September 9, 2020

Towards a More Equitable and Diverse Conservatory Education: Statement from the Oberlin Conservatory Faculty

To inspire artistic achievement and cultivate musical and intellectual creativity, rigor, and breadth; to train our students to confront complex problems and create change and value in the world; to prepare our graduates to lead productive, meaningful lives as artist-citizens, and to change the world for good. 

For more than 150 years, these values have animated the work of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  It is in the spirit of these values—and our shared commitment to them—that we write today, as the Conservatory Faculty, both to underscore this commitment and outline some immediate steps we are taking to help realize these values more fully.

The tragic, horrific killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and numerous other individuals have prompted an intensification of conversations nationwide regarding systemic racism, in particular anti-Black racism and racial injustice. 

In the world of music and the arts—our world—systemic racism and inequity take myriad forms, both overt and more insidious, from unequal access to music education and professional opportunities to a systemized erasure, or even disparagement, of the contributions and achievements of members of marginalized communities, in particular Black musicians, on our stages and in our classrooms.

Over the past several months, faculty and staff of Oberlin Conservatory have engaged in intensified reflection, listening, and conversation as we seek to focus and redouble our efforts to create a more equitable, diverse Conservatory environment. Throughout this process, Conservatory faculty and staff have joined in numerous meetings and listening sessions with student and alumni leaders, who have not only participated in such conversations, but helped lead, organize, and catalyze them.  

To this end, Oberlin Conservatory would like to acknowledge and formally thank our student and alumni leaders, in particular members of the Oberlin College Black Musicians Guild (OCBMG), who have participated in and led these conversations by organizing webinars and panel discussions, meeting with faculty leaders and administrators, expressing their viewpoints through letters and petitions, and engaging in informal discussion and exchange of ideas.

We write today to articulate a series of actions to which Oberlin Conservatory will commit in the near term as we intensify our efforts to create a more equitable, diverse Conservatory and enhance the sense of belonging among everyone in our school. We look to acknowledge and amplify the contributions, histories, and achievements of Black musicians and members of other historically marginalized communities both past and present, not only at Oberlin, but around the globe. As musicians, we believe that music is a fundamental human right, and we look to do everything within our power to increase and ensure access to music and high-quality music education for all. And we look to dismantle or erode some of the barriers and longstanding cultural practices or norms that have impeded full access to and participation in cultural and educational institutions, and that have erased or diminished the contributions of artists and scholars from historically marginalized communities from our concert halls and curricula.

We view this work as a moral imperative not only in our role as citizens, but as educators.  We believe that increasing equity, enhancing the sense of belonging among everyone in the Conservatory, and working to create a more diverse teaching and learning environment are not only important ends unto themselves, but also crucial means to support the flourishing—artistic, intellectual, social, civic, and spiritual—of all members of our community. 

Our work will be anchored in the Presidential Initiative that President Ambar announced to the campus community on May 31. We anticipate that many of the areas identified below—in particular ones involving personnel and campus climate—will be given fuller expression through broader, institution-wide structural work unfolding throughout the 2020-21 academic year and beyond as part of the Presidential Initiative.

The steps outlined below include both specific changes or actions that we are initiating now in the Conservatory, along with work that we commit to undertake starting in Fall 2020.  They focus primarily on curricular and programmatic elements specific to the Conservatory, and will complement broader, structural work taking place through the Presidential Initiative. These steps are not meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive.  Nor will they be static; we will continue refining and developing our commitments and goals as this crucially important work unfolds. As a faculty, we are deeply committed to this work, and will pursue this work through our faculty-governance processes in Fall 2020 and beyond. 

Our work will be focused on six main areas: curriculum and pedagogy; programming, repertoire, and performance; admissions and auditions; personnel; climate; and student success. These areas are closely interrelated, and changes in one area will support and help catalyze transformation in the others. Ultimately, we aim not towards a series of freestanding projects, programs, or curricular changes per se; rather, we aspire to a lasting, abiding change in our culture, values, and norms.

