Jazz lovers winced this week upon seeing that N.C. Central’s celebrated jazz program had landed on a list of degrees to be cut from the UNC system. It seemed to many that it would simply be discarded like a low-selling title.

The Daily Tar Heel first reported
on the May 21 UNC Board of Governors meeting, where a vote to eliminate “less productive” degree programs speared both jazz and theatre at Durham’s HBCU.

“I’m lost. Why are they eliminating the jazz degree at NCCU?” Mint Julep Jazz Band vocalist and co-leader Laura Windley wrote. Four members of Mint Julep have ties to the prestigious jazz program. “I need this pool of talent for dances and gigs!”

Concerned calls and emails poured in to the university from parents, alumni and current and prospective students from as far away as Germany. Of just over a hundred HBCUs, Central is one of only a handful that offer degree programs in jazz.

“Some of the students who called me were literally in tears,” says assistant professor and Vocal Jazz Ensemble director Lenora Helm Hammonds.

But the situation is more complicated than first reported—and significantly more reassuring: “The rumors [of] the death of jazz at NCCU have been greatly exaggerated,” wrote music department chair Ralph Barrett in an email distributed to students this week.

Carlton Wilson, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, concurs.

“The program is not eliminated,” he said. “It’s been realigned in the Music Department. That was our proposal, our plan. We go through this every two years. We review our programs, and we have to make adjustments based on our findings. The [jazz] program is not going away. It’s intact.”

The undergraduate degree will become a concentration, while the masters program in jazz studies will not change.


Since 1995, the UNC Board of Governors’ biennial Academic Degree Productivity Review has flagged “low-producing” degree programs for review based on enrollment and graduation criteria. The 2014 review flagged 221 programs, fewer than in the previous six years. Of those flagged, a quarter were “discontinued or combined” with other degree programs, including jazz at Central.

The remaining 75 percent were “retained,” some with plans to increase enrollments while others were deemed central to a particular institution’s mission. The majority of retained programs were in the fields of education, biology, physical sciences, visual and performing arts, and foreign languages and literatures. (The Board of Governors’ J. Craig Souza, who chairs the committee on “educational planning,” did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Ira Wiggins, associate professor and director of Central’s Jazz Studies, said the planned realignment should bring numbers up to UNC system-wide standards and secure the continued health of the program.

Students in the “Bachelor of Music in Jazz” degree program have long been counted separately from other music majors, leading to misleadingly low numbers. The new plan corrects for that by expanding the BM degree to include all music majors, who will be counted together. Ethnomusicology, music education, vocal performance and instrumental performance—all formerly Bachelor of Arts degrees—will now be “concentrations” in an expanded Bachelor of Music program. Jazz will be part of that shift. The changes go into effect for new students during the 2016–2017 year.

The moves are less about cost reduction than properly accounting for the program’s success.

“Education is run like a business, and to a certain degree, I agree with that,” says Wiggins. “If your numbers don’t fit within a certain year, you’re at the mercy of what the numbers say. The vision has not changed. The curriculum has not changed. Staffing has not changed. It’s just a matter of how the students will be counted.”

As the media kerfuffle surrounding the Board of Governors’ vote winds down, panic has melted into relief for many locals, upset by the vision of a Durham without NCCU jazz. Helm Hammonds heard from many of those folks this week.

“I was aware that the program mattered to many, but not so aware that people of the Triangle area have true love, and even feel a sense of ownership of the program,” she says. She cites the program’s track record as the first and largest jazz degree program in North Carolina. “We are building jazz leaders for the 21st century.”

“I was so relieved to hear that the substance of the program would not be disappearing because it means several things,” adds Windley. “There is an educational core to our jazz community that cultivates growing musicians, sustains working musicians and cultivates a jazz culture in this area that I know so many people have worked to grow.”