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Famous musician Ben Folds promises UND concert if music therapy program is saved

Musician Ben Folds1 / 2
UND music therapy students Michael Thompson, left, and Karissa Olson put a sign in the ground near the president's house at UND on Monday March 14, 2016. (Joshua Komer/ Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

If UND saves its music therapy program, Ben Folds will come to the school to perform and raise funds to support the program's budget.

That's the promise the famous singer made in an open letter he posted Friday morning on his Facebook page. The letter, which was co-signed by neuroscientist and author Dr. Daniel Levitin, is addressed to interim UND President Ed Schafer and expressed their support for the program and making a big promise at the end.

"Suffice it to say, we strongly believe that dismantling the program will only serve to be a major setback to the vital progress that's been made in the music therapy arena at large, and as such we sincerely hope you will reconsider the UND program's proposed demise," the letter stated. "Furthermore, we pledge that if you decide to retain the music therapy program, we will commit to come to UND at our own expense to hold a benefit performance and lecture with the intent of helping raise money to support its budget."

The letter comes hours after North Dakota Board of Higher Education Chairwoman Kathleen Neset issued a statement Thursday that the board would support UND's decision to suspend its music therapy program. A decrease in the state's revenue forecast is forcing state agencies, including all schools the SBHE oversees, to cut about 4 percent from their appropriated budgets, which for UND means $9.5 million and another $3.1 million from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Schafer plans to finalize budget cuts in mid-April, and while the decision to eliminate music therapy is not officially final, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Debbie Storrs told the Herald she will suggest cutting the program, which has announced it is not accepting new majors.

The potential suspension of the program has caused an uproar among its supporters. A musical demonstration was held outside Schafer’s house Monday during a SBHE social. During a Tuesday SBHE meeting, students and the program’s director, Meganne Masko, explained to board members the importance of music therapy. Others have protested the proposed decision through letters to the editor and social media.

As of Friday evening, the post on Folds' Facebook page had received more than 4,000 likes and reactions, had been shared more than a thousand times and had more than 130 comments.

"Without question, music therapy has given a new found purpose and meaning to the positive impact of music in our society and has given hope on the front lines of medical research for millions who suffer from a wide range of neurological disorders—from traumatic brain injury and dementia to autism," the letter stated.

Folds and Levitin went on to praise the program as "widely regarded as one of the most promising schools of its kind."

"In any given semester, students can be found interning at numerous prestigious health care systems—from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and University Hospitals of Cleveland, to the Children's Hospital of New Orleans and Park Nicollet," he wrote.

The 49-year-old musician, known for songs such as "Brick" and his work with the Ben Folds Five in the mid-1990s and 2000s, said the reputation of UND's music therapy program is far-reaching and outstanding, and "many of our peers will join us in watching closely how your Administration acts on this matter."

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the university is aware of the letter. He added the offer was generous, but it would take two tenure-track faculty members and an endowment of $7 million to generate the interest income needed to sustain the program.

“It’s an issue of being able to properly fund the program and sustain it,” he said. “A concert here and there isn’t going help.”

He added the music therapy isn’t the only program being affected by budget cuts, stating Schafer’s goal is not to fix the budget in a “Band-Aid kind of way” but to find long-term solutions that are in the best interest of the university.

Full letter from Folds and Levintin to Schafer

Dear President Schafer:

We are writing to urge you to re-consider eliminating the entire music therapy program at the University of North Dakota.

In our respective fields of music and science, we have seen first-hand the incredible healing power of music. Without question, music therapy has given a new found purpose and meaning to the positive impact of music in our society, and has given hope on the front lines of medical research for millions who suffer from a wide range of neurological disorders - from traumatic brain injury and dementia, to autism.

Many fellow artists and neuroscientists, along with leading academic scholars, physicians and therapists from around the globe, are uniform in our conviction that music therapy offers tremendous potential for emerging breakthroughs in brain research and treatments.

UND's music therapy program, with its reported current enrollment of 48 students representing nearly a third of your entire music department, is widely regarded as one of the most promising schools of its kind, with students having an impact across the nation. In any given semester, students can be found interning at numerous prestigious health care systems - from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and University Hospitals of Cleveland, to the Children's Hospital of New Orleans and Park Nicollet. Just two years ago, UND's music department commissioned outside consultants to assess the strengths of the department's various programs, and their consensus was that your music therapy program should be the top priority.

Because of the outstanding and far-reaching reputation of your music therapy program, many of our peers will join us in watching closely how your Administration acts on this matter. What should be of utmost concern to people in your own state is that, despite the fact that music therapy is recognized in North Dakota as a licensed profession, the elimination of the UND program will result in an even greater shortage of music therapists needed to care for your already grossly under-served population.

Suffice it to say, we strongly believe that dismantling the program will only serve to be a major setback to the vital progress that's been made in the music therapy arena at large, and as such we sincerely hope you will re-consider the UND program's proposed demise.

Furthermore, we pledge that, if you decide to retain the music therapy program, we will commit to come to UND at our own expense to hold a benefit performance/lecture with the intent of helping raise money to support its budget.

Respectfully,

Ben Folds, Artist/Composer

Dr. Daniel Levitin, Neuroscientist/Author