UA-Fayetteville to offer country’s first Master of Music in Black Sacred Music

Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

MONTICELLO -- The country's first Master of Music in Black Sacred Music program will be offered at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville beginning in the summer of 2023, following approval Wednesday by the University of Arkansas trustees.

Though there are several sacred music programs around the country, this will be the first master's program to focus on Black sacred music, and the university said it expects most students will graduate after three years/summers.

"We anticipate that the M.M. in Black Sacred Music program will be a highly competitive and internationally regarded program, unique in its field. We expect graduates of this program to rank in the top 10% of earners in Black sacred music fields," according to a written proposal from Jim Gigantino, interim vice provost for Academic Affairs, and Jeffrey Murdock, who will spearhead the program and who is an associate professor of music, director of the Black Music Center and of Choral Activities, and winner of the 2021 Grammy Music Educator Award, presented by the Recording Academy and Grammy Museum.

The university said it expects at least 25 students to be enrolled in the program by year three.

"For students entering practice right after graduation, the starting salaries can range between $42,000 and $65,000; after five years of practice, the salaries will range between $80,000 and $120,000, or more," according to their proposal.

The proposed program will be supported by an annual grant of $140,163 from the Alice Walton Foundation, and the foundation has committed to continue to support the program through an endowment yielding the same annual funding, provided outlined program goals are met.

If the foundation funding should cease, "We are confident, based on the demand for this type of program, the college would be able to sustain this program," according to the proposal. "With our three-summer model, we have the unique opportunity to attract working professionals in the field for short periods of time during the summers, in that music programs in Black churches are often on hiatus during this time."

Several courses currently in the Department of Music will be adapted for graduate study, or subject matter inclusion, and faculty will include full-time and part-time Department of Music faculty, along with special guest instructors, who will be appointed as adjunct faculty in the Department of Music, according to the proposal. "Graduates from this program are most likely to work in every region where Gospel and contemporary popular music are significant portions of the music industry."

"Black Gospel music -- a result of the merging of American Christianity and the music brought to America by Black Africans of the Diaspora -- is particularly linked to many of the social and cultural movements in the state of Arkansas," making the state's largest university a felicitous host for this new program, according to the proposal.

The university "became aware of this need organically, through hiring faculty with Gospel music expertise, and through exposure to those faculty and students with the shared lived experiences of Black sacred music study and practice."

Tuition and fees for the 36 credit hours in this program are estimated at $16,272 for in-state students, $43,361 for out-of-state students.


An $848,380 grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation will establish and fund the Center for Black Music, which trustees also voted Wednesday to create, and the degree program for the first three years. The Center for Black Music, in the Department of Music, which is within the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, will open in the spring.

"In modem music programs, there is a growing trend among educators to work toward effectively including all genres of music in the educational setting to better train students for roles in the modern music industry. The National Standards of Music Education and the National Core Arts Standards mandate that music educators teach music relative to history and culture, and that singing and playing instruments -- whether alone or with others -- encompasses a varied repertoire of music," according to the proposal from University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt.

The Center for Black Music "will support research and teaching in this important area, especially with the creation of the Master of Music in Black Sacred Music."

"In recent years, divisional changes have occurred in major record labels reflecting a fundamental reorientation of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Grammy Awards) toward diversity, equity and inclusion, and greater collaborations between major music industry partners and technology firms and higher education," Bobbitt added. "This center will support those industry partnerships, interdisciplinary research in Black music and allied areas across campus, and support student development to fill roles within this growing area of the music world."

The Center's annual budget is estimated at roughly $424,000, but funding has been provided by the Alice Walton Foundation as a two-year pilot project, according to the university. In the second year, the center "will submit a larger proposal reviewing the work completed over the pilot project to the Walton Foundation in support of an endowment to fund an institute indefinitely."

Trustees also approved the Center for Art as Lived Experience in the School of Art, also within the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, which will also open in the spring.

The School of Art has grown considerably in recent years, and the "Center for Art as Lived Experience establishment stems from that growth," according to Bobbitt. "The center creates a space for cross-collaboration between" all areas in the School of Art "due to its emphasis on how art relates to collective and individual lived experiences and the role of art within our society."

The projected annual budget is $61,607, according to the university. "All costs associated with the Center for Art as Lived Experience will be funded by the School of Art Endowment, under the Outreach and Recruitment budget."

CORRECTION: The Master of Music in Black Sacred Music program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will be supported by an annual grant of $140,163 from the Alice Walton Foundation. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the foundation funding the program.