- David Alvarado
“I’m Sorry.” That was the subject line of a university-wide e-mail sent by School of the Art Institute of Chicago provost Martin Berger, an e-mail that many had waited almost two years for. In September 2018, as the newly hired dean of faculty, Berger presented his work studying photography and the civil rights movement to a room of hundreds of faculty and staff, including some security and food service workers. Berger is tall and well-manicured, with a bald head and light blue eyes. One faculty member described him as so anxious he was hard to be around. In staff meetings held on Zoom and uploaded to YouTube, he speaks methodically and with little emotion, well-versed at giving pro forma answers that don’t reveal too much. Berger did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The mood at the meeting, which had an open bar and gave employees across the school a rare opportunity to get together, was festive. During his talk, Berger quoted the Black activist Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, the first Black students to integrate an all-white Arkansas high school, using the N-word. It sent shock waves through the room. Berger would later apologize individually to those who complained about his choice of words, though for months he defended his usage on the grounds of academic freedom. In an interview, he explained that he used Eckford’s own words “in an effort to return agency to the young black activist” and “to illuminate her actions and thoughts.” It’s apparent that he didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation, that he didn’t expect his actions to have ripple effects.
“Recent conversations with the incoming and outgoing members of Student Government and Graduate Senate convinced me of the need to send an apology to students for my September 2018 talk,” he wrote in his e-mail this June. “It should have come much sooner.”
The debate around free speech on college campuses is of course nothing new. And if this had been an isolated incident, perhaps what happened at one of the nation’s top-ranked art schools might not have reverbated as long and as far as it did. But just six months after the lecture in question, with unheeded calls by faculty to have an open forum, Berger was promoted to provost after an opaque hiring process.
This sequence of events, involving an act of harm committed on members of the school’s community that was inadequately addressed, and a lack of transparency, accountability, and communication around school policy, illustrates what many consider the status quo at SAIC. I spoke to over a dozen current and former students, staff, and faculty who described a toxic atmosphere for BIPOC, replete with microaggressions or outright discrimination, where complaints are dealt with individually, rather than systemically, if they are dealt with at all. Like many other institutions in the art world, this year SAIC has pledged to address systemic racism on its campus, with a newly formed anti-racism committee, among other initiatives. But with Berger, an increasingly problematic figure, as one of the most powerful people at the school, and above him President Elissa Tenny, who has also fielded calls to resign this year, many wonder if real change is possible.
On March 12, President Tenny announced that spring break would be extended due to the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic. Students initially expected to be back in a few weeks, but the downtown Chicago campus largely shut down and classes went remote for the rest of the semester. While that shift might be abrupt for any school, for art students without access to studios or to vast facilities, the ability to complete certain assignments was completely cut off. Students in designed objects or sculpture were suddenly without access to the woodshop and other fabrication equipment; ceramics students went without pottery wheels or kilns; photography students had no editing workstations and no access to scanners, the darkroom, or the school’s print services.
Tenny, SAIC’s first female president, is in her late 60s, with shoulder-length, hay-colored hair and bangs that frame her face. She’s prone to wearing eclectic jewelry, the kind you’d find in a museum gift shop. Many community members I spoke to described Tenny as out of touch or ineffective. In a meeting posted on YouTube, she stumbles over her words, and cracks a smile when addressing staff concerns that e-mails are being monitored. At another point, she says, “I know we’ve all read articles about how challenging it has been for people working from home raising kids,” as if this isn’t a reality for many of her actual employees. Tenny did not respond to requests for comment.
On April 20, the Black Student Union (later renamed Blk @ SAIC) published a set of demands for the administration asking for universal credit for the semester, continued pay for all employees, and new sustainable practices regarding accountability and financial stability. The organizers also released a survey to the SAIC community, asking what resources folks needed and if they had safety concerns. After just five days, the survey received more than 500 signatures and almost 200 people shared testimonials.
