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August 17, 2020

SFAI Roils Staff with Decision to Resume Classes This Fall

San Francisco Art Institute’s North Beach campus. Courtesy of SFAI.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—The San Francisco Art Institute’s decision to offer classes this fall has left the troubled school’s faculty and staff feeling uncertain, Artnews reports.

SFAI, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious art schools, announced in March that it would be forced to lay off staff and close its doors to new students following commencement this past May, owing to mounting debt compounded by the coronavirus crisis. A month later, following an outpouring of support, the institute said it would remain open, suspending degree programs, pursuing partnerships, and functioning in a “leaner, more focused manner,” per board chair Pam Rorke Levy.

In late July SFAI pulled a one-eighty, announcing that it would resume degree-granting classes this fall for students already enrolled at the institute who are within a year of graduating. The announcement came amid allegations that the board has severely managed the school’s finances, and in the immediate wake of Boston Private Bank’s move to foreclose on the school’s main property, as reported by Mission Local.

Factors rendering the turnaround problematic include a sparse graduating class, as many students pursued transfers on the school’s announcement that it would close; the likelihood that classes will have to be held online, given California’s sustained surge in Covid-19 cases; and a faculty with little reason to retain faith in their employer.

Suggestions have abounded that the decision to resume degree-granting classes was at least partly financial, as the school is contractually obligated to pay tenured faculty through the end of the year, and would traditionally fund those costs through tuition.

Elizabeth Travelslight, head of the school’s adjunct professors union, acknowledged that the path ahead will not be smooth. “[T]he issues at SFAI that need ‘repair’ are deep, systemic, and expensive. Leadership’s handling of the escalating crisis did tremendous damage to our community.”

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