Open Letter from Chair Macchia
To the UMass Amherst Department of Music and Dance community:
As the coronavirus continues its rampage and spreads out of control throughout our country, and as we as a people are finally attempting to address in a meaningful way our nation’s shameful history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crowism, redlining, and voter suppression, I felt the pressing need to address these issues publicly. For, make no mistake about it, these issues are related. The virus has to a large degree disproportionally attacked our communities of color, communities already devastated by racism, poverty, and a paucity of education, jobs, and opportunity. We must face the reality that despite the 14th Amendment, the Brown vs. the Board of Education case, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the good will, empathy, and passion of many of our citizens, we live in a country plagued by racism, inequality, and poverty.
As we move forward into the fall 2020 semester, I want to assure all of you that as a department we are, and have for a very long time, been committed to diversity and inclusion, to the principle of guaranteeing equal rights, equal access, and equal opportunities to all people—to all genders, races, and ethnicities.
One of the main ambitions of Philip Bezanson, who for all practical purposes may be considered the founding father of our department (he was chair from the late 1960s through the early 70s), was to achieve a fully integrated faculty and student body. One of the very first hires he made was Dr. Frederick Tillis, a highly accomplished performer and composer, who eventually became the Head of the Fine Arts Center. Dr. Tillis, who sadly passed away this spring, had been a pupil of Bezanson at the University of Iowa.
Shortly after his appointment here, Dr. Tillis founded one of the first Jazz and Afro-American Music Studies programs in America. Bezanson also recruited Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer to join our faculty. Dr. Boyer had earned a PhD in music theory from the Eastman School of Music, but was also a member of the renowned gospel choir the Boyer Brothers and was a highly regarded and immensely powerful singer in his own right. In addition to his being a member of the theory faculty, Dr. Boyer was a member of the Jazz and Afro-American Music Studies program and he was also the founder and first director of our Vocal Jazz Ensemble. With the full cooperation and support of Dr. Bezanson, Dr. Tillis was also able to recruit both Max Roach and Billy Taylor to our faculty, artists of international stature. Considering the stellar history of this area, and now under the dynamic leadership of Professor Jeffrey Holmes—who was handpicked by Dr. Tillis—it is no wonder that our Jazz and Afro-American Music Studies program is one of the leaders of its kind in the Northeast.
Even with such a rich history of accomplishments (we truly were multicultural before it became popular), we recognize the fact that we have much to do to before we can consider ourselves a fully integrated community. Long before I became Chair, the entire faculty had begun a process of self- evaluation to consider all aspects of our educational and artistic endeavors. We recently streamlined a number of our programs, including the introduction of new Bachelor of Arts programs, and we have restructured our initial history survey courses so that our first-year students can chose from a wider range of topics. It is our hope that these new majors and the diversifying of our course offerings will attract a broader range of students to our program, and will provide them with a set of educational tools that will enable them to better serve our communities. We also recognize the need to increase and amplify our efforts to recruit minority students and attract a more diverse and inclusive faculty. While we have certainly made serious efforts in both these areas, I, for one, recognize the urgency to do more.
To that end, we intend to continue to study, discuss, and debate these and other issues as we work to reshape and reform our curriculum to better meet the needs of our students and the communities we serve. For example, we are now working to establish a new Student Engagement Group to bolster dialogue on a variety of topics from within our department.
In addition, over the last few years, we have been involved in a number of outreach programs in Springfield, Holyoke, and Greenfield. Recently, along with colleagues in dance and theatre, we have initiated discussions of how to set up arts residency programs in which our students would augment arts offerings in high-need communities in the Boston and Pittsfield areas.
All of us in the Department of Music and Dance recognize the disaster that inaction, inattention, and benign neglect cause when we either intentionally or unintentionally avoid these pressing issues. We recognize that there is much to be done. We pledge ourselves to work to improve our understanding and practical handling of such a demanding and central issue. I invite you—our students, our staff, and our faculty—to unite in a single cause and with a single purpose: that is to make the UMass Department of Music and Dance as open, inclusive, and welcoming an institution as possible.
I look forward to our safe return to campus as we renew our pledge to our communities, our colleagues, and our art.
Chair, UMass Amherst Department of Music & Dance