By Ryan Yousefi
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For the past two and a half years music instructors at Miami's New World School of the Arts have watched in dismay as a majority of their full-time colleagues, who had helped build a small but respected conservatory, abandoned the enterprise to join other faculties. Moreover, those who remain have seen their influence over operations dwindle as administrators redesigned courses and redefined teachers' roles without their input.
Now some members of the music faculty want to get rid of the man they blame for their frustration: Bennett Lentczner, provost and chief executive officer of the New World School. Last week the school's executive board received a letter signed by 13 of 25 music-division faculty members urging that Lentczner be dismissed when his contract expires next June.
A Juilliard-trained trumpet player, Lentczner takes pride in his skill as a financial manager and in his belief that professors belong in the classroom. This philosophy echoes a national trend in ordinary institutions of higher education, but the New World School of the Arts, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, is no ordinary institution.
This unorthodox combination of a public high school and a four-year state college prepares gifted young visual artists, actors, dancers, singers, and instrumentalists for careers in the arts. In order to attract topnotch instructors, especially musicians whose art demands regular performances, such a school must grant teachers the freedom to exercise their talents. But hours spent in performance are hours not spent in the classroom -- a situation that has given rise to some conflict at the school, which is based in a downtown building once used by AT&T.
Approximately 300 Dade County middle school students audition each year for 80 freshman slots at the high school, which has an enrollment of about 460. Bachelor-degree candidates from throughout Florida and around the world present high-quality portfolios or performances in competition for a space among the 360 undergraduates.
The school is also unusual in the way it is governed. Three separate entities -- Dade County Public Schools, Miami-Dade Community College, and the University of Florida -- share responsibilities for funding and supervising New World's programs.
Over the years the school has managed to recruit for its four divisions (theater, dance, visual arts, and music) an impressive faculty, many of whom enjoy national reputations in their disciplines. But since Lentczner assumed control in April 1995, the music faculty in particular has suffered some major losses. Gone are the widely respected Miami String Quartet, acclaimed trumpet player Gilbert Johnson, conductor Eduardo Diazmunoz, and pianist and musicologist Frank Cooper.
Lentczner's unflinching management style and his emphasis on instruction over performance have won him few allies among the music faculty. Last year, for example, when he attempted to cut back the amount of time members of the string quartet spent touring and giving concerts, and when he also slashed their salaries, they bolted for Florida International University. Diazmunoz was told that he must radically curtail his conducting schedule, so he too departed, for a conducting and teaching position in Mexico City. Also last year Lentczner and Karl Kramer, the former music dean, effectively demoted the school's top voice instructor, Joy Davidson, by removing her authority to assign instructors and design programs. Davidson, who has performed in major opera houses around the globe, raised $100,000 for the school, and received honors for her teaching, told the Miami Herald last year that "it has become quite clear to me they would suddenly like me to disappear, though I'm not sure why."
Davidson did not disappear, but she is among those instructors who signed the letter expressing their "extreme displeasure" with Lentczner's management style, which they characterized this way: "His attitude has consistently been that faculty opinion is neither needed nor wanted. He consults with us only when forced to do so." The letter also criticized Lentczner for his "micromanagement" of daily operations while not doing "the one thing which we need him to do most: raise funds for the school!" The letter ended with a call for a new provost who would "lead by consensus, not fiat, who will build bridges, not walls, and who will support a diversity of opinion rather than a personal agenda." (Davidson declined to discuss the letter.)
Lentczner would not comment on the faculty's request that his contract not be renewed, but he defends his tenure as the school's chief administrator. He says he has raised $300,000 in individual and corporate donations and has also labored to solve many of the problems that preceded him -- not the least of which has been turbulence among the music faculty, where three deans have arrived and departed in just four years. "Are they looking for leadership to settle them down?" Lentczner wonders. "Maybe that's what's happening."
Executive board chairman S. Daniel Ponce, a Miami lawyer, says the teachers need not have chosen such a dramatic way to express their frustrations, particularly in light of the fact that a special committee is now reviewing Lentczner's performance. "I personally feel there was a better methodology of dealing with this -- not sending a grandstand letter," Ponce complains. "Their points would have been much better taken had someone bothered to go through the regular process."
Ponce says he's generally pleased with Lentczner's accomplishments, and he credits the provost with maintaining the state legislature's $860,000 annual appropriation to the school. "New World School for the very first time was in the budget without clamor, without catastrophe," Ponce reports. "A great majority of that effort was Bennett's doing. That's a lot of hard work and energy."
In addition, Ponce notes Lentczner's success in raising the school's profile. "This past year and a half we played for President Clinton at the Biltmore," he says, "and when Mrs. Clinton was down here [in October], our students entertained her all day. She invited the kids to the White House. These are all things that Bennett has done."
This past week Lentczner gained another layer of support when the New World School's four division deans sent Ponce a letter strongly advocating the provost's retention. And in a direct slap at the "disgruntled" music faculty, the deans described them as having "limited responsibility and vision."
Internecine battles, staffing cutbacks, and a severe shortage of classroom and studio space have combined in a way that suggests a school in disarray. That perception may be an exaggeration, says Seth Gordon, one of the school's founders and now a member of the New World School of the Arts Foundation, but the problems are real. In Gordon's view, they stem from the hybrid governing structure cobbled together by the legislature when it created the school. The arrangement, he claims, engenders a host of management problems.
For example, New World's executive board, which sets all policies, is composed of representatives from the University of Florida, Miami-Dade Community College, and the Dade County Public Schools, plus volunteers appointed by those representatives. "The school was designed in a way that crippled it from the outset," says Gordon, a partner in the public relations firm Gordon Sloan Diaz-Balart. "You have a board made up of people from the parent institutions whose primary loyalty is to the parent board and not to New World."
The three parent organizations also directly compete with New World for precious dollars distributed among state colleges and universities by traditionally parsimonious legislators. (The lion's share of the school's $7.3 million budget, however, is provided by its parent institutions: Dade Schools pays $3.3 million, MDCC $2.6 million, and the University of Florida $500,000.)
Despite the turmoil, New World School of the Arts students continue to delight their warring instructors and administrators by attracting national recognition. For five consecutive years a New World high school senior has won the National Art Education Association's top award. Eight students have been selected as Presidential Scholars. Former students have joined prestigious professional companies such as the Santa Fe Opera, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Parsons Dance Company, and the Houston Grand Opera. Several cyber-arts graduates have obtained lucrative positions as animation designers. "We live for the kids," Joy Davidson stresses. "They are our inspiration.