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Protestors take to the streets alleging unethical labor practices at Pacific Northwest College of Art

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Protestors took to the streets on Monday, alleging unethical labor practices at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.Disputes over the future schedules of some Pacific Northwest College of Art faculty members have led to protests at the region's largest art college.

Around 50 students and faculty from the Pacific Northwest College of Art began daily rallies Monday morning to protest changes at the region's biggest art college.

They carried placards and marched around the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design at 511 N.W. Broadway.

A “social engagement group” calling itself People Over Profits at PNCA put out a statement Sunday saying the protest was in response to a labor dispute, and would consist of “ongoing assembly, free speech actions, and artistic interventions to be staged on the North Park Blocks near the PNCA.”

They complained of “unethical labor practices” at PNCA and called for the college to reinstate “numerous recently laid off and underemployed part time faculty.”

Social practice

Interim President Casey Mills told the Portland Tribune that much of the controversy stems from proposed schedules for adjunct faculty members for the Fall term that have yet to be finalized. In at least one case, Mills said, a professor was mistakenly told his position was being eliminated.

"The Pacific Northwest College of Art continues to be the premiere Portland art school. We treasurer our students and facility, and are trying to work with them to resolve their concerns," says Mills.

Some of the complaints by the protesters go far beyond faculty schedules, however. The school moved into its current building — a renovated former U.S. Post Office — from smaller quarters in the Pearl District last year. One faculty member, who asked not to be identified, says the move resulted in a large budget deficit that has prompted a wave of layoffs.

Mills agrees the school's budget is down, but says that is because fewer students enrolled than expected. That prompted a reduction in courses, which is why some faculty members not be returning in the Fall.

"There are fewer classes so we need fewer teachers," says Mills.

Although Mills declined to say how large the deficit is, he says it is manageable and being handled.

What do we want?

Protesters claim that under recently departed college President Tom Manley, and since, the college is moving to a for-profit model, with students being taught by adjunct faculty who are on unstable one-semester contracts.

They also claimed there is poor communication between the administrators and teachers, and that many teachers learned they would not be teaching next school year when they saw their names missing from the schedule. “TBA” (To Be Assigned) is written in many of the spots.

The statement added that the new space, a former post office remodeled by Allied Works Architecture, has “inadequate space, needs mold and lead remediation,” and has “poor or no ventilation in artist studios/workshops.”

Mills denies the allegations about the new building, however. He says there are no mold and lead problems, and that the new space is a vast improvement over the previous one.

"We were running out of room," says Mills.

"Funky, small and casual"

Protesters marched and chanted in the Monday morning sunshine. One acrostic placard read Profit Needs Capitalist Artists.

One eight-year faculty member marching spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations with staff are in a delicate state.

“The fact that I don't want you to use my name should tell you something about the state of affairs at this college. It's one of fright, of intimidation, fear of losing their jobs, because of a few people who have been empowered by the administration who have enacted these grotesque measures in order to hire their own favorites. The place is a mess: $3 million in the hole, a building that is a white elephant, with architecture that doesn't convince anybody there should be a community. The old building was perfect for us, it was funky, small and casual.”

The source added, “We have lost sight of the fact that there are human beings here. What you have now is not students but paying customers. There's not a free exchange of ideas.” He said that students who are paying $50,000 a year are more likely to challenge their professors from a customer service rather than in intellectual point of view.

People Over Profits’ Sunday statement said the move has caused a “substantial budgetary shortfall related to other unforeseen operations costs. The shortfall has since lead to numerous high profile layoffs.”

Students in the MFA Visual Studies class of 2016 signed a petition last fall for reimbursement for studio time they lost during the move, but neither Manley nor Cockerell agreed to their demands.

Pushed off the schedule

One of those layoffs, Ellen Lesperance said she had taken a sabbatical and come back to find her Assistant professor of foundations and thesis job gone next fall. She said the issue is the college getting rid of people because it's both cheaper and because the administrators don't like them. “I've been pushed off the schedule, but they still use my name on their Facebook page and on their website to bring more students to the school.”

She added, “Adjunct Professors at PNCA are artists that students look to as mentors. We are not second­rate teachers. I am a successful artist who loves to teach and am valuable to the future of this school.”

Lesperance said the Dean, Tracey Cockrell, “has given power to Division Chairs, or head of departments, these are teachers who are quasi administrators, who recommend who gets what class and gives that list to the dean so all power is with the dean.”

The school is currently interviewing for a new president.

Recently, PNCA closed the Museum of Contemporary Craft and moved the collection into storage in early 2016. The former craft museum space is on the market.

“They can't be just invested in real estate, they have to be invested in the culture that brings that real estate to life, and that's what an art college and a museum do,” said Namita Gupta-Wiggers. She is an adjunct faculty teacher at PNCA and was the executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Craft until 2014. “The college has disbanded the museum and disregarded its 79-year history, and to send that message to your students, that history doesn't matter, raises a lot of questions about the value you're putting on their education.”

It's not just seeing her old museum colleagues losing their jobs.

“I'm here because I don't like what's going on at the college.” Wiggers dislikes PNCA’s treatment of adjunct teachers, saying they don't have enough job security to do their jobs properly. She added, “The property the museum was in is the only liquid asset the college has,” she said, estimating it could go for $3 million to $5 million.”

"Crafts are important"

Mills denies the museum has been disbanded, however. He says it is being integrated into the new PNCA headquarters.

"Crafts are and will continue to be an important part of the program," says Mills.

Spring classes are currently underway at PNCA and the Fall semester doesn't start until August. The schedule that sparked the protest was posted online, which was the first time that some faculty members saw they were not assigned any courses.

According to Stephen Slappe, Associate Professor in Video and Sound, adjuncts make up about 75 percent of teaching staff. “That's in line with what's going on in a lot of higher education. We are picking up the worst practices instead of trying to develop best practices.”

Lesperance said the college has plenty of applicants for adjunct teaching jobs. “Everyone wants a teaching job in Portland.”

Emotions were running high. Another faculty member, who also wished to remain anonymous, accused a member of the board of being a “union buster” with a history of breaking up schools. The source suggested that the real target, with the development of the large post office next door which is owned by the city, that the 511 building might be redeployed for something more commercial.

With additional reporting by Jim Redden.

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