Debrief: Big stage, challenges for sonic Boomgaarden

Lowering the Boom: And raising the bar, as St. Joseph's College's eighth president brings a uniquely creative resume to the office.

For his next number, Donald Boomgaarden is playing way past Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (an aria plus 30 riffs, mastered years ago). The longtime concert pianist became St. Joseph’s College’s eighth president in July 2017, high note (so far) of a crescendo career soaring from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (master’s and doctoral degrees) to the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership to the University of Salzburg’s Institut für Musikwissenschaft, part of a long tour as an (oft-published) professor of music aesthetics and harmonic theory. The former Loyola University New Orleans College of Music and Fine Arts dean and University of Scranton provost/academic affairs VP has top billing now, though the Fulbright scholar, country fiddler and noted historian of 18th century opera still performs frequently (both domestically and abroad) and even teaches a class every year. As COVID-19 retunes SJC’s Patchogue and Brooklyn campuses, Boomgaarden leverages a lifetime of creativity – and anticipates continued harmony with the regional innovation economy.


Split decision: My wife and I have an apartment in Brooklyn and an apartment in Sayville, so I normally spend about half the week at each campus. And I teach each year on alternating campuses – this past year I taught here on Long Island and in the fall, I’ll be teaching in Brooklyn.

Standing room only: I teach a course called North American Roots Music, which is basically the history of folk and popular music in the United States. I do that course because it always fills – very popular with the students. My course on 18th century harmonic theory, not so much.

The art of administration: I have a pretty creative perspective. When you really work at your craft, you develop a real discipline, and now I approach a complex problem the same way I would approach learning a Beethoven sonata – I take it apart and put it back together. I examine it from a different perspective. I’m used to that approach, to really looking deeply into things. I think it gives me an advantage.

Difference makers: I recognize a lot of different learning styles and approaches, because I’ve worked so closely with students throughout my life. The other thing, as a musician – musicians are typically very entrepreneurial. They frequently have side jobs. When I was teaching, I always had a church job. That’s given me an understanding of business.

Pianissimo: St. Joe’s has a small but enthusiastic music program. We don’t have a major but we have a minor, and we have a number of small performance groups on each campus – students majoring in other fields, but they happen to be very good musicians.

Crowded stage: People frequently ask me (about creating a larger music program). But if you look at Brooklyn and Long Island, some impressive music programs, of course, already exist here. And whatever we do has to fit our primary educational mission, and our mission has never been to become a conservatory.

Enrolling right along: (Before the pandemic), we actually had the highest enrollment the school has had in 10 years. Both campuses are doing much better than they’ve been doing. We’d been seeing declines in Brooklyn over the last several years, and over the last [two years], we were able to really turn that around.

Where accreditation is due: We’d also just passed our Middle States (Commission on Higher Education) accreditation. Every 10 years, they come in and evaluate each college, and basically give you the seal of approval so you can receive federal aid. It demonstrates your finances and your programs are in good order.

Fortepiano: Around March 10, I got a call from the director of the [Dillon Child Study Center], which is our preschool in Brooklyn, attached to the campus. She said we have a student who was exposed to someone who has the disease. We have more than 100 kids in that school. It’s right on the campus, and many of the teachers who teach at that school teach at both campuses. I said to myself, “We’re going to have to close everything down.”

Long haul: I thought we’d cancel classes for that week, then spring break and possibly come back after break. But over spring break, we realized we were not going to be able to come back. We were going to have to shift online.

Done that: St. Joseph’s has a large online program – 27 different degree programs available online. We call it our “third campus.” Because of that, we have a great teaching staff and faculty with lots of experience teaching online. The faculty rose up and did a wonderful job. Certainly, it was a lot of extra work, but we had the infrastructure to do it.

Stay tuned: We’re going to have to wait for a little more information before we decide (about Fall 2020). Of course, a lot depends on what the governor lets us do.

First choice: I’ve basically asked that we have four plans ready. Plan One would be to start on the ground, using all the social distancing and protective measures. We’re preparing the classrooms, buying different types of screening equipment, taking a slightly different approach to scheduling … should we be able to start on the ground, we’ll be more than ready.

Mix it up: Plan Two would be a hybrid – a large number of courses being taught remotely, with certain courses on campus. For example, laboratory courses, maybe studio art courses, maybe some events for first-year students. It would be a focused on-campus experience of a very limited nature.

Covering the bases: Option three would be to start with remote learning, and then shift to on-the-ground around midway through the semester. Option four would be fully remote for the full semester, which we’re certainly capable of doing.

Safety first: I want the students back on campus, and I know that’s what they would love. We’re going to have to assess what the state allows and take a look at the safety of staff and students. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Evolution 101: One important permanent change, I think, is really positive, and that’s using technology to work smarter. We’ve been able to run our business office. I have continued my meetings with the vice presidents – large-scale planning meetings. A lot of people who normally wouldn’t are using technology now to work smarter. These experiences are really going to serve us if we decide to create more online programs in the future, which I’m sure we will.

Education 102: Some of our professors have never taught online, and now a change is happening in the dynamic between professors and students. In a typical classroom scenario, some students sit in the back and never say anything. The ones you want to say something. They might be too inhibited. Now an interesting kind of opening up is happening, and different learning styles start to be an advantage. The shift to remote learning shakes up creativity, and that’s a good thing.

The science of arts: We have students and graduates who work at [Brookhaven National Laboratory], most coming out of our excellent computer science program. Our nursing program is doing very well. Our biology program is terrific. We do have some cutting-edge science programs.

Polyphony: We’re not as research-oriented as, say, Stony Brook University, but when they come out of St. Joe’s and enter the workforce, our students bring more of a liberal arts background. And that translates well in any setting. 

Interview by Gregory Zeller