Observations on the San Francisco Art Institute:

 A Letter to the Community


November 2, 2009

Dear Film Community,


First, I suppose a brief introduction may be of some interest.  My name is Jeremy Menzies and I am a filmmaker and part-time film curator living in San Francisco.  I recently graduated from the Art Institute and have been privy to what has transpired there in the past four years.  In the past year, I was very involved with other students, gathering documents from the school and the faculty and staff unions in order to better understand and disseminate fact-based information to other students, alumni, and the larger community.  I write this ÔletterÕ to further spread this information and to highlight my and othersÕ concerns for the future of SFAIÕs historic film program in particular.  I wish to illustrate a bit of history on the school and department, a brief survey of what has happened, and some reasons why these events are significant for the larger community of artists and filmmakers.


As many of you may already know, the Art InstituteÕs film department is one of the oldest and most prestigious programs in the US.  This program, established by Sidney Peterson in the 1940s, has played an integral role in the history and development of a style of moving image art making that has come under various monikers; ÔExperimental,Õ ÔAvant- Garde,Õ ÔIndependent,Õ or ÔPersonal CinemaÕ (to name just a few).  Today, these defining words may have more breadth and less depth than they did when they were fresh off the tongues of artists, writers, makers, and viewers, but their visual styles, exploratory spirit, and incredible innovation have an unmistakable presence in our contemporary moving image environment.  Being one of the oldest private art schools in the United States (1871), the Art Institute as a whole played a critical role in many movements in art practice in the past century plus.   This history and the fact that the schoolÕs educational model was built primarily on studio art practice and, later, critical and intellectual investigation of those studio practices are key to why it has been such an important cultural and artistic institution.  Not to mention its important role in the local Bay Area arts community and the film departmentÕs integral role in West Coast experimental filmmaking.


In January of 2009, the top four administrators, in consultation with the chairman of the board of trustees, decided that SFAI was on the brink of closing (defined as financial exigency[i]).  As a result of this decision, in February, they chose to lay off nearly 25% of the tenured faculty members (9 of 37), as a Ôlast resortÕ to solve the short-term exigency problem and ensure the future operation of the school.[ii]  In addition to these layoffs, they cut salary and benefits for all staff members and raised tuition and fees for all Fall 2009 students.  While this may seem somewhat normal, given the purportedly dire situation, the fact of the matter is that the layoffs were completely unnecessary and in blatant violation of the agreement between the faculty and the administration.  Briefly, IÕll try to sum up why this is and what it means.


According to the collective bargaining agreement (cba), a number of steps have to be followed, in specific order, before any tenured faculty member is laid off, even when a state of financial exigency has been reached.[iii]  These steps include placing a hiring freeze across the board on staff and faculty, implementing voluntary salary and/or benefits reductions, laying off visiting faculty before tenured, and laying off more recently hired tenured faculty before senior members (unless doing so would cause an irresolvable distortion of the curriculum).  What has happened in actuality is that no hiring freeze was placed (at least 12 brand new visiting faculty were hired for the fall semester), no visiting faculty were laid off, and laid off faculty taught courses critical to various degree programs for a range of 10-31 years.  These steps are just a few of the most critical outlined in the legally binding agreement and all of them have been violated.


In addition to the illegality of the layoffs (cba is a legally binding contract), the school was not and is not near closing (a frequent result of financial exigency).  As of the declaration in January, the school did have a short-term operating deficit and did suffer a reduction in the endowment (which is used as collateral for taking out short-term operational loans) as a result of the global economic collapse.  However, the short-term deficit is a normal situation at SFAI, which operates almost completely on student tuition dollars and the drop in the endowment did not mean a complete freeze on borrowing privileges or a complete reduction in borrowing capacity.  Additionally, in December of 2008, the entire staff and faculty were forced into a month-long, unpaid furlough (in violation of contract) to make up for the budgetary difficulties.  Aside from the fact that the school was not on the brink of closing at the time of the layoff decisions, the administration projected, and later collected an $800,000 to $1mil budget surplus, which came due in July 2009, before the layoffs were to have any effect on the schoolÕs budget (August 2009).[iv]


So, how does this affect the film department in particular?  Well, first of all, the departmentÕs tenured faculty (only two) was cut in half, removing the professor who taught integral courses like, Film 1 (SFAIÕs most basic film course), Undergraduate and Graduate Tutorials (student-directed intensive studio seminars), and the schoolÕs only hand processing workshop (intensive two-week course on hand processing and experimentation in the darkroom).  Secondly, this is just the latest in a string of decisions that have undermined the departmentÕs stability, curricular integrity, and historic focus on alternative methods in filmmaking.


In fall of 2006, the administration hired a new department chair without informing any of the faculty or the chair at the time.  This new hire was made even though the administration and film faculty had not come to an agreement on whom to hire for the position.  Essentially, the president, undergraduate dean (at the time) and associate dean decided who would be best for the job, not the faculty in the department.  Following this move, the active chair decided to leave mid-year, having been completely disrespected and disregarded in the functioning of the department.  From 2005-2009, various visiting faculty who had consistent popularity among students and who taught film courses like those of the past (motion graphics, expanded cinema, hand-processing to name a few) were never invited back to teach.  Despite department-wide protests and petitioning, the administration refused to re-hire the professors.  Turmoil is never a good environment in which to study, especially in a small program where students and professors work very closely on student projects.


