Updated: June 6, 2016 at 11:31 a.m.
Current and former faculty and students said they are worried about the future of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s curriculum and programs after layoffs last month.
After officials laid off 10 Corcoran faculty members last month, faculty and students said the cuts could impact the close-knit structure of the Corcoran and its legacy in arts education.
Sanjit Sethi, the director of the Corcoran, said in an email to students last month that all full-time faculty were told of their contract statuses after considering the school’s current and projected enrollment, merging the Corcoran’s programs with the existing arts programs at GW, the future operating budget and feedback from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.
He added that those faculty whose contracts were not renewed will receive one-year severance payment, are being recommended for emeritus status at GW and may be able to “return to teach some specific classes in the future.”
Following questions from students regarding the layoffs, Sethi sent an email to students last week addressing their questions about the changes in the Corcoran. In the email, Sethi said he appreciates “the conviction that accompanies these concerns.”
He also included a six-page document with written answers to questions concerning the faculty non-renewals, academic planning and the future of the Corcoran. Some of the questions included how the changes will affect a student and their program.
Sethi said the school is “committed” to providing students with the “courses and mentorship” they need, and said the fall schedule will be updated with instructor names before June 7.
“All GW creative program areas have experienced changes recently and will continue to do so in the future,” Sethi said in the letter.
Sethi added that he maintains “an open door policy for faculty and students to schedule meetings” with him and he will hold a town hall meeting at the start of the academic year.
Sethi said earlier this year that Corcoran programs will officially merge with the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences next summer. The nine remaining Corcoran faculty members will merge with GW’s existing arts faculty, including the theatre and dance programs.
A sense of uncertainty
When the Corcoran merged with GW in 2014, some students, faculty and staff members said they felt uneasy about the future of the Corcoran, prompting an advocacy group to attempt to block the deal. Members of the Corcoran community said that kind of uncertainty has remained through throughout the transition.
Andy Grundberg, a Corcoran faculty member who lost his job last month after about 20 years at the school, said he wanted to take the one-year severance payment because he was approaching retirement and that he could “hopefully save someone else’s job in the process.”
He added that other faculty were “miserable” because they weren’t of retirement age and had put their “heart and soul” into the institution.
“I guess the feeling now is that everyone has kind of accepted that this was going to happen, but we didn’t know how deep of a cut it would be,” Grundberg said. “That took us by surprise.”
A current Corcoran faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the situation, said although officials said faculty layoffs were coming, faculty were surprised by the magnitude.
“It was always a roller-coaster the Corcoran was on financially,” the faculty member said. “We’ve seen these administrations come and go for years.”
When GW acquired the Corcoran, the deal required the University to help pay for renovations for the Corcoran’s 17th Street building. Up to that point, Corcoran officials had tried selling buildings, making small renovations and hiring new faculty to increase revenue.
The faculty member said it was not surprising that students wrote angry messages on social media about the layoffs because faculty and students have always been committed to the institution.
“Our faculty got pegged as a tough faculty,” the faculty member said. “We stood up for what we believed in, and we had an incredible commitment to our students. I’d like to be optimistic, but it’s going to be a tough adjustment for everybody.”
A ‘raw deal’
Casey Smith, who taught at the Corcoran from 1997 until he was laid off last month, said he feels the students who are left in the school are getting a “raw deal.”
“I’m thinking mostly about my students who are left,” Smith said. “Especially the rising juniors and the rising seniors because they didn’t sign up for what they’re getting at all. So it’ll be tough for them and I think it’ll be tough for the school moving forward.”
Smith said he has no resentment toward Corcoran administrators or Sethi, but he thinks GW officials could have handled the situation better.
“The people they kept are fabulous, they’re wonderful and the GW faculty in the arts are really good people. So I’m really hoping for the best for their future, but I’m also glad that I’m not part of it,” he said.
When GW initially absorbed the Corcoran in 2014, officials laid off 150 part-time faculty and staff. All full-time faculty were then given one-year contracts.
Johab Silva, an arts education master’s student, said students were worried when the merger began, because they felt disrespected and cut off from the decisions. He said losing faculty only adds to the frustration because now many students, including himself, feel like they are not getting the educations they pay for.
“The situation at the Corcoran is really bad,” Silva said. “We don’t have the faculty anymore. We have no idea who is going to be teaching our classes.”
A call for transparency
Silva said more transparency about the decisions officials make would help students feel better future about changes.
“For the last two years we needed dates when things would happen, or at least the month when things would change, and we just don’t know when things will change,” he said. “We just feel like we don’t have a ground to stand on.”
In the past, Sethi declined to disclose how many Corcoran faculty would lose their jobs in these layoffs, which programs would lose the most faculty or when students would know which professors are teaching their courses for the fall semester. He declined to say what factors were considered in deciding whether or not to keep a faculty member on staff and who was involved in determining which faculty to keep.
At the time of the initial merger, some students were frustrated by a lack of answers from GW on questions like whether or not Corcoran students would be required to live on campus and what renovations they would make to the building. When the merger was delayed, uncertainty only grew, with students worried about cost increases.
Camila Rondon, who graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree in art studies and was the president of the Corcoran Student Association her junior year, said the layoffs are hard on students, because faculty are the “core” of Corcoran.
“The students have been very good about coming together and just really telling Sethi the reason why the faculty are so important,” Rondon said. “And even though the faculty might not be as sad or angry as we are, they’re very much relieved to now know the news instead of waiting.”
Rondon added that she is worried for current students because it will be hard to continue the Corcoran legacy without officials being open and communicating their decisions to students.
“There needs to be transparency, and transparency is something that the Corcoran has never had.” Rondon said. “And that’s one thing that needs to happen in order for the Corcoran to continue forward with the transition in a positive way and also to keep its own identity inside GW.”