The Racial Diversity Problem in Music Schools at Universities in the United States

Nationwide, about 6 percent of all students who earn bachelor’s degrees in music are Black. At the University of Missouri School of Music in Columbia, 8 percent of the student population awarded degrees in the 2018-19 academic year identified as Black or African American. During the past decade, the percentage of Black students in the music school has been as low as 2 percent, with the decade average at 5 percent. A the University of Missouri-Kansas City, over the past decade, Black students have represented 4 percent of the graduates. In 2011, 16 percent of the students who earned bachelor’s degrees in music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis were Black. By 2019, the number had dropped to 9 percent.

A concentration on the classical music of Europe at many schools of music is one reason for a low level of participation by Black students. “You get students who come from different backgrounds, and some of those backgrounds include an approach to music making, that comes out of say, the Black church,” notes Stephanie Shonekan, a professor in the School of Music and an associate dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri. “These are students or potential students that are incredible performers in a certain aesthetic. And if that aesthetic is not valued in our discipline, then that becomes a problem.”

Music education, with its high cost for purchasing instruments, training, traveling, is also a challenge for many Black students who don’t come from an economically stable background.

The University of Missouri has established the School of Music Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Collective. The effort will examine changes in the curriculum and boost efforts to recruit a more diverse faculty. During the 2019-20 academic year, there were two Black faculty members and 33 White faculty members at the University of Missouri School of Music in Columbia.

The diversity group is making efforts toward changing recruitment strategies, such as starting to reach out to underserved and underrepresented schools and engaging with their students.

Professor  Shonekan notes that “if we continue to approach music education as we have always done, we’ll just stay where are. But we are realizing that change is important and necessary.”

 

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