“We pay to go to the school to have access to facilities and studio space and we may not all have that at home,” says Hayley Bain, one of the current leaders of Blk @ SAIC, who I spoke to over Zoom. Bain, who wears glamorously oversized tortoise-shell glasses and a septum ring, is in her fourth year and primarily makes works on paper. “So to act as if we all do is very presumptuous. Even for academic classes as well, home is a different space for everybody. So completing academic work is going to look different.”
Just days before the extended spring break began, FNewsmagazine, the school’s newspaper, published a story with the headline “When the Dean Said a Slur, And Then Got Promoted,” detailing Berger’s use of the N-word and subsequent promotion. While faculty was already aware that this had happened, the article ensured that now everyone at SAIC was. Perhaps the story wouldn’t have had much of an impact, with everyone isolated at home with the pandemic to worry about. But the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in late May, and SAIC’s participation in Blackout Tuesday on Instagram, a social media campaign meant to serve as a day of reflection following George Floyd’s murder, helped resurface the incident.
On June 10, Tenny sent out a statement detailing the school’s renewed commitment to anti-racism. “While the world is gripped with a fervor to recognize and take decisive action against systemic racism, we cannot fail to act as an institution,” she wrote. She outlined the steps the institution would take, including the establishment of an emergency relief fund for students, the formation of an anti-racism committee, a day of mourning for all staff, a $25,000 donation to be split among seven nonprofits in North Lawndale, and continued “efforts to build diverse hiring pools for positions throughout the institution, especially among full-time, tenure-track faculty.” Another paragraph detailed the continuation of initiatives that support the Black and Brown members of campus, such as scholarships for Chicago Public Schools students, programming in North Lawndale, and grants which support diverse campus projects and curricula. Many students, staff, and faculty felt that these efforts were far from enough.
In an open letter to Tenny published in FNews on June 9, junior Sherman White called the president’s statement “not revolutionary, but reactionary.” “You have a chance to prove yourself a true ally,” White wrote. “It is not enough to not be racist. You must be anti-racist.” White called on the president to condemn the Chicago Police Department, to publicly reprimand Berger, and to cease using Black students’ artwork as a prop of solidarity. (Alum Charly Palmer’s recent Time magazine cover of a Black girl above a bleeding bunch of roses, a blazing battle scene in her hair, was featured on the university’s website.) As for the $25,000 donation, White pointed out that it amounted to just $3,571 per nonprofit, or “almost $2000 less than it cost to take a course here at SAIC.”
A Change.org petition calling for Berger’s resignation was published just a few days later. “Berger continues to . . . defend his use of the n-word,” the petition stated. “In the spirit of justice we believe the provost position should be filled by a BIPOC.” To date, it has garnered more than 2,500 signatures. Dozens of signatories left comments showing their disgust and disillusion with the school. “Inexcusable. Resign,” wrote one commenter. “This school has yet to do much of anything for their students of color,” wrote another.
Tenny’s disconnect with the realities of BIPOC members of the campus was also made apparent through her announcement of the passing of Lynika Strozier. Strozier, a Black woman, died of complications from coronavirus in June. She was 35. Strozier worked at SAIC as coordinator for the Science and Bio Art Labs and was also an adjunct professor at Malcolm X College. Tenny initially sent out a notification of Strozier’s passing only to faculty and staff, which the school says is standard practice. Weeks later she sent out a second e-mail, including students, acknowledging that “our practice of notifying only faculty and staff of staff members’ deaths has not been followed consistently, understandably upsetting a number of students.”
Tenny also acknowledged that the e-mail raised concerns because Strozier’s death was COVID-19-related, which has disproportionately impacted people of color. “Our feelings of grief over the impact of this terrible pandemic and anger that systemic racism make[s] some of us more vulnerable are real, and those feelings were exacerbated by the poor handling of the message,” she wrote. “The messaging error was unintentional, and I am sorry.” A GoFundMe to help with hospital and funeral expenses has thus far gathered more than $84,000 in donations, including a $500 donation from Tenny. In July, Tenny and Berger announced a new undergraduate scholarship in Strozier’s name.