Shortly after announcing the layoffs, the administration and board of trustees announced the launching of a new ÔSchool of DesignÕ to be opened in fall of 2010.  IÕm no financial expert, nor am I an educator but somehow this equation just doesnÕt compute.  One month, the school is about to close, forcing the layoffs and two months later, there is enough money to start work on an entirely new school of design?  To my mind, that would require hiring new professors, acquiring new equipment, potentially hiring new staff and spending money on promotion and preparation for the additional students and course offerings.  Either there is a bit of misleading or inaccurate information or the administration has just decided to really risk the schoolÕs solvency by spending at a time of severe financial hardship.  Neither of these options seem like a good way to operate any organization.  In addition to the fiscally irresponsible nature of the decision, the school was announced publicly without the approval of the faculty senate.  At SFAI, the faculty senate (made up of tenured faculty) is the governing body for all curricular changes and developments.  The curriculum is supposed to be generated and approved by the individual members and the whole group.  This did not happen in the case of the school of design plan.  Instead it was drafted and then approved by four administrators and only three of the 37 faculty, after which it was handed over to the board as a completed document and announced to the public.  As of the last faculty senate meeting I attended in April, the majority of the group had not even known whether or not the haphazard draft was in any kind of finalized state, nor was it presented formally to the group.


Sure, thereÕs nothing wrong with creating new programs at the school, itÕs good for a school to do new things and create new courses.  WhatÕs wrong and deeply disturbing is that these decisions and plans for the future of the school are all being made by a handful of people and many of them are being made illegally.  Additionally, the school has already started new degree programs in the past four years that are still struggling with very low enrollment. 


Some thoughts on the motives behind making these changes:


Lowering operating costs to increase profit margins, for one.  With fewer tenured faculty (who cost more due to salary and benefits requirements), more visiting or Ôat willÕ faculty can be hired.  At will faculty have semester to semester contracts that can be terminated at any point for any reason, and they do not receive the medical and retirement benefits that tenured faculty do.  Spending less on teachers allows for more to be spent on administration.


Hiring a majority of visiting faculty and reducing the number of tenured positions would allow for more control over curriculum as well.  This would give the administration the ability to manipulate the curriculum in any way and to change the direction of the schoolÕs overall curricular model.  Tenured faculty members are part of the faculty senate, which is supposed to be the governing body for curriculum development and direction (not just the deans).  With fewer tenured faculty, there are fewer people to make decisions about what classes are offered, what programs are made up of, and what new directions the curriculum is going in.  With fewer members in the senate, the administration has more control over what types of courses are offered and who is hired to teach them.  Already, the senate has lost a quarter of its members, and they are being forced into decisions made by the administration under threat of dismissal and further reductions in compensation (already well below other Bay Area schools) .[v]


A third piece in the puzzle of the motives behind these decisions could be that the administration is gaining the ability to Ôfire at willÕ any member of the faculty or staff, thus having more control over what teachers teach and how staff run the schoolÕs day to day.  Having a constant threat of being laid off, especially when layoffs are carried out against contract, causes a great deal of fear for the remaining faculty members and for staff, who have virtually no protection.  Staff union numbers have been drastically reduced in the past three years (something like 17 in 2005 to 7 in 2009), due to efforts by administrators.  The more fear of retaliation, the less likely individuals are to oppose decisions, speak out against unjust actions, and take an active role in promoting what benefits the students, faculty and staff.  Especially when jobs are as scarce as they are today.


The long and the short of it all is that the schoolÕs administration wants an SFAI that is cheap to run but has a high intake of revenues (possible through raised tuition and lowered operating costs), where faculty and staff can be eliminated at the drop of a hat because they have no union representation (or the unions are run into bankruptcy from fighting in court, which is happening now), and where the entire operations of the school, from the day to day to the curriculum are controlled by a small body of executives (who are also the highest paid employees, naturally).  Additionally, it appears as though the administration wants the school to become more marketable, providing programs similar to many other art schools in the US, hopefully drawing more students and thus more tuition dollars.  What suffers here are the quality of education that has defined this school since its inception and the unique nature of SFAIÕs educational model.  Who suffers here are the students, faculty, and staff who have dedicated their time and effort to building a community of artists to collaborate and learn from each other.  The school is what it is and has played the role itÕs played in art history because of its small, unique programs and the fact that there are no other schools like it.  ItÕs a weird and kind of messed up, but excellent, place to study art.  ItÕs not a place to go and get a degree in graphic design, get placed in a corporate position upon graduation and enter the machine of production art.  ItÕs a place to make your own way, struggle through your practice, and come out a strong, thinking, doing artist, with a community of artists to support you.  Maybe it doesnÕt work that way for everyone and maybe it doesnÕt pay for itself with a good job afterwards, but just take a look at the history and then argue that itÕs not a spectacular school that deserves to preserve what it has built.  Ransacking the faculty and staff and short changing the students are only going to destroy the schoolÕs reputation and push new students away from attending.


