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Eastman School of Music Continues Legacy of Diversity, Brings in new Associate Dean of Equity and Inclusion

By Tracie Isaac

Dr. Crystal Sellers Battles. Photo provided.

Dr. Crystal Sellers Battle steps into a new position with the Eastman School of Music, of the University of Rochester as the inaugural Associate Dean of Equity and Inclusion.  In her new role, Dr. Sellers Battle brings her esteemed background in music arts and diversity. 

“Joining the Eastman community is exciting for me as it marries two of my passions into a beautiful fit – music and equity and inclusion work,” Battle said.  “I am eager to help our Eastman community think about how we can be more equitable and inclusive of all.  I look forward to seeing who will meet me at the starting line, as it will take all of us to work together, as we move towards what’s to come.”

An additional responsibility for Sellers Battle, will be to serve as the inaugural Director of the George Walker Center for Equity and Inclusion in Music, with a formal dedication will take place on April 16.  The George Walker Center was created as a designated space to bring together and lift up every voice in the Eastman Community.

“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Crystal Sellers Battle to the Eastman School of Music as our first Associate Dean of Equity and Inclusion,” Eastman Dean Jamal Rossi said.  “An accomplished musician and professor, Dr. Sellers Battle has a proven track record of dedication and success in furthering issues of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in every community she has been.  We are excited about the passion Dr. Sellers Battle brings to Eastman, and all that our community will accomplish together in the years ahead.”

The center was named in honor of George Theopolus Walker (June 27, 1922 – August 23, 2018). Walker was an American composer, pianist and organist and the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music.  In 1996, he received the Pulitzer for his composition titled Lilacs

Part of the Eastman’s legacy, William Warfield, who was one of the school’s most distinguished alumni earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1942 and 1946.  Warfield is considered one of the finest singer-actors of the 20th century, his bass-baritone was a product of the Rochester City School District.  A bronze sculpture and commemorative plaque were installed in the Miller Center courtyard at the Eastman School of Music in 2021.  Warfield is married to Soprano Leontyne Price, she was the first African American soprano to receive international acclaim.  Both singers are renowned for their legendary roles in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.  Warfield and Price achieved acclaim for their talent and activism pursuits for inclusion and diversity. 

Battle currently serves as the Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA.  Her work has advanced programs and policies that promote mindsets and behaviors that value and support equity, diversity and inclusion.

Battle began her music journey with an interest in speech pathology.  

While attending an arts high school in Columbus, Ohio, Battle’s choir teacher informed her that she should study music and instructed her to audition at schools as a music major and encouraged her to consider continuing with her original plan of speech pathology.  

Battle was accepted in college as a music major, which began her musical journey. Without a lot of formal training, Battle found that she preferred the performance track rather than the education track.  

“We have made some diversity progress in the performance arena, but I am not sure that we have made the same level of progress in academia,” she said.

“While we are embracing performers on the Metropolitan Opera stage, La Scala Opera House or gracing Covent Gardens and other wonderful venues around the world, we are still not making advancements in the way we educate these singers, … I do believe that we are making advances on the stage, but they are being taken on a heck of a journey to even get them to the stages.”

Dr. Sellers Battle co-founded DIEMA (Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in Musical Arts) Consulting Group, LLC, to help schools of music address DEI related challenges and initiatives.  She has presented to several groups and colleges around the country about DEI in music.

Battle holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in voice performance with a specialization in Singing Health from the Ohio State University and a Bachelor of Music from Bowling Green State University, a Master of Music degree from Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University and a postgraduate Diploma from Royal Northern College of Music I Manchester, UK. 

Battle says she hopes to help more people understand culture and not to place people in boxes. “What I want people to understand is that not everyone is created equal.  Yes, there are African Americans in this world but treating everyone like they are all the same person is not a good look.  We need to understand that there are nuances in the various cultures, and we need people to understand those nuances and that they are not being held at the same level of consideration.” 

African American composers have not been given the exposure in academic arenas that they should have.

Battle said she heard about Florence Price, George Walker and Dr. Adolphus C. Hailstork, an African American composer and educator from Rochester, NY. She said she intentionally took a class on African American composers during her undergrad experience at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and if not for the class, Battle said she would not have heard about them otherwise.

“There are two things that we cannot negate in American music art forms, we cannot negate the contributions of the European influences, but we cannot 150% negate the African influences and cultures that were brought to this country,” she said.

“There are things that people are doing in the classical arena that harken back to the African influence, but we don’t want to reckon with it. I think that is unfair.” 

As Associate Dean, Battle will provide expertise and vision to embrace and support diversity, equity and inclusion in all forms at the Eastman School of Music, supporting and enhancing the student experience.