Questions and Answers Regarding Faculty Non-Renewals and the Future of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design

June 07, 2016

As many in the Corcoran community know, several weeks ago I made critical decisions regarding the non-renewal of Corcoran faculty. Since that time, I have received many throughtful and passionate responses to the recently announced changes. As I have said to those of you who have written to me, I appreciate the conviction that accompanies these concerns. Below are answers aimed at addressing many of the questions I have been receiving. As you can imagine, these questions and answers are not intended to end discussions but rather provide a point of departure for future community-­driven conversations about the future of the Corcoran.

My best, 

Sanjit Sethi

Director, Corcoran School of the Arts and Design

The George Washington University

Faculty Non-Renewals

Why were these decisions made?

Faculty non-renewal decisions were informed by curricular reshaping, based in part on observations by the NASAD accreditation visitor team; enrollment; related fiscal realities; need, especially in light of the integration with Columbian College’s arts and design faculty; and the change in general education requirements to meet both Columbian College and Middle States standards.

Why make these decisions now?

As part of the transfer of the Corcoran College of Art and Design to the George Washington University in 2014, all full-time Corcoran legacy faculty were offered the opportunity to join the GW faculty, under one-year appointments; in May 2015 these appointments were renewed for an additional year. The university was not in a position to make longer term commitments until there was a process of studying the curricular, staffing, and fiscal needs of the Corcoran, including the Corcoran’s integration into GW’s other art and design programs. This process could not begin in earnest until a director was appointed: I began my term as director on October 1, 2015, which corresponded with the beginning of the NASAD accreditation review.

The May 30, 2016 deadline for finalizing the review allowed me to take the necessary time to make these critical decisions, which were informed by the NASAD review.

What are the faculty members whose appointments were not renewed receiving?

Those faculty whose appointments were not renewed have been offered one year's salary as severance. They are also being recommended for emeritus status with the university and can return to teach specific courses as part-time faculty, should the need arise.

How were these decisions made? Can you give me details about reasons why specific faculty were not renewed?

Providing information on individual faculty non-renewal decisions would be unfair to the faculty and is otherwise not consistent with university policy not to discuss individual personnel decisions publicly.

How much of this was decided by GW versus yourself?

The decision to renew or not to renew a faculty member’s appointment was made by me, in consultation with other GW academic administrators.

If these decisions were motivated in part by the school budget, is the school in financial trouble?

The Corcoran’s operating budget is part of the university’s overall operating budget, which has been reviewed and approved by the Board of Trustees and is becoming more sustainable as an operating budget over time. The sustainability is tied not only to enrollment, but also to making sure we have sufficient resources to meet our ambitious goals to further enhance Corcoran academic programs, including hiring faculty in specific program areas and supporting the student experience.

Didn’t enrollment drop off only after the transfer with GW?

No. Undergraduate enrollment had been dropping since 2010, well before the transfer. Part of the interest in building new programs at the undergraduate and graduate level is to grow the Corcoran. While these transition years can have an impact on recruitment and enrollment of our students, we’re constantly focused on ways to recruit and retain a diverse and promising cohort. We’re excited to welcome a larger incoming freshman class this year, and will focus on growing those numbers in the years ahead.

How will these changes affect me and my program directly?

We are committed to providing you with the courses and mentorship you need to excel in your area of study. The actions we have taken do not represent a shift away from intensive and high-level undergraduate and graduate programs or a move towards a single degree program that would somehow eclipse current degree offerings that include the BFA. While the curriculum and academic programs must not remain static, there are no current plans to remove discipline-based programs or curricular tracks within areas of study.

These nonrenewed faculty were the reason I came here, so why should I stay at the Corcoran now?

While nothing can replace the relationship you had with a specific faculty member, the Corcoran has always been about more than any single individual. We believe the bond you have with your fellow students, faculty, and staff is enhanced by the opportunities of engaging with incoming first-year students and dynamic faculty and students from GW as a whole. All Corcoran faculty are committed to ensuring your creative and academic successes. There continue to be many opportunities to grow and expand upon your ideas and to create opportunities in the future.

I'm mourning the nonrenewal of dear faculty, what do you say to that? Will there be a chance to celebrate their accomplishments in the academic year?

We are committed to honoring the work of all of our former faculty from across the school. Professor Janis Goodman has been appointed to find the most appropriate format to honor their service in the future.

Academic Planning

When will the fall schedule be updated? When will I know about the spring schedule?

We are in the process of updating the fall schedule, and you will see instructor names on the schedule before June 7. If you have any questions regarding courses and course scheduling, please contact Lisa Lipinski, Assistant Director for Academic Affairs, at [email protected]. If you have any questions regarding facilities or logistics please contact Sam Inman, Assistant Director for Operations, at [email protected].

What is your plan for adjunct faculty?

Part- time faculty continue to play a vital role in pedagogy throughout the Corcoran. Many part-time faculty who were planning to teach courses this fall and spring will continue to do so. Some one-year appointments have been made to cover a broad range of courses. We are in the process of hiring part-time faculty to teach courses in the fall. In hiring them we are considering our commitment to specific faculty, teaching experience, and best matches for the specific courses.

If you’re running some of the same courses and bringing in new full-time or part-time faculty to teach them, then why did you not renew faculty who were already on the books to teach?

We are committed to the teaching of specific courses, which are on the schedule and are part of the curriculum. There are many reasons why a faculty member may not teach a specific course they had been scheduled to teach including: schedule changes, sabbatical, illness, new employment, retirement, etc. In those cases we still maintain a commitment to teach the class and provide the best possible outcome for students.

What were the overall outcomes of the NASAD accreditation process? How did that form the basis of the nonrenewal of faculty?