While I wish I could fully illustrate the points made in this essay (and illustrate those omitted), it would require much more space and time than is available here.  I have provided some further explanation in the form of endnotes, gleaned from various official documents I collected over the past year.  For further information, please feel free to view the website created to announce updates and chronicle the events of late: sfaistudentaction.com or by contacting me directly at: 50 Golden Gate Avenue Apartment 504 SF, CA 94102.  Also available on that website is a link to the petition created in response to the layoffs, which as of May, 2009 received over 1100 signatures from artists, filmmakers, curators, educators, and other concerned parties from around the globe.  The fight to reinstate the laid off faculty is long from over and some positive developments have happened recently.  The faculty union is taking legal action (arbitration) to correct the wrongs that have been done and with the support of the community, they will be able to win the long an arduous battle.


Thank you,



November 2009


[i] Financial exigency is the critical and urgent need for the Institute to reorder its expenditures in such a way as to retain solvency, as defined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

[ii] As quoted in President Chris BrattonÕs February 17 letter: ÒTherefore, and following the formal statement of financial exigency by the Institute's Board of Trustees on February 6th, it is with deep regret that I am writing to inform you that pursuant to Article XXV, sections 4-8, of the Faculty Union Collective Bargaining Agreement that the Institute is proceeding with a number of faculty lay-offs as a means to achieve a portion of necessary reductions.


This letter serves as the mandatory six (6) month notice of layoff for the following faculty:Ó

Charles Boone (13 years at SFAI), Stephanie Ellis (11 years),

Stacy Garfinkle (10 years), Pat Klein (25 years)

Robert Johnson (29 years), John Lang (16 years),

Janis Lipzin (31 years), Suzanne Olmsted (17 years),

John Rapko (12 years)

[iii] The contract states: Section 8. Layoff Procedures during Financial Exigency

1. If the Board of Trustees determines that a financial emergency exists, the President of the Institute will meet with the Faculty Senate to explain the financial exigency.

2. Prior to layoffs, the Institute will make every effort to reassign affected Resident Faculty members to other teaching positions within the Institute.

3. In the event of layoffs due to financial exigency, six (6) months notice shall be provided to the affected employee. If during the six (6) month period the employee finds alternative employment, then the balance of notice time remaining will convert to severance pay at the employee's current rate of pay.

The following guidelines for layoff due to financial exigency will be observed in the following order.

1. A freeze will be placed on the hiring of any new faculty.

2. Voluntary programs will be implemented, such as voluntary reduced salary and/or workloads, voluntary phased retirement or the placement of affected resident faculty into suitable and available non-teaching positions within the Institute. Voluntary reductions may include continuation of full benefits as determined by the Dean of Academic


3. Visiting faculty will be laid off unless their departure would represent a serious and unresolvable distortion of the academic curriculum.

4. Resident Faculty will be considered for layoff on the basis of lower seniority (i.e., the most recently hired) unless such consideration represents a serious and unresolvable distortion of the academic curriculum. A "serious and unresolvable distortion of the academic curriculum" is understood to mean any class required for a major, classes

required for graduation, part of a required sequence of courses.

Any member of the Resident Faculty who has been laid off will have first priority for rehiring on the basis of seniority and appropriate qualifications for two years after the date of the layoff.

[iv] Board minutes from November 2008, Espi Sanjana (CFO) Òsaid most areas continue to operate under budget but we are still $300,000 over budget.  We have had a loss of 20% in our endowments and this figure is likely to increase to 30%.Ó

February 2009, ÒEspi Sanjana confirmed that our bank debt, which was at $5 million at the end of August 2008, will be only $2.4 million at the end of August 2009.  John Sanger noted that we need more income to offset the lower income from a smaller board of trustees.Ó

From January 2009: ÒEspi Sanjana passed out the budget ending November 2008 and said results through November are running well against budget.  Most departments are under budget.  A discussion began that included budget cuts and front-end costs for departments.Ó

From March 2009, Espi Sanjana reports that SFAI will see an 800,000 to 1million dollar surplus in July of 2009 due to budget cuts.

[v] From SFAIÕs salary figures as compared to local schools:

1. The average SFAI tenured faculty currently earns  $49,626.

2. This income level qualifies the average SFAI artist/teacher for a housing subsidy in the city of San Francisco.

3. Here are some current average faculty salaries for other Bay Area College teachers:

San Francisco City College

$52,494  - $81,046 at entry for probationary tenure-track

San Francisco State University


University of San Francisco


De Anza College


SF Conservatory of Music


Santa Rosa Jr. College


U.C. Berkeley


San Jose City College


San Jose Sate University


Contra Costa College


Diablo Valley College


College of Marin


4. In 2004, the last year for which we have figures for CCA, the average of all faculty salaries at CCA was $58,129.50.

5. In 2004, the average faculty salary at SFAI was $48,640.

6. In 5 years, the average faculty salary at SFAI has increased less than $1000 total –about 2%.  For comparison, the cost of living increased 14% in those 5 years.