Rapidly moving large-scale conditions naturally produce questions: Why this, and not that? How useful might it be to continue or amend emergency methodologies? What should continue and what should not? What pressures and opportunities might come to us next? What is our best stance in light of our present ever-changing context? What is our place in the larger scheme of things, now and in the immediate future?
Part of staying ready to lead involves staying connected with larger schemes at various levels. For example, it is clear that theatre in higher education is part of a larger theatre system in the United States and the world. Each of us knows that this system exists; we can name most if not all of its organizational parts. We know that parts and people in this system are connected. Sometimes these connections are obvious; sometimes they are invisible to us. To use a phrase from years ago, visible or invisible, in our uniqueness and our commonality, in our autonomy and our relatedness, we are “all one system.” We are interdependent in ways we can and cannot see, especially moment to moment. This interdependency with the visible and the invisible is a significant characteristic of our “community.”
At this time, when so much is being questioned from so many quarters and short, rational answers are needed, it seems appropriate to offer several succinct, pragmatic reasons why the particular community called NAST remains important to so many institutions within the community of theatre in higher education, and by extension, to other parts of our theatre system, and to other associated educational and cultural systems; and why the ongoing participation of institutions offering collegiate study in theatre in the work of NAST remains important.
Organizations form and sustain themselves when it becomes clear that a group can do certain things that an individual person or entity cannot do at all, or as well. In NAST, these connections among ourselves and larger systems have enhanced the cohesiveness of the field, strengthened its voice during times when the value of theatre study was questioned, and historically included and involved the following community engagements desired by individual member institutions:
- Common action to describe, support, and defend the purposes and freedom of theatre study, especially in higher education, and especially on behalf of students preparing for one or more theatre professions. NAST’s work is steeped in its mission. Its voice has been clear and consistent, and advanced by its accredited institutional members throughout the last five decades—a condition which has worked to keep external intrusions at bay so that the work of theatre institutions and units might continue as unencumbered as possible.
- Participation and vote in continuous development of standards statements that define fundamental content, results, and basic support requirements for advanced study in various aspects of theatre. In addition to their academic uses, these statements produce an authoritative basis for communications and negotiations with colleagues in associated and other fields, arts-related organizations, governments, and private entities. Among other things, the standards are forces for protecting essentials and the integrity of specific degrees, as well as articulating clearly curricular requirements and therefore the level of rigor expected of students enrolled in various aspects of post-secondary theatre study. As an example, the standards and guidelines offered in the Handbook are often used to backstop and otherwise address issues that arise with some regularity, such as Time and Credit and Gainful Employment (see NAST Memorandum dated May 26, 2021, which confirms the U.S. Department of Education’s intention to hold public hearings pertaining to higher education regulations, specifically Gainful Employment).
- Opportunities to demonstrate the validity and value of these standards through their use as frameworks and reference points for continuous local development and improvement, and by the volunteering of institutions to be reviewed periodically in light of their requirements, by peers with high levels of theatre expertise, in a system intended to focus on and provide support for each institution’s improvement on its own terms as articulated in its own self-review.
- The presence of national standards and review processes that are consensus-based, discipline-centered, and framework-oriented, which provide maximum room for institutional differences and innovations in content, curricula, and program operation; and flexibilities and options to institutions as they contemplate and implement operational protocols and curricular content.
- Review procedures that once completed, enable national academic recognition and legitimacy for new, innovative, and experimental programs, notice of which is provided to the public, the federal government, applicable state entities, and other institutional accrediting bodies and entities as appropriate.
- Counsel upon request from experienced peers and staff trained by NAST whenever issues, prospects, or concerns arise. Such consultative feedback can be invaluable to theatre administrators preparing materials for Commission review or developing plans or responses to local issues.
- For independent institutions of higher education that wish to participate in federal financial aid programs outlined in the Higher Education Act of 1965 as amended, eligibility; or for those that currently designate one of the U.S. Secretary-approved regional accrediting bodies as their institutional accrediting body, an independent alternative gatekeeper for federal funding should regional accreditation become untenable for some unfortunate reason, such as a failure to a) understand, embrace, and/or address issues pertinent to theatre as an artform and to theatre study, b) support and promote theatre as a discipline which leads to gainful employment and therefore worthy of federal financial support, and c) protect the discipline, particularly in matters of distribution requirements.
- A voice and reference for theatre and theatre study in policy and legislative forums, particularly those dealing with higher education operations, curricula, and accreditation, and with other aspects of the theatre field—the outcome of which often leads to minimized federal intrusion into the work of the theatre unit or institution; and enhanced local autonomy, a condition necessary to ensure effective academic decision-making.
