Dismantling Art School

The role of educational institutions in shaping and defining artists is being questioned and critiqued by the very professors, students and alumni who make up these institutions. One of these critiques, the nationwide movement to organize and unionize adjunct and contingent university professors, has been building for nearly two years from late 2013. A second critique became public on May 15th with the withdrawal of the first-year class from USC Roski School of Art and Design’s MFA program who noted the ‘accelerating trend’ of their school’s reliance on adjunct faculty and the growth of highly paid administrative positions as a factor. Both of these actions- one a growing labor movement reflecting a renewed relevance of unions due to increasing worker precarity, the other an act of ‘collective and interdependent force’ by seven MFA candidates working in solidarity- connect and reflect the experiences of artists within educational systems that claim to create artistic legitimacy, lineage and networks of influence.

The nationwide effort Adjunct Action/Faculty Forward, organized by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has been elected at schools in numerous regions and cities including Washington D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Albany, Boston, St. Louis and Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. In addition, teaching faculty at a number of independent Catholic colleges and universities are fighting a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that exempts religious schools from recognizing elected representation or bargaining agreements.[1] Current campaigns are underway in many more cities including New York, Philadelphia, Tucson and Los Angeles at USC and Art Center College of Design.

Los Angeles has a history of professionalized art education since the early 20th century. USC’s Roski School and OTIS College of Art and Design both assert their title as the oldest independent art programs in the region, with Chouinard and Art Center not far behind.[2] The locus of design, entertainment and culture industries in Los Angeles continue to fund a wealth of art and design schools, notably CalArts, funded by Disney. Tension between business and economic interests and a more critical, ‘avant garde’ ideology is long established and navigated by these school’s graduates and artists who hold their teaching careers in high regard. SEIU is aware of these specific needs; artist and organizers Adam Overton and Jessica Lawless are working with SEIU on campaigns in Los Angeles and Bay Area schools to help bridge differing organized labor and academic artist communities. Their efforts offer a valuable, considered response to the continued neo-liberal assault on higher education while underscoring class disparities in different groups of workers.

Administrations are resisting faculty efforts to unionize with great force, using similar union-busting tactics and language in multiple regions and schools. Where faculty have organized, contract negotiations are being delayed to force a union withdrawal vote, or faculty representatives are required to speak to attorneys rather than negotiating directly with school administrators. During ongoing organizing campaigns, administrative tactics include attempting to delay or cancel the vote, calling sudden meetings with adjuncts to ‘discuss’ concerns, convincing a few employees to campaign against union representation, and criticizing SEIU as ‘not the right fit’ for an educational environment.

This critique is ironic, considering the role of administrators in managing teaching faculty, particularly adjuncts and those working in online education, as ‘content deliverers’, framing them as more traditional ‘service workers’. Universities with top-heavy administrations tend to frame teaching less as a profession, in which stakeholders create pedagogy as a chosen and well-researched vocation, than as a role in which faculty serve the ‘brand’ of the institution in delivering pre-approved content to students and graduate candidates to achieve pre-determined results. In other words, faculty are treated as service workers, caught between the demands of the institution’s administration and the needs of their students, both of whom view professors in a service role when evaluating their teaching performance and determining their worth to the school.

Universities, including art schools, are turning away from the tradition of education as personal and political development and viewing it as a vocational enterprise; often, this is a deliberate strategy to undermine the radicalizing impact public education has on a population in a democratic system.[3]  Recent changes at the University of North Carolina, instigated by newly elected state leaders touting a pro-business agenda that defines education as a privilege, not a right, clearly lay out these long-term strategies,[4] as do the deep cuts Governor Scott Walker is proposing to the University of Wisconsin system.[5] A main tactic is the de-stabilization and disempowerment of teachers by increasing reliance on part-time professors. These adjuncts have little impact on an institution’s configuration and are paid much less than their full-time counterparts on a per class basis, leaving them at the economic poverty line. Their need to constantly commute for classes at multiple institutions, with no guarantee of regular employment, and a forced reliance on public assistance to meet basic survival needs exacerbates the continuing economic and labor crisis in the university system. [6]

While teaching provides artists a measure of freedom from commercial art markets, it also links them to the labor and class concerns of academic professors who often define themselves as intellectual elites. MFA programs, with their continued emphasis on Marxist-influenced critical theory, define artists through both lenses as they encourage candidates to create unique, marketable products for the commercial gallery system. Art students are caught between the institutional definition of art as a commodifiable self-expression or art as an ideological manifestation. Most attain their MFA’s in preparation for a potential teaching career. Upon graduating from an institution owing tens of thousands of dollars in debt, they seek an unguaranteed teaching position at the same or similar institution, which pays them pennies on the dollar of their educational investment. These less-than-living wages serve to devalue degree programs over the long-term, an incredibly shortsighted educational and economic strategy.

