They Reimagined the San Francisco Art Institute, But Will the Board Listen? – KQED


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The entrance to the San Francisco Art Institute’s Chestnut Street campus. (Courtesy of SFAI)

Now, the Reimagine Committee’s findings exist in a bizarre limbo. Their final presentation to the board was canceled the day before it was set to take place, the co-chairs formally resigned and the committee dissolved after making a town hall presentation to the public on Jan. 14. A recording of that two-hour session lives online, along with PDFs created by subcommittees focusing on issues like pedagogy, finance and governance.

But whether SFAI’s board will watch the presentation, let alone incorporate its recommendations, remains to be seen. The board says the committee missed a Dec. 31 deadline to submit their final report, but is still eager to hear their recommendations. “With all of the efforts the Reimagine Committee put into creating their commissioned findings and report, we continue to invite them to share it with the board,” said vice chair John Marx in a statement provided to KQED. He says the board finds it “a bit of a mystery as to why” the Reimagine Committee has “withheld it.”

Lost in the back and forth are ideas that represent the best of what SFAI could be, if the school only had the time, money or interest to implement them.

‘Everything Was on the Table’

The impasse may come down to a fundamental difference in power dynamics. After all, the Reimagine Committee wanted to see more faculty, staff and student participation at the highest level of SFAI’s governance.

When asked about this proposed shift, Marx said the school’s financial position is the foremost concern. “The board’s urgent and immediate priorities are to see through the current semester and to start rebuilding enrollment for the upcoming school year,” his statement reads. “As we create a forum to listen, with the intention of healing, we are committed to looking at how we can make the process more inclusive and open to the broader community. The form that takes will evolve as we all learn to build bridges of trust.”

And yet, the Reimagine Committee was made up of the “broader community.” Part of its activity was regular meetings with board members to keep everyone updated on the committee’s progress. Among its suggestions are a number of ways to make SFAI’s governance more inclusive. Marx’s answer, in other words, seems to describe work the Reimagine Committee has already done.

The opening slide from the governance subcommittee's presentation on Jan. 14. (Courtesy Reimagine Committee)

The Reimagine Committee began taking shape in July 2020 with the selection of three co-chairs by the SFAI board, all alumni: Tom Loughlin, Karen Topakian and Christopher Williams. (Though Williams stepped down earlier in December.) The co-chairs gathered a formidable assembly. Adjunct and full-time faculty joined on, along with staff representatives and volunteers selected from an open call to the alumni population. Further community members joined various subcommittees. All told, over 50 people participated in the process.

According to the co-chairs, Levy said “everything was on the table.” She assured the committee the board would fundraise to make sure the school could actually implement their suggestions.

Over the course of 22 committee meetings and even more subcommittee meetings, the Reimagine team looked at the school’s existing strengths and weaknesses, examining programming, student populations and how programs could be funded. One week, Assistant Professor and Photo Department Chair Lindsey White, who co-chaired the governance sub-committee, says she spent 13 hours in meetings, not including an additional seven to nine hours of planning. Despite the time commitment, by all accounts, this volunteer group genuinely enjoyed hashing out difficult ideas.

“People dedicated so many hours and we were all learning together,” White says. “That’s really important and what kept the whole thing going. It was amazing to have a space to really learn with and from each other.”

Topakian, who was the board chair of Greenpeace for eight years, has plenty of experience creating productive agendas. But the trick with the Reimagine Committee, she says, was to get everyone on equal footing. Former students and their professors were now co-chairing subcommittees.

“I said early on that my belief and my practice was to model good behavior,” Topakian says. “So I wanted to show there was another way to bring disparate groups of people together to come up with the best possible outcome.” Among that good behavior, she says, was acknowledging the pain and turmoil people experienced (especially during the past year), but not letting those experiences keep the Reimagine Committee from dreaming up a better SFAI.

Optimistic Realism

From the start, the Reimagine Committee emerged as a serious working group. They reached out to experts in various fields to inform their recommendations in pedagogy; diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion; fundraising; marketing, enrollment and communications; sustainability and environmental justice; finance; and governance.

Many of the concepts they discussed have long been circulating through the halls of higher education and its alternatives. But it’s rare to see an entire school re-thought from the ground up, especially by a group of people intimately acquainted with the inner workings of that institution.

Some of the most compelling recommendations:

  • Offer a three-year MFA program to just 20 students at a time (in contrast to a pre-pandemic class size of 40–50).
  • Provide sensitivity training at every level of the institution, including students and administrators.
  • Make SFAI physically accessible (the Chestnut Street campus is currently an M.C.-Escher-like arrangement of stairs and few ramps).
  • Establish a cooperative governance structure, with staff rotating in and out of a 15-person board of directors.
  • Share as many documents and financial statements as legally possible.

Many of the proposals were direct responses to SFAI’s perceived shortcomings; transparency was obviously a core issue. In the Jan. 14 town hall, the depth and intricacy of the Reimagine Committee’s presentations were invigorating. This was the clearest and most compelling vision of SFAI that anyone had seen in the past year.

And unlike some board-issued statements regarding the school’s financial situation, the Reimagine Committee didn’t sugarcoat their findings. The finance team, represented by Stephen Mangum, laid out the numbers put together from financial records provided by the school.

A slide from the finance subcommittee's Jan. 14 presentation, showing projected deficits for different approaches to the 2021–22 school year. (Courtesy Reimagine Committee)

Based on SFAI’s new loan agreement with the University of California, it will be making interim rent payments over the next six years, with a balloon payment of $24.1 million due in 2027 to reclaim its Chestnut Street campus. The finance team looked at two near-term scenarios for the 2021–2022 school year: operating with about 50 students at the current tuition (around $46,000) or going dormant. According to their modeling, the former would yield a $4.8 million deficit. The latter, just $1.5 million.

“This is still a problem,” the finance report reads, “but $3.3 million less of a problem than opening and teaching next year.” The only path forward, they concluded, was a year of dormancy to rethink the school’s economic structure.

Mark Kushner, SFAI’s interim COO, disputes these findings, saying they are not based on current or complete financial data. (The data the finance subcommittee used came from Kushner directly; Reimagine Committee co-chair Tom Loughlin says it took months of asking to get it.)

While conceding there would be savings to going dormant, Kushner said in a statement, “SFAI’s leadership does not currently recommend or support this model.” Instead, SFAI is accepting applications for the 2021–2022 school year.

In answer to Reimagine Committee claims that SFAI does not have the cash on hand to see through even the current spring semester, board chair Lonnie Graham (who assumed Levy’s role when she stepped down at the end of January) wrote, “The Board is committed to see current students through the end of the academic year and SFAI has the funds to honor this commitment.”

Beautiful Seeds

In the announcement of Levy’s departure from the board, SFAI listed one of her accomplishments as “engaging in a community-wide initiative to reimagine the institution’s programs and business model.”

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