On June 30, an e-mail went out to all the student workers in the admissions office, letting them know that their hours for the summer had been cut to almost nothing. Undergraduate student Nadia Frierson described the e-mail as tone-deaf; it included a meme of a viral moment from a protest when a woman told a cop, “You about to lose your job.”
“This is a big issue because everybody’s depending on this job to pay their rent,” Frierson tells me over the phone. “We did lose our jobs, basically. Like we’re employed but we’re not getting paid.”
Frierson and colleagues pushed back against the e-mail, and their office held a Zoom call where student workers could air grievances. There were a lot. Many centered around Frances Pleines, who was then the director of undergraduate admissions. Staff and students alike reported that Pleines engaged in racial profiling and discrimination of students, making comments like “Mexicans are very hard working and therefore good employees” or that “female Indian student workers were ‘lazy.'” Pleines would reportedly handpick students of color to participate in photo shoots for admissions marketing materials. She was known to misgender transgender students and alumni, often referring to them by their dead names. There were dozens of other complaints, detailing a pattern of psychological harassment, pitting students and staff against one another, and inappropriately sharing personal information, among other workplace abuses. It wasn’t until staff were able to work remotely, out of earshot of Pleines and other authority figures on campus whom they feared retaliation from, that they realized others were having the same negative experiences. Pleines declined to comment on these allegations.
These grievances, obtained by the Reader, were collected and sent to the vice president of enrollment. Pleines left the school over the summer, though the Reader couldn’t confirm if she was fired. Staff and students, however, say that Rose Milkowski, the vice president of enrollment management, and Asia Mitchell, the executive director of undergraduate admissions, were at least partially aware of Pleines’s behavior, and fielded their own complaints. (Milkowski and Mitchell did not comment on these allegations.)
After the admissions office Zoom call, the student workers met with other students and staff and decided to do more campus-wide organizing. Dismantle SAIC, also known as SAIC Solidarity, was formed. Currently made up of Frierson and fellow undergraduates Nicholas Zepeda and Jonathan Swain, Dismantle SAIC released their own Google survey, asking SAIC students, staff, contracted workers, and alumni whether they faced discrimination at the school. Almost 300 people submitted responses: 44 percent of respondents said they’d been discriminated against, with another 31 percent not sure if their treatment could be categorized that way. Many respondents described painful experiences with the upper administration, mishandled sexual assault cases, racist course material, misgendering by professors, a refusal to be given proper disability accommodations, and a general lack of support for BIPOC students. Even more responses were sent through e-mail or Instagram DM.
At the end of June, Dismantle SAIC wrote a comprehensive, 13-page letter to Tenny, Milkowski, and then-interim dean of faculty Jefferson Pinder demanding action. (Pinder, who is Black, has since been made director of academic affairs for diversity, equity, and inclusion. He also heads the new anti-racism committee, which reports to Tenny.) According to FNews, seven admissions staffers who signed a letter in support of SAIC Solidarity were let go over the summer. Dismantle SAIC enumerated the reasons for concern: the initial silence on Berger’s use of the N-word, his subsequent promotion, the petition calling for his resignation, and his belated apology; the layoffs of staff at the Art Institute after calling for more transparency around downsizing and plans to reopen the museum; an incident reported in the Sun-Times in which a former student was allegedly subjected to sex discrimination and physical abuse by then-faculty member John Phillips (according to a lawsuit filed by the student, Phillips was fired in 2016), the student’s direct adviser; and missteps by Tenny regarding her announcement of the death of Strozier.
