an oral history of the firing of Prof. Gene Stavis & the School of Visual Arts

Professor Eugene Stavis had taught at the School of Visual Arts for thirty years when, one morning, he was told it was over and asked to sign a nondisclosure document. What followed was less a battle than an impressive display of silence from the school in response to his attempts at communication and trying to obtain a reason.

Aside from SVA, Professor Stavis has taught at City University, John Jay College, LaGuardia College, New School and Fordham. He also boasts a massive film collection, worth more than four years of tuition and board at SVA, where every film student took Film History from Prof. Stavis. In 2008, SVA opened the Visual Arts Theater on 23rd Street, masterminded by theater Director Stavis.

As a former student, I was interested in Professor Stavis’ plight, and sat down with him outside of his apartment building on the East River in Manhattan to discuss the event. He was, customarily, amusing and perceptive.

……….

HANDOUT: I don’t know your history, exactly, with the school.

STAVIS: I’ve been with the school since 1981. And I have always been teaching. I was introduced to the place by Bill Everson (legendary film collector and teacher), who taught there from the beginning of the school. He went to NYU, he recommended me to succeed him and I was hired.

HANDOUT: Many people know about SVA, that it is an art school in Manhattan. What is the school’s history?

STAVIS: Something many people don’t know about the school is that it is a for-profit school. It is what they call a proprietary college, like the University of Phoenix or Devry Institute. It’s not a not-for-profit. There are very few of them who have any sort of academic standing. SVA is sort of the top of the list. They’ve been accredited by the Middle Schools Association for I guess about thirty-five years. And it is a privately held corporation. It is owned by one family. They are entirely supported by tuitions and related income. You can’t get tax deduction for donating to them. They pay sales tax on everything that they buy, it’s a regular for-profit corporation. That’s something that is not completely well known.

HANDOUT: Who started the school in the first place?

STAVIS: Silas Rhodes, and Burne Hogarth, the guy who drew Tarzan, they started it. Then Silas pushed him out. And so Silas became the sole owner. There is an old quote from Hogarth about, ‘I hope I live long enough to see Silas dead and buried, and I’ll piss on his grave.’

Silas Rhodes, by the way, though he sounds like a Colonial patrician was a near-genius  Jewish guy from the Bronx. He had four sons: one of whom died, one who became a veterinarian,  and the other two work at the school. There is David, who is the President. And Andy, who is the Vice President. They have a Board of Directors who are appointed by them and serve at their pleasure and the Board has no effective power. The only people that they have to answer to in any way is the Middle States Association every ten years for some evaluation of the accreditation.

So that’s basically what the school is, and I’ve been there for thirty years. I was okay while I was faculty, because they tend to leave faculty members alone. There are kind of two levels of faculty-members: those people who have been there since the place began, who are generally famous, prestigious in their fields; and then people who are fairly transient who practice in their fields and teach as adjuncts to their day jobs.

HANDOUT: Is there a community aspect to the school?

STAVIS: I would say no. Everyone there is subject to being fired. There are only year-to-year contracts, there’s no such thing as a union,  so they pretty much do what they want. There’s no pension plan for anybody. They did up until a few years ago have a 401k that they contributed to, but they’ve stopped that, using the economic downturn as an excuse, even though the school is making as much money as it ever did. These kinds of proprietary schools are doing very well now. And because of the secrecy and aversion to internal communication, no effective community can exist.

HANDOUT: So why did they get rid of you?

STAVIS: That is, of course, unknowable, as they refused (as is their right, by the way) to give any reason either verbally or in writing. About a dozen years ago I began to urge them to acquire a theater. And I worked on that pretty much by myself for about four years. We previously tried to get the Gramercy Theater at one point, but that didn’t work out. And then I found, personally, this theater [the SVA Theater] which was a commercial movie theater, and they started negotiating. Negotiations which, typically, were done with no input from anyone at the school, outside of the ruling group of lawyers.

You have to understand that the school does not believe in any kind of communication internally. They really don’t believe in communication outside, either. And so everything is extremely compartmentalized, nobody talks to anybody else, nobody is allowed to compare notes, all authority is vested in the president and he doesn’t feel it’s necessary to communicate with anybody at all. The Faculty doesn’t really care about that, but the people on the ground in the  administration are at a great disadvantage. Well I think it’s an advantage as far as the owners are concerned.

From an administrative standpoint, it makes every administrator at best a Yes Man, or at worst, a henchman. And there is no middle management, everyone is either an employee or the owner. It’s not good for education because nobody talks to anybody else and this invariably trickles down to the student body. And they don’t appear to have any rational long-term plan; they seem to run the place by the seat of their pants. Of course there is endless lip service to academic freedom, progressive politics and communication, but those things exist only as rhetoric.

More disturbingly, there is no depth in management – if the owners were absent or disabled, there are no alternatives waiting in the wings to take over. It is a very tenuous position for an important educational institution to find itself in.

HANDOUT: What happened at the theater after the conclusion of the lease negotiations?

STAVIS: After several years of negotiations with absolutely no consultation with anyone at the school who might know something about theater operations, we were informed that a least had been arranged. No one offered us a chance to even read the lease. So we were saddled with a number of things that were unfortunate. We weren’t allowed to have a commercial theater. (A for-profit college not allowed to make a profit.) The lease also prohibited us from having a film premiere, or even to run a film festival. An in addition to teaching I, starting about three years ago, began to run the theater. I helped design it, equip it, establish the policies and hire the staff.

