Article Image
Lila Neiswanger / Senior staff photographer

When the University moved the Columbia Arts Initiative under the auspices of the School of the Arts, students crafted opposition.

On Sunday, the integration of the Columbia University Arts Initiative into the School of the Arts—one of Columbia's graduate schools—went into effect. On a structural level, this means that the AI, headed by Director Gregory Mosher, will report to SoA Dean Carol Becker. This replaces Mosher's direct line to University President Lee Bollinger, in whose office the Initiative was housed. Tangibly, the specific ramifications of the integration remain unclear. Officials say they will be resolved in continuing conversations and that the transition will have minimal visible effects. "This has been in the air for a while," Mosher said in an interview. "I owe the president a life. If he asks me to make a change, I will certainly do everything I can to make it work." Proponents of the shift couch it as administrative thrift unimportant to the student-oriented aspects of the AI. "It won't mean anything for the initiatives that the Arts Initiative does, the services which directly affect the undergraduates," Becker said. "It's just an administrative restructuring of who it reports to, and where it's housed, conceptually. It's a shift of administrative reporting lines." University President Lee Bollinger affirmed his rationale in an interview. "There's no change in the Arts Initiative," he said of the office that was officially directly under his purview. "Since I never had a lot of time to spend on it, Provost Alan Brinkley did a lot of oversight." The change in reporting lines comes now, he said, because "we've had a transition in the provost position" as Claude Steele began his tenure in that post. "Both Claude and I can't give it the time it needs, and Carol [Becker] is great and special." But between the news that the integration would indeed occur and Bollinger's clarification, concerns built up around the issue. A breakdown in communication, it seems, between administrators and the students they serve led to assumptions among all parties, some which officials derided for lacking a factual basis. Upon request from Spectator, a University spokesperson released a statement announcing the AI's "integration" with "a dynamic School of the Arts." The statement called it merely an administrative move "that further strengthen[s] the centrality of the arts." Students fretted that the issue would not have become public otherwise. These students and alumni worried that sequestering a University-wide program known for its success among undergraduates might prevent the AI from moving forward. They formed the Advocates of the Arts Initiative, a group that is protesting what they call the "clandestine and un-inclusive" nature of the integration, which occurred quietly over fall break. Aries Dela Cruz, GS '09, gathered Columbians invested in the arts to form the group, "to engage the administration so students can be included in decisions that affect arts programming," he said. He added, "What we are simply asking is for him [Bollinger] to bring these [University-wide] interests into alignment with the actual practices on the ground, and for us this means a meaningful effort on the part of the administration to include representatives of communities that might be affected by major decisions." In response to concerns about the quiet decision, Becker said that this did not seem important enough to blast students with what she saw as simply administrative change. "I don't think anybody thought it was changing what was going to happen for students in any substantial way," she said. "Administrative restructurings happen all the time in institutions. Students are probably not even aware that things that used to report to the provost are no longer reporting to the provost." Likewise, Bollinger said, "nobody should be concerned. They should not be concerned about a change in content or substance." Arts Initiative history The AI, established by Bollinger in 2004, encompasses student and alumni programs that provide access to arts in the city. The Initiative also works to increase the visibility of arts on campus, by doing things like hosting high-profile figures such as Vaclav Havel. "I set this up because I wanted a University-wide focus on the arts at Columbia," Bollinger said. "In some ways, we're only beginning." When the damage of the recession materialized last year, the AI was told to anticipate a 10- to 15-percent cut from its entire budget, a casualty of its status as a unit within the president's office. As a result, the Initiative planned to scale back a few staple programs and tweak existing ones to save money. Still, the Ticket and Information Center sold its one hundred-thousandth ticket last semester, and the alumni program saw a significant increase in participation. And this fall, the staff launched ArtsLink, a program that connects classrooms with arts resources throughout the city. Defining integration At this point, the term integration simply signifies an administrative move. Aside from general assurances that the change will do as little harm as possible to the Initiative's programming, the actual implications of the move are anybody's best guess. Becker sees the shift as a stabilizer for the AI, and believes that bringing a University-wide program under the roof of a consolidated school is a guarantor of its continuity. "The arts have never been a central player at Columbia," she said. "Everyone wants to see that be stronger. For the Arts Initiative, this will secure its future, and make it part of a much larger entity that, when things get rough, the things on the periphery are eliminated." Bollinger stressed that the finances of both the AI and SoA are completely divorced from the merger. "It has no significance on altering the initiative," he said. "There were no financial reasons." "I told the president that I will try to make this work," Mosher said. "When I talk to the dean I think we'll all have a better sense of what it is." About further cuts, Becker anticipates "a conversation with Gregory [Mosher] and his staff," she said. Located uptown in Prentis Hall, the AI operates with an independent staff. "We don't see any changes in staff now," Becker said. "It could be down the road. We don't see people losing their jobs at all. I have no agenda about that." "The Arts Initiative costs a lot of money to do," she added. "It's a very generous thing that the University does, and it does not necessarily pay for itself," she said. "I don't want to get into the details of that but let's just say that the University was very generous in setting it up, which costs a considerable amount." The fallout Darcy Zacharias, CC '10, who is also president of the Columbia Musical Theatre Society and was a producer of the 115th Annual Varsity Show, is working for AI's Arts Squad for her third semester. Though Bollinger and Becker stressed that there would be few changes on the programming level, Zacharias and others in the Advocates group were left with few answers, and worried that the AI's movement to SoA could limit the AI's scope. Specifically, Zacharias noted the Gatsby Charitable Foundation Student Arts Support Fund, which helps undergraduate artists produce non-academic projects with grants ranging on average from $250 to $1500. "It's not just the money—it's resources as well," she said, noting the marketing and networking help AI staffers give grant recipients. She senses that the Gatsby money's use won't change, but is unclear about the future of its other aspects. She added, "I work at CUArts, and there's been zero information from the School of the Arts about what they intend to do with any of the programs." Though the specifics have not yet been hammered out, Becker reassured students that undergraduate-focused programs would continue. "We surely intend that the School of the Arts will become even more involved in the undergraduate curriculum, and that the relationship will also strengthen the Arts Initiative," Becker said. Still, Advocates wonder how the AI, which caters to all students, can function within a graduate school. "What's been the breadth and scope of their undergraduate student programming?" Dela Cruz, of Advocates of the Arts Initiative, asked. "We feel as though the School of the Arts may not necessarily be the proper home for the Columbia University Arts Initiative. Now it's sort of incarcerated, cast down in the graduate student school that in previous years seems like it hasn't done any sort of undergraduate outreach." This fall, 896 undergraduates registered for SoA classes, but not all are open to them. In response, Becker conceded that SoA "is predominantly the graduate school," but added, "It has had a very strong undergraduate writing program. It hasn't built itself as a strong undergraduate program in the arts. The balance of what we do will grow. I want to see us build a stronger undergraduate program."

school of the arts Arts Initiative