The devaluing of humanities and liberal arts education and the adoption of entrepreneurial business models for arts practice has also undermined the critical position and application of an arts degree and corporatized education overall.[7] Traditional art schools, which include a focus on independent critical thinking and historical perspectives as part of the humanities, are seen as having a poor return on an educational investment in “human capital”. USC is a notable local example in this regard; the recently appointed Roski School Dean, Erica Muhl, has family ties to the entertainment industry through her father, a former Vice President at Universal Pictures, and has gained power as an administrator partly due to brokering a $70 million donation in 2014 to launch the USC Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.[8]  The program’s brand shift, from the School of Art to the School of Art and Design, reflects it’s changing focus away from critical thinking and making towards business interests.

SEIU-led organizing efforts address this issue by providing a valuable labor alliance with lower-wage maintenance workers, foodservice and security staff, it highlights the reactionary, unethical and marginalized treatment of individuals who perform these jobs and draws a clear parallel with the unethical treatment of adjunct teaching labor. Simultaneously, the campaign addresses the problematic framing of teaching as a service industry. Academic professors, former students who may carry extensive debt, often resist identifying with their lower-wage counterparts. The elitism created by levels of educational access, along with the critical thinking, personal development and cultural context that education allows, fosters class division in the struggle with an increasingly corporatized university. Administrators who are typically compensated over four times the pay of full-time professors, and a dozen times greater than adjuncts and service workers, strategically highlight these distinctions in their communications to faculty considering organizing via a union. Attempts to prevent full-time faculty from affiliating themselves with part-time adjunct professors is common, including attempts to cast full-time faculty in an administrative role. However, treatment of service workers and adjunct labor is nearly identical.

The issue is not the separation of part-time professors from full-time employees or service workers, but to resist defining a worker’s value solely based on the jobs they perform. By affirming the overall value of service workers and their labor, and by making visible and valuing each workers role in the functioning of the institution, ‘lower level’ workers can attain a higher status and strengthen the entire labor pool. SEIU’s nationwide ‘Fight for $15” rallies at USC in April reflected the clear picture of the complex class divisions between workers within a given institution, including economic and racial divisions; laborers and staff are mostly people-of-color, while professors are mostly Caucasian. The campaign has an opportunity to address economic discrepancies within their own supporter base; contrast “$15,000 a Class” for Faculty Forward adjuncts with “Fight for $15”, the now-achieved minimum wage increase in California, and the current New York minimum wage increase campaign. Economic disparities in the campaign’s targeted goals must be addressed in a forthright and non-divisive manner between academic and blue-collar or service labor to create collectivity within organizing efforts and to garner more support in current campaigns.

Another obstacle to successful organizing of arts faculty is the perception of artists as an uncooperative, highly individualized, competitive demographic. USC Roski School’s MFA’s have debunked the myth of the un-organizeable artist by dropping out in solidarity and en mass; their decision was made public on graduation day, May 15th, with the publication of their blog MFAnoMFA. [9] In detailing their well-articulated reasons for their departure at the program’s halfway point rather than accumulate increased debt for their degree, the USC class of 2016 preserved their power to act and maintain political agency and demonstrated the solidarity and personal commitment necessary to fight the dehumanizing changes in education policies nationwide. Their actions have been widely commended and have called the legitimacy of MFA programs into question, particularly USC’s Roski School.[10]

Of enormous concern is the increased precarity of students within educational institutions. The USC MFA candidates incurred a high cost for their decision, but their action has been highly visible and well received by local arts communities. Compare their reception and recognition with the non-visibility of the students impacted by the recent foreclosure and bankruptcy of Corinthian Colleges and its subsidiaries Everest, WyoTech and Heald, for-profit schools operating in California, Hawaii, Oregon, Arizona and New York.[11]   More than 10,000 students, mostly lower-income people of color seeking a way into the middle class, have found themselves thousands of dollars in debt due to easy-access government-sponsored student loans, with dozens of worthless credits towards a non-obtainable degree. Hundreds of professors who are now out of work due to the college’s closure may also find themselves in a deeply precarious economic position, whether their status was full-time or adjunct. A group of students, the ‘Corinthian 100’, is pressuring the US Department of Education to relieve their student loan debt not individually, but as an across-the-board debt discharge for Corinthian attendees.[12] While the visibility of the USC action is commendable, it is the Corinthian students who will owe more debt, have fewer chances to recoup their losses and less opportunity to re-start their education.[13] The visibility of students of color’s precarity and their deliberate targeting by the debt economy must be a larger focus in the movement against student debt and the corporatizing of universities.

