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MassArt Embroiled in Controversy over Resignation of Filmmaker Saul Levine

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—The Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston is facing backlash over the resignation of longtime professor Saul LevineThe experimental filmmaker claims that he was forced into early retirement after he was “ambushed” by school administrators at a February 8 meeting and accused of “harming students” by showing his 1989 film Notes After Long Silence to his senior thesis class.

The work—a montage of footage from events such as the Vietnam War, people such as Gerald Ford and B. B. King, and abstract images—features him and his partner naked and having sex.

“The people in that room all agreed that I had committed sexual harassment by showing my class this film,” Levine said in a nearly thirty-minute Facebook Live video, posted on Thursday, March 29. In the recording, Levine announces he is stepping down from his position as a professor in the school’s Film/Video department and discusses grievances ranging from the school’s handling of anonymous complaints made against him to a genetic medical condition that at times hinders his ability to communicate. In the emotional post, Levine claims that school officials “berated him about the safety of students” and attacked him for being an artist.

The seventy-four-year-old educator also claimed that there has been a rise in “policing” curricula and “an attack on academic freedom on the agency of the students.” These allegations have led to a public outcry—the school has since been harshly criticized by various media outlets and by many of Levine’s former students.

In response, MassArt’s president David P. Nelson issued a statement on April 3 addressing the coverage of the controversy as well as the social-media backlash. Citing employees’ rights to privacy, he did not offer further details on the meeting between Levine and the school officials, but he assured the college community that “No faculty member has had their academic freedom abridged in a disciplinary action and no faculty member has been forced to retire over matters of academic freedom.”

He added, “We protect the right of our employees and students to work and learn in an environment free of harassment and hostility. With freedom comes responsibility. We share a mutual responsibility to respect the dignity of every person and to engage with one another in a collegial manner. When respect and collegiality are stifled, both freedom and creativity suffer.”

Since artforum.com covered the story, several faculty members have reached out about Levine and his framing of the circumstances around his departure.

Steve Locke, a professor in the art education department, told Lauren Cavalli of artforum.com that the issue is not about academic freedom and that Levine is not being pushed out of his job for showing a film. To prove that this isn’t the case, he screened Notes After Long Silence during his April 6 lecture on Eroticism and Contemporary Art and wrote an email to Nelson; Soon Mi-Yoo, the chair of the Film/Video department; and two other professors, an excerpt of which read: “The college does not deserve to be accused of repression and censorship. I wanted to provide you with evidence that these things are not happening at MassArt, and that Professor Levine is using these claims to hurt his colleagues and the school. It has to stop.”

Madeleine Gallagher, a producer for the City of Santa Monica and a former MassArt visiting professor who taught alongside Levine from 2005 to 2008, wrote on Facebook that “the material he shows is not the problem. The problem is the classroom dynamics he sets up.” She added that she received multiple complaints about Levine during her tenure at the school and often defended him, but began to realize that he was creating “a hostile educational environment” by pitting students against each other.

Kim Keown, a studio manager in the film area of MassArt who joined the institution twenty-four years ago, told Cavalli that the issue is about student safety. “Professors have power dynamics with students and that needs to be respected so that lines are not crossed.”

Keown also described Levine’s behavior towards colleagues at MassArt as overly aggressive, and claims that he has bullied her by raising his voice, pointing his finger in her face, and shutting her down when she has tried to express her opinion. “I’ve confronted him, but he’s never changed his behavior,” she said.

On April 11, artforum.com was provided with a joint statement signed by Keown; Soon-Mi Yoo; professors Ericka Beckman and Gretchen Skogerson; and studio manager Joe Briganti. The document states that Levine “has bullied his colleagues and created an abusive working environment over many years” and has also “derailed and destroyed important discussions about urgent departmental and curricular issues.” It also urges Levine to “stop his lies about recent events at MassArt and his cyber-bullying against his colleagues.”

The cyber-bullying the statement is referring to is from Levine’s Facebook posts—he has made several more live videos in addition to the one that sparked the uproar over academic freedom. In the posts, Levine yells and curses at his colleagues, including Soon-Mi Yoo; Lyssa Palu-ay, the school’s interim provost, who was also present in the meeting with Levine; and Nelson. In the subsequent videos—which Levine has since claimed are performance pieces—he alleges that he is being attacked over how much money he makes, claims that colleagues have carried out a campaign to get him to retire, alleges he was bullied and harassed by the school, and maintains that the issue is about censorship.

The situation has also escalated in unexpected ways. Last week, an unknown person distributed pamphlets around Harvard University’s campus containing hate speech directed at those who have contested Levine’s version of the events. A source, who is connected to MassArt but wishes to remain anonymous, provided artforum.com with the document. The source also said, “Saul has been lashing out at the students and the larger community through toxic rants and has not taken the students’ responses seriously.” The source added, “In this day and age, it is all too easy to accept and promote that an itinerant artist is up against an uncaring institution. In this case, the institution is MassArt, whose faculty and staff are courageously upholding the institution’s mission and by doing so are placed in the line of fire.”

Levine’s posts on Facebook have also sparked an outpouring of support from friends, former colleagues, and fans, some of which have called the situation “devastating” and MassArt’s lack of support for Levine “intolerable.”

“People love him,” Gallagher said. “He is a mascot for avant-garde film. But, you can love someone and care for someone and still be made uncomfortable by what they do.” Levine is expected to leave MassArt at the end of the semester.

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April 13, 2018