The Value Of Sincerity At Interlochen

Ever since Interlochen’s 2004 Thanksgiving Massacre there’s been a swell of media attention surrounding the sincerity behind the motives of Interlochen’s administrative leaders. 

The January 5, 2005, edition of the New York Times published an extensive article
examining the rise of discontent over the round of faculty dismissals
and how many long time supporters are now suspending their donations
and bequests as a way of expressing their disapproval.

At a popular Yahoo discussion group
for Interlochen alumni (registration required), many forum members
openly question the wisdom behind the decisions to remove so many
veteran summer music faculty.  Even more are upset at the way the
institution’s leaders implemented the process; by sending the former
faculty members an identical one page form letter complete with
facsimile signatures.

Even forum members who support many of the new administration’s
changes are having a difficult time accepting any justifiable reason
behind the process and manner in which these faculty were dismissed. 

When Is A Form Letter Not A Form Letter?

As a result of the wave of outrage over these actions, the man at
the center of much of the outrage, Interlochen president Jeff Kimpton,
sent out a one-page handwritten letter on Interlochen letterhead to a
portion of the veteran faculty "apologizing" for the way in which they
were dismissed.  Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for many of the
faculty to discover that each of their handwritten letters was
identical in content and failed to address any of the grounds for their
dismissal:

[insert first name] –

On behalf of Interlochen Center for the Arts and me personally, I
wish to apologize for the manner in which you were informed about your
future status with Interlochen Arts Camp.  I wish that we could have
been able to express greater sensitivity to your record of commitment
and service to the institution, and to the role you played in shaping
the lives of students.  We value and appreciate both.

Although I have no illusions that this letter will mitigate your
disappointment, it is my sincere hope that you will accept it in the
spirit in which it was written.

Jeffrey Kimpton

The brief letter does not address any of the specific reasons behind
why any faculty member was dismissed and it fails to acknowledge that
they even were dismissed.  Instead, the letter simply refers to their
"status" with the Arts Camp.  Interlochen still maintains that they
have not "fired" or "dismissed" anyone from the summer program;
instead, they were simply not offered new contracts.  The camp even
went to great lengths to have the New York Times include an addendum to
their January 5th article which reads:

"While the teachers say they were dismissed, the camp says that they were simply not offered new contracts."

Jeff Kimpton’s decision to endorse this method is an old and dubious
trick with the intention of absolving the Interlochen administrators of
any legal culpability related to wrongful termination.  If they can
legally claim that someone wasn’t fired, then they don’t have to
provide any reason for the basis of their termination; nevertheless,
that motivation is at the heart of the sincerity issue.

Why were these faculty members dismissed?  Were they
incompetent, unable to fulfill job qualifications, insubordinate, or
did they fail to comply with written standards of conduct?

We may never know the reasons behind why each faculty member was
dismissed, but at least a paper trail exists to help pin down where the
buck stops. 

  1. Every faculty members underwent an evaluation by their area
    coordinator, who in turn, sent that evaluation along with their
    recommendation whether or not the respective faculty member should be
    asked back for the following summer. 
  2. That evaluation went to Michael Albaugh, Interlochen’s Director of
    Music, who then sent that evaluation and his personal recommendation to
    Tim Wade, Interlochen’s Vice President for Education programs and
    Services, who made the final decision whether or not to renew
    contracts.
  3. Tim Wade reports directly to Jeff Kimpton.

Interlochen has publicly stated that they do not wish to release the
grounds for termination related to each faculty member due to reasons
of confidentiality. That would seem to be a very reasonable position;
however, Interlochen also refuses to provide answers to the individual
faculty members.  Why would Interlochen not provide faculty members the
reasons behind their dismissal, especially if they have submitted
written or verbal requests?

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why we may never know
the reasons behind the "Thanksgiving Massacre"; because the vast
majority of the dismissals are not based on any reasonable grounds
they simply can’t be justified.

Nevertheless, for each of those faculty members, it’s a question
which deserves a justifiable answer, not a handwritten form letter
which continues to avoid culpability and is filled with insincere
regret. 

Based on the heavily flawed process Interlochen’s new administrators
have used to justify many of the other changes to the summer program in
the face of a host of preferable options, it’s difficult to believe
that the motivation behind the dismissals is sincere.

If Interlochen’s leaders aren’t sincere in their motivation behind
cutting out the heart of what has allowed the institution to provide a
dynamic experience for decades, then how can alumni and supporters
trust the sincerity behind their remaining actions. 

I recently wrote an article about the negotiation impasse at the St.
Louis Symphony and one of the observations from that article applies to
the increasingly distressing state of affairs at Interlochen:

"One of the lessons we learn from childhood is that it’s very
difficult to build something up but considerably easier to tear it
down." 

I hope Interlochen’s Board of Trustees are thinking about those same childhood lessons.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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