Gene Narmour is a music man. Expert in music theory, twice chair of the Music Department, and Edmund J. Kahn Distinguished Professor of Music, he is also the newly appointed Associate Dean for the Humanities and Social Sciences in SAS. And how does a researcher into the perception of melody see his new role as an administrator? All indications point to a most harmonious fit.
While Narmour's research and publications are in theory, he originally came to Penn 24 years ago as a performer-conductor of the University Orchestra, University Choir, and University Choral Society. With a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Chicago and degrees from the Eastman School of Music, he has probed almost all areas of his field.
A musicologist, Narmour explains, must acquire a very broad education. He must understand old notation, philological methods, source studies; he must know repertory and how history is written; he must learn sophisticated analytical techniques for the special problems of musical criticism; and he must never lose sight of the tremendous impact that culture has on the perception of an art. "Graduate training in music," he says, "is a wonderful preparation for the life of the mind."
"My specific research concerns the making of cognitive theories," he adds. "I'm always constructing experimental hypotheses and looking for numerical valuations of listeners' responses to music. So I know a little bit about psychology and statistical analysis, both of which figure in the social sciences."
How does this discipline-hopping across music history, cultural studies, analytical theory, cognitive psychology, and statistics relate to the duties of an associate dean? It gives Narmour a conceptual knowledge of many areas of the humanities and the social sciences. And since, as Associate Dean for the Humanities and the Social Sciences, he is responsible for all 14 SAS humanities departments plus Political Science, Anthropology, and Sociology, he's better prepared to deal with the unique perspectives presented by each discipline and each department.
The day-to-day duties of an associate dean are heavily involved in the academic side of SAS administration - personnel issues, faculty complaints, issues of space, and questions about teaching loads and salaries. Narmour likes to describe what he does as "underseeing" and acting as a "court of first resort." The associate deans discuss problems with chairs and faculty and then pass those that aren't resolved on to the dean who makes the final decision. "In SAS," Narmour says, "consultation is the rule, up and down the hierarchy."
"A major reason that I took this job is that I like and admire SAS Dean Rosemary Stevens. She has put together a great team that attracted me. Deputy Dean Frank Warner is an especially fine person, and I've long admired Associate Dean and Director of the College Bob Rescorla. I didn't know David Balamuth (Associate Dean for the Natural and Social Sciences) before, but I did know his splendid reputation. I had also heard good things about Walter Licht, Associate Dean of the Graduate Division, and had very positive experiences with Associate Dean Richard Hendrix of CGS while I was chairman of the Music Department."
"Of course," he adds with a smile, "there were 30 good reasons not to take this job. It requires some tough decisions and is an immense, unrelenting amount of work. Ultimately, I feel a lot of loyalty to the faculty and wanted to help determine their future in these hard times. Rosemary's team - and no doubt my overwrought sense of social responsibility - clinched my decision."
The tough decisions, mainly concerns about priorities and funding, are a major focus for administrators across academia. Institutions are compensating in various ways but few are cutting music studies. Why? "Music as a discipline has been around since the time of the Greeks," Narmour points out. "It was one of the original subjects of the quadrivium in the medieval academy (along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). Sound is as powerful a thing as there is. There are no cultures that do not have music. Many people who feel no need to read books or to look at paintings are addicted to their daily doses of music. We carry around radios on our shoulders - or attach earphones to our heads. We spontaneously sing in the shower and happily hum while we wait for the bus. We make up tunes. We return to music again and again because it gives order and meaning to psychological time, to the experiences that shape our unique histories while we're on this planet. Clearly, music is an extremely important activity for human beings. The question is, 'Why?'"
Narmour believes that music perception primarily relies on prelinguistic mental processes and offers a magic window into the fundamental operations of the human mind. Does music really have "charms to soothe a savage breast" or to improve the intelligence of those who listen? Narmour says that we don't yet know enough to come to such conclusions. What we do know is that music profoundly affects our emotions. And we know that different arts "play" to different sides of the brain, to different modalities: haute cuisine for taste and smell; painting for vision; and music for sound. And since different arts feed different sides of our perceptions, they are not single entities. "There is no unity among the arts," Narmour says. "The evolution of the brain seems to have resulted in a modular-like construction."
Ultimately, music is a necessity in the lives of all but a very few. As a fundamental cognitive and symbolic activity, music is an appropriate and reasonable accompaniment to diverse social occasions - not only concerts and religious services but also military parades and sporting events. "Music is an integral part of what human beings are and can be. Moreover, listening to music broadens the range of our emotional responses." He believes that art, in whatever guise, constitutes a chief avenue to happiness and to the discovery of life's multiple meanings. "This alone makes music eminently worthy of study, as much as any academic subject in any university curriculum."
From his perspective as an administrator, Narmour allows that this is a difficult period for higher education and wants to make sure that genuine scholars are involved in the tough decisions that must be made. "You don't want people who aren't real researchers to be in charge because they don't understand the fundamental issues of acquiring and disseminating knowledge," he explains. "That's another one of the reasons I took the job. In the end I felt that if I hadn't agreed to be Associate Dean at Penn, where I've spent practically my whole professional life, I might ultimately regret it."
His priorities? He wants to keep strong SAS departments strong and work to build those departments that have the potential to move into the top ten. He is also keen to enhance the President and Provost's initiative to make Penn's undergraduate experience the best in the country. And when asked how can we do that in such financially stringent times, the musician- administrator answers with one voice: "I intend to act intelligently and creatively."