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Those Who Can’t Do

From the Chicago Public Schools to the School of the Art Institute, are arts educators being devalued?



Mayor Daley got a standing ovation when he appeared at the national conference of the Theatre Communications Group, the trade association for nonprofit theaters, at the Palmer House Hilton on June 19. And the admiration was mutual. Daley was full of praise for theaters and what they can do for cities—Detroit could use more of them, he said—and for artists of all stripes.

Artists design the city, "fulfill" it, and tell its history, Daley said, and he particularly wants to see more art in the schools. But he wants it to be taught by real artists, not those hidebound old professional teachers.

According to Daley, it was pros who were responsible for the loss of school arts classes to begin with. "I've been arguing this with educators," he said. "The worst thing public schools do is they cut the arts programs. It happens all over America. I say, why don't we just have an arts program at 8 in the morning or 8:30, to get the young people excited and energized? When you're teaching art you're teaching math, you're teaching science, you're doing so much. And the educators say, 'No, you need a book in front of you,' and that's it. I think there's where we have failed.

"I think the Board of Education should hire more artists from the community to participate with our students," Daley added. "I'm not downgrading teachers, but there's a relationship that artists have with the younger generation—they get it."

Incoming SAIC provost Elissa Tenny
  • Courtesy Crossett Library
  • Incoming SAIC provost Elissa Tenny

So the Daley-controlled Chicago Public Schools put only one half-time art teacher in each school with 750 or fewer students, and only one full-time art teacher in each bigger school, failing to provide even one art class a week for most students—and educators are the villains?

"It's part of a larger trend," says Therese Quinn, associate professor of art education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Quinn sees the mayor's comments in the context of a privatization drive that includes, for instance, the proliferation of charter schools, which, unlike the public schools, aren't restricted to hiring certified teachers. "Part of that is to devalue the work that's being done by the colleges of education," Quinn says, "to say that people who go through those programs don't do any better in schools than people who are fast-tracked through tax-subsidized programs like Teach for America, which put young people in especially needy rural and urban schools but have a very high turnover. . . . Teach for America requires only a two-year commitment, and more than 80 percent of its recruits leave the field after three years." The people in them, Quinn notes, are "a low-cost source of labor."

The people Daley wants to see in the schools are often called "practicing artists," Quinn observes, "as if that's somehow a more authentic identity than being a practicing teacher and artist. . . . Why would you want someone in your schools who has no experience teaching kids or educational background for it, when you could have someone who has an MFA and certification? Or a BFA and a research-based master's in education? That seems like the best of both worlds. But those people you have to pay more money."


Meanwhile, the School of the Art Institute announced a pair of surprising hires last week. Although it was expected to take a year or more to replace former president Wellington "Duke" Reiter, who left abruptly this spring after a contentious 18-month tenure, the school has already named an interim successor: physicist Walter Massey, former director of both the Argonne National Laboratory and the National Science Foundation; former professor at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and Brown University; former provost of the University of California System; and president emeritus of Morehouse College. Massey's also served on a long list of major corporate boards including a couple that have been in the news lately: Bank of America (where he was chairman) and British Petroleum.

Apparently, the only thing he's never been is a practicing artist.

No one at SAIC was available to be interviewed for this article, but board chair Cary McMillan, speaking from Italy, told the Tribune that Massey is "just such a great guy." He starts in September.

The second hire, presumably more permanent, is also a jaw-dropper.

Although SAIC has functioned without a provost for two decades, Reiter wanted one and the school launched a search last year that ended with the announcement that Elissa Tenny, dean and provost at Bennington College, will get the position starting in August. This is surprising in part because, while SAIC is big and urban, Bennington is tiny—with only about 800 students—and located in rural Vermont.

But here's the thing that gives me pause: Founded in 1932 as a pathbreaking women's college (it went coed in 1970), Bennington is notorious for a radical 1994 restructuring that included dumping tenure, firing a third of the faculty, and aggressively proclaiming a preference for practitioners over academics. Tenny didn't arrive at Bennington until 2002, but her boss there, school president Elizabeth Coleman, oversaw the bloodletting. The Bennington board chair who championed the '94 changes, by the way, was John Barr—now head of the heavily endowed Chicago-based Poetry Foundation.

Some of the fired professors took Bennington to court, and the school eventually settled, paying out nearly $2 million and issuing a formal apology. But Coleman's administration's been on the American Association of University Professor's censure list for the last 15 years, and its reputation for oppressive, top-down management remains intact. In April 2000, Coleman fired philosophy professor Carlin Romano, who—in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education published that March—had called her "a serial violator of academic freedom with no respect for her faculty, no respect for difference of opinion, and a pathologically vindictive personality."

And last month, novelist and (exiting) Bennington professor Christopher Miller told the student-run Bennington Free Press, "Bennington has the most frightened faculty in the nation, though most teachers here are in denial about that: college professors tend to have pretty high opinions of themselves and of their motives, and it's humiliating to admit that your ruling passion is nothing loftier than sheer self-preservation. And of course the teachers who have been here longest—and eaten the most shit, and jumped through the most hoops, and failed most often to speak out against the routine abuses of the Liz administration—are the ones least able to face up to their own cowardice."

As for the students, Miller said they "have no power at all. . . . the administration is so contemptuous of you that it barely even tries to give you the illusion of participation."   


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