When assistant professor Tommy Iafrate joined Binghamton University’s theatre faculty in fall 2015, he was brought in to lead the department’s effort toward creating a musical theatre Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program. As of Tuesday, May 1, Iafrate and the theatre department got one step closer to materializing the program when the BU Faculty Senate approved the department’s curriculum proposal.
The proposed program wasn’t met without hesitation, though. Throughout the process of creating the BFA — a degree that requires more credits and advanced performance training than the bachelor’s in theatre — the department faced questions about hiring new faculty members, recruitment processes, curriculum and diversity initiatives both from its own professors and the BU Faculty Senate.
“The department has been gearing up for this for a long time,” Iafrate said. “They did so by hiring me, by hiring David Wynen [an assistant professor of theatre], by hiring a musical director position so that we have all the tools we need, and when we put through this proposal we didn’t have to ask for more.”
Originally, the musical theatre program was conceived as a concentration of the already-existing bachelor’s in theatre, a 40-credit major. The department moved toward a BFA in order to ensure that students were taking more coursework in acting, singing and dance to prepare them for the competition they may face in the field after they graduate.
“There were so many courses that we wanted to include, because we want to train experts as singers, as dancers, as actors,” Iafrate said. “There simply wasn’t enough space within a bachelor’s of arts degree, which has all sorts of specifications about liberal arts and sciences classes and maximum number of credits due to other general education requirements — there was no way to do it. We ended up going the BFA route just because there was more flexibility in terms of how many credits we could require.”
At the Faculty Senate meeting, the program passed with almost every voting member — 42 professors out of 45 — in agreement. Concerns in deliberations came from Fernando Guzman, a member of the BU diversity committee and a professor of mathematics, who expressed concerns about how diverse the proposed degree would be in terms of faculty on behalf of the committee.
“This proposal comes short of what is required from any degree proposal … all proposals coming to the Faculty Senate are to include a statement to address concerns of diversity and inclusion,” Guzman said. “These statements should include a plan to recruit students from underrepresented groups, to include faculty from underrepresented groups … the diversity committee recommends to the Faculty Senate that these proposals get sent back to be corrected.”
While the department is not able to hire more faculty at this time, it intends to recruit students for the new program directly from high schools that service traditionally underrepresented minorities. Since 2016, the theatre department has made efforts in creating more diverse productions, including producing shows that feature people of color in principle roles, like this year’s production of “Smart People,” a drama about race, class and gender between four Harvard University scholars. Another measure the department has taken to be more accessible is creating audition workshops to help guide students who may be new to theatre through the casting process.
“In the last several years, the department’s been trying very hard to attract students of diversity to come audition for our productions so that we can serve them onstage and make sure that we’re telling all sorts of different stories,” Iafrate said. “I think that the concerns of the committee — which are completely valid — are not just looking at the students we attract, but also the faculty, and I could not agree more — we need to have a more diverse faculty.”
The theatre department will be meeting with the University’s diversity committee in order to make a plan for hiring a more diverse faculty in the future. At the time the BFA proposal was submitted to the University Senate, a condition of passing the program was to not bring on any new professors.
The theatre department will look next to BU’s administration and provost to approve the program. If the University passes the degree, the department will conduct a SUNY-wide proposal to approve the BFA program. This process will likely delay the program’s establishment at BU past fall 2018, which was the earliest anticipated date of coursework being offered.