By Gauri Mangala & Benjamin Pontz
Student artists have removed nine of their works from the Juried Student Exhibition in Schmucker Art Gallery to protest what they say is the Art & Art History department’s failure to “recognize the voices of marginalized identities.”
According to a letter sent to The Gettysburgian by Angelique Acevedo ’19 and Lars Healy ’20 on behalf of the protesting student artists, studio art courses at Gettysburg College are plagued by bias.
“Multiple black and brown student artists have experienced discomfort within classroom settings as a product of present racial biases, and have voiced such experiences,” the letter said. “These students, as well as others, have also identified artistic pressures to render within a particular artistic style.”
The students said the drastic action was necessitated by the ineffectiveness of previous efforts to raise concerns with members of the faculty and college administration through the “sanctioned routes for complaints.” One such concern pertains to a lack of student input in hiring of tenure-track professors in the department and the existing lack of diversity among the department’s faculty.
“12 of 15 faculty listed in the department are white, and 5 of 6 full-time professors are white. In the past 4 years, 3 hires have been made- all white men. We have no studio professors of color. What does this say about our commitment to diversity as a department?”- Student artists’ letter on protest
The letter goes on to argue that the lack of diversity in the department is also reflected in the eurocentric curriculum in both the Art and Art History departments.
Vice Provost and Dean of Arts & Humanities Jack Ryan says attention will be paid this concern.
Later in the letter, the students propose having the chance to offer formal feedback on candidate presentations that hiring committees would review and to have students on hiring committees.
“Choices are being made about our future education by a team of 3 professors and the department chair, but these are not the people who have or will be taught by the professors they hire,” the letter said. “If we as students cannot trust our faculty to make hiring decisions with our interests in mind, then we ask to be the ones instead making the decisions.”
The letter requests student inclusion on hiring committees for faculty members.
Ryan said, “On this campus, we don’t have a culture of including students on faculty hiring committees, but perhaps it’s something we should explore.”
Most recently, the department hired current Visiting Assistant Professor Austin Stiegemeier, who is white, to a tenure-track assistant professor role teaching painting and drawing. That role was vacated last year by Amer Kobaslija, who resigned shortly after getting tenure.
Professor of Art & Art History Mark Warwick chaired the search that hired Stiegemeier. He did not respond to a request for comment about how the search was conducted and whether he thought there was sufficient opportunity for student input.
Ryan said that student input should be solicited systematically when conducting faculty searches and that, in most departments, it is.
“Involving students in faculty searches is a healthy thing to do,” he said. “It is common on this campus.”
He acknowledged that he views many of the concerns the students raised regarding how the recent search was conducted as well as about a need to better diversify the curriculum as valid.
“We’re working with the students and faculty to address them with expedience,” Ryan said.
On Monday afternoon, students met with the Art & Art History department faculty and to discuss the situation and what needs to be done moving forward.
“We sincerely expressed our disappointment in how our complaints were handled and proposed concrete actions to address racial and hiring process concerns in the art department,” Healy stated. “We’re following up right now and working with professors and department admins to address these.”
Art & Art History Department Chair Felicia Else said that she and her colleagues were “all incredibly dismayed to hear how systematically silenced some of our students have felt.”
“It was not our intent and we will be working with them and others to rebuild their trust and make the department a more inclusive environment,” Else said. “While specific actions will need to be addressed in the coming weeks and months and in consultation with other members of the campus community, we have heard the students [sic] requests and will move forward with them at the forefront of our minds.”
Healy agreed that changes are important moving forward.
“We’re trying to be proactive and look at this whole situation in terms of what we can do to address problems happening and learn from mistakes being made and create failsafes so they don’t happen again,” he said. “Students and faculty were both proposing ideas like a committee that would meet regularly with the art department head to converse and that could be a venue for complaints, communication, [and] transparency. We’re going to work together and pilot a program to involve students in hiring committees directly. There were also ideas to revamp the current art/art history curriculums to include less eurocentric material [and the] creation of some sort of paperwork or e-form to formalize and record student feedback. I think we’re overall at sort of this beautiful but daunting state of momentum and ideas and we just need to continue riding that momentum to see the creation of these groups and forms and policies to fruition.”