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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

SCAD has lousy "climate for academic freedom," says profs' group

The Savannah College of Art and Design, although perhaps the country's largest arts college, has always been an odd outlier in the world of academia. It isn't a member of the prestigious Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, along with such peers as Parsons, the Rhode Island School of Design and NYC's School of Visual Arts. Nor is it accredited by the industry-standard National Association of Schools of Art and Design. And the private, intensely for-profit school has fostered a reputation of secrecy and top-down totalitarianism that occasionally surfaces in complaints over suppression of student and/or instructor expression.

Now comes the American Association of University Professors, which issued a report this past month censuring — or rather, re-censuring — the school for its Soviet-style repression of academic freedom.

The irony is that SCAD brought the new criticism on itself by inviting AAUP's scrutiny. The group had censured the college back in 1993 — long before it came to Atlanta — when SCAD had sacked a couple of teachers it suspected of encouraging student demonstrations. Apparently, last year the school asked AAUP to consider removing its censure and, in return, agreed to implement a handful of progressive policy changes and to offer settlement packages to former staffers it had terminated under dubious circumstances. All that was left was a brief, on-campus visit from an association representative.

Then things went south. According to the new censure report (PDF), after the college agreed on a date for the visit, SCAD President (and owner) Paula Wallace canceled the appointment and then issued a set of outrageous conditions, including the demand that the AAUP inspector could only see what the school wanted him to see.

For a visit with the stated purpose of gaining an impression of the climate for academic freedom, the AAUP (and indeed the visitor himself, through the execution of a separate confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement) needed to acknowledge that SCAD had “sole discretion in determining the itinerary” for the visitor: where on campus he may go, whom he could interview, and what topics he could discuss. SCAD was to receive a copy of the visitor’s report, and anything in it that went beyond the SCAD-approved topics to be discussed was to have no effect on removing the censure.

Then, the AAUP report says, it discovered SCAD hadn't even contacted the ex-employees who were supposed to receive settlements. The association decided it had seen enough and issued the following conclusion:

By setting extremely restrictive conditions for allowing a visit to occur, the administration itself placed massive limitations on freedom at SCAD to seek truth. The administration’s apparent zeal to control the content of a visitor’s report about academic freedom ironically provided abundant evidence that the current climate at SCAD for academic freedom is sorely deficient.

Here's what I don't get about SCAD. The school is obviously effective at attracting students — it has more than 10,500 of them at four campuses, including a new branch in Hong Kong — and giving them access to the newest, cutting-edge equipment to help them learn their chosen craft. I know current and former teachers and students at SCAD, none of whom complain about inadequate instruction or crummy facilities. No, they all complain (if they're not too scared) about the Big Brother-like mentality and infectious paranoia of the school administration.

School founder Wallace makes a reported $2 million a year — more than the presidents of Columbia, Harvard or Yale — while various family members on the payroll bring home another 800 large or so. Wallace also enjoys such perks as a private plane and a lushly furnished historic townhouse in Savannah. You'd think that all that compensation would buy a thicker skin and more generosity of spirit.

The school is teaching art and design, for God's sake, not offering mail-order degrees in criminal justice or automotive technology. Let the kids have their own student government. Make an effort to get accredited. Play nicely with others and maybe people will stop talking about SCAD as if it's a cult.

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