By Noel Ignatiev
The following is the individual work of the writer (who happens to be the editor of Hard Crackers); it has not been submitted for approval to the editorial board and does not necessarily represent the views of the other editors.
The Massachusetts College of Art and Design is currently undergoing turmoil, highlighted by the recent departure of two longstanding professors and a dispute over what can be taught in liberal arts classes. Founded in 1873 to serve the fashion industry, MassArt was the first independent state-supported art college in the country. The school offers BFA and MFA degrees and continuing education courses; undergraduate enrollment is around 1600. According to school sources, annual tuition and fees for Massachusetts residents are $13,200, less than private art schools in Boston, Rhode Island, San Francisco, Savannah and elsewhere. The actual cost is much higher: “The total tuition and living expense budget for in-state Massachusetts residents to go to Massachusetts College of Art and Design is $28,900 for the 2015/2016 academic year. Out-of-state students who don’t have Massachusetts residence can expect a one-year cost of $49,500” (IPEDS survey 2015-2016).
Saul Levine, professor in the film department since 1978, claims he was pushed out by administrators who accused him of “harming students” by showing his 1989 film “Notes After Long Silence” to his senior thesis class. Apparently some students—number and names unknown—complained about the work’s content, which includes footage of Levine and his partner naked having sex. According to Levine, the film uses images from his intimate relationship with his partner “to speak about the complexity and representation of gender, war, imperialism, power, and the construction of dominant ideas about masculinity or femininity.” He says he chose to step down rather than face the legal fees he would accumulate if he tried to fight the school.
Among the letters of support for Levine was the following:
I taught at Princeton University for thirty-six years and at several art schools (School of Visual Arts in New York, The Cooper Union, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) as well as the Yale School of Architecture, Bard College, and Middlebury College. Each has its own ethos. The expectations and demands of an art school are radically different from those of a great university. Art school students have signed on for morally challenging, even shocking, pedagogy.
I admire the ‘shocking’ opening strategy of the late Kathy Acker when she gave her first class at The San Francisco Art Institute. She told everyone to look at the person to the left (the one at the end of the row to look to the person at the extreme right) & to spend the rest of the class time writing a sexual fantasy about that person. Hers was a brilliant ploy to break down the defenses against writing truthfully. I guess Prof Nixon knew of Acker’s genius.
My daughter, Sky Sitney, now the chair of film at Georgetown University, remembers a very impressive performance critique when she was a student at SFAI twenty years ago. Three women brought to class a cake they had baked and iced. Each one lifted her dress to reveal she was wearing nothing under it. In turn, they squatted on the cake. The instructor’s critique consisted of silently approaching the cake after the third had sat upon it, digging his fingers into to the center, and eating the frosting and cake off his hand. Much as she admired that class, Sky has never offered a similar one at Georgetown. It wouldn’t be appropriate in an academic seminar in film history.
Look at Prof. Levine’s videotape of his rant following the accusation of sexual misconduct. It is on his webpage. I believe everything he says. Levine is by a long shot the most generous and dedicated teacher of filmmaking ever employed in an American college. He single-handedly made Mass College of Art a center for avant-garde cinema. In fact, he has often given his salary to students so that they might complete their films. He has no other income or wealth himself.
The administration of the Mass College of Art has earned a place in American art history for their scandalous and criminal treatment of him. The time will come when Title 9 will be as infamous as Nazi book burning.
The sexuality sometimes found in Levine’s films is gentle and morally decent. But what the students see daily on commercial television (not to include the pornography with which they are ALL familiar) is much more debased.
Keep in mind that students in art schools almost never get grades. If they submit work, they pass. Often they try to shock the faculty. Sometimes the very best of them succeed. In an art school ‘trigger warnings’ are NOT pedagogically sound. Jean Cocteau’s motto “Astonish me” is the ideal of any honest art school.
Levine was attacked because his seniority brought him a higher salary than many of his colleagues. He had also been a thorn in the side of the feckless administrators for thirty years because of his ceaseless support of student rights — especially those of women and African Americans!!
If the institution were honest it would warn all its applicants that they must be prepared to be astonished and shocked in an art school. No other warning or guidelines would be appropriate.
P. Adams Sitney, Professor emeritus, Princeton University
In a video posted on his facebook page, Levine says, “The correct concerns about the abuse of authority on campus and the relationship to sexual harassment are not a bad thing—that’s a good thing. But all over this country, we are seeing a policing of the curricula. To put it in the jargon of the left, we’re seeing domestic neoliberalism, we’re seeing an attack on academic freedom, on the agency of the students. They are being infantilized, they are being told that only the least objectionable can be talked about or shown.”
