This article appeared in Notes, the alumni magazine
Open to Diversity
by Gordon Talley
At this fall's Orientation, with Jordan Hall at NEC filled with eager new students and proud parents, Associate Dean of Student James Klein broached an issue never before voiced in the first moments of a career at New England Conservatory.
"New England Conservatory is proud to be a community so varied and diverse," he said. "We have students from 43 countries, representing differences in gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
"It is not that we will tolerate our differences. We wish to celebrate them. We deeply believe that our diversity is an advantage that will make you better artists. We ask that while you are with us, you open yourself to understanding others and sharing your own special talent with them. Some of your best experiences at New England Conservatory will be in harmony with your fellow students."
One would think that NEC, which was among the first cultural institutions in Boston to introduce a community services program, in 1968, and which for generations has attracted students U.S.- and worldwide, would have long ago developed a culture where such an exhortation would not be needed--and where the potential for varied experience would be not only obvious but among the chief factors leading a young musician to choose NEC.
Not so, because New England Conservatory is not isolated from the conflicts and tensions of our society. Four years ago, NEC, like many other educational institutions, had an incident in the dormitory where racist slogans were pinned to an African-American student's door. It drove home not only the need to raise student awareness, but also the necessity for clearer and more effective official response.
Not so, too, because New England Conservatory is changing. Only ten years ago, international students made up 18 percent of the student body. Today the figure is double, 36 percent. Nearly 25 percent of the student body is from Asia alone. The mixture of languages and cultures at NEC has never been greater.
Yet the Conservatory's statistics for American minorities lag behind national averages for colleges and some of its music school peers. Among the 774 current students at the Conservatory, there are just 19 African-Americans, 15 Latino-Americans, and 43 Asian-Americans. This statistic for governing boards is equally acute. The New England Conservatory Board of Trustees has but one minority member, an African-American.
Such talk of numbers obscures what many on campus see as more important for NEC--whether we have within our community the life experiences and points of view to sustain our art. "When I was a student in the '70s, it was a time when the school embraced diversity more than today," says Hankus Netsky, chairman of Jazz Studies. "We had the emblem and reputation of being the diverse music school. It was clear what our leadership was pointing to: Music that crossed boundaries. Now, I feel we're coasting, not sure what to do with that legacy."
Agreement comes from a counter-intuitive direction, the department of historical performance. "We have diversity and tolerance at NEC now," says chairman John Gibbons, "but we used to profit from it."
With these thoughts in mind, in 1993 the New England Conservatory Board of Trustees authorized an ad hoc committee, the Task Force on Diversity, to review the Conservatory's situation. Leadership came from Robert B. Fraser, a long-time NEC trustee and chairman of the law firm Goodwin Procter & Hoar, who is well known to Boston minority communities as an activist in such initiatives as the Boston Plan for Excellence in The Public Schools and Boston Against Drugs.
Two years previously, Provost Peter Row had convened the 21st Century Committee to analyze the future of the NEC curriculum and other factors that shape our ability to remain relevant to a changing musical and cultural environment. In addition to strengthening the classical and jazz programs at which NEC excels, their recommendations included active recruitment of minority faculty and exploring new curricular initiatives that might appeal to growing populations.
Meanwhile, the Extension Division, the arm of NEC responsible for community services and educational programs for greater Boston, was engaging in projects with wide-reaching potential for bringing music education to under-served neighborhoods. Chief among them were the Boston Music Education Collaborative and the Jesse B. Cox Winds Program. The Cox grant offered funding to advance NEC's director of community services from a part-time to a full-time position.
All these elements converged in the recommendation of the Task Force on Diversity to create a standing committee reporting directly to the trustees to serve as catalyst and provide oversight for NEC's diversity initiatives. The Diversity Committee, which met for the first time in March 1994, has representatives from the boards of Trustees and Overseers, the faculty of both college and Extension Division, officers from administrative departments responsible for student life, community services, admission and financial aid, human resources, and public relations, and students.
Meeting as often as monthly, and with the advice of diversity consultant Ron Ancrum, the NEC Diversity Committee has talked with constituencies across the campus and reviewed in more formal fashion specific plans for diversity at NEC. Here are a few of the new steps recently taken or under way at NEC.
"Diversity" is without clear interpretation in our society, meaning many things to many people in many contexts. New England Conservatory is no different, and none of the groups meeting with the Diversity Committee has pressed for a hard and fast definition. One working model is contained in a values statement prepared by the NEC Extension Division:
"[The programs, classes, and activities of the Extension Division] represent a willingness ... to present a face that in some measure dovetails with multicultural realities. It also represents a willingness to see national minority persons in the fullness of their being and to understand that their rich cultural backgrounds as well as their technical competencies offer a major, major plus to the Conservatory and its constituencies."
In addition, it is clear from many voices that the scope of diversity concerns at NEC embraces not only race, but also cultural issues of importance to our international population, sexual orientation, and gender.
There are none at NEC. However, moving toward more representative boards, faculty, staff, and student body is an express goal that has been articulated to the NEC Nominating Committee, academic and administrative managers, and admission officers.
