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ASU’s fine arts building must not become a casualty

Guest commentary

Leroy Bynum

Leroy Bynum

ASU’s proposed Fine Arts Building is a well-established, legitimate project that deserves this community’s support. The efforts of those committed to bringing this facility to reality have been extensive, expansive, exhaustive, and honorable, and have had very little to do with the conflict stemming from money given to this institution by Ray Charles. It is therefore important to separate the facts about ASU’s proposed Fine Arts Building from the swirl of misconceptions about Ray Charles’ gift and its connection to this project.

In the wake of the news that ASU has returned funds to the Ray Charles Foundation, speculation about what may have happened and questions about ASU’s culpability will certainly be forefront in the minds of interested ASU supporters, and detractors alike. The most unfortunate consequence of this speculation, however, is that it will likely obscure the fact that ASU’s Fine Arts Building is the real casualty of this dispute. And thereto, the fate of ASU’s highly productive faculty and students and their hopes of acquiring a facility that addresses their needs may be threatened.

Albany State University’s proposed Fine Arts Building was approved by the Board of Regents in 2000, after the university’s desperate need for the building was thoroughly documented. The original program plan for the building was that it would house Art, English, Foreign Languages, Music, Speech and Theater, and Mass Communication at an approved total construction budget of $21 million. ASU’s “Liberal Arts Building” (the name given to the building at the time of its presentation to the BOR) was fourth among four other capital outlay projects approved that year, bringing the list of BOR approved buildings to 24, with ASU’s building standing at 24th on the list.

In 2001, ASU began its relationship with Ray Charles. And in the summer of that year, Joe Adams, representing Ray Charles, came onto Albany State’s campus and was hosted by ASU’s administrators, faculty, staff and students. ASU’s Concert Chorale, just back from its concert tour of Spain and Portugal, performed a special concert in Mr. Adams’ honor. At the conclusion of his visit Mr. Adams presented ASU with a check from Ray Charles in the amount of $1 million. In May of 2002, Ray Charles personally came to ASU as special guest and commencement speaker. During commencement Mr. Charles gave ASU another $2 million. Also during commencement, Dr. Portia Shields, then ASU’s president, announced that she had sought and received approval from the Board of Regents to name the recently approved “Liberal Arts Building” after Ray Charles, and she further announced that the Children’s Theater — then one of the proposed spaces for the building — would bear his mother’s name — Aretha Robinson. Ray was elated.

As the years passed, ASU’s building project slowly but steadily moved up the list until, in 2006, it made it well into the top 10 and within striking distance of funding recommendation. Unfortunately for ASU, this was the last year of the chronologically ordered capital outlay list. With the change in BOR leadership came a change in the procedure and formula for funding capital projects, wiping away any time advantage ASU’s Ray Charles Fine Arts Building had accrued; and thus, thrust it again into competition with all other capital outlay projects.

For ASU, this was obviously a very disappointing setback. But, undaunted, those leading the Ray Charles Fine Arts Building project redoubled their efforts to justify the building according to the BOR’s new approval paradigm. And in 2010, the BOR once again approved ASU’s Fine Arts Building, its new budget of $28.8 million, and recommended allocating $1.8 million for the design of the building in the upcoming year’s budget. The state Legislature approved the allocation of design funds, and in the fall of 2010 ASU began the design phase of the Ray Charles Fine Arts Building.

Throughout this protracted period of waiting for funding, members of the Ray Charles Foundation were also growing concerned about our lack of progress toward construction of the promised building. According to the foundation, this institution assured them that the building would be built within the next two to three years following ASU’s receipt of Ray’s gift. Unfortunately, such an assurance was overly optimistic.

First of all, approval of University System capital projects is beyond the control of individual campuses. There also appears to have been the unrealistic expectation that Ray’s $3 million gift was sufficient to at least move the project forward, if not build the building outright. Obviously, with a building cost of $21 million, even if the entirety of Ray Charles’ most generous gift had been devoted to this project, it would still have been impossible for ASU to have moved forward with any building plans until the remaining funds had been secured.