Levine’s statement followed an announcement that Professor Nicholas Nixon, at MassArt for forty-two years, had resigned abruptly after he was accused of “inappropriate” behavior, which according to the Boston Globe included assigning students to photograph each other’s genitals, photograph people they would like to have sex with, asking students to model nude for him, complimenting a student on her ass, trying to kiss students, sexually propositioning students in person and by email, and “suffus[ing] his classroom with sexuality.”
“I encourage students to accept and use their sexuality [as] part of their putting the best they have into their work,” Nixon said in an e-mail sent a week before his retirement. “I have never hit on, touched or done anything personal.” Later he said he realized his teaching style might have offended some students. “I realize that I should have censored myself more. To those students, I offer my profound apology.”
There appear to have been no complaints against Nixon until the Boston Globe started investigating his alleged behavior. According to the Globe report, no students were penalized for rejecting his advances or for not handing in assignments they found objectionable. His attorney says Nixon formalized photo sessions with written agreements. “The conduct we’re aware of was strictly consensual.” He accused the school of violating the confidentiality of the Title IX investigation in the Nixon case. (Title IX is the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.) http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/04/04/sex-power-and-photography-massart-classroom-how-far-too-far/9O4Yyd0CBlGSiW33Tb8tcI/story.html?camp=breakingnews:newsletter
I am too far away to feel confident of my ability to judge the above situations. I don’t know whether Saul Levine and Nick Nixon should be sat down and corrected by the community by whatever means necessary, held up as examples to be emulated, or simply tolerated. What resonates most strongly with me is Saul’s observation that “all over this country, we are seeing a policing of the curricula. To put it in the jargon of the left, we’re seeing domestic neoliberalism, we’re seeing an attack on academic freedom, on the agency of the students. They are being infantilized, they are being told that only the least objectionable can be talked about or shown.”
In this country Big Brother rules not so much by repressing dissent as by absorbing it (with the threat of repression ever present). Can’t get along with your employer? Set up a National Labor Relations Board to mediate the conflict. Troubles with the police? Set up a review procedure and make the cops wear body cameras. Problem with racial epithets? Don’t punch out the offender; ban “hate speech” and set up an agency to monitor the ban. Sexual harassment? Don’t listen to accuser and accused and take appropriate action; set up an agency to hold secret hearings and decide how to handle it. Want a black student center? Don’t take over a building, the university will provide one. Saddened by someone shooting up a schoolyard full of children, or even by the death of a parent? The school will provide grief counselors. Some topics evoke painful reactions? Drop Oedipus Rex from the curriculum and compel instructors to include “trigger warnings” on syllabi.
Mediation invades every sphere of life, and ordinary people are less powerful with every passing day. The only solution is to overturn the present infamy and establish in its place an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Arts Department at MassArt, responsible for all courses the school offers other than studio, studio foundation and art history, passed the following statement after considerable discussion:
On The Free Search for Truth and Its Free Exposition: A Statement from the MassArt Liberal Arts Department: Why MassArt must Uphold the Student’s Right to Freely Learn and the Professor’s Right to Freely Teach In the Classroom
In the current collective bargaining agreement, The Board of Higher Education and the MSCA affirm jointly what the doctrine of “academic freedom” requires and guarantees on this campus:
Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interests of either the individual teacher or librarian or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research…The scholar is entitled to…full freedom in the classroom in discussing his/her subject, most specifically in the selection of his/her course materials and the selection of texts. The scholar is entitled to discuss controversial issues.
Agreement Between the Board of Higher Education and the MassachusettsTeachers Association/NEA/Massachusetts State College Association (June 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) Article V.A. p. 60.
The “common good” that we are bound to above includes the responsibility to make classrooms welcoming places for students, where, as President David Nelson stated in his March 31, 2018 email to the MassArt community, we “respect the dignity of every person and . . . engage with one another in a collegial manner.” Faculty are colleagues with students in the quest for truth, understanding, and the free play of mind. For the common good, we respect each voice.
Also for the common good, it is faculty’s high calling to prepare students to grapple with concepts, theories, and texts that may or may not confirm the worldview they held before they took the class. We endeavor to teach students to seek truth and thereby embrace the search for reality.
To that end, our syllabi include class materials—readings, films, videos, scientific theories, and other documents— that treat relevant subject matter responsibly, authentically, and accurately. But literary works, historical documents, and contemporary documents may all sometimes contain language, treat subject matter, or express viewpoints that, in isolation and unframed, might sometimes strike a student as offensive, disturbing, or both. And when we conduct a class meeting, the search for deep understanding may sometimes require us all to say or hear things that might strike some as heterodox, troubling, and uncomfortable.
Such important but troubling matter should be discussed within a space where students know they will be heard. They will never be treated with condescension. Their views will not be ignored. However, opposing views will be presented, and their strengths tested through vigorous opposition.
This dialectic process of presenting opposing points of view and considering heterodoxy, used by teachers since Socrates, does sometimes induce discomfort. But it serves a higher purpose. When we grapple with agitating material, we help students grow their capacity for independent thought and effective action. We encourage all involved to reach for a higher state of understanding.
