Appleton Leaves Dartmouth

Jon Appleton, Dartmouth’s Arthur Virgin Professor of Music and a pioneer in the field of electro-acoustic music, recently announced that he was leaving the College to take a position at Stanford. The Dartmouth Review has recently obtained an e-mail Appleton circulated around the faculty, giving a more in-depth explanation for his departure:

Date: 20 Oct 2005 16:52:33 EDT
From: Jon H. Appleton
Subject: The Decline of Academic Freedom at Dartmouth College
To: (Recipient list suppressed)

Dear Colleagues:

The Supreme Court declared in Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing , 474 U.S. 214, 225 (1985): When judges are asked to review the substance of a genuinely academic decision. . . they should show great respect for the faculty’s professional judgment. Plainly, they may not override it unless it is such a substantial departure from accepted academic norms as to demonstrate that the person or committee responsible did not actually exercise professional judgment.

I came to teach music and musical composition at Dartmouth College nearly forty years ago. It had recently emerged from the tradition of a gentlemen’s finishing school to an institution of intellectual strength, brought about in part by the mathematician John G. Kemeny. My own work as a composer dealt mostly with electro-acoustic music, a very new field at the time. Research with colleagues in engineering and computer science led to the creation of a user-friendly system where students without previous musical experience could try their hand at composing.

In 1972, together with my colleague Christian Wolff, we initiated an undergraduate course called Music and Technology. Over the years students used increasingly sophisticated computer programs to compose short electronic music compositions. This became the most popular feature of the course and it counted as half of the final grade. Thirty-three years ago the course enrolled 35 students but during the last several years I saw my enrollment in the course grow to 85.

Nowadays, all students have access to and indeed most own computers and are comfortable with the software used to compose music. There are probably too many musical options for them now and the trick is to limit the number of musical ideas so as to develop structure and continuity in their work. It is amazing to me that I have given this creative experience to more than 3000 non-music undergraduates over the last thirty-three years. Many alumni return to tell me how important this experience was in broadening their musical taste. Obviously it is very time consuming to listen to, criticize and grade 85 compositions even if they are less than three minutes each. Dartmouth College does not employ teaching assistants in the arts. Sometimes students are intimidated by the composition assignment and drop the course because they fear they will not
get an A in the course. Dartmouth has done nothing to curb grade inflation unlike Princeton, for example. The pressure to give A grades is intense. It comes from the students and increasingly from their parents as well.

When teaching the Music and Technology course, I set aside class periods for students to present their first compositional attempts (their first drafts). Those that work through the term almost always improve. Two weeks before the composition assignments are due, I schedule individual appointments with all the students. Perhaps a quarter of the class never takes the chance to show me their work and this is because, sadly, they put off everything until the last minute. It is nearly impossible for a beginning composer to create anything significant the night before the assignment is due.

During all my years on the faculty of Dartmouth College, I graded as follows: A meant excellent, B was good, C was average, D was poor and if you didn’t show up, you failed the course.

Somehow it escaped me that the average grade at Dartmouth last year was a B+. Thus when I taught Music and Technology in the Fall term of 2004, I gave 30 As, 25 Bs, 15 Cs and 4 Ds (eleven students dropped the course for various reasons during the term). The students who earned less than an A were very upset. They wrote me angry notes such as “you nuked my GPA” and “how could I get a B in a music course?” and “my mother loved my composition.”

The students complained to the chair of my department and to the Dean of Faculty Carol Folt. Their parents called to express outrage. I never saw these complaints but I got a message from the Dean of Faculty who asked what “metric” I used to grade these compositions? I asked what metric she thought Haydn used to grade Beethoven’s compositions; or for that matter the “metric” used by Arnold Schoenberg when he taught John Cage. I explained to the Dean that r had been teaching this course successfully for thirty-three years and I was employed at Dartmouth because of my reputation as a composer. I offered to show the papers and compositions to the Dean but she never wanted to see them. I thought if something had gone terribly wrong with my teaching that perhaps an outside committee of composers might tender a second opinion. Alas, no administrator ever attended the class nor reviewed any of the student work.

A week later the Dean of Faculty informed the students that anyone unhappy with their grade could have it erased and be given a “credit” for the course. According to President James Wright, this was done without his knowledge and I want to note here that the president and I have been on the faculty for the same years and as dean, provost and president he has always been supportive of my work.

Until last year I thought that I would continue to teach at Dartmouth until I no longer felt useful to my students. However, because of this situation I am retiring from Dartmouth and will teach elsewhere for the next several years. There is nothing more I can do but to explain this to you, my colleagues. Perhaps you, through meetings of the faculty, your committees, etc. will be able to prevent the current Dean of Faculty from continuing to erode our academic freedom. If you think this was an isolated incident, let me paraphrase Pastor Martin Niemoller, “First they came for the music faculty and I did not speak out because I was not a musician. Then they came for the psychologists and I did not speak out because I was not a psychologist. Then they came for the biologists and I did not speak out because I was not a biologist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Jon H. Appleton

Arthur R. Virgin Professor of Music
HB 6242
Dartmouth College
Hanover, New Hampshire 03755 USA
Tel: +1-603-646-3960