No-confidence vote for Aspen Music Fest’s Fletcher set
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – On April 29, a special meeting of the Aspen Music Festival and School corporation, a 148-person body comprising Music Festival faculty, members of the board of directors and at-large members, will be held at Harris Hall. The purpose of the meeting, which was called last week by approximately 40 corporation members, is to hold a no-confidence vote regarding Alan Fletcher, the organization’s president and CEO since early 2006.
The vote holds no authority; the power to retain the president is vested in the 50-member board of directors. As Jennifer Elliot, the Music Festival chief financial officer put it, the vote “is procedurally not an action; it’s a statement.”
Lori Schiff, a faculty member and the chairman of the Music Committee, an 11-person board of directors committee made up entirely of faculty, conceded that a thumbs-down vote against Fletcher would not force him from the position of president. But Schiff said that the vote was not called to oust Fletcher so much as to give corporation members – including the 91 faculty members who are part of the corporation – a chance to register their views in a semi-official way.
“It’s an opportunity for all these members of the community to be heard,” said Schiff, who has taught the Alexander Technique – a practice to help instrumentalists use their muscles efficiently and properly – for 17 years in Aspen, by phone from New York. “It’s non-binding – that’s correct. The corporation cannot do anything directly. But it’s my feeling that the community of the corporation needs to be heard.”
Schiff noted that actions this past fall involving Fletcher – when he was abruptly fired by the executive committee of the board of directors, then rehired by a vote of the full board – were taken without the participation of the corporation.
“The corporation has been unable to be heard through a vote,” said Schiff, who has been a member of the Music Festival board of directors for nine years. “They can kick and scream and pound their fists, but they can’t be heard in a vote. And some of these people have strong feelings; some have been faculty members for a long time.”
Fletcher said last week that he believed that a quiet majority of faculty members supported him. However, those voices may be, in a way, too silent to save Fletcher from a result of no-confidence. The corporation typically meets once a year, Fletcher noted, and most members do not attend in person. Fletcher thinks that most members will not be in attendance for the April 29 meeting, but will vote by proxy – allowing the faculty leadership to cast ballots for them. This, Fletcher said, would be a “miscarriage.”
“Because you won’t have these faculty members present, and really thinking it through,” he continued. “That’s the nature of the vote. A lot of these people say, ‘We just want to do our work; we’re sick of getting phone calls about this.'”
While noting last week that the corporation vote had no consequences in itself, Fletcher added that a vote of no-confidence was “a powerful symbol.” He said yesterday that, if the vote turns out against him, he will address the board of directors regarding his position at the festival.
“I think the immediate step is to go back to the board and say, ‘Let’s think this through: Do we want me to continue or not?'” Fletcher said.
Going the route of a special meeting, Fletcher said, was an “end-run around the board.” Each year that he has been president, Fletcher has been the subject of a review process directed by the board of directors. The next report on his accomplishments is scheduled for June.
Schiff said calling the special meeting was a difficult decision, and was done after much consideration. Tension among factions at the Music Festival has been running high for at least a year, and she believes that they should be addressed in a formal process. Schiff said that certain aspects of the festival – though not the experience of the students, she emphasized – “have fallen apart rapidly,” and that there are people in the Music Festival community “who have said things have become quite a mess.”
“Over the last few years, especially last summer, it appeared we’ve been progressing toward dissonance, instead of keeping this harmonious organization that we’ve had,” she said. “The question is: What do we do next to bring the festival into harmony?”
Probably the biggest source of dissension has been a strategic plan adopted by the board a year ago. Addressing hard financial realities, as well as long-standing concerns about the length of the summer season, the plan called for reducing the size of the faculty and of the student body, and shortening the season by a week. Under Fletcher that plan has been implemented, though there have been accusations that the faculty cuts were not handled well.
Specifically, Schiff said there was a request that those cuts not be made until the summer season, when faculty members would be in Aspen and would have a chance to discuss the matter. The Music Festival opted to make those cuts before the summer. Fletcher explained that he thought the more notice the musicians had, the more time they would have to arrange other teaching positions.
“I thought it was more decent to have it done with. To be completely direct was the best way,” Fletcher said. He added that having those discussions while the festival was in progress would “make it the primary topic all summer, which would not be for the best.”
Schiff said that fundraising under Fletcher has also been a concern. The plan to rebuild the Music Festival campus on Castle Creek has been on hold for a year and a half – partly due to global economic woes, and partly to ongoing negotiations with the Aspen Country Day School, which shares the campus.
Elliot, the Music Festival’s CFO, said that “this is not the best time to raise funds” for the project, which in the past was estimated to cost $60 million. But she added that in the context of the economy, fundraising was “incredible.” She said that last year, when nonprofits were typically seeing a drop of 15 to 25 percent in fundraising, the Music Festival’s numbers were down between 5 and 7 percent, and that this year, the figures were even better.
Schiff also raised the issue of communication and morale in the organization under Fletcher. She pointed to a Music Festival bylaw that specifies that part of the job of the CEO is to “foster open communication and camaraderie” in the festival community. What she witnessed last summer fell short of those goals.
“I think the morale of the faculty was the worst I’d ever seen. No doubt,” she said.
Fletcher counters that his efforts at communication were often thwarted. He said he was prohibited from attending faculty meetings; when he was permitted, he was given 10 minutes to speak, with no opportunity for questions from faculty members. Fletcher said that he raised the idea of entering into mediation to resolve issues, but Paul Kantor, a faculty member who is on the Music Committee, “absolutely refused.” Fletcher said he resorted to meeting with faculty members in small groups.
“I don’t think anyone has tried harder than Alan to reach out and make the various parties work together,” said a faculty member who requested not to be identified. “I was witness to a good deal of communication, countless meetings.”
If the vote goes against Fletcher, the Music Festival will find itself with a president who lacks the support of the festival community at the same time that it is without a music director. David Zinman, who has been the music director for 12 years, resigned abruptly last week, and released a written statement that indicated that his differences with Fletcher were at the heart of his decision. A search is under way to hire Zinman’s successor.
Whether the Music Festival will also need to find a new president is an open question. Fletcher believes that the majority of the faculty would like to put such issues aside, and get on with the business of making music and teaching students. The divisions among festival factions, though, have spurred drastic measures.
“I sometimes got barrages of negative feelings,” Fletcher said of his meetings last summer with faculty members. “And it was good for me to hear it: ‘Just let us do our work and let us get over all of this mess.’ But the leadership of the faculty doesn’t have that point of view. They want me out.”
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