The foundation therefore concluded that since Ray Charles had intended for all $3 million of his gift to go toward the Fine Art Building, ASU’s use of $2 million for scholarships was inappropriate. They also concluded that, since, after a number of years, no building had been built, there was cause to suspect that ASU either misrepresented its intention to build the caliber of building it had assured, or had reneged on its promise to build the Fine Arts Building altogether.

ASU is fully committed to building its Fine Arts Building. It will house Art, English, Foreign Languages, Music, and Speech and Theater. And the cost now stands at $28.8 million. Of that amount, $1.8 million have already been spent on the building’s design. The design is now complete and has received final BOR approval. ASU now awaits construction funds from the state. If funded this year, this would bring to an end a record 13-year period between initial Board of Regents approval of the ASU Fine Arts Building and state allocation of construction funds.

In the meantime, the recent action by the Ray Charles Foundation has resulted in the return of the remaining $1 million (plus interest) of his gift and the removal of Mr. Charles’ name from the building, as well as his mother’s name from the concert hall. The negative impact of this action is significant. The BOR has included Ray’s $1 million as ASU’s contribution to the building’s total $28.8 million cost. And unless it is replaced, the building will be a million dollars shy of the funds needed for construction. A stunning blow, yes, but we’ll recover.

It’s also unfortunate that, by their action, the foundation has not considered, or perhaps is not aware of, those of us at ASU who have worked tirelessly to see that this project, despite its setbacks, was never abandoned. The fact of the matter is that ASU’s Fine Arts Building Committee has endeavored to design a building that represents the utmost respect for and gratitude to Ray Charles for his musical genius, his artistic stature and his generosity — in short, a building worthy of Ray Charles’ name.

Ray Charles, himself, upon learning that the ASU Fine Arts Building would bear his name, was thrilled, and thereto gave ASU his permission to so name it. Denying ASU the honor of using Ray Charles’ name does a great disservice to his wishes, to his memory and to those of us who have been relentless in our quest to see that this building is built. Despite this great disservice, however, ASU’s building, whatever its name, must prevail.

Albany State’s Fine Arts Department is a jewel in ASU’s and Albany’s crown. The department has amassed highly talented faculty, produced outstanding graduates and has provided exceptional cultural outreach programs for all of Southwest Georgia. Both the Department of Fine Arts and the Department of English and Modern Languages have proven that they deserve a building in which to grow. And ASU has proven its need for such a facility to serve all of its students, the University community and Southwest Georgia. It would be the greatest tragedy of all if the long-delayed Fine Arts Building were delayed even further because of the outcome of the dispute between the Ray Charles Foundation and Albany State University.

Leroy E. Bynum Jr., DMA, is dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Albany State University.

Comments

FryarTuk 1 year, 9 months ago

Dr. Leroy Bynum is reknown tenor, professor and college administrator. His standards of excellence in teaching, performing and managing are exceptional. The work he has done at ASU and our community deserves our appreciation and support.

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waltspecht 1 year, 9 months ago

Being the practical individual I am, I still have to question the worth to the Nation of a Fine Arts Degree. For an individual to achieve success in the fields of Fine Arts represents about as much of a chance as one playing in the NBA. There are a lot more Fine Arts Graduates than College Basketball Players. Where is the return on investment for the Citizens? While I feel it is OK for an individual to spend their money in persuit of such a degree, I am not to happy about the Government providing funds and loans for such a degree. Yes, for those of you that know me, my son does have such a degree. Plus he is earning a living with it Teaching Theater Arts. It is what he loves, and his decision. Me, I am to practical to support these personal gratification exercises on the Taxpayers dollar.

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TRUTH101 1 year, 9 months ago

I would advise you to look at how the other "Powerhouse Countries" view the Arts....Our lack of support for the Arts is another reason why America is falling behind our peers......

