UPDATE: Administrators Clarify Controversy Behind NYU Florence’s Art Program

Last week, we reported on the controversy stirring over changes to the curriculum and faculty at NYU Florence; namely, that studio arts courses are being moved off-site and some faculty were allegedly notified of their imminent dislocation on the first day of the fall semester 2012–just as they arrived to begin teaching.

The primary point of concern is not that NYU Florence students won’t have access to studio art courses (now to be taught through the external institution SACI) but that the professors were cut from the program with seemingly little regard or advance notice from administrators.

Subsequent concerns pertain to the relative quality of the institution now responsible for Florence’s studio offerings and the issue of whether NYU students are to continue paying NYU prices for non-NYU classes taught by non-NYU professors. NYU administration shed some light on the rationale behind these decisions, below.

These changes to the Florence curriculum, to its faculty, and to the facilities that students use while abroad all directly affect the quality and consistency of the abroad experience. University spokesperson John Beckman responded to some of NYU Local’s questions about the goings on in Florence:

“Overall, academic planning is done collaboratively, with input from all the departments at a site, the schools, the Provost’s Office and the Office of Global Programs. As we move forward, each Global Site will have an advisory committee with representation from those departments invested in the site; these committees will work through these complex planning decisions and provide direction to the site…

This decision is being finalized just this week, in consultation with David Darts, Chair of the Steinhardt Department of Arts and Art Professions, which includes the university’s Studio Arts BFA and MFA. All studio arts courses will be approved by Darts in keeping with how courses are offered in our study away sites…

There [is currently] a larger effort being undertaken by [the Office of] Global Programs, under the academic leadership of Vice Chancellor Linda Mills and Senior Vice Provost Matthew Santirocco… to enrich and expand offering at NYU [and it's abroad sites]…

We are working with Steinhardt to ensure that whatever program we set up in Florence both meets NYU’s academic standards and expands the studio arts offerings currently available to students. As is the practice with faculty hired at study-away sites, representatives of the department sponsoring the course will approve the instructors for the courses we decide to offer.”

According to Beckman, studio courses at Florence were originally given through SACI. When the downtown institution told NYU it could no longer accommodate the volume of NYU students, the course were moved to Villa La Pietra. Now SACI can once again accommodate NYU, for as Beckman claims, Villa La Pietra’s “facilities were never adequate for the specialized needs of the studio arts program.”

Studio professor Patrice Lombardi however, noted on multiple occasions that Harold Acton’s own studio space at Villa La Pietra had worked wonderfully for her drawing courses, as “the space and light [was] perfect…[and] could easily fit 15 students working happily at any given time.”

When asked why the studio professors at Florence said they weren’t notified of changes to their contracts until the last minute, Beckman replied:

“Italian labor law changed last summer in a way that had a significant impact on the types of employment contracts we had with our faculty at NYU in Florence. The law was not finalized until mid-July 2012; NYU was determined to be in compliance with the law on time, but that gave the university a very short time to think through impact of the law and create new hiring contracts for nearly 40 people.

Prior to this legal reform, some, but not all of our faculty were hired on consultant contracts; these contracts were more characteristic of adjunct – or part-time — positions. However, the legal reform prohibited most consultant contracts; instead, it required us to enter into a new type of contract with faculty – dependent employment relationships –  that is essentially a permanent arrangement for most of the faculty who received a dependent contract…

Such an arrangement requires much more thought, since we are essentially committing to a relationship that limits our ability to offer diverse coursework and respond to changing departmental needs. The timing of this law gave us one month to make a decision about an essentially permanent hire.”

Unfortunately, it seems the studio professors at Florence did not land on the favorable side of the new contracts. In a New York Times article from September 9, 2012 detailing the changes to the labor laws, Beckman was quoted as having said that “reactions to the new contracts ‘[have] been positive.’” The article confirmed that the changes did make it easier to fire those with “short-term contracts,” which were precisely the kind professor Alan Pascuzzi and his colleagues said they were “pressured” into accepting.

Beckman did not definitively comment on whether students will be paying tuition the same as before, but he did note that NYU does not have an official agreement with SACI yet, saying that “tuition for the Florence program enables us to offer a variety of curricular and co-curricular programs at the site… offering a diverse curriculum is more costly.”

David Darts, Chair of the Steinhardt Department of Arts and Art Professions, said in an email to Local that he is currently “reviewing the syllabi and instructor credentials, and will be reviewing the facilities [at SACI]. Through such a partnership, [NYU Florence] can offer a broader array of courses in appropriate facilities.”

In another more recent New York Times article detailing the no-confidence vote against President Sexton, writer Ariel Kaminer made a point that feels particularly relevant to this discussion:

“Adjunct professors do an especially large portion of the teaching at N.Y.U.’s 12 international centers, one of the reasons — along with the lack of academic freedom in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai — that critics describe the Global Network University as a cynical undertaking. Rebecca Karl, a history professor and a faculty senator, said she would support the idea of global education “if it weren’t just about people paying an N.Y.U. New York tuition, then being shipped off to Prague where you can house and educate the kids for a fraction of the cost that it takes in New York and then N.Y.U. pockets the difference.”

We students willingly take on NYU-caliber debt in return for NYU-caliber professors and a tacit understanding that the education is reliable, having been refined through years of internal and self-reflective improvement. It is clear that specific professors are upset about their terminations, and their despair should be weighed carefully against the administration’s explanation that this will ultimately improve NYU Florence’s ability to offer arts programs. Yet despite Beckman and Darts’ enthusiasm for the re-integration of SACI into the Florence curriculum, faculty at Washington Square as well as past and present students of the studio arts at Florence have expressed their continued distress at the loss of NYU professors, noting that “who teaches what matters.”

