An Open Letter to ArtCenter College of Design

Caroline Kuehner
10 min readMay 29, 2019

Friday May 24th the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office Chief Diversity Officer Aaron Bruce sent out an email in reaction to a meeting where students, faculty, and administration demanded commitment to action against racism, sexual assault, homelessness, etc. Here I present an analysis of that email and proposal of changes that should be made immediately if the school would like to continue operating as a “diverse” community.

Breaking down the DEI response email

“Housing and Sleep Accommodations
As announced earlier this week, and now with further adjustments, we will be utilizing Room 102 in the 870 building as a dedicated resting room. This accommodation will be offered around the clock until further notice and classes previously scheduled in Room 102 will be relocated. We also continue to provide a nap room at Hillside Campus during midterms and finals. The Nap Room at Hillside Campus is located in Room 276 during weeks 7–8 and 13–14 of the term.

As a more sustainable solution, we have begun to explore temporary housing partnerships and contracts with individuals and local organizations, including neighboring universities. We will share more information as it becomes available.

As part of our long-term strategy to address issues of access and affordability, the College has been working diligently on plans for student housing. It is a lengthy process, approved by the City of Pasadena within the last year. With that approval in place, the College continues to pursue financing options to build student housing on campus. As stated previously, tuition dollars will not be used to construct student housing.”

Room 102 is not being used at all because students feel uncomfortable in that room. It was not supposed to be permanent, it was supposed to be a few day commitment until the school could arrange motel rooms for every homeless student. Room 102 is cramped, over crowded, provides no privacy, light shines through the door, and worst of all, security comes in multiple times a night for check ins. How did this go from an immediate short term solution to a mid term to long term solution? Because the school does not actually care to house homeless students.

Until this “sustainable solution” can be solidified, the school needs to move forward with getting homeless students motel rooms. Now. Students aren’t using room 102, they are still sleeping in their cars, in tents, where ever they can find room. That is not a short term solution and needs to be remedied immediately. The email offered no viable solutions for other financial responsibilities students have including food, material costs, living expenses. The only thing offered was access to the schools food pantry and Sodexo cards to purchase food on campus. Both of these things are already offered by the school and neither of them are anything other than superficial fixes to symptoms, not the roots of the problem.

Long term solutions to housing should not include the school constructing new buildings with no guarantee of affordability or access to students in greatest need. Why waste all that money, build extravagant housing, then charge students exorbitant amounts of rent per semester that pushes more private loans and higher student debt? Instead, those partnerships the school is forging right now to provide immediate housing to homeless students should also be the school finding already constructed buildings to house all students immediately, and subsidize housing with those same “pursuing financial options to build student housing on campus.” Why reinvent the wheel when it has already taken the school 10 years to build dorms when instead they can provide them now?

“Title IX
ArtCenter recently increased funding for Title IX programming and compliance.”

That is not enough. Looking at the information provided (none, the link goes to an error screen on the Inside ArtCenter website), and knowing from recent experience of students filing Title IX complaints, the process is still slow and not given power to actually do anything. Part of where this fails is when Sadara DeVonne moves through the process and attempts to liaise with departments to handle investigations/punishment where it is stopped or stalled. The school needs to mandate that departments allocate some of their discretionary funding toward new positions to support her so that departments have some buy-in to the process and that chairs demonstrate adherence to a zero tolerance policy (or some other demonstrable action to show that THEY are bought into this). As a result, the school will enact a zero tolerance policy for hate speech, and enforce that immediately.

“Faculty Diversity and Cultural Competency
I am partnering with the Provost and Department Chairs to implement strategies on diverse faculty recruitment, retention and professional development, and also to create specialized courses to support learning through diverse cultural perspectives. We will also build on existing professional development programs offered by HR to encompass workshops and retreats for faculty and staff focused specifically on DEI-related issues on college campuses.”

Aaron Bruce should not be handling anything to do with diversity, equity, or inclusion. His understanding of these concepts is disturbingly facile for someone in his position and it is evident from his own language and the programming coming from his office that he is invested solely in projecting and protecting an image of ArtCenter as a haven of diversity, equity, and inclusion when that does not reflect the reality of students who are BIPOC, Latinx, LGBTQIA, womxn, disabled, and more. He has yelled many times at students, talked down to us, told us that student activism hasn’t ever achieved anything thus we shouldn’t even bother, all while attempting to co-opt the student labor that has been responsible for creating inclusive, equitable, and diverse spaces at ArtCenter. Bruce is part of a larger culture at ArtCenter where instead of seeing poverty, homelessness, oppression, and exploitation as parts of a system, instead it is viewed as an individual failing. This comment made at the Tuesday May 21st DEI meeting encapsulates how many students, faculty, and administration view the inaccessibility of higher education, “ArtCenter is a school for rich people, poor people shouldn’t go here, and if they do it’s their fault for making a bad financial decision.”

When it comes to faculty recruitment, the fact that most faculty members do not have a contract means that people who face financial insecurity will not last long teaching at ArtCenter. They will move on. Who are the people most likely to be financially insecure? Women. People of color. Disabled people. Single mothers. Trans women. It is not a surprise that all of the department chairs are white, most are well off white men: they are the ones who can gamble their lives on years of no contracts and no benefits, long enough to make it into these positions of leadership. In order to recruit and retain a more diverse faculty, the school should create more full-time faculty positions and prioritize hiring faculty from underrepresented groups for these positions. This priority needs to be reinforced as a criteria that is considered when evaluating department chairs’ performance, who exercise sweeping control over their department without much oversight from any intra-institutional body with respect to hiring and considerations about diversity. Department chairs should put out open calls, not just hire their friends. By doing this it will not only address diversity and faculty health, it will also be a boon for students. Most faculty members aren’t given training by the school on how to teach. By having professionals in the business who are also professional teachers, students will be given the best education.