Here are some of the steps and actions to which we, the faculty of Oberlin Conservatory, commit:

Curriculum and pedagogy

We are working aggressively to diversify our curriculum, and to broaden the repertoires, artworks, musical traditions, and analytical perspectives that our students encounter and with which they engage. We pursue this goal motivated not only by a sense of justice; as educators, we believe that expanding and normalizing the breadth and diversity of repertoires, traditions, and perspectives in which our students are versed is key to preparing them to flourish as creative artists and engaged, effective musical citizens today.

Much of our work is focused in the Conservatory core curriculum—namely, the four-semester, eight-part Music Theory sequence that, together with Music History 101, comprises the only shared course requirements compulsory for all Conservatory students.  We are building upon work already underway through the Conservatory-wide curriculum review initiated in Fall 2019 as part of the One Oberlin plan. 

In the Music Theory curriculum, the faculty are redoubling efforts to create space to decenter the Western art-music tradition while expanding the repertoires, genres, traditions, and perspectives included in coursework. Effective immediately, faculty will increase the use of teaching examples from artists and genres traditionally marginalized in formal conservatory education; advance music theories from musician-scholars from historically underrepresented groups; and intensify readings on topics such as canon formation, cultural borrowing and appropriation, and cross-cultural aesthetic values.  Starting in Fall 2021, we will implement a new Music Theory curriculum intentionally structured (in Year 1) to address broad themes, not exclusively the Western common-practice tradition, while (in Year 2) increasing opportunities to study musics by practitioners from communities or traditions historically marginalized within the academy. 

In the Musicology curriculum, starting in Fall 2020, Music History (MHST) 101 will have a revised title and course description to better reflect the course’s scope and aims, and faculty will work to continue broadening the musics and traditions surveyed in the course.  Starting in Spring 2021, MHST 101 will no longer be a prerequisite for 200-level Music History courses. Moreover, the Musicology faculty will encourage all individual divisions, departments, and programs to reconsider the requirement of MHST 101 as a compulsory course for their students effective Fall 2021.

Apart from the core curriculum, effective immediately, Conservatory faculty will dramatically expand the inclusion of music and writings by artists and scholars from historically underrepresented communities in coursework across the school, including pedagogy classes, music literature and repertoire courses, and more. A similar expansion is underway in the Conservatory’s Community Music School.

In pursuing these curricular changes, we hope to help our students not only gain familiarity and fluency with a wider array of genres, repertoires, perspectives, and traditions—a critically important goal unto itself for their professional viability—but also become cognizant of the social and cultural mediation at work in repertoires, values, and ideas in “classical” music often perceived as “universal.” To support this curricular reorientation, the Theory faculty will convene a series of faculty workshops over a two-year period (2020-21 and 2021-22) to help faculty to learn about and better understand how to teach theories and analytical skills appropriate for application to an expanded range of practices, including popular musics and non-Western art musics. More broadly, in 2020-21, Conservatory faculty will establish a faculty-led Conservatory working group on anti-racist pedagogies; among other activities, this group will compile resources on effective teaching strategies, host workshops, and serve as a resource for colleagues.

Programming, repertoire, and performance 

Much as is the case in the classroom, so, too, are we working aggressively to diversify the repertoires, artists, genres, practices, and traditions with which our students engage in the studio and on stage. This work is taking place in multiple areas and, accordingly, will unfold in multiple ways throughout the school. Beginning in 2020-21, numerous Conservatory divisions and departments will begin encouraging or requiring students to include works by composers from historically marginalized communities in committees and/or Junior or Senior Recitals. With regard to large-ensemble programming, the Ensembles Division pledges an ongoing and sustained expansion, commencing in Fall 2020, of the representation of composers from historically marginalized communities in ensemble programming, especially programming by the Oberlin Orchestra, Oberlin Chamber Orchestra, Oberlin Choir, Contemporary Music Ensemble, and Sinfonietta. Likewise, the Conservatory administration pledges to increase diversity across all aspects of the Conservatory’s institution-level artistic operations, including invitations to guest artists, commissions of new works, recording projects on the Oberlin Music label, and more.