The demands fall into four broad categories: more accountability in the admissions office; reform to the curriculum, including decentering whiteness and white art; hiring more faculty of color; and providing more financial and institutional support to students. “SAIC is a non-profit institution and should prioritize their commitment to the public good and its students over for-profit business practices,” the letter states. In my conversations with current and former students, faculty, and staff, many pointed to the school’s prioritization of profit over academic scholarship and student well-being. Several casually mentioned Tenny’s salary; in 2019, her total compensation topped $711,000, which includes a housing stipend of $4,000 per month.
For Dismantle SAIC, Tenny’s financial security directly informs the disconnect between their needs as students and the institution’s inability to adequately address them. After months of meeting with the administration and little progress to show for it, Dismantle calculated their hours and sent a request for compensation. From June 18 to August 23, three of the main student organizers had each worked 362 hours.
“While they did not come into this journey with the intention of being compensated, the exaggerated timeline of this project has presented Frierson, Ivory and Zepeda with extensive mental and physical strain from working with/at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” they wrote to Tenny, Milkowski, and Pinder.
According to Frierson, the administration asked how the students would like to be compensated, though payment and tuition adjustments were off the table. Dismantle decided not to respond. A representative from the school counters that the students received a stipend.
Meanwhile, due to work hours being dramatically cut, Frierson lost their housing over the summer. “I think [Tenny]’s one of those white women that really doesn’t understand the magnitude of the situation, that she’s been having a part in actively oppressing people,” Frierson says. Because of Tenny’s secure position, aided by her housing stipend, Frierson felt it was clear that the president was oblivious to the economic realities of her students.
Frierson is a fifth-year student who works mostly in the fibers department, creating beautiful geometric assemblages with handmade paper. Their admission to the school is deeply personal. Decades ago their father was discouraged from attending SAIC; he was essentially told he’d never make it as a Black architect. Their father and grandmother have both made tremendous financial sacrifices to allow Frierson to attend. “My ancestors did a lot of work to put me where I’m at so I should appreciate the privilege that I have been able to access thus far,” they said.
Lisa Vinebaum, the chair of the fiber and material studies department, says the compensation of upper administration underscores the lack of progressive vision. In ten years at SAIC, Vinebaum has been a part of many efforts to bring greater equity to the school. Her work often explores topics of labor justice or how art can play a role in social change. “The question is, what kind of institution do we want to be?” Vinebaum says, noting that the school falls short of its ideals. “We know what kind of school we are. We’re a corporate art school that is trying to present itself as something that is progressive and forward-thinking and aligned with Chicago and trying to make change. But at the end of the day, it’s not.”
According to the school’s 2018 tax returns, the total compensation of Tenny and the other highest-compensated administrators amounted to more than $3.2 million. This doesn’t include ten other VP-level executives. All but two people in the president’s 18-member cabinet are white. The majority of the school’s revenue, 77 percent in fiscal year 2019, comes from tuition and student fees. The cost of one year of undergraduate tuition is $52,000, which doesn’t include any fees or housing expenses. Tuition increases an average of 2-4 percent per year. Though students asked SAIC not to raise tuition this year as much learning continues to take place remotely, the school went ahead with their scheduled increase for all students with the exception of Pell Grant recipients, those with the most financial need, about 22 percent of the student population. It is easy to see student’s frustrations with their institution—they know their money is lining the pockets of the administration, and yet their concerns are consistently overlooked.
On June 11, faculty chair Beth Wright sent an e-mail out to faculty that, like many communiqués from the institution, toes the line between coldly professional and empathic. “It is hard, right now, to be resident in this country. On all sides there is pain: physical, spiritual, economic, mental,” Wright begins. “Is it more important to protect our community by not gathering on campus in any form at the price of precipitous enrollment drops, or by doing all we can to maintain everyone’s livelihoods and health insurance at the cost of possible risk of infection? The choices are hard, and I do not think I can dismiss or blame people who make different choices than I do in each case. I would like us to be generous when we disagree about the best way forward for ourselves and our community, remembering that none of us believe cops killing people of color is okay.”
