Whether he was performing a New Music New College concert, running a faculty meeting or briefing the Board of Governors of the Florida University System, Stephen Miles — professor of music, Humanities division chair, New College provost — always seemed equally at home.
Artists are somewhat rare in higher education administration, but Miles says making music and managing are more in sync than you’d imagine.
“In a way, it’s a lot like composing,” he said. “The definition of composing is to take things and put them together. Composing is also about structure and process, and that’s true of academic administration. We can have a vision of what we want to accomplish at the college, but often what’s needed is just a better structure of some kind, a structure that allows the faculty and students and staff to be fully creative. But there has to be a structure. Just wanting to be creative isn’t enough.”
Miles is retiring this year, after three decades-plus of service to New College. Looking back, it’s clear he didn’t just want things to happen. He put things together.
Miles came to New College from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1988 and he instantly felt at home. “This was clearly a place that valued interdisciplinary thinking and research,” he said. “And the students… I could tell, even in my job talk, that the students were really thinking. They felt comfortable asking tough questions.”
Shortly after he made tenure, Miles became chair of the Division of Humanities. There, he found a balance to his work in music.
“When I was a division chair, I felt that every day, I was helping solve a problem for someone. That was very gratifying. On the other hand, when it comes to composing and writing– the time frame for gratification is much longer. You really have to stay focused for a long period of time, if you’re developing a major project,” he said.
In 2011, he was appointed provost, the College’s top academic officer. In that role, he bridged the tenures of presidents Gordon “Mike” Michalson and Don O’Shea, who appreciated Miles’s help with the transition.
“Steve worked tirelessly to ease my way into New College culture,” O’Shea said recently. “He is an extraordinary administrator, scholar, musician, performer and teacher. And he is unfailingly cheerful!”
In 2016, O’Shea, Miles and the College’s leadership got the chance of a lifetime. The Board of Governors in essence told them to make their best case for millions of dollars in new funding. Miles’s role was to work with faculty to develop plans for new programs and positions. A year later the Board and state government delivered $5.4 million, the first phase of New College’s growth plan.
Miles points to that growth funding as New College’s biggest success in his time here. “There is nothing that will have had a greater impact on the College’s future than that,” he said. “Finally, we’re in a position to develop New College as we see fit — in keeping with our vision but also in response to the world as it has changed.”
“We face different challenges than we did 20 years ago, but having more faculty, having more resources, we’ll be able to take action to advance the college’s mission.”
The negotiating and advocacy skills that served him as a college administrator actually have roots that pre-date his academic career. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in music, he was the director Center of Peace Education in Cincinnati and worked in political activism.
He realized, though, that his interests were more in examining the political dimensions of music, so he chose to pursue graduate studies. And that interest has informed his teaching and composing.
“In my teaching, I try to emphasize how music and the arts both reflect society and provide input to society. So, there’s a critical dimension to music,” he said. “Understanding the conventions of music and knowing that we can make choices about those is important. When I’m teaching music of the late eighteenth century, for example, that means looking at revolutionary change and how it’s both anticipated by music and reflected in music.”
At New College, his interest focused on how composition shapes relationships, particularly in live performance. And from that was born his most tangible legacy, the New Music New College concert series.
Now in its 22nd year, the series has brought truly groundbreaking performers to campus, thrilling the community and — more importantly — working closely with students, even involving them in performances.
“For me, it brought everything together. It brought my teaching and my composing and my performing and my service all into one program,” Miles said.
“What most people see is the series, the tip of the iceberg. The series is the public part of it. All the work with students, the work behind the scenes, the students who are composing and experimenting, and the educational activities — those are all things that are important to New Music New College, and contribute to what people eventually see in the performances.”
In a way, New Music New College brings his career full circle. A musician and teacher named Mark Dancigers first came to New college as a performer in the concert series. In January, the College announced that Dancigers, now Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Music, would be the next director of New Music New College.
The experimental character of the concert series, he said, aligns with the New College’s experimental character that he recognized on his first visit.
“I could tell that this is a place that would be a great place to teach and a great place to learn. And so for 32 years, I’ve been teaching here — and I’ve been learning.”