Through such initiatives, we seek to familiarize our students with repertoires, artists, and traditions historically marginalized in the academy and professional-music world—and, in so doing, inspire our students’ creativity while expanding their intellectual and artistic horizons. Moreover, we seek to contribute to a “normalization” throughout the field—in terms of programming, study, promotion, and more—of musical artists and art works from traditionally unrepresented communities. To help support such work, the Conservatory Library has recently developed and published digital guides that will be updated routinely and will aid students, faculty, and staff in discovering repertoire and resources to support research and performance. We are also exploring the creation of a database to serve as a central resource of repertoire (solo, small ensemble, large ensemble, etc.) by composers from underrepresented communities to support increased programming across multiple Conservatory areas.

The history of African-American art music is overwhelmingly an Oberlin story. From Nathaniel Dett to Harriet Gibbs Marshall, and from Shirley Graham Du Bois to William Grant Still, large numbers of the most significant African-American composers, performers, and art-music teachers in the 19th and early 20th centuries studied, spent time at, or had other close connections with our school. This extraordinary legacy has continued throughout the 20th century and beyond, as exemplified through figures such as Wendell Logan, Frances Walker, Moses Hogan, Olly Wilson, George Walker, and others. Beginning in 2021, the Conservatory will launch a multiyear, multifaceted initiative to explore, honor, and celebrate this legacy through course offerings, symposia and conferences, exhibitions, performances, recordings on the Oberlin Music label, and more.

Admissions and auditions

Living, studying, and making music in a community of individuals of widely different backgrounds and experiences broadens and enriches perspectives and helps prepare musicians to thrive in an increasingly pluralistic world. In Fall 2019, as part of the One Oberlin process, the Conservatory appointed an Admissions Review Committee to review and make recommendations regarding all aspects of the Conservatory’s student-recruitment and admissions practices. Effective immediately, the Conservatory has commissioned this committee to include in its work a special focus on steps to increase the recruitment and enrollment of students from underrepresented communities, with a goal of outlining these steps in a report to be submitted to the Conservatory Faculty Council by the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Recognizing the strong correlation of on-campus visits and enrollment outcomes, the Conservatory will create a new fund to support students to travel to campus for in-person auditions. We will identify and promote this fund as a key fundraising priority in 2020-21 and beyond, with a goal of reaching endowment level and beginning disbursements from this fund in 2021-22.

Additionally, the Conservatory faculty is at work expanding audition requirements to include works by composers from historically underrepresented groups or from cultural backgrounds different from that of the applicant. We view this step as important not only symbolically, but also practically, in keeping with our role as educators to encourage students to discover repertoires and creative practices with which they might not be otherwise familiar. For the audition cycle presently underway (i.e., the 2020-21 audition cycle, for the class to matriculate in Fall 2021), divisions and departments will either require works by composers from underrepresented communities or strongly encourage applicants to include works by composers from underrepresented communities for open requirements. Over the course of 2020-21, the Admissions Committee will work with divisions and departments to formalize and institutionalize this expansion of requirements starting in Fall 2021.

Personnel

Increasing the diversity of the faculty and staff is one of the top priorities for our school.  We view this not simply, or not only, as a goal unto itself, but as a pursuit central to our mission. Put simply, enhancing and developing the diversity of perspective and experience among faculty and staff is one of the most immediate, transformative, and lasting ways to create a maximally vibrant, robust intellectual and artistic community. 

We anticipate that intensive and sustained work will take place beginning in 2020-21 through the Presidential Initiative with regard to developing faculty and staff diversity. The Conservatory looks forward to participating actively in these processes and pursuing this work, which is key to our long-term success as a school.