“It was really insensitive,” says one faculty member, noting the very real precariousness of many part-time employees. “Don’t say none of us believe cops killing people of color is OK. That’s obviously not true. That’s why they keep getting off when they kill people of color.”
By early summer, many other complaints against the school or specific departments were being made publicly. Alum Adreain Jovan Guillory shared a video on Instagram, noting that the fashion department had reached out to him, asking for images of his work as a means of standing with the Black Lives Matter movement. Guillory declined, saying “We’re out here dying, so a post is not really doing anything for me.”
Jax McFarland, a former graduate student in the architecture, interior architecture, and designed objects department, also posted a video to Instagram, detailing some of the racism he experienced in his department, which he eventually discussed with the Title IX office and Tenny. She referred McFarland to Berger. “I have to sit down with the guy who uses the N-word who thinks he’s some white savior, that he’s not biased,” McFarland says. After the meeting, Berger waived McFarland’s tuition, while officially determining there was no wrongdoing. “Pretty much what Martin tried to do was silence me by adjusting my financial aid,” McFarland said in the video. A group of staff in the admissions office also wrote an open letter in support of the admissions “student ambassadors’ demands that leadership address racism and unethical workplace practices.”
Anna Martine Whitehead, an adjunct professor in the contemporary practices department, began talking and reaching out to other Black faculty members, trying to come up with a plan to support the demands coming from BSU, Dismantle, and other students. These faculty members formed the collective Black Futures to try to synthesize all these grievances and lay out a vision to move forward. When Black Futures first coalesced, Whitehead was struck by how frequently Tenny and Berger tried to handle complaints with private meetings or conversations. Again and again, administrators try to isolate and individualize issues, propose a plan they feel comfortable with, and forego any chance of systemic change. “It uses their work to kind of gather together a group of folks and get names from those groups, and join the committee without actually taking seriously the demands of those groups,” one member of Black Futures says.
Carly Maria Trujillo, an undergraduate student and a co-leader of the Native American Student Association (NASA), worked with Dismantle over the summer to present to Tenny a proposal to rename the school’s Columbus building, an informal name stemming from its location on Columbus Drive. NASA had proposed renaming the building “Three Fires,” after the Three Fires Confederacy, made up of the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa tribes which resided in the Chicagoland area. “Why does a ‘proactive,’ ‘diversity valuing’ institution have a building named after a man who’s [sic] only intentions were driven by greed & the side effect was genocide?” NASA asked in the proposal.
In an e-mail from Tenny that Dismantle shared on social media, Tenny writes that while she supports renaming the building, “we must do so in fashion that preserves our ability to realize the renaming as a fundraising opportunity.” It was later announced that the building would be referred to as the “280 building” in the interim, named after its street address.
A representative from the school confirmed this, writing in an e-mail that “it’s important to note that colleges, nonprofit organizations, and other institutions throughout the world understand the potential value to its community via scholarships and other funding availability.” Then the response took a more personal turn: “I saw in your bio you went to Northwestern – how many buildings/fields/parks/centers are named after benefactors? Probably any space or facility they could name for a donor where the funding can be used toward a student benefit. I’m saying this not because I have info to share about our naming plans – I don’t – but because I think it’s important to consider in the context of the calls for a name change. If a college’s options are to name a building or a space whatever they want vs. name it after a donor that could provide millions of dollars toward scholarships for those students most in need (thereby allowing scores of students to pursue higher education), why not consider this as an option?”
Camille Ariyana Billie, a third-year student in designed objects who is also a NASA co-leader, doesn’t understand why scholarships for Indigenous students, or hiring of more Indigenous faculty, has to be done through donor money. “I get that it’s symbolic, symbolism matters, especially in a large institution and everybody’s watching. But it’s like, if everybody’s watching and they see that you’re being blatantly anti-racist, shouldn’t that be good?” she asks. “Shouldn’t you not think about money? Shouldn’t you think about the hundreds of years of genocide and systematic oppression that the school does benefit from? They are sitting on the very land that was stolen.”
Berger has since reached out to Trujillo, asking to meet privately with her or NASA. “I’m very frustrated by the pressure that I’m feeling to do that,” Trujillo says. She’s wary of the experience Dismantle SAIC had: months of emotionally exhausting meetings that ultimately led nowhere. Trujillo was one of just three students to join the anti-racism committee.
Several people reported similar experiences: an apparent willingness of the president, provost, or other administrative figures to listen—in private—but then no action. “I think they really rely on this idea that students will be up and out in two to four years, and so they really center individual appeasement as opposed to systemic change,” Vinebaum says. “Obviously responding to students one-on-one is important but if there’s not going to be systemic change, then you’re going to keep bringing students in and traumatizing them, and faculty as well.”
Hayley Bain, from Blk @ SAIC, says upper administration will never outright disagree with you. “It’s like, ‘we hear you,’ it’s just a thing people say.” Her Blk @ SAIC co-leader Alisa Drakes agrees. “You hear us but you’re not actually listening.”
Black Futures spent weeks drafting a road map for how they feel the school should move forward in its anti-racism work: things that should happen now, within 30 days, 60 days, one year, and five years. It covers a broad swath of areas, from providing sick leave to contracted staff to arranging dedicated space on campus for BIPOC students to creating pathways for part-time BIPOC faculty to advance into full-time, tenure-track positions. “We are extremely dismayed by the facts of what it has cost—two years of staff, student and faculty labor, financial resources, and an international Black Lives Matter Movement—to create this opening for racial justice at SAIC,” they write. They also call for the resignation of all negligent parties involved in the Berger incident. In all there are 34 action items. The letter has over 300 signatories.
Tenny and Berger initially offered a private meeting to discuss the concerns. A week later, they sent a more detailed response, offering immediate action on just three items. They then addressed “assumptions that we believe aren’t accurate or easily rectified.” Black Futures responded just once, stating that the administrators’ proposals were inadequate and embodied “the lack of sincere attention we are calling for.”
Vinebaum, who signed on to the Black Futures demands, thinks the administration’s response shows a lack of cultural competency. “The letter from Black faculty reflects so much trauma and pain that school leadership doesn’t seem to understand or want to try and understand, which is textbook white fragility,” she says. “If one is going to be anti-racist genuinely then one should listen to the people that are aggrieved, and not think that they know better, and not be defensive. And it’s really hard to do but that’s essential. That’s the work.”
Black Futures has been very public about their refusal to engage with the administration in an endless back-and-forth. “This doesn’t have to be a conversation,” says a member of the collective, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation. “It doesn’t have to be a conversation because here’s a road map. This is our conversation, we started it, and there doesn’t need to be any quibbling about what’s happening because there’s just things that need to happen. This quibbling even started without us responding, reacting, which is what happens when Black people say anything 99 percent of the time.”
Savneet Talwar had just become the chair of the art therapy department in the summer of 2019, and was tasked with bringing her department in line with a new, more stringent accreditation process. As a result of the changes, which required more work and a revision of syllabi, two faculty resigned from the department.
In late January 2020, Berger took the former chair Randy Vick to lunch to celebrate his retirement, where Vick reportedly expressed concern over the recent resignations. Berger inquired into how things were going in the department. Talwar later learned that Berger had asked faculty chair Beth Wright to do exit interviews with all the faculty who had left in the previous year, which included the spring before Talwar was chair. In the middle of this, the school went remote, and, for a time, Talwar thought the investigation would dissipate. But during a phone call with Wright in May, Talwar learned the investigation was completed, and that a report had been given to Berger. (Wright, who has since stepped down, did not respond to requests for comment.) Berger refused to give Talwar a copy of the report when she asked, but he agreed to a meeting.
