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Saturday, January 24, 2015

MundiMuster! Save Urban Studies at SFAI: Sign and Share the Letter

Since 2012, many concerns have been raised by faculty, students, staff, alumni, and supporters about a lack of transparency and accountability in the key decision making processes undertaken by the administration of the San Francisco Art Institute. The quite sudden recent suspension of the Urban Studies program seems to be yet another stunning confirmation of these worries.

To say that this decision has been more opaque than transparent is an understatement: Few of the actual stakeholders to such a momentous change at SFAI were aware that it was even under consideration until a public e-mail announced that the decision and the process justifying it had already concluded.

A review of the program is said to have taken place in the Spring of 2014, but few faculty or students involved in the actual program seem to have participated in either the review or the decision-making process. The timing of this review coincided with the absence of key figures in and champions of the program, and the results of the process are at odds with the results of other recent and ongoing review processes that involved wider participation of the relevant stakeholders.

While program changes ultimately depend on the Dean, they are supposed to be addressed in the Faculty Senate. The Urban Studies program was not suspended after a discussion or with a consenting vote of the Faculty Senate.

Dean Schreiber recently commented that Urban Studies does not offer a “robust experience” for students. In the absence of a definition of terms this judgment is hard to gauge, but it is difficult to understand how the accompanying proposal of a BFA with an urban focus more centered on studio classes than interdisciplinary courses could possibly be more robust on any definition. Re-assigning our institutional engagement with urban questions to studio classes will inevitably introduce fissures in the theoretical formulation of the urbanity in question. This envisioned change is also countering the current trend of expanding Urban Studies Master’s programs across the country’s academic institutions. 

Indeed, a host of courses directly taking up historical and theoretical questions of post-colonial pan-urbanity, environmental sustainability, urban poverty, street protests, immigrant communities―many of them focusing on urban movements in San Francisco in particular and taught for years by activists and participants in the movements themselves―such as Laura Fantone, and the renowned local historian Chris Carlsson―are vanishing from the 2015 curriculum. The loss of these engagements and the silence of these voices wounds our Institute. Far from a minor shift in focus these changes can only be understood as a radical dis-engagement with the urban as a real priority at SFAI.

As recently as SFAI’s Strategic Plan for 2013, the President and the Board of Trustees declared that “SFAI will strive to further improve its operations and heighten its ambitions in the service of art, artists, and the Bay Area community.” The decision to suspend Urban Studies contradicts SFAI’s long-held commitment to connect our students to the City and the greater Bay Area artistic community of which we are a part.

The San Francisco Art Institute is a school sited at the thriving heart of a world-historical city. We live and teach and create and connect in the midst of the urgent distress of artist and gallery evictions, in the scrum of venture capitalism’s “disruptions” of public goods and public services, in the face of the Silicon Valley steamroller of reductive tech-talk, in the creative ferment of street protest, all right here, all right now. In such a place and at such a time, at the very moment when other art schools and art programs are taking up the urban with renewed energy and vigor as an indispensable motor of convivial creativity and transformative imagination, it is difficult indeed to understand what considerations have driven this rash decision to suspend an already established and accomplished program here.

Please sign the letter here. And please share this widely.

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