMD fine-arts faculty and staff continue to serve students well during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am pleased to learn about UMD’s online theater dance classes and am excited to experience and recognize the excellent student artworks displayed virtually as part of the annual student art exhibition. We also have many online examples of ways music enriches us and sustains us during these trying and uncertain times.


Arts organizations are collectively struggling because of social distancing, but they have a resiliency, seen now in countless virtual performances, that will help them emerge from the pandemic with new strength and vitality.

During my job interview almost 10 years ago, I said part of my interest in coming to UMD was the strength of its fine-arts and liberal-arts programs. Theater is my own academic area, and I have known about UMD theater since the 1980s when I was a theater faculty member and dean in Kansas. My undergraduate degree is in English with minors in political science and theater, and I have a masters and doctorate in theater. Both the liberal arts and fine arts are central to who I am and to my professional career. The skills, knowledge, and creativity I acquired in my liberal-arts and fine-arts education have served me well professionally and have enriched my life in countless ways.

I regularly tell prospective students and parents that through intense study of the arts and humanities, one learns essential skills, such as inquiry, analysis, communication, teamwork, perseverance, working with diverse people toward a common goal, taking calculated risks, and finding creative ways to accomplish what may seem at first impossible. One also learns the importance of observing others with empathy and trying to understand what it’s like to be another person very different from one’s self.

In my career as a theater professor, I taught how to practice deep listening and the close observation of people. In addition, artists closely observe our world in order to portray what it’s like to be another person, and in order to reach, to enlighten, and to entertain an audience of people from different perspectives who bring their own unique life experiences into the theater experience.

Theater skills are best developed when accompanied by a detailed knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, world languages, and cultures. From my education and experience, I chose to be a faculty member and later an administrator. But this arts and humanities education could have led me into a number of professions and leadership opportunities in education, business, industry, government affairs, and nonprofit agencies, among many other careers.

I have many concrete examples when someone asks: “What can you do with a degree in theater (or in music or art, etc.)?” I also do not appreciate jokes about arts and liberal-arts majors not being able to find meaningful employment. It’s simply not true. Our arts graduates use their arts education and training as springboards to successful careers and fulfilling lives. These graduates are succeeding in a wide range of disciplines, both in the fine-arts professions and in many other employment sectors.

Combining the School of Fine Arts with the College of Liberal Arts was an extremely difficult decision. However, in a tough budget environment, we prioritize academic and artistic programming over administrative costs. My optimism about this new administrative unit is grounded in the quality of our fine-arts faculty and staff and the hope that they will discover new alliances and partnerships with their outstanding colleagues in the humanities and social sciences. Most importantly, I believe they will continue to serve our students well, both within this new administrative unit and throughout UMD.

Lendley “Lynn” Black is chancellor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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