Cornish: still a pitched battle.
Cornish: still a pitched battle. Malcolm Smith

Both leaders of the radical changes at Cornish College of the Arts may be leaving their jobs.

Cornish’s provost, Moira Scott Payne, was in Portland this week interviewing for the presidency of Pacific Northwest College of Art. (She declined comment about it.) If she gets the job, work begins August 1, according to the PNCA web site.

Scott Payne’s boss is definitely leaving. Nancy Uscher announced at the end of last year that she’s not interested in staying on as Cornish’s president beyond her original five-year contract. She’s out as of July.

I actually don’t know whether a double departure would bring more disarray or less to Cornish.

The century-old school is still fighting to balance its budget, attract students, update its long-languishing curriculum, and find its identity in a world where small private arts colleges increasingly go up in smoke if they don’t justify their existences. Last month, Cornish’s high-level staff were notified they’ll need to take mandatory furlough days between now and August so that the school can make ends meet this year.

Too many Cornish faculty feel disrespected, disregarded, and set adrift with no rigorously articulated sense of what’s happening at this school stretched partway between the old-fashioned conservatory model and … whatever will attract students now. Just last month, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee repeated a confidential survey for the second year in a row. Using phrases like “chaos and confusion” and “atmosphere of fear and favor,” most of the 70 respondents expressed distrust of the current leadership’s competence and vision.

I’ve talked to dozens of people in the last two years about all of this, from Cornish board chair Linda Brown to anonymous staffers to students. I’ve also watched the goings-on at Cornish firsthand, trying to understand whether the sacrifices are worthwhile, whether students are truly getting a more vital, dynamic education.

I’m excited that the acclaimed Kronos Quartet this February began what the outgoing president said will be a five-year series of workshops and performances with students at Cornish.

I’m excited that DJ Spooky premiered a new work here, that Cornish has started supporting risk-taking work with the new Institute of Emergent Technology + Intermedia and Cornish Playhouse Arts Incubator Residency, and that a member of the Martha Graham Company was recently here to work with students for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the dance department—whose new chair, Victoria Watts, I’m excited about, too.

I’m excited Scott Payne created a film and media department. Cornish needed one already. Absolutely. Thank you.

But Scott Payne lost the department’s inaugural director within a year of hiring her and had to hire someone else. Another notable Seattle media scholar set to work with the new department pulled out, declaring Cornish “a sinking ship.”

On the plus side, the renovated café at the main campus center on Lenora Street looks great.

The improvements, whether substantial or superficial, are lures.

Small private liberal arts colleges are suffering. They don’t have huge endowments with which to make lavish scholarships. Enrollment is way down. Parents and students balk at undertaking obscene debts, because grads emerge from college into an economy where jobs outside of the corporate sector are even more scarce than they were a generation ago. It’s a nightmare scenario for all kinds of small private colleges. It’s a special nightmare for arts schools.

Last year an entire class of MFA students dropped out of the prestigious program at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design. They charged that the administration had made promises about their funding, faculty, and curriculum, then changed course after the students had arrived. Prestigious faculty members spoke out and stepped down, too.

It all happened under a new dean who’s also founding executive director of the separate USC Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.

Not only did the Roski students find the new administration unreliable, they found it intellectually dishonest, chasing trendy marketing, sidling up to tech and corporate money, and fostering an environment that’s “hostile to critique and dissent.” On Artnet, Sean J. Patrick Carney roughly summed up the situation: “Please stop saying ‘the arts,’ you tech-humping poseurs. It’s my opinion that any administrator comfortable with having job titles that include Professor of Art and Founding Executive Director of anything with ‘innovation’ in the title needs to take a day off, have a cheeseburger, and do a little ‘me’ work.”

He added that the Roski situation is “depressingly familiar” in his experience in multiple post-secondary art schools, including Pacific Northwest College of Art, the school where Scott Payne is applying to be president.

According to a 2015 report in Time magazine, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts a decline in the number of college-age Americans between now and 2020, and the median income for American families is down.

“The result, according to a December 2014 Moody’s analysis of the financial situation facing colleges, is a widening winner-take-all divide,” Time reports, “in which wealthy institutions with global reputations that can attract high-paying international students will continue to thrive. Schools that aren’t attractive to a national or international market and don’t have a ‘demonstrated return on investment…will face increased competition from cheaper public higher education as well as distance learning options,’ Moody’s warned.”

It’s the story of the 1 percent, college edition. Small schools are grasping to make their Fords look like Jaguars.

At Cornish, the design department has been rearranged into categories including interior architecture and user experience, which I’m all for, so long as it doesn’t end up meaning that Cornish sends more corporate lackeys into the world. (Aren't there enough?)

Do I sound paranoid? Cornish’s campus center is located in the heart of South Lake Union. It’s ground zero for Amazon, biotech, Whole Foods, and unaffordable housing. In September, Cornish opened a 20-story dormitory that’s an obvious attempt to attract students. It’s a tower that looks like every other shiny edifice there. It’s not Cornish’s building; Cornish has a lease-to-own deal on it with Capstone Development Partners out of Alabama, which has dozens of these lease-to-own deals with small colleges.

The press release for this year’s graduating exhibitions was disproportionately devoted to describing a project funded by a grant from Microsoft, where students in dance, theater, and design presented Through the HoloLens, holographic videos produced specifically for viewing on the Microsoft HoloLens, “the world’s first fully untethered, self-contained holographic computer running Windows 10.” I didn't see the work, don't mean to disparage it, and don't believe that corporate-funded work is by definition illegitimate. My fear is that Cornish may not be in a position to be discerning about what projects it takes on to get grants.

Even through a "fully untethered, self-contained holographic computer running Windows 10," shiny new buildings and new brandings only paper over other identity crises that have to be addressed.

Why go to an expensive art school when you can get an audience in the millions on YouTube?

How could a school that separates performance, music, and visual art support the next Beyoncé?

Also, should a school want to create the next Beyoncé?

Look, I’ve given this team of leaders time, observation, hope, and the benefit of the doubt. Cornish needed change; I said so publicly after my experience working there before Uscher and Scott Payne arrived.

Uscher and Scott Payne were supposed to be the better leadership that Cornish so obviously needs.

It’s maddening to watch, and to admit, that Cornish’s biggest remaining problems are at the top. After all the scrutiny the rest of Cornish's people and programs have been subject to, leadership must come under scrutiny, too: Payne’s top-down (“hostile to critique and dissent”) management, Uscher’s inability or unwillingness to manage her into a better leader, poor long-term financial planning (start by looking to longtime chief financial officer Jeff Riddell), and a potentially dangerous excess of patience on the part of Cornish’s board of trustees.

“We have the same challenges that just about every institution of higher education in our niche has,” board president Linda Brown told me.

She meant it as an excuse. But it could easily be a declaration of why Cornish can ill afford another era of ineffective leadership.