Corcoran Art School Lays Off Over Half Its Faculty, Sowing Discontent and Distrust

The exterior of the Corcoran's Flagg Building (photo by Mr.TinDC/Flickr)
The exterior of the Corcoran’s Flagg Building (photo by Mr.TinDC/Flickr)

The Corcoran School of the Arts & Design’s class of 2016 had its graduation ceremony on May 14. The following week, more than half of the art school’s full-time faculty were told their contracts would not be renewed. Although it wasn’t a total surprise — the full-time faculty was expected to shrink in proportion to the school’s changing fiscal realities, a shrinking student body, and as part of the school’s ongoing integration into George Washington University (GW) — no one expected this many beloved professors to lose their jobs. Of the school’s 19 full-time faculty who taught last semester, only 9 will be back to teach in the fall.

“All the professors who were dismissed were essential to the Corcoran,” says Marilia Rojas Zarate, who just graduated from the Corcoran with a BFA in interior design.

“I can’t think of a single faculty member that’s not a genius,” says Mark Delboy, a graphic design student who will be a senior in the fall.

When I talked to members of the Corcoran community last year about the state of the art school, many expressed concern with the handling of the historic art college’s merger with the behemoth GW. But just as many were looking forward to a bright future, largely due to the optimistic outlook of the Corcoran’s then-brand new director, Sanjit Sethi. These days, optimists are few and far between.

In the immediate aftermath of the news that 10 professors would not be coming back to teach next fall, students started writing open letters to Sethi, posting them on social media, in the comments sections of articles about the Corcoran, and emailing them to the wider Corcoran community. Ranging from diplomatic to inflammatory, the letters speak of broken promises and feelings of frustration and betrayal. “It’s not just disappointment; it’s anger,” says Carey Averbook, a graduate student in photojournalism. “I didn’t sleep. My blood was boiling.”

Many of the students I spoke with waxed nostalgic about individual professors and how they were looking forward to working with them and taking their classes. Many students lost their thesis advisers. “Letting people like that go is incomprehensible, because they are so rare,” says Jenn Jenson, a part-time student in the photography department since 2012. She adds that these are the kinds of professors who would do things like “show up on their free time to do poetry readings with students. The administration is undervaluing how they shaped the students.”

•Corcoran students discussing artwork• #corclifej #srfineartcritiques

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The photography department was hit particularly hard, with three of its five professors not being offered new contracts. One of these is Andy Grundberg, a professor everyone I talked to was particularly upset about losing. When I spoke with Grundberg last fall, he was one of the few people I interviewed who still sought to understand the whole situation from the GW administration’s point of view, recognizing that the transfer of the Corcoran into GW was tough on everyone, not just on the Corcoran side, and defending theoretical changes in the curriculum, as long as they were changes for the better. When I talked to him again last month, Grundberg had changed his tone.

A Cult of Secrecy

For Grundberg and many other members of the Corcoran community, a lack of transparency is the main concern. Grundberg told me that when Sethi called him into his office to give him the bad news, the director gave the longtime professor little explanation as to how and why the faculty was divided into who was staying and who was going, beyond general references to the latest National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) report — a detailed report of an art school’s curriculum that is used to provide accreditation — budget issues, and pedagogical justifications. “It’s all very vague, but also very personal,” Grundberg says. “It’s the administrative culture of holding your cards close to your chest.” Everyone else I talked to was also confused by Sethi’s decision, and when I talked to Sethi himself, he provided the same vague reasoning that everyone else had cited.

“It wouldn’t have been insulting if we were given information,” says Muriel Hasbun, the now former head of the photography department, who also noted that the heads of departments were largely kept in the dark about administrative decisions throughout this past school year. “If your director doesn’t bring you in, you feel ostracized.”

The interior of the Corcoran's Flagg Building (photo by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons)
The interior of the Corcoran’s Flagg Building (photo by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons)

Students and faculty members’ frustrations with the administration’s lack of transparency have spawned a number of theories about which professors were given new contracts and which ones were not. Beyond predictable accusations of favoritism, a number of people I spoke to said that most of the professors who were let go had leadership roles at the Corcoran. Other theories include diversifying the layoffs enough to avoid discrimination lawsuits — a couple of now-former professors told me Sethi gave them a chart of the ages of those whose contracts were not renewed — and weeding out people with less formal education. While NASAD has not yet issued its full report on the Corcoran, it has given preliminary feedback, which Sethi has shared with the chairs of the Corcoran’s departments. When I asked him to give me an example of something in the preliminary NASAD feedback that was surprising or led him to think of the school differently, he refused to answer.

