Cuts at St. Cloud State end theater program

A person makes their way
A person makes their way toward Husky Plaza on June 6 at St. Cloud State University.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

St. Cloud State University is undergoing many changes in the near future and the theater department is directly affected by that.

In April, President Robbyn Wacker announced cuts to faculty and six major departments to address a $24 million shortfall next fiscal year. Enrollment at the university has fallen by about 6,000 students, or 38 percent since 2010. Due to low enrollment numbers, the university plans to phase out the theater department this upcoming school year.

Incoming students will no longer be admitted in the theater program, but the small group of students currently majoring and minoring in theater are in what is called a teachout year, in which current students will get the classes they need in order to graduate from the university.

Faculty members said one of the reasons enrollment numbers started to drop is because some students wanted to major in something that can clear their financial burden.

“In the last 20 years they started majoring in business; they started majoring in fields that were associated with for-profit companies where theater is often non-profit and that means the salaries are less,” said Bradley Chisholm, chair of the theater department.

Over the years several faculty members in the theater department decided to retire and their roles were never replaced. Chisholm said because of the program's low enrollment, the university thought the money could go elsewhere — which then caused even lower enrollment.

“If we don't have new faculty members to go out there and get students excited for the plays they want to put on, or the classes in theater they want to offer then there’s just fewer reasons to come here,” said Chisholm.

When recent theater graduate Hana Rieter first heard the news of the school cutting her program, she said it hurt because the program felt like a home. But Rieter also said when she joined the program of 15 students back in 2017, she noticed things were already starting to fall apart.

“We didn’t have enough staff, we didn’t have a lot of students when it came to trying to get a crew and stuff for shows was really hard,” she said.

Rieter says the COVID-19 pandemic affected the program. Theaters were paused all around the world and shows were confined to Zoom meetings. Rieter felt like there was no point in enrolling in classes if she wasn’t getting the hands-on experience she needed. She was not enrolled in classes for two years during the pandemic.

Back in the ’90s, Chisholm can remember when SCSU’s theater community was actively thriving.

“There were five productions a year. Every year it was pretty busy. There were four faculty-directed plays — so two per semester — plus a student-directed [play] at the end of spring and we had lots of students. Many of them went on and are working professionals in theater all over the country,” Chisholm said.

Hana Rieter said she wishes she had that same experience. In the last few years, the department cut back to only two or three faculty-directed plays in a year.

“Thinking about what other theater programs at other universities looked like made me a little jealous sometimes because we were extremely underfunded,” Rieter said.

About three years ago, the department decided to pivot the major to focus on theater and social change to encourage more students to join but with only five major and four minor students at the end of the Spring semester, the university made the decision to eliminate the program.

Bradley Chisholm says it felt like a kick in the gut.

“My theater colleagues you know worked on this for three years, this future version, but the ugly reality sometimes of the economics of keeping the doors open in a place like this meant that that idea is lost and I feel bad for my colleagues but I feel for all those students who were excited for the new approach of theater that there now not going to deal with,” he said.

In a statement Minnesota State said institutions across the region have been experiencing financial stress and the struggle of declining enrollment. Officials said the university is in the process of using a variety of strategies to ensure long-term financial sustainability.

“We are committed to supporting all of our colleges and universities to ensure their ability to offer quality academic programs, deliver equitable student success, and fulfill Minnesota’s critical need for talent,” said Bill Maki, Vice Chancellor for Finance and Facilities.

On a happier note for the program, there will be a fall musical this upcoming semester for students in and outside of the theater major. The few students left in the program are expected to all graduate next spring.

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