Will America’s Premier Hub for Black Music Research Fall Prey to Drastic Budget Cuts?

Among the less obvious impacts of the economic downturn are its effects on college and university scholarly research centers devoted to the exploration of arts and culture. As budget shortfalls rise and colleges and universities prioritize their spending with greater emphasis on the more profitable sciences and social sciences, some of the major achievements of scholarly activism in the 1970s and 1980s are now under threat of drastic cutbacks, or in some cases, elimination.

Consider the Center for Black Music Research (CBMR) at Columbia College in Chicago, a thriving operation from the 1980s through the late 2000s. The center is now being threatened with elimination or downsizing on such a scale as to destroy it.

Research centers come and go, but the Center for Black Music Research has made a remarkable difference, facilitating the birth of a now-central field of study. CBMR was founded in 1983 by Dr. Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., who had a community-based vision of a research and performance center devoted to black music in its most expansive sense—including African American music of all genres, and the music of Africa and its diasporas. On the strength of this vision and with extraordinary entrepreneurial skill, Dr. Floyd launched a center that would eventually blossom as the institutional hub for a wide variety of activities.

Columbia College of Chicago invited Floyd to establish CBMR’s home on its campus, and he delivered mightily. CBMR founded the Black Music Research Journal; developed a now-major archive of books, recordings, scores, and manuscripts; and perhaps, most importantly, was a constant presence at the annual conferences of major academic music organizations. It also hosted a series of major conferences itself. By engaging in these public forums, the CBMR succeeded in creating a sustained argument for the necessary inclusion of black music in any serious discussion of the musical arts. In the 1970s and '80s, black music was consistently left out of mainstream musical scholarship for a variety of perceived sins, usually cast in terms of musical “importance,” while disguising the underlying racial discomforts. Black music, as viewed then, was too improvisational, too popular in orientation, not sophisticated enough, and lacking in the orderly archives that were thought to characterize the study of serious music.

CBMR challenged those assumptions by putting forth a broad vision of black music that considered its classical, jazz, popular, gospel, African, and diasporic dimensions under one umbrella. In so doing it united researchers and students of black music not only in the U.S., but also around the world. Through successive grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, it offered a prestigious series of residential fellowships between 1995 and 2006. It also led to numerous other publishing projects, including the acclaimed International Dictionary of Black Composers (1999), the launching of Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry (and an early pioneer of the now-normative interdisciplinary understanding of the arts), and a series of CBMR-sponsored monographs.

The center also demonstrated an ongoing commitment to the performance of black music through its sponsorship of the Black Music Repertory Ensemble, Ensemble Kalinda Chicago, Ensemble Stop-Time, and currently, the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble. In building all these programs, CBMR raised an extraordinary amount of funding from outside agencies, doing so with a degree of success that is rare in the humanities.

In short, CBMR has always been a lively and imaginative place, with a dedicated staff, board of directors and devoted community, and its impact on scholarly attitudes and output, as well as on the Chicago community, has been decisive. Since 2006, CBMR's budget has been slashed by nearly 70 percent. Two important staff positions were cut last year (publications manager and director of research) and the center has had to withdraw several major grant applications because it does not have sufficient staff to support the requested programs. With only 30 percent of its budget remaining, the current staff, including executive director Monica Hairston O’Connell, deputy director Morris Phibbs, and head librarian and archivist Suzanne Flandreau, are struggling to keep core services available.

Columbia College of Chicago, like most American institutions of higher learning, is facing budgetary challenges, and the provost has so far placed CBMR low on her priority list. Given the general cultural climate and right-wing political backlash against minority groups, perhaps this is not surprising. The cultural treasures of black music have come to be taken for granted, and the struggles waged by previous generations in the establishment of institutions to validate black music are in danger of being forgotten.

Columbia College, with its strong record of minority education and service to Chicago is not an institution that seems ideologically opposed to the Center for Black Music Research. Its current president, after all, is Warrick L. Carter, a noted African American composer, performer and music educator, who for many years served as dean of faculty at Berklee College of Music in Boston. We suspect that he, like so many college and university administrators these days, has received a variety of budget options, planned and prepared not only by internal staff, but also by the increasingly omnipresent outside financial planning consultants who are being hired at considerable expense to make colleges and universities function more like corporations. In their eyes, the expenses of an operation like the Center for Black Music Research are out of proportion to its economic benefit.

We encourage President Carter and all of the Columbia College leadership to remember that the cultural, academic and social value created by the overwhelming success of the Center for Black Music Research—not to mention the international prestige—are just as crucial to the success of an institution like Columbia College as short-term financial equilibrium. The treasure that is the Center for Black Music Research cannot be easily recreated if it is undone. Truth be told, CBMR is the reason that Columbia College is known outside of Chicago.

Given a moderate amount of sustained financial support, CBMR and its creative and ambitious staff can successfully generate additional funds from outside granting agencies. We hope that Columbia College understands the cultural and ethical importance of maintaining the Center for Black Music Research—a center to which the college made a long-term commitment. The evisceration of CBMR would be devastating to Chicago, the nation and the world.

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