Educational institutions have been crucial incubators for the leveling of class and economic barriers. Class status, while linked to economic status, is not defined solely by access to capital; the intellectual tools needed for critical thinking, personal development and cultural awareness are also central components of class position. The promise of education is the possibility of human agency and growth; this is now being leveraged as “human capital” by education’s turn towards a business model and the ballooning of a student debt economy. While healthy debt exists on a non-economic level as debt to an interdependent community or debt for the gift of a talent or sensitivity that cannot be repaid, only skillfully fulfilled, economic debt attached the promise of education and the professionalization of art practice has a deleterious effect on the arts and ultimately erodes the core of arts practice. The move towards union organizing in educational institutions is a step towards building the communities needed to resist the capitalization of human potential and growth. The very institutions our society has mandated to structure this growth are now dismantling their own foundations; systematic organizing via a union carries the needed leverage to resist this damage and begin to rebuild. It is crucial to recognize and act in the knowledge that universities and unions channel the power of aligned, equitable communities and the space of visibility and agency those communities create; the institutions are not the source of this power. “The claim of equality is not only spoken or written, but is made precisely when bodies appear together, or rather when through their action, they bring the space of appearance into being. This space is a feature and effect of action, and it only works…when relations of equality are maintained.” [14]


[1] Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, St. Xavier University in Chicago, Manhattan College and Seattle University are among the schools organizing for union representation of adjunct faculty: http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/faculty-and-students-are-walking-out-today-catholic-identity

[2] See USC Roski School’s home page: http://roski.usc.edu/about/ and Otis College’s Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otis_College_ofArt_and_Design

[3] Deborah Leigh Scott writes in detail about the increased corporate influences and conservative political strategies that have been undermining education since the 1970’s: http://www.alternet.org/how-higher-education-us-was-destroyed-5-basic-steps

[4] Tea-party lawmakers now heading North Carolina state government and their affiliated think tanks and advocacy groups are directly inserting themselves into the daily curriculum of the school in re-shaping it’s educational mandate: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/new-politics-at-the-university-of-north-carolina

[5] Since Wisconsin governor Walker’s re-election in November 2014, he has proposed dramatic cuts to the state’s public university system, decimating the promise of the ‘Wisconsin Idea’: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/us/politics/scott-walker-university-wisconsin.html?_r=0

[6] A 24-page report on the economic status of precarious part-time professors goes into great detail on the impact adjunct labor has on teachers, students and society at large: http://facultyforwardla.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/LAWhitePaper032515_V4.pdf

[7] For a more complete analysis, see Noam Chomsky’s February address to the members and allies of the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, PA: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/03/the-death-of-american-universities/

[8] The Wall Street Journal’s fawning November 2014 profile on Iovine and Young highlights their merging of STEM educational trends and design with commercial interests: http://www.wsj.com/articles/dr-dre-and-jimmy-iovines-school-for-innovation-1415238722

[9] The ‘USC Seven’ have continued to update their blog with responses to the USC Dean’s statement and plans for their future education: http://mfanomfa.tumblr.com/

[10] The New Yorker ran a detailed analysis of the impact of the USC students actions, penned by RISD professor Rodger White: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/a-few-good-reasons-to-drop-out-of-art-school

[11] The Los Angeles Times broke the news in late April after a long struggle to keep the college open: http://www.latimes.com/nation/chi-corinthian-colleges-closings-20150426-story.html#page=1

[12] A recent report on the Corinthian 100 states that negotiations with the US Department of Education are stalled: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/corinthian-student-debt-protestors-165032379.html

[13] The Huntington Post is providing regular coverage of the ongoing process around the Corinthian closure: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/corinthian-colleges-closing/

[14] From the influential Judith Butler speech “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street”, given at the 2011 Venice Biennial: http://www.eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en