Songs for the Struggling Artist

In which we lose an old growth forest, hope and Marley’s ghost

The Board of Trustees of my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, just made a decision last week to dismantle its study abroad program in Florence. Alumni of the program (of which I am one) banded together, and over the weeks leading to the decision, wrote letters, set up a fundraising campaign and made every effort to save it. To no avail.

The plans are to fire the staff of the program in Florence (many of whom have worked there for decades,) let the lease expire on the Florence campus, set up a partnership with another college to keep it going in name only, or, failing that, to dismantle it altogether.

And a lot of us (over 600 members in the Facebook group) are FURIOUS (and heartbroken, distressed and baffled.)

Why? Why should we care about a program that some us haven’t been to in over 20 years?

And why should you care? You, who probably didn’t study with us in Florence or probably even at Sarah Lawrence?

I wasn’t sure why I cared about it at first, or why I thought you might – but the more I think about it, the more I see this decision as an example of a disturbing trend in our culture. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times before.  BAM dismantled its Shakespeare program, for which I’d taught for 14 years. Universities are relying on adjunct faculty for 70% of the teaching, without providing a living wage for its scholars. Over and over again, successful, rigorous educational programs, like big old growth trees with venerable root systems are chopped down and replaced with cheaper, younger forests created for quick profits. And this is happening in the arts, journalism and education.

I’ve previously written about my own confusion about what college is for. To train for a job? To make money? To transcend class? To learn? To grow a soul? I settled firmly on the “build a self” and “Grow a soul” side – even though, for me, that has meant a lifetime of poverty. And I stand by it. I was proud as hell to have gone to an institution that helps create more interesting, well-rounded people that want to make the world a better place. My fellow alumni are articulate, passionate and socially minded. We love learning things. At reunion this year, I failed to find out what most of my former classmates were up to because we were too busy talking about ideas, our teachers and things we learned in college. The ideal Sarah Lawrence experience deepens the intellect, expands one’s empathy and horizons and gives one tools for social change. I’m not trying to be an ad for Sarah Lawrence (SLC) here. Far from it – because this decision about Florence tells me that the Sarah Lawrence I knew is dead. The new SLC has nothing to do with who many of us alumni feel ourselves to be.

I keep thinking about William Deresiewicz’s article about what college should be for. (It showed up in my last post, as well.) And SLC can really do that self building stuff sometimes. Or it could. (On a good day, when it isn’t cutting out pieces of its soul like it’s doing right now.) And the program in Florence could REALLY do it. Here’s how:

1) While there may be a glut of American programs in Florence, (yes, there are a ton) the SLC program was particularly good at encouraging intellectual rigor and building on our natural curiosity, as so many of the letters written to the President of the college recounted. While other programs were the Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour version of studying abroad, our program was an embedded, immersive experience. While we experienced Italy, other programs were Epcot Italy. I went there looking for A Room With a View experience and came back with a whole new world of Machiavelli, Goldoni, Dante, Boccaccio, Calvino, Levi, Giacometti, Cherubini, Vivaldi, Caravaggio, Vasari and Giotto.

2) Self building doesn’t just happen in a classroom. So much of my learning happened off campus in Florence – in museums, streets, in the countryside. We traveled with support and context and I began to understand both the country I was in and how I might become a citizen of the world. Guided by compassionate, intelligent people, we learned how to feel at home in a foreign land. My experience there made me braver and stronger. I got my spine there.


If the program sucked, that would be one thing. I’ve seen any number of administrators who ought to be fired and programs that had no educational value whatsoever that I would not bemoan the loss of. But by all accounts (so many of them!) this program in Florence did an exemplary job of all the things we hope college will do for us. It was the highlight of most of our college careers.

I’ve worked in a great many schools, programs and colleges and it is exceptionally rare to find a program that is this beloved and respected. You will be hard pressed to find an administration so well regarded elsewhere. So to see this program that is highly successful, that does the job of building selves, that provides such important soul work to its students, be summarily dismissed because there are cheaper options available? It makes me want to throw things. Hard things. That break.

I mean – there are any number of cheaper options for going to college. Why not just dismantle SLC altogether? I mean, all it’s doing is a good job educating the people who choose to go there – it’s just too expensive. And there are so many other options for college. I mean, just in the tri-state area alone! So what if many of the faculty have been there for decades? So what that a lot of us loved the place? It just doesn’t make sense to spend money on education, apparently.

That’s what this decision says to me. It tells me that the values of an institution once known for its values have changed. It would seem that the college is more interested in the bottom line than in the extraordinary education of a small group of students. Which is all the college is.

SLC in Florence is SLC in micro. It starts here – with a diminishment and dumbing down of something valuable and where does it go from here? Will SLC eventually cut the entire humanities curriculum like colleges in Japan are considering? Are the arts no longer worth it? They’re expensive. Artist alumni don’t give back as much as hedge fund managers could. Old growth forests can’t make you cheap paper like a pulp forest can.

Is this where we’re headed? Is this where all culture is headed?

Good god. I hope not. Because I am running out of things I can throw.

Finally, I think a good education also features morals and social justice. We learn, from other people but also from books, from art, from teachers, how we ought to treat one another. Whether or not we do it is another question. But in college, we hopefully learn what we think the right thing to do is for the culture and for ourselves. We shape our sense of social responsibility.
That’s why the firing of an administrator (as well as her staff) who has given 29 years of her life to the betterment of this particular program,  (and thereby increased institutional reputation internationally) feels so fundamentally out of line with everything I thought my alma mater was about. We don’t behave that way, do we? We take care of people. We treat the guardians of our education, our intellect, our lives, with respect. We don’t toss them out on their ears when the lease on the classroom gets expensive. That’s Scrooge shit, right there. And we all learned that lesson way back in the Victorian age. Or has our world transformed so much that this cheap paper version is the new norm? In the gig economy, maybe everything and everyone is disposable.

