Parsons: Not as simple as it seems

Earlier this week, the New York Times and Artnet each reported on a controversial faculty cut at Parsons The New School for Design . On March 10th, between one third and one half of all fine-arts faculty at the university received letters from the office of the recently hired chair, interdisciplinary political artist Coco Fusco, severely reducing the amount of credits they were teaching, reassigning them out of the department, or terminating their employment entirely.

Most members of the faculty at Parsons are part-time adjuncts who work on a contract basis, with contracts being renewed each semester or each year. Thus, the school has not technically fired anyone; instead, they’ve simply opted to not re-hire certain individuals. Tim Marshall, the university’s interim provost explains Parsons’ position,”This is not a disciplinary action– no one’s been fired…. As you update the curriculum, you have to look at the best fit.”

Members of the Parsons arts faculty submitted a petition to the New School administration stating,

We the undersigned hereby affirm our opposition to the summary firing of our valued colleagues from the Parsons Fine Arts department. These fellow teachers and artists have given their time and energy to Parsons for many, many years. They, like all adjunct faculty at Parsons, have worked many hours beyond their contractual commitments and have provided scholarship, skill and guidance to countless students. Furthermore to not rehire faculty in this economic climate is both cruel and socially irresponsible.

While we support the innovations of the school of Art, Media and Technology we cannot do so at the expense of our colleague’s livelihoods. We therefore insist upon an immediate reversal of aforementioned summary firings.

An e-mail message signed by Gregory Amenoff, the Chair of Columbia University’s Visual Arts Program and five other full-time faculty members at the School of the Arts, Tomas Vu-Daniel, Blake Rayne, Kara Walker, Jon Kessler, and Thomas Roma read,

We stand united in expressing our dismay at the recent firings (and demotions) of so many talented artist/educators. The suddenness of this wholesale action coupled with the clear lack of prior dialogue makes these firings particularly grievous. But even more troubling is that these decisions were made during a period of crisis for all cultural institutions in this city and beyond.

It went on to call the move “anti-artist, anti-arts education and frankly anti-culture.”

So, is the termination of the Parsons adjunct faculty contracts unethical in part or solely because of the current economic recession? Would it also be unethical during an economic boom? Should universities be held to a higher ethical standard than other organizations/companies? Does the fact that this is an art school have any bearing on the ethics of the situation? What moral obligation does a university have toward its employees? Toward its faculty specifically? Toward its students? What moral responsibility does an art school bare toward the arts community at large? Are certain artistic media more important than others? Are art schools morally obligated to preserve or promote particular media in order to preserve or promote particular faculty? Does hiring new arts faculty cancel out firing old arts faculty?


As much as I dislike New School president Bob Kerrey , this particular situation at Parsons is just not as simple as the administration being evil for firing or demoting longtime faculty. A university, or college, or school is ethically bound to proceed in the way that will most benefit its students. In fact, Parson’s website states the school’s mission as this:

Parsons focuses on creating engaged citizens and outstanding artists, designers, scholars and business leaders through a design-based professional and liberal education.Parsons students learn to rise to the challenges of living, working and creative decision making in a world where human experience is increasingly designed. The school embraces curricular innovation, pioneering uses of technology, collaborative methods and global perspectives on the future of design.

Indeed, the school has historically emphasized design as opposed to traditional fine art, (i.e. painting and sculpture– although design v. art is another discussion). Regardless of where one sides in the design v. art debate, it is undeniable that designers are among the first to incorporate new technologies into their practices, and the use of technology is integral to most design practices. It therefore makes sense that Parsons wants to emphasize its new media and technology programs, even within the fine arts department. What’s more, a cursory glance at the makeup of each department within Parsons School of Art and Technology, in which the fine arts department resides, reveals that the majority of undergraduates major in a design/ technology/ new media field as opposed to a more traditional medium. This indicates that there is more of a demand for these new media courses than for painting or sculpture courses at the university. There are 76 students enrolled in in the BFA Fine Arts program as opposed to 306 students in the BFA Communication Design Program, and 163 students in the BFA Design and Technology Program. So, if Parsons wants to make its Fine Arts program more desirable, perhaps it should emphasize art that uses technology (new genres as opposed to painting and sculpture.) And, especially during a recession, it makes sense that the demand for more marketable art and design skills such as web design would be up. Even if one is using technologies such as photoshop, illustrator, flash, html programming, etc, in a fine art practice, they are still arguably more marketable skills than painting.


And this brings me to the adjunct faculty that was cut or demoted. Although no complete list of the affected faculty has been released, from the outraged comments, it seems as though the majority of those affected are those who work in traditional media. For example, Dale Emmart and Jean-Pierre Roy , both repeatedly mentioned and quoted in articles and on blogs, are both painters. In fact, one could argue that, had some of these artists expanded and diversified their practices to include new media, their contracts may have been renewed. I am an installation artist with an MFA in printmaking, but, because I am well-versed in technology, the undergraduate courses I have taught (not at Parsons) include Digital Imaging and Internet Imaging. So, is the terminating of faculty contracts of those working in traditional media socially irresponsible because traditional media is more socially valuable than new media? In reality, one could also make a (weaker) case that because so much of new genre work is politically motivated, particularly in these times, it is in fact, new media that is more morally responsible.

What’s more, the administration at Parsons has said that they plan on adding more full-time faculty as well as new adjuncts. So aren’t they still providing working artists with income, even if it is a different group of working artists? And, the addition of full-time faculty positions will provide more working artists with health insurance, benefits, job security, and a decent wage, things that one doesn’t get as an adjunct.

Finally, I find Columbia’s position on the matter particularly hypocritical and self-serving (and I say this as a Columbia alumna, a former staff member, and a sometimes adjunct faculty member of the University, who considers several of the letter signers mentors and friends). Last year, when Carol Becker became the new dean of Columbia’s School of the Arts, she eliminated several longtime administrative staff members, redefining their positions and making them (unsuccessfully) reapply for them. How was that more or less moral than what new chair, Coco Fusco is doing at Parsons? Is it because Parsons is redefining teaching positions and Columbia redefined admin positions? They are all still jobs in the arts that attract artists. Given Columbia’s tense relationship with their own former faculty member, Fusco, the criticism seems suspicious.

What is warranted is outrage over the way in which Parson’s restructuring is taking place. It does appear to be too cloaked in secrecy. The lines of communication have to be kept open with students, faculty, staff, and alumni so that the restructuring feels more like a collaborative process that will ultimately lead to a more enriching educational experience, rather than a dark dictatorship that will lead to mutiny. Kerrey and Fusco need to address the concerns of the community with more than guarded press releases. Otherwise, no matter how morally in the right they are, they will seem like the bad guys.
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Filed under Academia, Art, Education

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