Music Education Leader Is Out After Race-Related Comments

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — May 11, 2016 3 min read
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After a blog post criticizing his comments about race and diversity went viral, Michael Butera is leaving his position as executive director of the National Association for Music Education.

He’ll be replaced by Michael Blakeslee, the former chief operating officer of the association and one of the developers of the National Core Arts Standards.

In an interview with Education Week, Blakeslee said the turmoil had “given us a chance to reaffirm the association’s deep belief that all children have music education as part of their education and redouble our efforts.”

He said that while the association does not directly hire music teachers or accept students into music education programs, “we can promote the kind of professional development that gives [those who do] ideas about how they can approach diversity.” Up until this point, he said, “this is not an issue we’ve been ignoring, but this certainly pushes it to the fore for us. It’s a new realization of the importance with which we have to take this.”

Blakeslee, who is white, said that his experience working as a music teacher in South America and with multicultural music education would be useful in his new role.

Of his own race, Blakeslee said, “I can’t control that...I realize that flies in the face of what I’m saying. In hindsight, well, gee, maybe our board should have appointed one of our very fine African-American educators or teachers,” Blakeslee said. “All I can say is, I think I have some skill sets that will be helpful, and experiences that will be helpful... to move the needle toward a more diverse workforce in education.”

“What we can do is open a dialogue about some of these issues and how to get there, and in the meantime try to produce tools, protocols, ideas that help teachers in a way that might attract more kids” into music and music education, he said.

The music education community went into an uproar over the weekend after Keryl McCord, the operations director for the Atlanta-based nonprofit Alternate ROOTS, wrote a blog post — “Why We Must Have Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in the Arts” — describing a series of comments from Butera at a conference of the National Endowment for the Arts. McCord wrote that Butera said that African-Americans and Latinos lacked the keyboard skills required of music teachers, and that there was little he could do to help diversify the National Association for Music Education’s all-white elected board.

Butera responded with a Facebook post stating that he was committed to diversity in music education and calling McCord’s post “deeply inaccurate.”

McCord wrote a follow-up blog post earlier this week, saying that Butera did not specify what he believed was inaccurate in her account and calling for the national association to embrace a “more diverse future.”

Jesse Rosen, the president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras backed up McCord’s account in a public statement shared earlier this week:

I can attest to the accuracy of Keryl McCord's account of what was said and what took place. Mr. Butera indeed said that he could not take action to diversify his board, and that African-Americans and Latinos lacked keyboard skills needed to advance in the music education profession—two statements which many of us around the table challenged. The group was unable to further pursue the meaning of his comments as Mr. Butera abruptly and angrily walked out of the room, well in advance of the meeting's scheduled end time.

Here’s the National Association for Music Education’s statement on Butera’s departure:

After a thorough review process, the National Executive Board of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) and Michael Butera have agreed that he will not be returning to the association. We wish him well and thank him for his service to our purpose and mission. Additionally, we are announcing that Michael Blakeslee will serve as the new executive director and chief executive officer for NAfME, effective immediately. Mr. Blakeslee's vast experience and knowledge of our organization, fostered over nearly 30 years of dedicated service to NAfME and the music education profession, best position us to move forward and advocate for and provide opportunities to students and teachers. These last few days highlight the need for real, substantive conversation about what must be done to provide access and opportunity to all students no matter where they live. This is an ongoing journey and we are ready to play an increasingly important role in convening and facilitating a dialogue and prompting action around how all of us can increase diversity, inclusion, and equity in music and the arts.

McCord told Education Week in an email why she wrote her initial post:

I work with an arts organization dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and equity within the arts, and our region. And I wrote it because we have been, and are doing, the hard work year by year for our organization to look like the modern South. A large part of the work then is to speak up, to speak out, especially in spaces where it is difficult to do so, for that is where the real work takes place.

Researchers have examined the role of race and ethnicity in music education and how certain musical experiences and backgrounds tend to be prioritized in university music departments. Music teachers are overwhelmingly white: Just 1 in 10 candidates for music education licensure identify as nonwhite. That’s less diverse than the overall teaching profession, and significantly less diverse than the population of public school students.

Photo: Mike Blakeslee, via the National Association for Music Education

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.