Six years ago theater manager and actor Kent Lantaff and lighting designer Tom Salzman sought a sabbatical from the sometimes cutthroat competition in the professional dramatic community. That's when an advertisement from the University of Miami drama department attracted their attention like the lights on a marquee: Theater-arts teaching jobs offer opportunities for tenure and are essentially lifetime appointments. To achieve tenure, according to UM written guidelines, those hired would have to offer quality instruction and either bolster their teaching with research or produce a distinguished body of creative work.
After accepting the job, Lantaff sold his house in North Carolina and moved with his wife and son to South Florida; Salzman gave up a lucrative career as an independent lighting designer in the Midwest. The university hired them September 26, 1991; their probation was to last six years.
No strangers to long hours and artistic rigor, they pursued their objectives with zeal while also teaching two to four classes every semester. Lantaff directed or acted in four professional productions, wrote five articles for professional journals, published a South Florida theater newsletter, and managed the university's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre as well as designed its publicity brochures. Salzman designed the lighting for more than 30 performances at the Caldwell Theatre -- a nationally recognized company in Boca Raton -- and for seventeen plays at the Ring. Both men taught introductory and advanced courses.
They received luminous yearly evaluations from students and administrators, Lantaff says. For example, in the fall semester of 1996, 85 percent of Lantaff's students gave an overall positive assessment of his classes. On three occasions they each received assurances from administrators that they were meeting performance goals. When the instructors formally sought tenure at the end of their fifth year, Lantaff and Salzman say, they received the endorsement of their peers both within and outside the university, as well as from their department chairman and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Both were prepared to proudly accept their tenured positions this spring, but the university provost rejected their applications. Salzman and Lantaff say they have never been told exactly why; university provost Luis Glaser would not comment on their tenure bids, citing the university's confidentiality rules. But the drama scholars believe that had they published more articles in scholarly journals rather than participating in plays, they may have prevailed.
The decision augured difficulties for their colleagues in the theater arts department who were also climbing the tenure ladder. Faculty members in other departments fretted too. After all, university administrators across the country have debated the merits of the tenure system, which is designed to safeguard academic freedom, and are increasingly employing professors on yearly contracts to minimize the institutions' financial commitments.
Because the provost passed on Lantaff and Salzman, who had seemingly followed all the rules, some other drama department members feared they could be next (many refused to comment for this article or did not return calls requesting comment). Tenure-track instructors are now in a quandary as to whether, in the provost's view, their work on plays and in performances will help them attain tenure. "Basically, the provost is saying, 'If you don't do productions, you'll be fired,'" Lantaff observes bitterly, "'but if you do do productions, you'll be fired.'"
The faculty tenure-review board approved an appeal to the university president, which the professors lost. A majority of their colleagues in the department then took an unprecedented step: They politely postponed -- indefinitely -- the 1997-98 Ring Theatre season scheduled to begin in the fall. "The faculty strongly believes that the recent denial of tenure of two of our members who were heavily involved in the rehearsal, production, and performance ... calls into question the very nature of performance and production as it relates to the promotion and tenure of departmental faculty," they declared in a May 6 memo to the university's interim dean of arts and sciences.
The provost called the entire department into a meeting in his office on Monday, May 12. When ten faculty members arrived at Glaser's book-lined conference room, he and the university's attorney, Robert L. Blake, greeted them with the news that the school could be sued if the shows didn't go on. The faculty was ordered to hold a meeting and continue planning for the season of plays. "We were summarily reprimanded and sent, like schoolboys, back to our rooms to come up with a decision that was more pleasing to the administration," recalls Lantaff.
The professors held no meeting. But the following day they got a memo from their department chairman announcing the results of their nonexistent assembly. The missive reported that the professors had agreed to host a season after all. The chairman had even assigned teachers to specific chores in this memo. Salzman, for example, found out he would design lighting for four of the five plays. "The chairman, who is tenured, had unilaterally decided to announce the season without conferring with the faculty -- without letting the boat get rocked," Lantaff crabs. "He would lash the boat to the university and continue on."
On May 20 five professors answered the chairman's memo with a signed proclamation of their own, reiterating their decision to produce no shows until they learn what they now have to do to gain tenure. "We still feel that there are certain criteria, related to workload and job security," Lantaff explains. "Until those issues are satisfactorily spelled out, we cannot continue to have our faculty so heavily involved in production work that we lose our jobs."
Ultimately, the university decided not to announce a theater schedule until after the new dean, coming from the University of Kentucky, has an opportunity to confer with faculty members June 9. "We will have theater productions next year," Glaser insists. "I understand how upset and distressed people get when tenure is denied. It's a tremendous disruption of their lives. But the university and the theater will go on. That's what we're committed to do. We're committed to our students."
It's not the first time Glaser has sparred with his highly educated subordinates. As provost, he acts as the administrator for all academic programs; last month a committee of graduate school professors voted to censure Glaser unless he consults with them more extensively about the selection of the dean of arts and sciences. Humanities faculty members are particularly wary of the provost, a biochemist who, some teachers believe, favors the instruction of sciences over the arts. Glaser dismisses such notions, saying that he doesn't consider what department the teacher works for when awarding tenure. "We don't make decisions on [teaching] positions," he asserts. "We make decisions on the merits of a particular individual."
The standoff at the Ring Theatre pits Glaser, who published 174 technical papers before arriving in Miami from Washington University in St. Louis, against a theater faculty whose scholarly quest is to entertain as well as to educate. Salzman uses colored celluloid film to change light tones, amplifying emotions implied by a playwright's words. Originally an actor and director who worked on Broadway intermittently for 24 years, Lantaff's scholarship inheres in the elegant movements of his hands, in his ability to convey strong sentiments with subtle intonations of speech and to lead others to accomplish the same.
This blend of the artistic, professional, and academic worlds has worked well in the University of Miami's theater arts department, which is also called a conservatory. To enroll, students must audition or show a portfolio of design work that exhibits talent and promise. During the four-year tutorial, professors evaluate their progress; if the students don't demonstrate an ability to succeed in the profession, they can't continue. The instructors are similarly held to more professional, not scholarly, standards. In such a drama conservatory -- and there are only about twenty in the country -- professors have to accomplish nationally recognized artistic goals, on the theory that practicing artists will be better able to assist their students. "It was that kind of experimental program that made its students do theater instead of sitting in a classroom learning about theater," declares Jerry Herman, a University of Miami theater alumnus who went on to write the musical score for the phenomenally successful Broadway musicals Mame; Hello, Dolly!; and La Cage aux Folles, among others. Herman recently donated $1.6 million for the remodeling of the theater named after him. "I learned how to light shows and I learned how to act in shows. It was a tremendous influence on my career."
The university's theater program has not achieved the acclaim of similarly structured conservatories such as Juilliard and the Yale School of Drama (which does not offer tenure to its artistic instructors). But during the last decade it has attracted an ever-more experienced academic staff and has vaulted numerous students into the profession, Lantaff and Salzman say.
They have appealed the tenure decision to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a professional organization that publishes standards for hiring, promotion, and tenure. The University of Miami has incorporated many of those standards in its faculty handbook. Though no school is obligated to adhere to the standards, many do, says Robert Kreiser, the group's associate secretary. Kreiser would not comment on whether the AAUP would defend Lantaff and Salzman, but he did say that the organization abhors any deviation from established guidelines.
The professors are trying to win their jobs back, but both already have an escape route planned: They may return to the professional dramatic community, knowing what to expect in that environment. "I got out of the professional theater world because I thought it was a dog-eat-dog atmosphere," Lantaff says. "I got into a university situation and found out what a real dog-eat-dog atmosphere is like.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.