Six days before the start of the fall semester at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), a group of Master’s candidates and professors received an email from the dean of students informing them that their program was suspended and they would not be teaching or studying as planned. As a result, 17 accepted students and two longtime professors teaching in PNCA’s Critical Theory and Creative Research (CTCR) program were left disillusioned — and, in the case of the professors, unemployed. The college says the program was suspended because of under-enrollment and a delicate financial situation, but students and teachers claim CTCR was eliminated unethically and possibly in retaliation for expressions of dissent against recent changes in the school’s administration.
In April, Hyperallergic reported on a series of protests by PNCA students and staff after a group of adjunct professors was unceremoniously left without work for the coming school year. Now the school is embroiled in controversy again with the elimination of the CTCR program, an internationally renowned model for creative, critical studies. The justification for the suspension of CTCR provided by PNCA’s administration and its new president, Don Tuski, suggests the decision was primarily economic. PNCA’s claim that it suspended the program in the interest of fiscal responsibility lends credibility to allegations that the institution expanded beyond its means with the inauguration of an entirely new campus in 2015.
However, some teachers and members of the administration say the school is operating below capacity — admission numbers have fallen short — and that resistance to structural changes amounts to resistance to growth. PNCA is a very different place than it was two years ago; the administration and current teachers have been working hard to improve morale on campus, an instructor at the school who wished to remain anonymous told Hyperallergic. Meanwhile, students accepted into the intensive, one-year CTCR program and their instructors feel that its suspension will only compound the school’s need for increased enrollment. Furthermore, they fear that the school’s vision for the restructuring of the CTCR program into a two-year Master’s program with a new chair — to debut in the 2017–18 school year — will amount to a difference of thousands of dollars in tuition.
Upon the suspension of the CTCR program on August 18, its co-chairs, Anne-Marie Oliver and Barry Sanders, were asked to sign a separation agreement that included a non-disparagement clause guaranteeing that they would not speak out against the school. Hyperallergic was provided with a copy of the document, which Oliver and Sanders refused to sign because, “It goes against everything we believe and everything we teach our students,” the pair said over email. “Signing a gag order would effectively hand over all power to the Administration to present its version of reality.”
The administration’s version of reality is that the program couldn’t move forward because it was under-enrolled and not financially viable, according to an official statement. The school claimed that the suspension of CTCR was precipitated by the failure of prospective students accepted into the program to pay a $250 deposit by the August 15 deadline. According to the statement, only five of the 17 students accepted into the program paid their deposits on time. Both the students and the professors say they were misled about the inflexibility of the deadline, and some were told by members of the administration to hold off on paying the deposit until financial aid packets were completed. In a meeting with Tuski, five incoming students who were accepted into the program expressed their willingness to pay the deposits in full, right then and there. Bizarrely, it was the program’s co-chairs who were charged with securing the accepted students’ deposits. They were also tasked with recruiting and selecting an entire cohort of CTCR students for the 2016–17 school year in mere weeks, a task they completed — a testament to the success of the program. This despite the fact that the school has a full admissions department and that “PNCA’s new president … is dedicated to increasing enrollment in all of PNCA’s graduate programs and helping them thrive,” according to a statement provided by the school. Hyperallergic repeatedly reached out to the PNCA administration and president with additional questions, but received only generic responses.
Meanwhile, the CTCR co-chairs, with nearly 20 years of service to PNCA between them, feel like they were set up to fail. “We were given contracts to recruit 13 students when it had already been decided that the program would not run in 2016–17,” said Oliver and Sanders.
The co-chairs aren’t the only ones who lost work because of the suspension; several other artists and teachers were informed that they no longer have classes to teach in the CTCR program. Speaking with Hyperallergic under the condition of anonymity, some of these teachers said that they felt the program was suspended in retaliation for their participation in the protests last spring. In an email to the PNCA president, shared with Hyperallergic and posted on the PNCA Infoshare website, an anonymous student claimed that Tuski had said in a meeting that the program was suspended “because professors Oliver and Sanders were lacking a serious or respectful attitude about collecting deposits, and had declined your offer to call new students to collect these deposits.” The students and teachers claim the suspension was personal and came at the expense of PNCA’s quality of education and international prestige.
“It’s crazy because people were quitting jobs and moving and rearranging their lives to do the program,” said Taryn Tomasello, a student who had been accepted into the CTCR program for the 2016–17 school year, in an interview with Hyperallergic. Tomasello received her BFA from PNCA and participated in a work-study program while she earned her degree. Hopeful students spent thousands of dollars, pulled up stakes, and moved their lives across great distances in order to study at PNCA, only to be told they wouldn’t be starting classes because of miscommunication about a $250 security deposit, she said.
In response to the allegations put forward during the spring protests that PNCA had put itself at financial risk with the construction of its new $32-million headquarters, the college told Hyperallergic that it “ran a capital campaign separate from the college’s operating budget to raise the funds for the renovation project.” However, Tuski contradicted that claim last week when he told artnet News that the school’s financial worries came about in part because of the costly move, forcing the school to raise its enrollment goals.
Meanwhile, classes at PNCA are starting as planned without the CTCR program. Prospective students in the suspended 2016–17 CTCR class have launched a petition demanding the immediate reinstatement of the program. As for Oliver and Sanders, in the future they will be focusing on a new project called the Oregon Institute for Creative Research — “a school in the true sense of the word,” as Oliver said over the phone — which will be modeled after the historic Black Mountain College and guided by what they call the “E4”: Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecology, and Education. The former CTCR co-chairs are hitting the ground running, inviting students accepted into their former program at PNCA to join them; classes at the Oregon Institute for Creative Research begin on September 27.