ArtCenter faculty, staff (especially security), and administrators need training to understand how racism, sexism, sexual assault, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia influence their roles, their actions, the institution, and the students they’re responsible for educating every day. This training should be conducted by an outside organization with a proven track record in dealing with white-majority institutions that are reticent to acknowledge their rootedness in white supremacy and particularly those with tenuous employee oversight, considering the vast numbers of adjunct/part-time employees who make up ArtCenter’s faculty roster. This training should be mandatory, ongoing, and reinforced by HR evaluations and considered in contract re-negotiations. Employees should be compensated for their time participating in these sessions, as these skills are necessary for each of the roles listed above; any person who steps on campus without this kind of preparation is ill-equipped to perform their duties, especially as educators. Including Aaron Bruce. A class also needs to be designed that every student takes as well so that we all have a base understanding of what racism, sexism, sexual assault, homophobia, and transphobia etc. is and how to respect people who are different from yourself.

What is not addressed at all in this email is curriculum. The school needs to immediately change how it teaches to include art and design from the global community, not just white well off men from Europe. If instructors don’t know of artists globally, then the school should provide resources that help by giving ongoing educational opportunities to faculty. If the whole of faculty are stumped to find artists from diverse backgrounds (race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, income), then the school needs to provide a primer that can be used for every department, every class, and every faculty. Amazing strides made by marginalized artists, designers, inventors, etc. are erased by ArtCenter curriculum. That needs to end immediately and starting this Fall all curriculum should be reflective of the reality we live in: marginalized people also do innovative things.

“Diversity Recruitment and Retention
I am also working closely with Admissions on the next phase of activity regarding diverse student recruitment and retention, and exploration of additional financial aid offerings. The College has fundraised successfully for diversity and need scholarships and will continue to do so, particularly as our senior leadership team, trustees and the community pursue specific plans to address the issues at hand.”

Again, Aaron Bruce should not be handling this task. He is not equipped. First off, the best way to recruit and retain a more diverse student population, the school MUST be SAFE for those students and MUST be AFFORDABLE. Scholarships alone don’t work. That is proven by the lived experiences of current students and alumni. The school estimates that 14% of the $96 million the school spends a year ($13,440,000) goes towards scholarships. Another $3 million goes towards the executive administrators salaries. Not public is top faculty members pay (specifically transportation faculty members) and bonuses for the executive administrators. Instead, these are all lumped into one large chunk and are not transparent to the student body. If the school were to decrease its operating costs by say $30 million by cutting salaries and scholarships, then the total cost per semester for each student (estimated at 2,250 on the ArtCenter website) would be 14,222. Still too high? Dozens of schools have now changed their budget policy to go from high tuitions to larger student bodies- this is called a tuition reset. They lower their tuition by 40%-60% and focus on recruiting students. This has worked for other schools and should be instituted immediately at ArtCenter. Imagine only paying $8,400 a semester. Oh, and students who still can’t afford that? Then fundraising can be done to provide scholarships that include material costs and free housing at ArtCenter dorms.

On the note of private loans- very few people actually have access to them. Many people have bad credit, no co-signers, and have too low of an income to qualify. As tuition grows higher and higher each year, the student loan bubble grows ever closer to bursting. National forecasts show that soon many students will not only be unable to qualify for private loans, but also for federally subsidized loans. The school is facing losing 50% to 75% of all their students, which would bankrupt and close the school. High tuition is not a sustainable model for ArtCenter. Lower tuition does not mean we sacrifice the quality of the school, it will actually make the school the most sought after art college globally. Cutting tuition benefits everyone.

“Economic Response Team
We are forming an Economic Response Team (ERT) to support students who are experiencing unexpected economic challenges.

The ERT will represent the collective energy of staff and faculty from across campus working together to ensure any student who is experiencing food or housing insecurity, or other immediate, unforeseen financial barriers are connected with short-term and long-term aid quickly and without stigmatization.”

If the school implements immediately the above suggested solutions, this team won’t be necessary. All that will be needed is a student to report that they are facing financial hardships to the school, and they should be placed in housing or given an additional scholarship. What is not addressed at all is the fact that international students can not take out loans and need to pay out of pocket. Understanding that this is a federal issue, why is the school not accounting for that in providing lower tuition for these students? By doing this, it limits who internationally can come to our school and puts tremendous strain onto the families and students who have zero access to financial aid that domestic students receive.

Ultimately it shouldn’t be up to the students to provide these solutions, but because the administration is not doing their jobs, we are stepping in. We the students do not have the confidence in any of the current plans made by the school to solve the issues facing students. Students should have control of the budget and school policy. We provide all the income of the school through our tuition. Whatever solution we come up with needs to be committed to by administration and they are the ones who need to do creative thinking to find the funding.
In the introduction of the email sent out by the DEI office, they stated this:

“[W]e wanted to assure our community that we have made significant strides in matters related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and at the same time we realize we have much more to do. Following are a few reminders and updates regarding our continuing focus on DEI.”

We are not assured. We don’t think the school realizes how urgent these matters are, how overdue this pitiful attempt at solutions is, or even are totally aware of HOW much they have left to do. We shouldn’t be given reminders on plans that aren’t working, that we’ve told you are insufficient or problematic in the first place. The updates aren’t good enough. The master plan, Change 2.0, is not good enough, it is actually doing a disservice to students. The budget is not working, it is harming students. According to the school, we have shared governance. But students truly have no power in changing anything, the decision making is not truly inclusive.

ArtCenter has been dragging it’s heels for decades. That is no longer acceptable. Change needs to happen immediately with no excuses or superficial proposals. Justice. Action. Now.