Thursday, February 2, 2012

Arkansas Tech replaces theater director Ardith Morris

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 3:42 PM

  • DAVID ESHELMAN: New theater leader at Tech.
Ardith Morris sent me a note via Facebook a few minutes ago that said she'd been removed as director of the theater program at Arkansas Tech University after 29 years. Shortly after, a news release arrived from the university confirming the change. She's tenured and will remain a faculty member. Dr. David Eshelman, an assistant professor of speech, will be interim director of the theater program.

Kate Brugh, who was theater production manager, also was reassigned to teaching duties.

The theater program has long been a source of friction on campus. Tech President Robert Brown set off one controversy by banning use of a prop gun in a stage musical in 2008. Before that fight over free expression was over, public performances had been severely limited and Morris was lauded by the ACLU for her 1st Amendment defense.

Things blew up again with closure of the theater program's workshop following a fire department safety inspection last fall. Theater defenders saw this as an orchestrated inspection and said cramped conditions in the workshop were a result of the administration's long failure to provide adequate facilities.

The school cited the workshop safety problem in the leadership change, but also said the program wasn't attracting enough students and producing enough drama teachers.


Arkansas Tech University took steps on Thursday to ensure the long-term viability of its theatre program by further strengthening its commitment to the arts.

Dr. David Eshelman, assistant professor of speech at Arkansas Tech since 2006, has been named interim director of the university theatre program.

His first assignment in his new role will be to oversee the clean-up and restoration of the Techionery theatre workshop, and the university has committed to providing the resources necessary to bring about the revitalization of that facility.

Eshelman’s background in theatre includes writing plays and monodramas that have been performed in such locales as Chicago and New York City.

He is the founder of the Arkansas Radio Theatre, which operates within the Arkansas Tech Department of Speech, Theatre and Journalism.

Eshelman holds a Ph.D. in theatre from the University of Missouri. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Case Western Reserve University and his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

“I am excited about the future of the theatre program at Arkansas Tech and my role in it,” said Eshelman. “I have enjoyed working with the students involved in Tech theatre over the past six years. I look forward to what the future holds.”

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette River Valley and Ozark Edition named Eshelman to its “20 to Watch” list for 2012.

The decision to make a change in the leadership of the Arkansas Tech theatre program was based on four factors:

*a report made by the Russellville Fire Marshall on Sept. 9, 2011, found “fire and life safety issues” at the Techionery theatre workshop that led Arkansas Tech to close the workshop on Sept. 15, 2011;

*while the enrollment of the university has more than doubled over the past decade, the number of students choosing to pursue the Bachelor of Arts degree in speech with the theatre option has been stagnant at approximately 18 students per year —- this compares to 177 current majors in art and 160 current majors in music;

*the passage rate of Arkansas Tech theatre students taking the test necessary to enter the teacher education program in recent years has been approximately 10 percent, which is not acceptable to the university;

*and there have been an average of approximately four graduates per year with the Bachelor of Arts degree in speech with the theatre option over the past decade, a number which is below the State of Arkansas minimum for degree production.

Dr. Ardith Morris, who previously served as director of the theatre program at Arkansas Tech, and Kate Brugh, who previously served as production manager for the theatre program at Arkansas Tech, are tenured members of the faculty who are now reassigned to full-time teaching duties within the Department of Speech, Theatre and Journalism.

Arkansas Tech will conduct a national search to identify a new permanent director for the university’s theatre program.

The university is compiling a self-study as part of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education (ADHE) review of the Arkansas Tech Bachelor of Arts degree in speech —- including the theatre option within that degree.

The self-study, which includes input from members of the Arkansas Tech speech and theatre faculty, is scheduled to be completed in mid-February.

In March, a team of independent evaluators from out of state selected by ADHE will visit Arkansas Tech to conduct an on-site visit as part of the program review.

The independent evaluators will use the self-study and their own observations to compile a report, which will be returned to the Arkansas Tech Department of Speech, Theatre and Journalism in mid-April.

The self-study report, the independent evaluators’ report and university comments to the reports will be forwarded to ADHE in early May.

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