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Arts Cuts At University Of Akron Raise Concerns

Senior Sander Mills in a University of Akron theater production [W. Tanner Young]
Astride a table and dressed in a motley outfit, Sander Mills acts in a University of Akron theater production.

Performing Arts studies at the University of Akron took a major hit last month because of massive job cuts campus-wide. With the fall semester about the start, there are some changes afoot.

In an attempt to mend a $65 million-dollar budget hole, the university announced in late July that it was cutting 178 positions across the campus. Particularly hard hit was the school of Dance, Theater and Administrative Arts (DTAA). Akron’s dance faculty went from three to one, and theater staffers went from five to none.

“I mean, obviously, every unit on campus was hit hard,” said DTAA director Marc Reed. “It just happened that there were less faculty in Dance, Theater and Arts Administration to be affected. We lost some long-serving, full time faculty. But, we've been able to hire some really terrific part-time people that I think are going to bring some interesting new things to the students.”

Among the departing faculty is a thirty-one-year veteran of the theater program --- James Slowiak.

James Slowiak works with a student actor [Dale Dong]

“I was not consulted in any way about this decision,” Slowiak said. “And my understanding is that they are saying the programs are not going away. Certainly dance is not going to go away. And theater, you know, they said they're going to look at again.”

Despite assurances that all the classes scheduled for the Fall semester will happen, senior Sander Mills said there’s still some uncertainty among the students.

“A lot of us, especially the upperclassmen, are genuinely scared and kind of petrified for the future of this program - not only in losing Jim, but the rest of the faculty. They were also very important,” Mills said.

Facing the prospect of unknown instructors in an established program may be daunting, but the pandemic presents further challenges. Marc Reed said class sizes will be reduced and social distancing enforced. Both students and teachers will have the option of taking classes remotely, if they don’t feel comfortable. Reed joined the faculty only last year. He also heads the School of Music. He said, if he had known that he’d be walking into a situation where there’d be such drastic staff cuts, he’s not sure he would have come to Akron.

Marc Reed heads both the School of Music and  the School of Dance, Theater and Arts Administration. [University of Akron]

“My sense is, we’re trying to get through what happens this fall and whatever happens in the spring,” said Reed. “Obviously what's gone on campus wide, it's been hard for everybody, you know? Especially when you’re talking about permanent, tenured faculty.”

For Arts Administration major Tessa Gafney, the worst part of these tough times for the University of Akron is the loss of James Slowiak.

Tessa Gafney [Tessa Gafney]

“Oh, my gosh, his influence is immeasurable,” she said. “He  just treats you like a colleague. And we are all invited to sort of make our own work and do what we're passionate about.”

Jim Slowiak’s passion for teaching came from a mentor of his own, the legendary Jerzy Grotowski, who reshaped the world of theater 50 years ago by de-emphasizing colorful costumes and spectacle for stripped-down productions that built intimate relationships between actor and audience. What gives Slowiak some solace in this moment is something his teacher taught him about how people in theater learn to be comfortable with anxiety and being open to change.

“This is all opening up new vistas and horizons and possibility,” he said. “And I think that’s part of that anxiety – anxiety not always being a negative, but that anxiety of creation, of, ‘Wow, where is this going to take me?’ Of the unknown.”

Rather than submit to a layoff, the 65-year-old Slowiak elected to retire and focus his energies on his New World Performance Lab, an off-campus theater group, where he can now take that next step into the unknown.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.