In The University of Chicago Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray explains why the occasional discomfort of a student must not be allowed to determine what a syllabus may treat or what a professor in the classroom may utter or consider. “Education,” she writes, “should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”
To promote such an environment, The Liberal Arts curriculum committee vets syllabi to ensure that teaching remains intellectually honest, accurate, appropriately restrained, sensitive to the diversity of students, and respectful of the opinions of all. When a class convenes for the first time, we consider a syllabus that lays out the curriculum; teachers and students together discuss the bounds and possibilities of the subject matter, and together create an intellectual arena where we can engage openly in the difficult conversations we all value. We search for accuracy and deeper understanding in classrooms where both students and faculty are free to reason, free to consider evidence, and free to express findings or views, even when those ideas and views may vary from or call into question prevailing opinion.
Therefore, the Administration must be mindful of the following: a class member’s declaration that this reading, this film, this discussion of scientific data makes the student feel uncomfortable does not authorize that student to silence or intimidate other students. Nor does such a declaration constitute grounds for administrators to discipline a professor, investigate a professor, or institute other adverse actions against a professor. Such actions violate our academic freedom to pursue ideas, hunt for truth, and express thoughts freely, that the Board of Higher Education in Article V.A. of the 2014- 2017 collective bargaining agreement, quoted above, identifies as “essential to the common good.”
We in the Liberal Arts Department hold fast to the values of freedom of speech and academic freedom. We remain committed to the free search for truth and its free exposition in the service of the common good. We believe that education can only flourish when the right to speak and the right to hear are guaranteed to all. Only then can education be a forum where understanding grows and the dignity of students and teachers is affirmed. We commit ourselves to achieving those goals—here and now, in our classrooms, on this campus, and in the hope and expectation that liberating one mind eventually liberates all of them.
Written collaboratively by a majority group of the full-time Liberal Arts Faculty, on April 4, 2018
I taught in the Mass Art Liberal Arts Department (known as Critical Studies when I began; I used to call it the department of compulsory studies) from 1999 to 2017. When I got hired I went to check the place out: among the first things I saw was a student play featuring full-frontal male nudity. What the hell, I thought, it’s an art school. I saw some things I liked and some things called art I did not understand, including paintings depicting close-ups of a rectum. The painter, a student in one of my classes, asked me what I thought. I replied I’m too old and too straight to connect with that, but I wish you well. He said my response satisfied him. Another was a student self-portrait with scars criss-crossing the student’s chest from breast-removal surgery, standing next to the student’s mother, also nude from the waist up, with breasts intact. I was repelled—I don’t like to look at other people’s scars—but moved by the bond between the mother and her grown child. Another was a photograph of a man of the “bear” type, back and neck covered with hair; again I was repelled, but I thought, What the hell, it’s an art school.
I think I recall years ago Nick Nixon asking older faculty members to model for photographs of themselves having sex; I can imagine few things less appealing than photographs of people my age, with bulges, sags and wrinkles, having sex, and I didn’t respond. Wth,iaas.
In my years at MassArt, I taught a range of courses in history and the social sciences; those who know me will be able to guess their content. No one ever tried to dictate to me what I could teach. I found the place congenial; maybe best of all, I had cheap parking near Fenway and downtown.
And then the administration installed locks on the doors to be opened only by pass-keys, and started compelling faculty and staff to wear ID tags; placing the school on lock-down was supposed to thwart theft—the school was located adjacent to a ghetto undergoing gentrification. They appointed a new director of “public safety,” and there was talk of arming the external police who cruise the streets in vehicles. (The men and women who sit at desks and monitor the monitors still fit the art-school image.) In their efforts to attract more out-of-state and foreign students (who pay higher tuition), they built a multi-story building, part of which houses MassArt students and part of which is rented out to students at nearby schools, at market rates.
That is when I began referring to the place as the MassArt Realty Corporation which operated the school as a tax write-off. Still, I had no complaints on the score of academic freedom… until… the year after I retired from full-time teaching, they canceled at the last minute a course, Reading Marx, I was scheduled to teach as an adjunct. I am convinced the move was not directed at me personally, nor at Marx; it was a matter of the bottom line: they needed to cut courses, and those taught by adjuncts were the most vulnerable.
For years the number of people in administration, including fundraising, has been increasing while tenure-track faculty members are replaced by part-timers (who work for less money, without benefits). Professor Sitney, in his letter of support for Saul Levine, suggests that part of the motivation for the attack on Saul was that he was one of the highest paid faculty members. Maybe so; realty corporations have their logic. The college promotes itself with the slogan, “MassArt made me fearless.” Perhaps that should be changed to “fearful.”
In addition to the Globe article cited above, the following links address the situation at MassArt: