Higher education — and particularly the humanities, and very particularly the field of Art History — are in a state of unprecedented crisis in the United States. Art History departments and programs are closing, majors are being eliminated, and faculty, including tenured, full-time faculty, are being laid off. Though this trend predates the COVID-19 pandemic, the pace of layoffs and program eliminations has accelerated substantially in the past year. University administrations, citing financial duress if not official exigency, have exploited the economic stresses of the pandemic to do what they had planned to do beforehand: close programs, lay off faculty, and chip away at tenure. This is happening nationwide.
The purpose of this letter is to bring the crisis level of this situation into sharper focus and to advocate for the creation of an organized public outcry. We need CAA, as the flagship organization for art historians and the only organization with the power to shape the landscape, to publicize this large-scale attack on our academic field. We need CAA to step up and make noise for our field, our faculty, and our students.
We realize that CAA as an organization is aware of these trends, and has responded in the past. The “Guidelines for Addressing Proposed Substantive Changes to an Art, Art History or Design Unit or Program at Colleges and Universities” were established in 2018 to help faculty, staff, and institutional leadership communicate throughout the process of closure or reduction. We urge CAA to go further now, especially because we understand that in many current cases, leadership has not complied with CAA’s “Action Steps for Institutions.” These recommended steps include:
- Provide a written explanation of how the proposed change is consistent with the educational purposes of the institution, including pedagogical focus, curricular programs, educational philosophy, and research mission.
- Fully engage, and receive approval from, the faculty governance body at the institution.
- Wait a period of two years after the completion of all steps outlined above before implementing the proposed change to allow for student and faculty transition.
- Offer existing faculty and staff employment at other areas of the institution; commensurate with their skills and training.
These standards are being violated, and we call on CAA to hold our institutions accountable.
We know anecdotally of layoffs and departmental closures just in the past fourteen months at John Carroll University (Cleveland, OH), Kean University (Union, NJ), the College of Saint Rose (Albany, NY), and William Paterson University (Wayne, NJ). But we also know that many, many more layoffs, furloughs, downsizings, program cuts, and dissolutions are going unnoticed, especially at smaller institutions and those without the prestige of a PhD program. There is no centralized data collection about this, and no organized way for affected faculty to share information about programs and positions at risk. As Rebecca Futo Kennedy (whose advocacy in Classics inspires us) recently wrote about the closure of Classics programs in the US, “often no one learns of these closures or threats until they are too far along to stop.”
To a much greater degree than either individuals or smaller organizations, CAA is in a position to learn about these threats, gather and publicize data, and take action to support faculty and programs at risk. While we understand that CAA cannot change the policies or challenge the decisions of institutions that eliminate Art History programs, departments, or faculty, we believe that CAA can and should respond to this urgency in a number of ways.
We propose that CAA:
- Create a database of Art History programs and their status. This resource should be available publicly (that is, not behind a membership paywall) and should include data from a deep study of the closures, mergers, loss of tenure lines, elimination of majors/minors/programs, and faculty reductions going back at least to the 2008 financial crisis (to provide economic context for some of the closures). This project should include a confidential means for faculty to report and discuss imposed changes and threats to programs.
- Compile a toolkit of proactive measures for faculty/programs under threat, including scripts, talking points, advocacy links, and contact info for specially-tasked CAA board or committee members. We call on the newly formed Services to Historians of Visual Arts Committee, who are already working up other mentoring resources, to develop real help for Art History departments/faculty in the face of future assaults. One venue for this could be online workshops, archived and made freely available for department meetings, faculty development, and memberships of smaller organizations.
- Establish “mutual aid” partnerships with the Modern Language Association, Society for Classical Studies, American Philosophical Association, American Historical Association, and other humanities and arts professional societies to coordinate a broader response. Consider developing a system of reciprocal sanctions, with real teeth: if an institution tries to close an Art History department, the other associations will join in defending that department, just as CAA will help defend Classics and Foreign Language departments. Similarly, investigate how the studio arts, graphic design, and museum-based constituencies represented by CAA can be tapped as partners.
- Promote partnerships with state-level advocacy organizations. Research public arts and humanities organizations by state, and publish an annotated online directory for departments at state institutions seeking support or collaboration.
- Support faculty and staff unionization efforts. Program closures like those mentioned in this letter have been on the horizon for decades, often resisted only by unionized faculty and graduate students. We ask CAA to follow, support, and amplify local grassroots organizing efforts. As Maggie Williams puts it, “Our solidarity and collective power [are] the only tools that [can] really bring about systemic change.”
As the “preeminent international leadership organization in the visual arts,” CAA promises “support, collaboration, and advocacy” for visual arts professionals. We believe the current threats to programs fall within the scope of the “Issues” in the organization’s Advocacy Policy. And so The Material Collective calls for CAA to act — to form a task force, to collect data on Art History programs, to create publicly available resources, and to advocate vigorously for individual members and programs under threat.
We look to you for the leadership our field needs.
The Material Collective