Learning Journey 5 – The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, July 17

On July 17, Trustees Linda Jaramillo and Don Hill visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Commission’s work (Linda is also a member of the CSD).  Read their reflections below to learn how their visit informed their thinking about how PSR might nurture a culture of innovation.

The Rock Hall’s Vice President for Education, Dr. Lauren Onkey, came to the Rock Hall five years ago after 14 years of experience as an English professor at Ball State University in Indiana.  She is a published author who holds bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in English from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was established more than 25 years ago by leaders in the music industry to celebrate the contributions of and impact on rock and roll by musicians and industry members.  I.M. Pei was chosen to design the Museum building; design was based on the principle of “energy.”  The Museum officially opened on the shores of Lake Erie on September 2, 1995 and has welcomed more than 8 million visitors from all 50 states and 100 countries.

The majority of the annual one-half million visitors to the exhibits come from outside the Northeast Ohio region.  However, the museum’s on-site educational programs are primarily a local enterprise.  The organization is committed to being a contributing member of Cleveland area communities.  They serve approximately 30,000 students and teachers per year.

Their classroom programs include:

Rockin’ the Schools:  On-site programs that are grade and age specific, and taught by credentialed teachers.  Purpose is to introduce music, specifically rock and roll, with academic content standards in the fine arts, science, language arts, technology, social studies, and mathematics.  Educational offerings to schools serving pre-K to grade 12 are free.

Teachers Rock: a set of professional development workshops throughout the year for K-12 educators interested in integrating popular music into their own classroom curriculum.  Workshops are free and held on-site.

A one-week Summer Teacher Institute brings together K-12 and post-secondary teachers, art educators, historians, community educators, curriculum designers, and performers.  Intent is to explore teaching across disciplines.  Fee based program

Rock and Roll Night School is a series of evening classes designed for adults, with attention given to the music’s impact on society, its reception by fans, and its most innovative practitioners.  Free.

Members of the Rock Hall Education staff also offer classes at Case Western University and Cleveland State University. In addition, the Rock Hall’s Library and Archives are located at the metropolitan campus of Cuyahoga Community College, and available to educators, students, and fans.

Outside the Classroom:

Venues include the Rock Hall Museum, but also at festivals, performances, lectures, film screenings, conferences, etc.  All are recorded for use in the Museum’s Library and Archives.

Great Distances:

On the Road is an interactive video conference program reaching audiences in classrooms throughout the country and around the world.  Connected to over 1,000 classrooms.

Other specialized educational programs are offered such as American Music Masters and Black History Month.

What surprised us is the breadth and depth of educational experiences organized and guided by a staff of five people.

Words that describe their approach to education:  creativity, versatility, diversity, focus, and multi-disciplinary.

To describe their leadership style:  innovation, risk-taking, dynamic, impulsive, and responsive.

Entrepreneurialism is encouraged.  Consumers are encouraged to give feedback through structured marketing strategies, feedback, and evaluation tools.  Rock and roll is still a part of world culture and an art form with an edge; however the leadership recognizes that future generations may not have the same affinity.  So they explore options for the “now” while projecting what the future challenges might be.  For example, they have moved into hip-hop genre with the intent of making the connection to rock and roll.

Staff at every level understand that bringing paying visitors into the Museum is essential revenue and enables them to offer programs that are free.  This, most likely, is the basis for the recruitment, hiring, and training of staff for an environment dependent on hospitality and customer service.  Every staff member we encountered acknowledged our presence and projected welcome and willingness to help (we looked lost for a moment or two . . .)

One of the striking and relevant things about how the Museum has been structured is the strict division between their two principal functions / audiences and their ability to hold them in creative tension.  Dr. Onkey talked about the sometimes vast difference between the aging, mostly European American, male rock fan and the young, diverse audience for their educational programs.  Part of this issue is how to engage audiences whose affinity to rock and roll is as history (if there is an affinity at all), and how the organization can / might connect new musical forms with historic ones.   There are lessons here for PSR as we seek to maintain institutional focus as we might look to diversify our core constituencies.


Terry Stewart has served as President for 13 years.  According to Lauren, he takes input from all levels of staff, acknowledging that everyone has something special to offer.  There are six vice-presidents who share perspectives for organizational review and future opportunities.  Staff members are also encouraged to speak their mind and offer new and innovative ideas.  Stewart takes the time to get to know each person resulting in very high morale among employees.  Rapid evaluation mechanisms are in place to assess programs and products in order to make course adjustments in a timely fashion.

We asked Lauren about her decision to give up tenure at Ball State University to take a position that had little to no job security.  She said that she valued the autonomy and individual rewards as a tenured faculty person.  That autonomy encourages intellectual risk, but it does tend to keep faculty in one institution.  At the Rock Hall, she appreciates how the whole group realizes the reward.  Her brain is firing in new ways that are exciting and encouraged.

She noted at least three differences between these two environments:

The speed of decision-making is slowed in traditional academic institutions since academic training is designed to complicate rather than simplify issues.

An entrepreneurial leadership culture values “amateurs;” at the Rock Hall, everyone in the system – from top to bottom, from the President to the part-timer – is consulted with the attitude of “you know something we need.”  In traditional academic institutions, expertise trumps.

In traditional academic institutions, risk is minimized (we went on a little tangent here about what a tenure system that rewarded risk might look like) and faculty will often define themselves in relation to rather than as part of the institution.

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