News & Politics

UPDATES: Multiple Faculty Layoffs Reported at Corcoran School, Mel Chin Hired as Visiting Professor

Photograph via Flickr user SBC9.

Ten professors at the Corcoran School of Art and Design at George Washington University have been laid off, a GW spokesperson confirms to Washingtonian. The cuts reportedly include a number of full-time instructors in the photography program, according to students and remaining members of the art school’s faculty.

Several current and former students have shared reactions to word of the layoffs.

Candace Smith, GW’s assistant vice president for media relations, tells Washingtonian by email that of the 19 full-time Corcoran professors whose contracts expire May 30, only nine will be returning for the 2016-17 academic years. But there have been rumblings about a faculty shakeup since early spring, when it was reported in April that GW had not offered new contracts to any Corcoran professors, which usually happened months earlier. And in February, Sanjit Sethi, the Corcoran School’s director, said that arts programs at GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences—the university’s main undergraduate school—would be merged with the Corcoran’s programs by the beginning of the 2017 fiscal year.

Sethi did not respond to Washingtonian‘s questions about the layoffs, but if they are as widespread as rumored, they mark another bumpy chapter in GW’s absorption of the Corcoran School.

The Corcoran Gallery and its adjoining art college were disbanded in 2014 after their parent institution was effectively broke and unable to maintain its landmark 1897 Beaux Arts building, which needed $130 million worth of repairs. In a three-way agreement that opponents tried to stop in court, the National Gallery of Art took possession of the gallery’s collection, while the school and the building became part of GW.

George Washington University dismissed about 150 staff and adjunct faculty immediately after the merger, while remaining professors were placed on one-year contracts. The Corcoran School’s first semester as part of GW was also unpleasant for some of its students, who said at the time the university did not inform them of certain campus fees and administrative changes.

UPDATE, 4:41 PM: In a memo distributed to faculty and students, Sethi writes that all faculty-contract decisions have been made, confirming that some professors have been axed, though he does not identify whom or from which departments the cuts were made.

“The review process was undertaken with a great deal of care, and I considered several factors,” Sethi writes, “including the school’s current and projected enrollment, our operating budget, the merging of the Corcoran’s programs with those current arts programs at GW, as well as feedback from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.”

Sethi adds that the instructors whose contracts were not renewed will all receive one year’s severance, and may be asked to return as emeritus professors on a visiting basis.

But the letter also reveals some additions to the Corcoran School. The visual artist Mel Chin will join the school as its first visiting professor of public engagement, a posting in which he will teach classes and “execute a project that engages the DC community.”

Here’s Sethi’s memo in full:

Dear Corcoran Students,

As the academic year closes and you embark on your summer, I wanted to take a moment to share with you a few updates:

Visiting professor: I’m excited to announce that artist Mel Chin will join the Corcoran this fall as the inaugural William Wilson Corcoran Visiting Professor of Community Engagement. Mel brings more than 40 years of experience as an artist whose work provokes greater social awareness and responsibility.

Throughout his prolific career Mel has shown in solo exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Menil Collection in Houston. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, and his work has been documented in PBS’ Art of the 21st Century.

Mel Chin is a passionate creative practitioner who is dedicated to addressing some of the most pressing issues of our times, and I believe he will be an invaluable resource to you during his time here. While at the Corcoran, Mel will teach classes and collaborate with students and faculty to design and execute a project that engages the D.C. community.

Renovations: As you know the Flagg Building is closed this summer, starting Monday, May 16, in order to address critical issues on every floor of the building. These much-needed updates will help improve the Corcoran’s classrooms, exhibition space and infrastructure, including an expansion of the lighting studio, redesigned painting studios and upgrades to our ceramics workspaces. You can read more about the building updates as well as plans for expanded academic programming here.

Faculty: I know many of you have expressed concern about the status of faculty contracts, and I wanted to let you know that all decisions have been made and all full-time faculty have been notified of their contract status. Those faculty whose contracts were not renewed are receiving a one-year severance package from the Corcoran School, are being recommended for emeritus status with the university, and may return to teach specific courses in the future. The review process was undertaken with a great deal of care, and I considered several factors, including the school’s current and projected enrollment, our operating budget, the merging of the Corcoran’s programs with those current arts programs at GW, as well as feedback from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

We are in the process of updating registration for the fall, and should you have any academic-related questions, please do not hesitate to contact me, or Lisa Lipinski, Assistant Director for     Academic Affairs. Lisa, as well as Amanda Kleinman and the rest of our advising team and returning faculty, are excited to welcome you back for the fall and will do whatever we can to ensure you receive any assistance you may need.

Scholarships: I want to emphasize that I am committed to your educational experience and ensuring that you receive the mentorship that you need to purse your creative endeavors. Along those lines, I’m excited to share that the Corcoran Women’s Committee announced that it will fund an Endowed Graduate Excellence Fellowship to provide support up to three graduate students a year as they complete their studies in Corcoran masters degree programs. The fund will not only allow students to complete their advanced studies, but it will also recognize those who have demonstrated academic excellence and a commitment to their communities.

In the short time I have been director, I have been impressed with the students, faculty and staff of the Corcoran and look forward to seeing what we can build together in the months and years ahead. We will welcome a robust Class of 2020 this fall with a series of social events, which I hope you will participate in. Please stay tuned for more details. I look forward to seeing you all in August.

All the best,

Sanjit Sethi

Director, Corcoran School of the Arts and Design

The George Washington University

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.