Talwar invited Raja Halwani, her faculty liaison, to the meeting with Berger, which took place June 1. In the meeting, Talwar asked Berger what policy allows him to conduct such an investigation on a faculty member. He said that there wasn’t any, and admitted that the investigation did not reveal any discrimination on Talwar’s part.
“I said, ‘So you were looking for that? Because if you were looking for that, nobody has interviewed me to know my side of the story,'” Talwar says. “I said to him, ‘My department is the only department in this institution that is run by two faculty of color. What we consistently face everyday has never been the case for any of my predecessors, who were all white.'”
She says Berger responded by telling her she was “rough around the edges” and in need of mentorship. “I was just shocked,” Talwar says. “This institution takes on an anti-racism stance and this is my interaction with my provost.”
Not trusting the Title IX process at the school, Talwar made a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The school refused an initial request for mediation. The next step is for EEOC to conduct an investigation. “Whatever is in that document, whatever they did, I know is wrong. And they know that it is wrong as well,” Talwar says. “The institution can keep making the commitments to anti-racism, but when it comes really down to actually having these conversations, nobody is interested. This performativeness has just become old for everyone.”
Cauleen Smith, a former visiting artist, had a similar experience. After a student complained about Smith’s critique of her work, Smith says her one-year contract was prematurely terminated. “It wasn’t that what I said was objectionable or offensive or demeaning, she just didn’t like it,” Smith says. “And the chair, instead of telling her, well that happens, told me that I needed to apologize to the student. I refused.”
Smith then had a meeting with the chair of the film department and Paul Coffey, a vice provost and the current dean of community engagement. “The meeting started, literally with this individual, Paul Coffey, saying to me, ‘Do you like working here or not?’ That was his first question. ‘Do you want to be a part of SAIC or not?'” she says. From there, the conversation did not improve, and Smith did not teach any further classes. She says they presented her with a contract where she would instead complete research but she ignored it. Neither Coffey nor the film chair at the time responded to repeated requests for comment.
“They routinely treat their faculty like they’re lucky to have a job when in fact it’s the opposite,” she says. “The idea that a provost would begin a meeting by saying, ‘Do you want to be here or not?’ as if there’s some sort of loyalty quotient that I’m supposed to demonstrate, not by showing up to do my job but in other ways. It’s really appalling. And it’s definitely part of the culture.”
The frustration that campus members have expressed regarding the school’s inadequate anti-racist actions are understandable, given that many have previously tried to dismantle the institution’s structural racism. In 2009, SAIC created a strategic plan intended to build diversity, including several efforts to encourage diverse students to apply or transfer to the school. In 2013-14, the school established yet another committee “to further diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.” In 2016, a symposium was held on campus on decolonizing art education. Feedback was shared with Tenny and then-provost Craig Barton, and touched on many of the same issues being brought up today: participants cited the inherent white supremacism of the school, the way it appropriates student actions and labor, and a need for more diverse students and faculty.
In a statement on their anti-racist efforts, a school representative wrote in an e-mail: “We’re energized by the community’s passion for this work and the progress that has been made. We know there is much more work to be done, and there may be missteps along the way, but as a higher education institution, SAIC is committed to listening, learning, and growing.”
All the students I spoke to could count on one hand the number of Black faculty they’d had at the school. In the 2019-2020 academic year, 5.5 percent of faculty were Black, 8.9 percent were Asian, 8.1 percent were Hispanic/Latinx, and less than one percent were Indigenous, native Alaskan or Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. White faculty made up 75 percent.
In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, 3.2 percent of students were African American, 7.6 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 10.6 percent Hispanic, and less than one percent American Indian. The school’s website notes that 30.8 percent were white, though only because it lumps all international students into their own category, where no race is specified. A former admissions staff person I spoke to did note that both BIPOC and Chicago students are targeted by the department, even though little work is done to offer those students meaningful support, either financially or institutionally. The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation, says that these potential students were viewed only as numbers. “The language that was used in that room by white employees was horrifying,” the employee says. “Everything was like, ‘Oh we need more of the Latinos or the Blacks.'”
