Last week I wrote a story about the major change, and the major conflict, happening inside Cornish College of the Arts right now. Plenty of people have formulated responses, and I want to share and address those.
1. The headline on the cover of the print edition is sensational.
I wrote 2,866 words and you're stuck on the 9 words I didn't have anything to do with?
2. You only wrote about the art department.
To those who care deeply about the performance departments at Cornish—which, by the way, I do—this was a frustrating story. This is by no means the last time I will write about Cornish. There were reasons for the limit. Change is imminent in art and design, not in performance—as in, it's happening to this next year's crop of incoming students. What will change is far, far hazier in the other departments.
Design will be immediately affected along with art, but no department faces the overhaul the administration is calling for in the art department. The administration never once said, "The design department needs to improve." The administration is specifically targeting the art department. It needed its own consideration.
3. Is the change at Cornish really that big?
It depends on what you mean by big. Art and design students will notice a huge difference between what they did their first year, and what the incoming students will do next year.
Rather than taking several classes in several subjects at once, art and design students will spend the entire first year in a rotation of three six-week block classes. That means students will take only one class at a time, a class that meets for many, many hours a week, but only a third of the 15-week semester, until rotating to the next one.
Each semester will have a theme—"disruption" was mentioned to me as a hypothetical—and each five-week "module" will look at the theme through a different approach. That approach might be video, or a social science, or painting. Every class would include studio work plus reading and writing work. This means an entirely different use of resources (both faculty and physical space).
4. Your criticisms of the longtime faculty are ageist.
"Isms" depend on power contexts. Faculty members at Cornish may not feel powerful with respect to the administration, and this feeling is both increasing and based in concrete realities. But the other truth inside Cornish is that adjuncts are often younger artists who are the janitors of the system. Adjuncts not only take cuts but do not enjoy benefits, job security, and earn far lower wages. The most privileged members of the Cornish art department are, instead, disproportionately older. (On a deeper level, it's not my belief at all that stodginess is age-correlated. Length of tenure in a position and age are not necessarily interchangeable.)
5. You're biased because you worked there and were let go.
You only know my story in detail because I shared it. For those keeping score, the number of adjunct art history positions was cut in 2010, and as most junior adjunct, I was cut. It is fair to say that Cornish and I had our arguments, but we did nothing as dramatic as have a breakup because we were never really together—that's how being an adjunct works.
I outed my perspective rather than pretending at objectivity in order to reveal—by enacting it—the very real wedge between faculty and adjuncts at Cornish. It's a subject worth exploring more, because it speaks directly to the intersection between interior and exterior ideas at a school.
6. Wait, did you take sides?
I've noticed that those who believe I took sides are on a side.
One commenter accuses me of being a neocon sympathizer with management, another says the whole teaching staff should be replaced. Extremes. Above all, I don't know what's going to happen with layoffs and restructuring because it hasn't happened yet. I'll write about it when it does.
Keep in mind: It's obvious to me that a school with a significantly reduced faculty and a bunch of adjuncts is no different than a newspaper that only employs stringers for writers and offers to nobody except a few higher-ups the collective protection that an institution can provide in a country where universal health care—let alone a living wage—is not a given. So if leveling a system that employs people full-time is what the Cornish administration intends to do, you'd better believe I'm not for it. Lowly mistreated adjunct perspective or not.
7. How does this fit in with the larger national context?
As Jim Demetre wrote on Facebook, "Colleges and universities are increasingly relying upon [adjuncts] to reduce costs and weaken the influence of faculty." Indeed.
At the San Francisco Art Institute, according to this students' account, the administration invented a crisis in order to decimate the faculty.
The recent reimagining of fashion education at Parsons in New York kicked up a storm.
During one interview that didn't fit into the story, with former Cornish adjunct and now executive director of Pilchuck Glass School Tina Aufiero, she mentioned noticing that Cornish was "stuck in 1998." I quickly retorted to her something I'd like to share: that if Cornish's next move only gets it stuck in a slightly less moldy year—say, 2008—then that won't be any less tragic. During the interviews I conducted, various people bragged that the Provost's former college "produces Turner Prize winners," referring to artists who win Britain's leading art prize. Turner Prize winners are not my full measure of what is culturally interesting by a long shot.
But furthermore, monetizing pedagogy is a tricky business. Buzz is not the same as depth, though it might get you back in the black. We truly don't know yet what's going to be happening in revamped art classrooms at Cornish.
In other words, it's complicated.
Here's what I wrote to Jim's great commentary on Facebook: 'Cornish needs both serious financial rejiggering (the school has GOT to raise money in ways that are not directly on the backs of faculty or students) AND the art department needs serious reinvention. Both sides are using the other as cover. Please reread that: BOTH SIDES ARE USING THE OTHER AS COVER. That's not going to help. Jim, I do believe the administration will reduce the size of the full-time faculty. I HOPE IT WILL NOT BE BY MUCH. I hope it will be done WELL, meaning that there will be retirement buyouts that properly thank people for decades of service. I also was unable to include this in the story (due to length, ugh!), but in private meetings, I urged the higher-ups to provide training to faculty members who are willing to work in the new world order (to really INVEST IN PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT). Sarah Bergmann's comments about a disenfranchised faculty leading up to this situation—and the need for support for the faculty—hits the heart of it."
8. Speaking of Sarah Bergmann, a past student...why didn't you quote current students?
I interviewed 5. There is no meaningful way to survey a group of 700 people who don't know yet what's coming. Unsurprisingly, they said they would like to know what's coming. Some said they wanted more say. Others were veritably dewy-eyed with love for the new administration. The "student perspective" is a tough one to capture. I didn't use Sarah's quote because it represented an entire population. I used it because I thought what she said was useful, balanced, and smart, and everyone would do well to hear and listen to it.
9. I'm a teenager. Should I go to Cornish? What's it going to be like?
I don't know. If my kid wanted to go to private art school, I'd insist it be at a place that is brilliantly alive.
I hope I get to report this story to that conclusion. Onward.
Thank you for your comments and questions—they're continuing to help me think about Cornish. Please leave more comments on the story.