In this regard, the past two years have seen dramatic change in minority hiring for both faculty and staff positions. Among faculty the shift has been from 4 percent African-, Latino-, and Asian-American in 1993 to 10.5 percent today. Staff has risen in the past 18 months from 12.6 percent to 17.9 percent.
The NEC Board of Overseers, the advisory body from which most trustees are selected, has evidenced similar movement. After consultation with leaders of African-American and other communities across Boston, the Nominating Committee advanced 10 minority names as overseers for 1995-96. Six accepted and will take office May 1.
Attracting and retaining American students of color is a fundamental goal for the Conservatory. Associate Dean of Enrollment Services Allison Ball has developed an admission plan that calls for targeted recruitment in selected urban areas, involvement of alumni, and the use of NEC students to serve as mentors and guides to minority students even before they become applicants. The Mabel Louise Riley Foundation has aided this effort by allowing portions of its grant to be directed toward recruitment. The foundation has also authorized NEC to extend the Riley scholarship, originally created for Boston-area students, to minority candidates from across the U.S.
It is worth noting that both students and faculty have emphasized that the goal of minority recruitment for the Conservatory should be to enroll students of excellent musical achievement and promise.
At student Orientation in the fall of 1993, a first attempt was made to conduct sessions on diversity. The format--a single large meeting--was too impersonal to be effective, though, so this year's Orientation used a more integral series of small-group workshops to engage students in sharing cultural attitudes and experiences.
Last November, President Laurence Lesser convened a meeting of faculty and senior administrators from both the college and Extension Division to open a dialogue about future diversity activities for NEC. Subsequent small-group meetings generated the suggestion to conduct awareness workshops for faculty and staff. This idea was fleshed out in the Diversity Committee, where the goal was advanced to develop an in-house capability for conducting these workshops and for serving as counselors to students and others. A series of faculty/staff sessions began this spring, supported by a grant from the Diversity Initiative, a consortium of Boston foundations.
As Notes goes to press, D. Antoinette Handy '52, former program director for music at the National Endowment for the Arts, is scheduled to address an all-school convocation. Her speech, "The 21st Century: Quo Vadis?" will share her experiences as an African-American artist at NEC in the '50s and in America today. She will also present ideas on the direction of music in the future and the role of a conservatory in preparing young musicians to lead the way.
Curriculum and Programming
Provost Row has remarked that NEC has among the most extensive and varied curricula of any American conservatory, including long-standing programs in jazz and Third Stream/contemporary improvisation. In addition, the Conservatory has taken up the 21st Century Committee's challenge to design relevant new offerings. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at New England Conservatory will engage master artists, many of them African-American, in developing a distinctive jazz curriculum. Latin music will enter the NEC curriculum more formally next year through the launching of an ongoing Latin ensemble proposed by Panamanian pianist-composer Danilo Perez.
The Extension Division has a long list of collaborative programs and special activities. Key among them is the Summer Intercultural Institute, which brings master practitioners of the music of Indonesia, Ghana, and the Caribbean to NEC.
Meanwhile, concert programming at NEC reflects the range of curricula. Such long-standing programs as the Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Jubilee have been joined in recent years by music festivals exploring the music of Latin America and of Jewish composers.
Creating and sustaining a welcoming environment is the focus of student-centered diversity initiatives. Dormitory life plays a central role, and regular floor meetings foster an attitude of mutual respect among residents. Understanding of the special situations of international students is a particular element of resident advisor training.
Meanwhile, T.O.S., The Organization of Students, has worked to celebrate the varied cultures sharing NEC's halls. International Day, in November, found the Beethoven lobby filled with food from around the world and the folk music of many cultures. In December, T.O.S. joined the Dean's Office, the Office of Residential Life, and the Gay/Lesbian/Straight Alliance in AIDS Day, a fund-raiser for the AIDS Action Committee. Following the earthquakes of Japan, T.O.S. was among those helping Japanese students, including one whose family had lost their home in Kobe, to present a memorial concert. A separate fund drive raised over $1,000 to aid survivors.
The new Korean Students Association and the Chinese Students Association each sponsored an Oriental-calendar New Year's celebration with traditional ceremonies. Black History Month gave the opportunity for a student-directed concert celebrating African-American contributions to classical and jazz music.
"Life at NEC mirrors the world as it is today," says T.O.S. President Ken Nogami '95. "It is a definite plus to be able to speak more than one language or understand more than one culture."
Why Is Diversity a Priority?
There are as many answers as people at NEC to give them. The Task Force on Diversity underscored a central reason: because it is necessary for the Conservatory to engage in these issues to remain relevant in a changing society.
President Laurence Lesser expresses the thought more personally: "I am a practitioner of an art that I love deeply, and that is at the center of my being. My simple take on diversity is that I wish every community will embrace, love, and contribute to music and the variety of cultures will each bring something to help in the evolution of that art."
His sentiments are echoed by many at NEC, including James Williams, class of 1996:
"Diversity is the thread that God has sewn into the soil of His earth. His miraculous weaving of race and culture is a reflection of who we are now and who we will be in the future."
Copyright New England Conservatory 1995. All rights reserved.
R. Gordon Talley
All information on this site Copyright 2002 R. Gordon Talley unless otherwise noted.