Perhaps the most telling theory is that the GW administration had all this in mind from the very beginning. “When GW took over, it seemed ad hoc and mysterious,” Grundberg says. “As time goes on, it seems more intentional.”

As far as the students are concerned, the lack of transparency is extremely detrimental to their studies. Not only do many of them feel they have to constantly fight for their rights as students, but as of this writing, a majority of the fall 2016 classes are still without instructors, and a number of the more specialized classes originally posted have now been canceled. “I don’t know what they’re selling, so I don’t know if I want to buy it,” Jenson says.

Culture Clash, Curriculum, Community

When I talked to members of the Corcoran community last fall about how they felt a year after the merger with GW, I identified three main areas of concern: a culture clash between a small art school and a large research university; worries about a watered-down curriculum; and fear of the loss of a unique art school community. At the time, many people hoped Sethi would bring the Corcoran back to its former glory (and some people still do), but these concerns are still very much at the forefront.

Grundberg says that the way the professors were let go was “classic corporate HR and unbecoming of a collegial university environment.” Others echoed Grundberg, adding that this kind of corporate culture is detrimental to both the school’s learning environment and its feeling of community.

“GW is all about the paper pedigree,” says Ricky Altizer, a rising senior in the graphic design department and another person who was excited about the future of the Corcoran when I spoke with him last fall. “It’s disheartening to see that kind of value system seemingly imposed on the Corcoran.” At least two people I talked to pointed out that GW’s athletics teams are the Colonials, which they found sadly fitting.

As far as the curriculum is concerned, many fear that the Corcoran’s separate visual arts departments will fold into one general visual arts degree with various media concentrations, but Sethi assured me that there are no plans to do so. And what of the “weird, niche classes” that Sethi was so fond of last year? “I’m still committed to classes being remarkable,” he says. However, two professors previously cited as teaching some of the most memorable “weird, niche classes” — Bernard Welt and Casey Smith — won’t be back on campus next year.

Students had fought long and hard to keep their professors, and now they feel betrayed. “If you’re not going to incorporate what students have said, that’s not a real dialogue,” Averbook says. “It feels like students are collateral damage.”

Many of the students I talked to said that at this point they wouldn’t be surprised by a complete change in the annual thesis exhibition, NEXT, which they have always held so dear. Sethi acknowledges that NEXT will morph to include the newly integrated performing arts programs and “other GW creative disciplines” as well. “I’m hoping there isn’t a program that can’t evolve,” he adds.

The familial community of the Corcoran is also changing. At roughly the same time as the faculty layoffs, Sethi announced that Mel Chin would join the Corcoran faculty as the school’s first visiting professor of community engagement. Sethi says Chin will teach advanced seminars and collaborate with students, faculty, staff, and the broader DC community to create a new public project during his term. (Hyperallergic reached out to Chin for comment on the current situation at the Corcoran, but received no response.)

Although most people I talked to were at least somewhat excited about Chin’s visiting professorship, the Corcoran community itself appears to be dividing into factions of those who trust Sethi to create a new and visionary art school and those who view his leadership with skepticism. And regardless of how people view Sethi and the GW administration at large, everyone agrees that the 10 professors will be greatly missed.

“I was very excited to meet Sanjit and see how he was a maker, with his finger on the pulse of social issues and a concern for art and design,” says one of the 10 former professors, who commented on condition of anonymity. “Now I can only express enormous disappointment that I can’t work with my wonderful students. An awful lot of students have requested that I keep in touch. I’d love to stop by students’ studios and keep up with their work.”

Adds Margaret Adams, one of three remaining photography professors: “The best way the students can honor their faculty is by making amazing work.”

Correction, 6/17: In a previous version of this article, it was suggested that Corcoran School students and faculty had been unable to obtain the latest National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) report on the Corcoran, but the final NASAD report has not yet been issued. A previous version of this article also claimed that there were only two remaining photography professors, but there are three; this number has been corrected. We apologize for these errors and any confusion they may have caused.

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