Climate

We are working actively to create a Conservatory climate in which all individuals—student, faculty, and staff—experience a sense of belonging and support. As is the case with enhancing faculty and staff diversity, we anticipate that intensive and sustained work regarding campus climate will take place through the Presidential Initiative in 2020-21 and beyond, and we look forward to participating fully in this work.

In the immediate term, we are taking a variety of steps to support these measures. In August 2020, we launched a new Racial & Social Justice in Music module as a key part of the new-student orientation in the Conservatory. This module, required for all first-year Conservatory students, will be made available to returning students as well as faculty and staff. We will continue this module as a required part of orientation, expanding and building upon it in 2021 and beyond.

Additionally, we are working to implement and act upon findings of climate assessments recently conducted in individual divisions or departments, with the goal of implementing key findings to support student success and continue specific work in these areas to cultivate an environment in which all students, faculty, and staff experience a feeling of support and connection.

Community engagement

Social engagement and a commitment to creating a more just, sustainable, equitable society are at the core of Oberlin’s mission. In the Conservatory, our deep and abiding commitment to community engagement is rooted not only in philosophical convictions, but matters of pragmatism, too: Community engagement, advocacy work, and teaching will be core activities for nearly all of our graduates who pursue careers in the creative and performing arts.

Over the coming years, the Conservatory will strive to dramatically expand community engagement by Conservatory students, faculty, and staff, deepen relationships with existing community partners, and establish new partnerships with organizations throughout local communities, in particular the City of Oberlin and Lorain County. We look, especially, to strengthen existing and cultivate new relationships throughout 2020-21, with the goal of expanding in-person community engagement commencing in 2021-22, as public-health conditions permit. As part of this work, the Conservatory will commission the Curriculum-Review Committee, whose work is presently underway as part of the One Oberlin initiative, to examine creating a community-based learning or community-engagement requirement for all Conservatory students, create required community-engagement components for key performance activities (e.g., chamber-music courses), and explore other possibilities as we continue our work to move community engagement into the heart of the Conservatory and its work. To help support such work, the Conservatory will create, and identify as a fundraising priority, a new fund to provide direct support to Conservatory students for community engagement.  

Student success

Prioritizing student success and well-being is a key goal of the Conservatory faculty. In addition to the aforementioned student-support initiatives (i.e., a fund to support community-engagement work; a fund to support prospective students traveling to Oberlin to audition), we will continue to fundraise actively for the Conservatory Student Success Fund, launched in 2019, which provides direct grants to students to help support professional-development activities. In particular, we aim to double the total dollar amount (as against 2019-20 levels) in Conservatory Student Success Fund grants awarded annually by 2022-23. Moreover, we look to participate fully in specific steps and actions emerging through the Presidential Initiative designed to support our students, in particular students from historically underrepresented communities, in the years immediately following their graduation from Oberlin. 

Advisory Council

Finally, in 2020-21, the Conservatory will create and seat a new advisory council comprising faculty, staff, students, alumni, professional leaders, and community members to oversee equity, diversity, and belonging initiatives within the Conservatory. This group will meet regularly with members of the Conservatory administration, key faculty-governance bodies, and others both to oversee the Conservatory’s implementation of the steps outlined above as well as Conservatory-specific recommendations emergent through the Presidential Initiative. The council will also work with faculty and staff on a continuing basis to develop, adjust, and assess the Conservatory’s plan of action.    

***

The steps outlined above are not comprehensive, and this work will—and must—be ongoing. With these steps, we commit both to immediate action and to sustained focus, intentionality, work, and change. We look forward to ongoing dialogue—with one another, as faculty members; with student and alumni leaders, in particular leaders of OCBMG and the Conservatory Council of Students; with colleagues throughout the music world, academia, and broader professional fields; and with community members and others—as we implement these steps and redouble our efforts to create a more equitable, diverse school, for the mutual benefit of all.


Approved by the Conservatory Faculty Council on August 23, 2020, the Conservatory Educational Policy Committee on August 23, 2020, and the Conservatory Faculty on September 8, 2020.