Castleton University just announced another cut to programs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, unceremoniously – and accidentally.
In a leaked email from Interim President Jonathon Spiro Friday morning, it was announced that the Castleton Athletic Marching Band will be seeing a downgrade, and replaced with a “spirit band.”
The email, originally sent to faculty and staff on Monday, featured a lot of lighthearted jokes about the situation, beginning with “If you think my decision to forego an in-person commencement was met with a certain amount of, um, grumbling among the troops, just wait until I tell you about this other cherished tradition that my administration has demolished…” and ending with a joke about donning shakos and blowing a tuba in his face.
This was how students, faculty and staff found out this program was getting a downsize.
The email quickly spread across social media, with many people believing that the program was getting cut entirely. The Spartan email was flooded with inquiries about possible stories or letters to the editor.
Stephen Klepner, former director of the Athletic Band and CU alumnus, shared a personal letter with the newspaper, and also posted it on social media.
“I came to Castleton with the promise that I was joining a community that was small in size and big in heart,” wrote Klepner. “Today, I found out that was a lie. Ten years of dedication from hundreds of Castleton students is trivialized through a poorly worded shako joke. All the parades that the Athletic Bands performed at, all the times we cheered on our peers at hockey games or heckled a goalie or played the fight song or the National Anthem or stood hand in hand with the football team at the end of games as we played the Alma Mater were meaningless to Dr. Spiro. All of that community involvement, joy, happiness, love trivialized. To him, this was a joke.”
His post on Facebook had 70 shares as of late afternoon Friday. Comments from past and present Athletic Band members and parents followed – filled with anger, confusion, and sadness toward Spiro and his choice of words.
Band members finding out through a leaked email, according to Spiro, was a mistake.
“I was told that the students were informed on February 25th, and so when I made my announcement to faculty and staff, I thought, incorrectly, that all the students already knew,” said Spiro in an interview Friday. “And so I wasn’t informing the students, that was just a private email I had sent to faculty and staff. I had assumed that I was just following up with them, being transparent, on this difficult cut that we had made,”
Many are angry at the news. Some understand it but are still sad. For students like Danielle Solomon, the marching band was the driving force in committing to Castleton, and they found family and solace in the program.
“I came to Castleton because the Athletic Band made me feel welcome, I stayed at Castleton because I had a family in Athletic Band and I had finally found a place where I felt I belonged, and I’m ready to leave Castleton because the only marching band in ALL of Vermont is being cut by someone who knows nothing about music,” Solomon wrote to the paper.
“The marching band specifically brought many arts students with its outreach program,” said Kaetlyn Collins, an alum of the marching band. “Without this program, thousands of dollars will be lost due to possible students not knowing about CU, alum who donated to the university for the marching band will no longer donate, and there will most likely be students who leave for a school with a program since many chose to come here for it.”
Collins also brought up that many students are here on an Athletic Band scholarship.
Professor Sherrill Blodget, chair of the music department, clarified that the scope of the Athletic Band is changing moving forward, but isn’t being eliminated.
“The band will no longer offer a halftime field show at football games or have a full band camp prior to orientation, but they will still do a pre-game for the football games and play the national anthem as well as the alma mater at the end of each game,” she said. “This is disappointing in many ways and will be a loss to the community.
It was a very difficult decision involving many factors. Ultimately the cost to run a successful full field marching band, which requires a number of staff and many resources, has become prohibitive following the pandemic and overall cuts within the VSC.”
Blodget said, thankfully, Castleton will still have a robust Castleton Athletic Band program, and music department and majors.
“We will still be able to offer Athletic Band Scholarships to incoming students to help support the Athletic Bands. Students, faculty, and a new director will work together to create a re-envisioned Athletic Band to perform at football games, tailgates, hockey games, campus events, and march in the Rutland Halloween Parade. There will be great opportunities for student leadership and ownership of the Athletic Bands, and alumni involvement,” she said.
Though many say they’re upset at the downscaled band opportunities, they are also upset at Spiros letter, calling it “unprofessional,” “rude,” and “insensitive” among other things.
Spiro said that the email was just him trying to make light of the situation and lighten yet another cut that the faculty and staff had to hear about.
“I never thought that the audience for that message would include the students of the marching band. I thought they had already been informed, and so to hear about it in that manner is absurd, they probably thought ‘why is this guy joking?’” Spiro said.
Some professors are sticking up for Spiro.
Stephanie Wilson, a media and communication professor, also wrote a letter to the editor.
“I’d like to clear up some significant misinformation in the social media dust up over President Spiro’s comments. President Spiro did not issue a statement or letter to students and parents as some of the FB commenters implied. His comments were released in an informal weekly emailed newsletter to faculty and staff. I teach public relations courses, among other media studies courses, and a cardinal rule of mass communication is “know your audience.” Jonathan was addressing his peers, not students and parents. He was using humor to soften the blow of announcing yet another painful loss,” Wilson wrote.
Students said they are upset they weren’t included in the conversation. A petition has been going around asking for a discussion with students and fans of the marching band and President Spiro, as well as the department chair.
“In an era of budget cuts, sometimes we have to make these very difficult decisions,” Spiro said. “Getting input from students, or alums, or former staff members, hearing from them about how much they love the marching band, it’s good to know that, but it doesn’t really change the need for the decision.”
Spiro said that, unlike what people are saying about him on social media, he has no hostility toward the marching band.
“Really, the reason we did this was because the alternative was to cut all of the athletic band, and we are not going to do that. The Athletic Bands are really important and so fun,” said Spiro.
Bill Wiles, an English professor, spoke about the negativity being spread on social media.
“What saddens me more, however, is the flood of misinformation. To repurpose a tired cliché, misinformation travels halfway around the world before the truth can put on its pants. Could the announcement have been handled differently? Yes, without question. But anger and accusations and negative attention will not help the situation. We have all lost much over these many months, some more than others. We can choose to wallow in these losses, or we can choose to embrace what we still have and move forward. We have lost something valuable, but we have not lost everything. Let’s focus our attention on what we CAN do rather than on what we cannot,” he wrote in an email.
“I understand why they are saddened by the way it was announced,” Spiro said when asked if he had anything he’d like to say to community members upset at his email. “It was a miscommunication, it was my mistake, and I’m really, really sorry. Their anger is understandable, it is my fault, and I take full responsibility, and I apologize.”