- Organizational and unequivocal support for the integrity of theatre degrees and credentials, artistic and academic freedom, and the independence of academic institutions against various forms of pressure, including those both internal and external in nature; and misuse of accreditation and other types of review powers by other entities.
- Agreements on basic operational procedures designed and intended to serve students and facilitate cooperation among institutions offering theatre degrees and credentials.
Laid out in such a list, it is easy to see the importance of fulfilling these higher education responsibilities within our community. To abandon them or weaken our field-wide attention to them produces a vacuum for others to fill—others such as those without expertise in the artform; those that do not have a stake in the artform’s future; those that purposefully, or possibly without a watchful eye focused on current realities and pressures, turn the process of artistic discovery and innovative creativity into a bureaucratic exercise that merely trains institutions for compliance—a result we absolutely do not want. Instead, it is important to ensure that institutions continue to hold the autonomy and control necessary to maintain the academic freedoms required to advance the artform.
In these times, and indeed in all times, it is important to think about elements of our security that exist beyond our own institutions. It is important to consider how quickly reasonable levels of security can be lost the farther one travels from one’s institution in the organizational and regulatory structures of higher education. Therefore, the need to consider and nurture the elements of our multiple interdependencies has always been paramount; the need to develop and maintain connections that not only protect but strengthen the field of theatre should not be underestimated. Our forerunners did this as they built the composite system of theatre in higher education that we have the privilege to serve today. You continue that work today through the participation of your institution.
There is no question that the NAST standards protect the content and the integrity of the field in the larger world of higher education. The value of joining together to define content and supporting operational necessities to protect the integrity of the field is incalculable. No one knows when this protection will be needed either locally or nationally. No amount of naysaying about accreditation can nullify this critically important opportunity and responsibility for theatre units and institutions. This is one reason why schools in so many professions beyond the arts join together in specialized accreditation efforts. They understand the external impact of consensus-based, content-centered standards developed and controlled by knowledgeable professionals in their respective fields. Experience tells them that leaving this responsibility to governments, or to others without content or operational knowledge would produce conditions fraught with perpetual risk and raise the stakes for justifications regarding necessities or increase the risk of politicization exponentially. Over the years accreditation standards, including those articulated by NAST, have stopped destructive proposals and fostered positive ones in all sectors associated with decision-making in higher education. NAST remains ready to act and assist at all times.
Events of the last year and a half have tested the limits and fortitude of institutions and the individuals that work diligently to maintain and continue programs in theatre that educate thousands of theatre students each year. As you look toward the future and the multitude of complex issues that await, it is important to remember that institutional membership in NAST represents a strategic choice—one that results in inestimable benefits to students, the institution, and the discipline of theatre. It signifies a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between the work of individual institutions and the work of the entire community of institutions that prepare theatre professionals at the collegiate level. It signifies a willingness to connect with others, both in order to give and to receive. It signifies that individuals with high levels of capability, expertise, and experience in theatre must take leadership responsibility in accreditation and related areas, lest the vacuum described above be created. It signifies a pledge to continue what NAST has always done: seek optimum learning conditions for theatre students and develop the strength and quality of theatre in higher education by assisting individual institutional members and their faculties to do their best work in the best possible context.
Not unlike challenging times in the past, the higher education community is working to address critical issues. The information provided above merely offers confirmations and formulations for your consideration about what our field has built to support itself in such times. The participation of theatre administrators charged with responsibilities to shepherd the work of their institutions and their faculties in activities which result in support provided to all institutions offering theatre study has never been more critical. Given the tone and tenor of today’s discourse, it has never been more important for those in the field, both individuals and institutions, to remain united in their efforts to not only advance but protect the artform, efforts that by necessity benefit from strong relationships between individual and common investment and action.
For those interested in further, more extended rationales and analyses, may we suggest that you return to and review the following documents which may be found on the Association’s website. You are welcome to use the points above unattributed as you see fit, and as always, to refer to information found in NAST publications by offer of attribution.
Tough Questions and Straight Answers About Arts Accreditation
Why NAST Institutional Membership is Important: An Overview for Theatre Faculty
Thank you for your attention, leadership, and contributions to the whole. Your ongoing work remains critical to the future of theatre study. It also functions as the binding agent that keeps the “whole” together. Thank you for the unfailing and extraordinary contributions you make to your own students, and, by your institution’s participation in the work of NAST, to each and every accredited institutional member of the Association.
We extend to you all good wishes for a restful and peaceful summer. We look forward to seeing and working with you in person in Baltimore in March. Please do not hesitate to contact the NAST National Office should additional information or assistance be desired.