NASAD reaccreditation is a multistep process: It included an exhaustive self-study of all Corcoran and GW art and design programs, hosting a NASAD visiting team made up of experts in the field of art and design higher education, their subsequent visitor’s report, our response, the NASAD governing body’s official report (still pending), and our final response. The review process looks holistically at all aspects of the Corcoran, from finances to facilities to faculty governance to curriculum to program specific learning outcomes. Initial responses from the NASAD visiting team highlighted areas in which the school needed to improve in order to achieve higher levels of service to students.Their accreditation visit was discussed with the various program heads and department chairs, and we’ve begun work to implement these changes. We expect additional insight when we receive the final report.

How does GW plan to maintain art school accreditation for the Corcoran in the future?

GW is committed to retaining accreditation for the Corcoran through NASAD. The accreditation process is one of peer evaluation from colleagues at other art schools around the country and as such provides useful critical input. We have begun including the NASAD visiting team’s feedback in our decisions and will continue to respond to feedback that comes when the NASAD Commission offers us their full report.

The Future

Do these and other changes at the Corcoran mean that the school is changing?

Yes, we can always do a better job of educating artists and designers and that, more often than not, requires change. We are exploring ways to make sure that Corcoran students can take full advantage of curricular offerings at the other creative departments of CSAD and at GW as a whole. I also want to create a higher degree of accountability, a rigorous pedagogy, and a culture of excellence at the Corcoran.

What is your vision for the Corcoran?

I’ve framed the mission of the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in the form of a question: How can we create an innovative and groundbreaking school of arts and design that promotes diversity of thought and experience, addresses critical social issues, and educates the next generation of creative cultural leaders (from artists, musicians, designers, art historians, photographers, and beyond)?

I am guided by a few key beliefs: that the imperatives around creativity and social engagement are pivotal in the creation of an environment of learning from and understanding each other; that a commitment to foster discourses in educational experiences can bridge boundaries between the fine arts, performing arts, design, sciences, history, critical theory, engineering, public policy, and beyond; and a willingness to experiment, iterate, and to go beyond what creative institutions in higher education have already done.

Is it true that you’re trying to close the BFA program and merge it under GW’s existing BA program?

No, not at all. We expect to continue to support and grow robust BFA programs in the fine arts and design with a broad range of disciplinary approaches and methodologies.

It seems like change is only affecting Corcoran students and faculty, why aren’t we seeing dramatic changes in the GW creative program areas?

All GW creative program areas have experienced changes recently and will continue to do so in the future. In the upcoming months and years, we expect to have vigorous discussions with students and faculty about how our faculty from different programs will work together and how these program areas will change. In the months ahead, all creative program areas in the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, including those originally part of GW, will be reevaluating their curriculum and their relationship with one another. Inevitably this will lead to changes from governance to facilities usage to program development and beyond.

What do these changes mean for NEXT?

The NEXT exhibition will continue to serve as a showcase for undergraduate and graduate thesis work produced at the Corcoran. There will be some changes to NEXT 2017 as a whole. Our goal is to broaden participation among programs across the Corcoran (to better include exceptional students writing thesis papers in Art History and performances by seniors in Music, Theater, and Dance, for example). Additionally, we will be working to expand the presence of NEXT across the campus. What that will entail specifically is still very much under development, but the goal is to increase opportunities for Corcoran students to connect their projects beyond the galleries of the Flagg building. Further, I’ll be putting together a “NEXT 2.0” committee, co-chaired by Exhibition and Public Program Coordinator, Jillian Nakornthap, of faculty, staff, and students to work on broadening NEXT’s impact and to evaluate what was best about NEXT 2016 as well as identify where we could do better next time. Student representation on that committee will be critical.

How do you plan to renew and strengthen the Corcoran’s place in and relationship withthe DC community?

Our relationship with the DC community is an important part of the road ahead for the Corcoran, and many of our faculty have already done remarkable work in this area. I look forward to being more intentional about the way we can support our faculty to embed community engagement opportunities within all levels of the curriculum. In the next year I hope to set up the framework for the Corcoran Center for Critical Engagement to work with faculty and students to create curricular and co-curricular opportunities in concert with innovative individuals and organizations that are doing remarkable work in the DC area and beyond. From externship opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to work with leadership in local cultural organizations to courses that place students at the center of project-based learning with a focus on community engagement to social entrepreneurship awards that gives funds through a competitive process to Corcoran student teams to do projects in collaboration with a local organizations—having a hub to pull these initiatives together has the potential to increase our impact in the world around us and profoundly change student learning for the better.

Why have an outsider come in as a visiting professor in community engagement? Couldn't those resources be used for something else?

The Visiting Professorship in Community-Engaged Practices provides us with an opportunity to bring to the Corcoran on an annual basis a creative practitioner who has a strong focus in community engagement. It provides students with a fresh voice and a different perspective on this all-important area of pedagogy and will come from different disciplines. And while many of our faculty members engage in the territory of community engagement we owe it to you to have the potential to expand your understanding of different strategies and tactics for working in the public sphere. This visiting professorship is funded by a grant from the Corcoran Board of Trustees and does not come out of our general operating budget. 

Who do I talk to if I have ideas to improve the Corcoran community?

I’m always looking for studentgenerated ideas to improve our community. You can email me at [email protected].

What will be the opportunities to discuss our concerns in the future?

As always, I will maintain an open door policy for faculty and students to schedule meetings with me. Additionally, at the start of the academic year this fall I will be holding a town hall meeting open to students, faculty, and alumni with myself and representatives from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and GW central administration to have an engaged conversation about the future of this institution. I will continue to have student meetings and other formats for engagement and exchange. And I will continue to provide important updates about the Corcoran over the summer and on an ongoing basis.