Conservatory Commitments Hearken Back to a Decade of Student Advocacy

Oberlin College and Conservatory is known for its history of progressivism, although the record shows that this institution has not always lived up to its promises of inclusivity. A commitment like the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity has been a long time coming. In recent months, campus leaders have written to Oberlin calling for change, and their words have echoed years of student demands — now, they are starting to be heard. The Conservatory’s plans, released earlier this month, are the first action steps to come from the Presidential Initiative. As we celebrate and look forward to future progress, we want to recognize the generations of students that have worked to make this happen. 

Oberlin’s Black Musicians Guild, ABUSUA, the Conservatory Student Council, students on the Presidential Initiative taskforce, and many more have been instrumental in advocating for institutional changes. On Sept. 9, Conservatory faculty released a series of actionable changes, titled “Towards a More Equitable, Diverse Conservatory Education,” and stated that conversations with students were critical in coming to many of their conclusions. While conservatories have long struggled to adapt from their Eurocentric roots to represent a more diverse and contemporary music scene, Oberlin has promised profound steps forward.

The planned changes include shifting the Conservatory’s core curriculum to include more non-Western music, reviewing admissions to focus on underrepresented students, and creating a more inclusive conservatory environment. We won’t discuss the changes at length — a detailed account can be found here — but we do want to affirm the ways in which these steps toward systemic change build upon years of student and alumni advocacy. If we look only at the past decade, we can see how student leaders — particularly Black student leaders — have challenged Oberlin to be better. 

In 2012, a student working group presented College leadership with a list of action items to improve the Conservatory. This included establishing a Multicultural Resource Center for the Conservatory, developing a plan to improve diversity in admissions, reviewing the Conservatory’s mission statement to address cultural diversity, diversifying the Music History and Music Theory curricula, and expanding Black American music courses beyond the introductory level. Under previous administration, some of these demands were met, while others were promised and did not come to fruition.

In 2016, the student leadership of ABUSUA released a list of demands, among which was a call for the Conservatory to diversify its Eurocentric curriculum. This list of demands was dismissed by former College president Marvin Krislov because he deemed many of the items to be non-actionable, controversial, and lacking a spirit of “collaborative engagement.” While Krislov may have disagreed with the presentation of the demands and the items listed, his inaction amounted to a dismissal of the inequality that these demands sought to address.

This summer, ABUSUA issued a new list of demands which shares notable overlaps with the demands issued four years prior. Additionally, the Oberlin College Black Musicians’ Guild published Action Steps for the Conservatory to Create a Better Community, which included recommendations on how to improve programming at the Conservatory. In a survey of four Oberlin orchestras and ensembles, J Holzen, OC’20, found that only seven pieces by Black composers had been performed since 2010. Finally, Daniel Spearman OC ’16 envisioned a Black American Music Department

As students this year are being heard, so too are the voices of students from decades past. There is a long legacy of students advocating for this school to be better, to live up to its promises. Their demands are reflected in the Conservatory’s response this year, particularly in the committments for curriculum and pedagogy changes — which includes curricular revisions to Music History 101, revisions to music history requirements, a drastic expansion of music and writing by scholars and artists from underrepresented communities, and the introduction of workshops in anti-racist pedagogy for faculty. 

What has remained consistent over the past decade is Oberlin student leadership. What has changed is Oberlin — our school is taking steps to improve. The College has not always adequately listened to the voices of its students. But under the leadership of Ambar and the faculty and staff who are heading this commission, the College is working to build a better campus and curriculum. There may be bumps along the way, but this is something we haven’t seen in a long, long time, and the Editorial Board welcomes it. 

Conservatory alum Troy Stephenson, OC ’20, put it best in an email to the Review last week

“Oberlin is a school that thrives on the voice of the people, so it is the job of the people to ensure that these things come to fruition. … The road it will take is long, but the important thing is that the journey towards more realistic equity feels like it has actually started.”