And it’s not just SLC behaving like Scrooge here. All over the world, beloved institutions that have always done good work disappear because they don’t meet someone’s line item on the bottom line. We lose libraries, theatres, museums, schools – all of which do the good work of helping us deal with the mysteries of life and become better humans – not just humans who will fit appropriately into machines.

Is this who we want to become? Excellent sheep as Deresiewicz suggests? I’d like to believe not. I’d like to believe that there is still a place in the world for small groups of people learning, building themselves, experiencing edifying art and cultural touchstones and just becoming better people. Is that too corny for the current moment?
Are we all Scrooges now? And are we in a world with no Marley to come knock on our doors and remind us of who we dreamed we could be?

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.”


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4 Comments so far
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It seems that you, my dear, are playing the role of “Marley” here. The sad truth is, Sarah Lawrence is having to find ways to tighten the belt. I worked in Admissions last year, and while we were still pulling in quality kids, is seems SLC is having to fight harder and harder to attract and keep those students best suited for SLC. And yes, it does come down to numbers most of the time. When one of the Ivies or Howard or Columbia or one of the UC’s can offer a near-full ride compared to our average aid package of $38000 versus our sticker price of $64-68,000, you can see what I mean.

One of the problems is, I’m not certain people who did not attend SLC or teach there know how to grapple with this unique beast. It starts from the top down. That, and grassroots efforts to make $1, $5, and $10 donations feel just as relevant as $1,000. That’s how we save Sarah Lawrence. It needs a repositioning. That, and a President who upholds these ideals who will head up the college until they are unable to do so any longer (as opposed the average tenure of 10-12 years). I say this, because every time the Presidency changes, the direction of the college and the core ideals it focuses on shifts as well. I don’t know if other institutions are influenced as heavily as we are by the personality of their Fearless Leader, but at our little enclave, the attitude of the Prez permeates the personality of the school. When I was in undergrad there, Michelle Toll Myers was Prez. She was not perfect, but the woman was diplomatic, and she listened to the qualms of the students. And, she addressed them. I did not know it at the time, but 2003-2007 was a period of academic boom for SLC. Also, tuition was averaging $48,000. So there’s that.

I never attended the Florence program. I went to a program entitled, “Histories and Cultures of the African Diaspora.” I had to do so through the School of International Training, because Sarah Lawrence offered no programs in West Africa, a fact I found ridiculous considering the ancestral link for most African Americans to this region of the continent. For me, it felt unfair that overall, the majority of SLC’s curricula was very Eurocentric (there was no dedicated Ethnic Studies program or classes, however there were dedicated departments to the Classics, European Lit and Criticism, etc.) resulting in feelings of being othered in my own educational home. Additionally, there were a few racially charged incidents on-campus. This was my First Year. My friends and I did a walk-in on a Trustee meeting, a sit-in in Westlands, and wrote up Lists of Demands. Pockets of the small group of undergraduate students of color (numbering about 40-50 total) were so frustrated with the possibility of another four years of not learning about themselves and their respective cultures and their contributions to society, they threatened a mass exodus. The administration listened. The Teach-In on Race an Diversity happened. A permanent position, Chief Diversity Officer, was created to address issues of diversity and race. Natalie Gross was chosen to fill that position and has managed her post with limited resources, often operating as a staff of one. A “department” of Ethnic Studies was established. It was loosely guaranteed that classes across all disciplines that represent a diverse range of ethnic groups outside of the European norm, would be offered. When I returned as an employee in 2014, imagine my surprise to discover that there are often semesters where classes are not offered with any type of ethnic diversity in major concentrations, like Literature. President Myers left in 2008. Also, the Recession hit.

So what can be done? Basically, we need more money. And a steady trickle of it. I think Sarah Lawrence falters in its fundraising in that it doesn’t take a two-prong approach. I think we worry so much about not appearing broke and wanting to maintain an image of prestige (= bourgeois), that we miss out on reaching our younger, more passionate-but-less-financially-viable-but-incredibly-creatively-promising-and-communally-dedicated artist/activists/professionals. Our message of grassroots, community, and the fact that many micro actions add up to something huge, seems to have gotten tossed aside in favor of keeping up with the Joneses. We need to stop trying to be what they are, and be who we are. I could expose more on what and how we could do that, but I’ll just go back to working on this MFA so I can write a few books, launch my clothing line, bespoke hip adornment accessory line, and build my brand. If she can stay afloat, I’ll write Sadie Lou a fat check in about five more years.

Comment by jwalkerswordsmithery

Yes, yes! “Stop trying be what they are and be who we are.” Exactly. And thanks so much for this thoughtful response on my post here. I was mulling over how to respond and then just mulled myself into several months later. But so appreciate your perspective on this. That backsliding in ethnic diversity is a huge problem! I thought that would have been obvious. But – – – there’s a general backsliding here or sideways sliding. . .or just sliding on a downward trajectory to Nowheresville.

Comment by erainbowd

I love thinking of ideas + places + educational systems as old growth forests. SO GOOD

Comment by Katrina Goldsaito

Thank you! It’s a metaphor that just sprouted up, as it were. . .and seemed so right.

Comment by erainbowd

I'd love to hear from you. Gentleness and kindness encouraged and appreciated.

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