When Jen Scovell-Parker and Shon Parker, professors at McNally Smith College of Music, got the email December 14th that the college was closing in a week and they wouldn’t be receiving their next paycheck, they leapt into action on behalf of the effected 600 or so students. Shon, a vocalist, arranger, and educator, is also a chef, so when the college immediately shut down the cafeteria — the only source of meals for students, most of whom had little deposable income by the end of the semester — he took over the cafeteria kitchen with help from Chris, the kitchen manager. In no time, they were whipping up barbecue and slaw to feed hundreds of students for free. Faculty also got out the word about the food situation, and alumni, parents, and local businesses started sending in piles of pizza and other foods.
Meanwhile, Jen, interim chair of the vocal department, and a long-time performer, educator, and arranger, made a miracle happen. Working with other faculty, she contacted dozens of music colleges across the country and regional colleges with relevant music programs to put together a list of 33 institutions willing to accept McNally Smith credits, and do all kinds of other things to help McNally’s students find a new academic home: waive application fees, offer discounts or scholarships, expediate application processing, find new students housing, and in general turn a nightmare into a new dream (see the impressive list right here). The director of admissions Matt Edlund, Kerri Vickers, and the registar staff also organized a transfer fair, and according to my daughter, a McNally Smith graduate who was there recently, McNally Smith was filled wall to wall with booths from institutions eager to help student sort through information, fill out paperwork, and talk through the sudden situation they landed in through no fault of their own. On top of this, Maria Vejdani, a former grad students and first semester faculty, set up a google doc form to help all the people in need or willing to help so that there was an instant database. People stepped up from all directions.
This weekend as I was facilitating a writing workshop for people with serious illness, I shared Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing,” in which he writes about each of us making a kind of music that lifts up the world through our particular role, whether we’re carpenters, shoemakers, or mothers, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” I told the workshop participants of how Jen and Shon, through their night-and-day work to feed, comfort, guide, and love students, are the best of America singing, and the best of America. Their actions are born out of their deep love for their students, and expansive recognition of how this college transformed, as Jen wrote about on Facebook, all who walked through the doors of the campus. “We worked there because we believe in the future of music, and we see how bright it was through the magic of our students. It was a calling to teach this music. In some ways the call feels even louder,” she writes.
Jen , Shon, and other faculty and staff heeded that louder call with a series of celebrations that also allowed students, faculty, staff, and alumni to grieve collectively: graduation on Sunday (which only happened because of Sue Brezny, the director of Student Affairs), a Sing-Out concert featuring students and faculty Monday, and a series of concerts and performances in between Shon and others feeding the masses, all week long. Not only is America singing through Jen, Shon, and other shining stars (including alumni who have dropped by to perform, encourage, bring food, and help students pack up dorm rooms and faculty pack up offices), but a whole lot of people at McNally Smith have been singing their hearts out to make a bridge of music and hope for all those who need to cross over from this college to their Plan B.
At the same time, I can imagine many reasons a college would close: the college where I teach, Goddard College, has occasionally accepted transfers from like-minded colleges that went down, but those closings were gradual, at least a semester and sometimes years in the unfolding so that students, faculty, and staff could transition to new situations. I can’t imagine any reason that a college would close on a week’s notice, especially since colleges (and particularly for-profit institutions) rely on tuition as their main (or sole) income.
The owners could easily have discerned back at the beginning of this semester, if not a year ago, that they were in trouble. That they didn’t act — either to work with the community to save the college (I read the college was in the process of being not-for-profit), or to let everyone know the campus would be shutting down — is unethical, and a breach of trust. That they would not pay their faculty and staff, and ask them to continue on should be illegal. That they would leave so many students in a lurch — including students who already paid tuition for the spring semester, international students without adequate visas for such a closing, and students in the dorm who suddenly had to move out on no notice — is horrendous.
But that people like Jen and Shon — along with the real community of and around that college (excluding its owners) — would rise up singing in all these ways shows us what we’re capable of at our best. Then again, I’m not completely surprised — I’m extremely graduate to faculty like Jen and Shon who worked closely with our daughter and gave her and so many others a superb education and the most soulful mentoring possible. Our educators are, in many ways, our truest artists and most authentic heroes. And this is how America sings.