The school’s retention rates illustrate the ramifications of objectifying students of color. The overall number of first-time freshmen who graduate within six years of starting their studies is 63 percent. For Hispanic/Latinx students, it’s 46 percent, and for African American students, it’s just 40 percent.
“You’re part of the institution, but you’re also sort of not quite fully integrated,” Blk @ SAIC’s Hayley Bain says. “Your concerns are never actually gonna be the main priority. Right now I feel like the school is in a position where they’re very much concerned with like, how do we look? Do we look like we’re doing a good job? Because doing a good job is difficult work and it takes a lot of difficult decisions, but it’s pretty easy to send out e-mail.”
The sad truth is that, on paper at least, the diversity of SAIC’s faculty and students is comparable to most of its peer institutions. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2018, full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions were 75 percent white, 12 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and six percent each Black and Hispanic. A 2017 report from the New York Times found that the median family income of a student from SAIC was $104,600, which was actually lower than the average of Pratt or the Savannah College of Art and Design, two other private art schools with high rankings. Virtually no change in family income of students has occurred at SAIC over the past four decades.
Walking the halls of SAIC, one feels that they’re breathing rarified air. Common areas are clean and modern, with minimalist furniture. The library is stocked with Macs. Several buildings offer breathtaking views of Lake Michigan or the grand expanse of Millennium Park. Not to mention the faculty: MacArthur Fellow LaToya Ruby Frazier, former Whitney Biennial curator Michelle Grabner. Classes are small, with an average of 15-20 students in a studio class, and around 25 in academic classes. Like any college, and perhaps more so with art schools, the culture you experience is largely dictated by what department you’re in. Several campus members reported the fibers department as being more inclusive, the fashion department as one that struggled with racism, as was designed objects and art history. Many cited the white supremacist framework of the school, with its white, western-centric curriculum, its focus on individual success and capitalism. With so much talk about diversity and inclusion on campuses reaching back decades, and so little improvement, it’s no wonder that organizers are now demanding a much more radical approach.
So many students I spoke to while reporting this story were deeply frustrated by the school’s complacency and refusal to adequately address their considerable grievances. Some felt betrayed that the school they were sold fell so short of its promise. When visiting colleges as a high school student, Billie, the NASA co-leader who was raised on an Oneida reservation in Wisconsin, liked how SAIC prided itself on diversity and inclusion. But she’s become disillusioned with the school’s refusal to listen to Indigenous students. She’s had professors who read the required land acknowledgement in class like it’s a chore, like they don’t understand the purpose. “I feel like I just want a basic college experience, but because I’m Native and Black, I’m low-key obligated to also fight this good fight,” she says. “Because I also had to do this in elementary, in middle school, in high school. It’s just work on my work.” While she says it’s empowering to fight for change, as did many of the other students and faculty I spoke to, that work takes a heavy toll, mentally and emotionally.
Billie stresses that she’s not asking for much. “Like I want a name change of a building, I want to be acknowledged that I exist,” she says. “I wish when professors created their curriculums, that they would acknowledge that hey, there might be an Indigenous student in your class. I’ve been in so many art history classes where they make it look like we’re extinct or they only give like trauma porn. They don’t speak on the resilience or the fact that we still made it, we’re still here. We’re still prospering.” v
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Lynika Strozier was a part-time employee without health insurance. She was a full-time employee. After publication, SAIC responded to the Reader‘s original inquiry into Strozier’s employment status.
The article also incorrectly stated that all but one person in President Tenny’s 18-member cabinet are white. There are two non-white people in the cabinet. And the article incorrectly identified Beth Wright as the former dean of faculty. She is the former chair of faculty.
We have updated the reference in the article to the Change.org petition calling for Berger’s resignation. A spokesperson for SAIC stated that “outside of the instance of reading a quote that is described in the story, he has not said the word.”