Listening to Perspectives on Cultural Equity and Belonging: Part Three

NEC's Cultural Equity & Belonging initiative will release a report and action steps this month, with recommendations informed by over 140 listening sessions with NEC community members.

In advance of that report, join us in taking a look back at the first phase of this initiative.

Recapping Our Community Conversations: Part Three

In today's recap, we revisit the third NEC Perspectives Forum, in which Stanford Thompson sat down for a conversation with alumnus Dr. Darryl Harper '08 DMA, examining the history of NEC in the larger context of Black Studies and Jazz Studies programs across the United States.

New to this series? Visit Part One for an introduction

August 10, 2020 | Race's Influence on Culture at NEC


    • 08:52: Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., universities around the United States responded by creating "Black Studies" departments. Gunther Schuller, NEC's President at the time, responded by creating the "Afro-American Music and Jazz Studies" department, helmed by founding chair Carl Atkins.

    "In 1968 there was one Black Studies program in the country, and by 1972 there were 500. I really see Schuller as riding that wave, and in a very deliberate, conscious, aware of his environment [way.]

    "The original vision was to create an Afro-American music department, where jazz was going to be one part. Over the years there would be an expansion of musical styles and genres that Black people have influenced over time. Jazz took hold, [but] the expansion of the department never made it as far as was originally envisioned.”

     —Dr. Darryl Harper

    • 21:05: In 1971, the Collective Black Artists at NEC penned a 9-page report of grievances that called out NEC's struggle to embrace non-Western culture and students. While the exchange was quite contentious, especially with the background of heightened racial tensions in society, great progress was made in the years following the release of the report. Dr. Harper observed that empowerment and autonomy enabled the jazz department to strongly influence the culture at NEC during its earliest years:

    “Carl Atkins was given [a message of]: "This is your program. Take it and run with it and do your thing." The students were given that kind of autonomy, and [you] saw the climate on campus change fast—within a couple of years, students were making demands and wanting to shape the direction of the institution, to have a voice in the institution, and being very activist, very politically active.

    “And I think that was special; one of the distinctive features of the Conservatory that you didn't necessarily see around the country,” at a time when Black Studies programs were sometimes used to recruit Black students into the campus “with the specific goal of acculturating the Black students and damping down resistance and protest.“

    • 29:00: Thompson & Dr. Harper noted that some cultural gains faltered amid early leadership transitions, financial struggles at the school, and increased competition from music schools across the country, and the impact was felt on campus. For example, after the gains of the 1970s, the enrollment of Black and African American students dropped significantly in the early 1980s, and some of the institutional focus on cultural outreach & inclusion was lost.

    • 58:05: While the impact has not always been equally felt by all students—for example, two alumni who received different understandings of Black cultural contributions and music history—Thompson and Dr. Harper see an opportunity to channel the cultural equity efforts that they have found throughout NEC's history.

    “There are instances throughout the institution where there's a lot of really really good intention to make these things happen, but they aren't felt.”

    • 1:02:24: Dr. Harper on being inspired by history, and practicing optimism:

    “I feel a sense of optimism, or I should say more specifically: I practice optimism, because I think that's an important ingredient...

    “I remember reading about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under King...and seeing the turmoil inside that group and day to day...We idealize and we think, 'If only we could go back to that time—' but no, actually there were people who were excluded from the March on Washington because they were gay, or they were women. 

    “Those are important lessons that I want to instill in students. I don't want them to feel discouraged because the progress is slow, because there are setbacks; that's part of this work.”

    Join us Monday for Part Four in this five-part series, "NEC: 50 Years Apart." Cheryl Susheel Bibbs ’70 MM discusses the social and political turmoil that led to the cancelation of the 1970 graduation ceremony, and shares ideas from her celebrated vocal career championing Black composers in classical music and opera. Subscribe via email

    Learn more about Cultural Equity and Belonging initiatives at NEC


    Read Parts One and Two