"The following are findings reported in Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning (Fiske, 1999) that should be noted by every parent, teacher, and administrator:

The arts reach students not normally reached, in ways and methods not normally used. (This leads to better student attendance and lower dropout rates.)

It changes the learning environment to one of discovery. (This often re-ignites the love of learning in students tired of just being fed facts.)

Students connect with each other better. (This often results in fewer fights, greater understanding of diversity, and greater peer support.) The arts provide challenges to students of all levels. (Each student can find his/her own level from basic to gifted.)

Students learn to become sustained, self-directed learners. (The student does not just become an outlet for stored facts from direct instruction, but seeks to extend instruction to higher levels of proficiency.)

The study of the fine arts positively impacts the learning of students of lower socioeconomic status as much or more than those of a higher socioeconomic status. (Twenty-one percent of students of low socioeconomic status who had studied music scored higher in math versus just eleven percent of those who had not. By the senior year, these figures grew to 33 percent and 16 percent, respectively, suggesting a cumulative value to music education.)"

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AuntieDee 1 year, 9 months ago

Well Walt. All I can say is that I'm glad your son's degree wasn't affected by your practicality. :) Fine arts students deserve a "state-of-the-art" building just like any of the other degree-seeking students.

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Django 1 year, 9 months ago

Mr. Waltspecht,

I appreciate your level headed, practical demeanor. While your thoughts are certainly valid, there are a few things that I would ask you to consider, with all due respect.

1) The Fine Arts are an essential part of the fabric that makes up the university education. The professors and administrators in the Fine Arts Department do not merely serve majors. We serve every student on campus through core curriculum and cultural events. Part of what every student is paying for when he or she undertakes a university education is a cultural experience, and to be versed in the arts (as well as the sciences, mathematics, etc.) is impetus of any college or university. It is why many employers look for people with college diplomas. In addition, I have been highly impressed at both the quantity and quality of cultural events that ASU helps to bring to the community at large.

2) Keeping with your analogy regarding athletes, the vast majority of athletes will not become professionals. Many will coach PE, work in sporting goods, radio, tv, sell cars, sell insurance, etc. Working out of field does not mean the diploma is a waste. In fact most majors do something related to their field rather than something truly field specific unless they attain highly specialized training and/or advanced degrees. In addition to a length list of fields associated with the arts, we teach many skill sets that are useful in many different kinds of jobs.

3) My most pragmatic point is that every year money is spent by the state on capital outlay. This is because the benefits to the state both economically and culturally are clearly worth the investment. Now, that money will be spent regardless. When our community does not back our proposals, that money gets spent in another community. Rather than asking ourselves, why should our tax dollars be spent, perhaps we should ask why should our tax dollars repeatedly go to fund buildings and projects in other cities? Let's put our tax dollars to work here.

All that we are asking for is adequate space and safety for our classes. We feel our students should get a similar experience and benefits that their peers within the University System of Georgia. To accomplish this, our request has not been extravagant. When you consider that we are working in cramped spaces without adequate infrastructure in a building that is essentially condemned, it is, in fact, a practical proposal. This is especially a true statement when you consider the number of students who are competing with their peers at other institutions, who are getting into grad programs, and who are finding success in the job market. Our students work hard. i am proud of them. I would love to see them working in a cathedral of the arts. That's not what we have planned, though. The proposal is practical, useful, and multi-faceted. It would be a great addition to our campus and to the community.

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sad_for_albany 1 year, 9 months ago

I don't think most people object to Fine arts and it's teaching. I, like I suspect the Ray Charles Foundation probably did, do take exception to a group or entity taking my money and using it for purposes other than what it was intended. Taking 2 Million to fund "scholarships" was not what Mr. Charles gave that money to ASU to use. It was pretty stupid and arrogant of ASU to think that it could do it. But, that is pretty much how things run in Albany.

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AuntieDee 1 year, 9 months ago

Do not blame this on the masses (All of ASU). That was the decision of another administrator. That person is no longer there.