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2 Comments

  • Duccio di Buoninsegna
    April 4, 2013

    For everyone who has been keeping abreast of the sad situation in NYU-Florence, I cannot recommend strongly enough a book written by the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt at Princeton, most appropriately titled On Bullshit. As the author explains, bullshit is defined not so much by the end product as by the PROCESS by which it is created. That is to say, the “how” of masterful mendacity: obfuscation, evasion and illusion. In the case of NYU-Florence and the laying off of the long-serving, popular studio faculty at the site, only becoming known to students and faculty here in NY as the cuts were already set in motion, the real life consequences have been nothing less than devastating. The great enemy of truth is secrecy, misinformation, insidious half-truths. In this instance, the decisions — life- and career-altering decisions, in the case of the now-jobless contract faculty, vulnerable from the start and already earning the most modest of salaries — were made behind closed doors by calculating bureaucrats, rather than dedicated academics. Students and faculty here on the Square will no doubt hear more about space issues, labor laws, returning to old practices, etc. What we will most certainly never hear is a mea culpa with regard to just how appallingly the hard-working faculty (earning high marks from their students through their repeated years of service, many since the late ’90s) have been treated throughout this entire process. You might hear something about opening more lines of communication, more reaching out (reminding me, at least, of those old sentimental AT&T commercials: “Reach out and touch someone”!). Most certainly there will be more committees. As lesson 1 of damage control, there MUST always be more committees. Why? Well, for more oversight and more robust reaching out, of course. And yet there will be not a single admission that the bottom-line, business-as-usual — i.e., more or less conscience-free — way of doing things is not the way one treats professional educators. It might be alright for Halliburton. It’s not all right for our university, or any institution of higher learning, where it’s not ammunition or fertilizer or widgets that you’re responsible for producing, but intrepid, well-informed, intellectually-curious, creative and empathetic students. In short, we will hear hardly anything, anything at all, from the Director of NYU-Florence or Global Programs about the HUMAN element, an element absolutely inseparable from the curricular element. As Ava so poignantly ends her piece, who teaches what matters. Boy, does it matter. In fact, it’s all that matters. When will the tone-deaf upper-administration learn this lesson? When there are no more studio and art history students interested enough to travel to this now blemished site, a once almost-irresistible magnet for the arts for our undergrads that is being gradually gutted of some of its best faculty? With 14 some odd global “nodes” and “portals” maybe Pres. Sexton is, in fact, perfectly fine with that. Cut our losses, move on. We’ve seen this already once before, just this past year alone with the shuttering of the Tisch-Asia cinema program in Singapore — a story that this paper has also covered brilliantly. We’ll shift some pieces around, pop up another “node” on the other side of the globe. Repeat and rinse. But who’s next on the chopping block? With the stewardship of my own students on the line, I certainly care to know. This is NOT the vision of a “Global Network University” of which this faculty member would ever want to be a knowing part. Enough of this bullshit.

  • Dr. Alan Pascuzzi
    April 5, 2013

    As a professor or Art and Art History at NYU in Florence I think it is important that I respond to John Beckman’s comments. I will be succint:

    FACT: Changes in Florence’s curriculum were not done collarboratively but were executive decisions made up to two years ago with no consultation of faculty or the art department at NYU. A formal statement was just sent to all Art and Art History majors by the Art and Art History departments denying any involvement in the cutting of courses and the firing of professors. When an entire department denies being consulted when major changes are being made, that is a serious indication of poor management.

    FACT: The transferral of the art courses to SACI is a significant drop in the quality of art instruction and courses available. Patrice Lombardi and Roberto Caracciolo who taught painting and drawing at NYU are internationally known painters who are represented in galleries throughout Europe. They are two of the most experienced and accomplished artists and art professors in Florence. To eliminate them from any faculty is a clear sign that NYU is not interested in the quality of classes being offered to NYU students. As far as for my own courses, there is no one else in Florence who is able to teach them as they are the fruit of my own doctoral research.

    FACT: NYU used the new contracts as a means to eliminate the art component in Florence. They had decided to phase-out the arts several years ago and the new contract was a gift that allowed them to speed-up the process and hide behind labor issues. Ellyn Toscano tried to thrust the contracts on us and with clauses that limited us from even having a faculty meeting, a disclaimer clause on past illegal contracts and an intellectual property law in which everything we did was NYU property, she tried to literally isolate us to keep us from reacting.

    Several of the professors managed to react but were undermined by other individuals loyal to Toscano.

    Other schools in Florence have issued the same contracts but have not fired faculty nor cut the pay 27% as NYU did to their faculty here.

    Beckman doe not know the reality of the contract and is attempting to portray the firing of competent professors as an unfortunate consequence of an Italian labor law. Instead, the contracts were carefully written by NYU lawyers including the director Ellyn Toscano and issued with no pre-warning so that we were forced to sign them or lose our jobs.

    THE MOST IMPORTANT FACT: NYU students pay in some cases three times the amount of tuition to come to Florence and it goes up 3% every year. Although their tuition rises each year, as far as Florence is concerned, there are now fewer art, music, cinema and other humantities courses begin offered at NYU Florence. These courses will now be taught by individuals with less experience and less expertise than the professors that were fired Pay more, get less.

    Dr. Alan Pascuzzi

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