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Django 1 year, 9 months ago

sad_for_Albany,

There again to say that "ASU" did that implies that everyone at the institution is a culprit when the action (legit or not) was carried out unilaterally by a former administrator.

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sad_for_albany 1 year, 9 months ago

Django

Then it sounds to like ASU did not/does not have proper institutional controls in place to properly vett or monitor for "rogue" administrators.

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Phinizy3 1 year, 9 months ago

Unfortunate is right! First, I have the utmost respect for the Albany State University music and arts programs. Dr Bynum's reputation for excellence is well known in our community. Certainly, the University provides the Albany area with so many wonderful cultural opportunities. But, I have to look at this issue from the perspective of the Ray Charles Foundation. Obviously, there was a written, legal agreement that accompanied the generous gift from Mr. Charles. That agreement obviously set a time frame for contruction to begin or to be completed; and, the agreement must have decribed how the funds could be used or invested prior to the construction expenditures. If these funds were co-mingled with the Universitiy's general scholarship fund, then there is a clear breach of contract. If this is the case, then perhaps ASU would serve itself well to review the financial gift oversight process to make sure nothing like this happens again. The return of this gift was an embarassing moment for Albany State. And, it was a tremendous setback for Albany as a whole. But, it was only a setback!

As a suggestion, perhaps the music department can prepare a tribute program dedicated to the work of Ray Charles and perform fund raising dinner concerts for the Ray Charles Fine Arts Building? I would suggest that the University still name the building after Mr. Charles when it is built! He gifted that money prior to his death and we do not know what he would have done regarding those funds if he were still alive. If an error was made by ASU that caused the return of the gift, then why should his name be removed from the building if and when it is built. Mr Charle's intentions were clear! ASU would be advised to admit a mistake (if a mistake was made) and move forward. Chalk it up as a learning experience and turn it into an opportunity.

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waltspecht 1 year, 9 months ago

I never said I didn't support the new building. I said I do not support public funding of the degree. For Public funding needs a return to the Taxpayer. For that funding is taken from us, I haven't heard of anyone being asked to pay taxes PLEASE. I know a letter went out requesting Alumni to provide monetary support. Had the entire living ASU Alumni responded with just a $100 gift, the building would be built. That is just two tanks of gas. You could save it by bringing lunch for a month, or simply driving more conservatively. So how about it, you ASU supporters. Caugh up the support. If like me you hate getting on a soft touch list, just bring in the money in cash, in an envelope. Or use a Postal Check with someone's made up name on it. It works for me. Of course you won't be able to write it off on taxes, but your doing it to support the school aren't you? Without thought of benefit to yourself.

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Tonto 1 year, 9 months ago

Lots of fine sounding sentiments and elegant words.  Did anyone tell Mr. Charles as he was granting these funds that ASU was no where near the requirement for these buildings to be errected and any naming would be long after his death? If this was a sought after event and many at ASU were working tirelessly to see it thru how could none of them be aware the funds balance was eroding thru misuse?  Were there no status briefs, power points, quarterly updates or just "checky-checky" to see what funds were being raised additionally and what the outdstanding balance toward goal was?  Apparently the plan was to just wait and see if it rose to the top of a government list to fund with taxpayer money.

Must be the same folks running this trained with the riverquarium folks...give me your money and I promise to see if I can raise my own the next time...unless i just don't and ask you for more of your's.

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Ihope4albany 1 year, 9 months ago

I am glad to finally hear more of an explanation. However, I need to see the contract or donation letter. As a nonprofit organization leader, it is very hard to believe that the legal sides missed something this big. If the gift was unrestricted, then the funds could have been used for various purposes. If the gift was restricted, then it could only be used for what was stipulated in the contract.

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FryarTuk 1 year, 9 months ago

Dr. Bynum's point and the reality is the need of the Fine Arts Building is critical and stands apart from the issue of Ray Charles' gift. Anything else is irrelevant to the thread except to vent or blather.

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chinaberry25 1 year, 9 months ago

They need a new Math building too, but not gonna get one.

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