From the very beginning I tried to get [SVA President] David [Rhodes] to say what he expected from the theater, what he thought it ought to be. The plain fact is he didn’t know, so he was silent. Which I think is a technique that his father developed, and which he is now using as his own. Which is to give no direction to anybody, but then make arbitrary decisions based on, as far as I can tell, whim. No input accepted. He doesn’t want any input. I sought, from the beginning, to create something that would get the school more publicity and more visibility than anything in its history.

HANDOUT: How do you know that?

STAVIS: The school is rarely mentioned in the press for any reason. Mainly it’s mentioned because of obituaries of people who taught there. The school has a public relations department which is a joke, because they don’t do any public relations. They don’t talk to outside people, they don’t generate stories. …They have kind of half-heartedly continue the school’s well-known subway posters, which Silas started. Did you know the school has a gallery? It’s an extraordinarily expensive and elaborate gallery but nobody knows about it. So the only publicity the theater got was stuff that I generated.

And the theater returned about $800,000 in the first year. That was of course less than the cost of the theater, but David didn’t really do anything to explain what he wanted the theater to do so it was hard to know …. And it was only the first year, so presumably it would become more known and produce more money.

I was originally reporting to a Provost, the first Provost the school had ever had, and he left a couple of years ago and they never replaced him. It was the closest thing they had to middle-management there. …It started as a mom-and-pop operation, but it has outgrown that. It’s got 4,000 students, it has got a one-hundred-million-dollar-a-year budget, and it’s not the kind of outfit that can be run by one guy. He’s seriously overworked. He doesn’t have anyone to report to. Nor does he want any. It’s a philosophy which helped establish the school and it’s a philosophy which is now hurting the school, because it doesn’t take advantage of all the talented, gifted people who are the teachers, students and lovers of the arts who would naturally gravitate to a place that had some vision of creativity or innovation. The waste, redundancy and missed opportunities have become the hallmark of the school. The film department never talks to artists, never talks to photography students. Even now we have redundant courses.

I mean, my God, the school is a training ground for most advertisers and public relations people in the country. I mean most of the great advertising people went to the school, and they don’t do any advertising! I mean, it’s nuts. And I don’t understand it. So I was getting zero feedback from David and then he decided to, after this Provost left, to have me report to an Auditor. A guy who was kind of a Uriah Heep type of guy, who was only interested in bottom line issues. And I couldn’t make a dent in David to say, ‘This isn’t the sort of advise you ought to be taking. It requires a more expansive view. Because it should be a cultural institution. It should not simply be another room in the school.’ Which is how he prefers to treat it. He’ll lock it up when it’s not being used, and if someone wants it, he’ll open it up and have no overhead. Just like everything else in the place. And I kept saying that this is not a good way to run this. If you want to make money, you’ve got to treat it like a business. So it’s got to advertise, it’s got to promote itself.

So, without warning, on the twenty-first of May 2010, this Auditor comes into my office with the Director of Human Resources, whom I had barely met. I came to the school long before there was a Human Resources department. And they hand me a letter saying, ‘You’re through as of today. You can continue to teach if you like – no reason given – but you have to sign a secret agreement which you can never refer to, which says you will never criticize or denigrate the school.’

I was flabbergasted. They gave me no reason that anything was going on. And I said to myself, ‘I ought to talk to an attorney,’ which I did. And I discovered that NY State has no protection for people who aren’t in unions or government workers. You are an employee at will, no one has to give you a reason, no one has to give you notice, no one has to give you severance, you’re just finished. Which I didn’t think was an appropriate way to treat an employee of thirty years. Particularly one who got the highest evaluation of any teacher there, on Rate My Professor, by the students. And they used me, they used my likeness to promote the theater in the first place. And they named a smaller theater in another building after me. With a bronze plaque, yet! So something was weird here.

So I thought about it. I’m 67. I’m on social security. And rather than sign something so insulting – I mean, they’re just assuming I would denigrate and criticize the school unless I were prohibited from doing so. And that to me was insulting. My loyalty has always been to my students, not the school. And it seems to me that they were ill-serving the students. …And my own personal take is that I was not enough of a Yes Man.

I didn’t operate the place like it was supposed to be empty. I was interested in making it good. Famous and as high quality as it could be. So I said “I’m not gonna sign this. You don’t want to give me any severance, that’s fine with me. And I’ll teach but I want to teach in the theater.” They said I could not teach in the theater. So I said that I’m not coming back to teach. I’m on social security so I’m not desperate. ….I mean how many years do I have left here anyway?…. I just don’t get it. They know I’m good. People who use the theater and wanted to use the theater said it was the best place in town. I can’t think of any other reason except he didn’t want someone else to get part of the credit for something the school was doing.

HANDOUT: Do you know David?

STAVIS: David is very private guy, he doesn’t communicate with anybody really. I’ve known him for 30 years. My particular impression is that he’s the son of the guy who started it but he’s not college president material. He’s not a particularly forward thinking educator. And I don’t know if he’s even ever done anything except run the school. So I have no idea. I always found him personally pleasant until the last year when I started to make waves. I was always reminded of the old business saying, ‘He who sees the problem, is the problem.’ And I think that’s what happened to me. If I’d stayed teaching I would have been fine. I could work there forever. But the minute I joined the administration I became completely expendable.

HANDOUT: Making waves means things like….

STAVIS: Like promoting the theater. It’s not that I was making bad decisions, it’s that I was making decisions. Or trying to make decisions. And that didn’t sit very comfortably. So I said to myself, ‘I’m not gonna reduce the quality of my teaching to my students, sign insulting and rights-defying secret agreements in exchange for a few more years of teaching.’ Now to this day I have never heard a word from David or the school or anybody representing the school even acknowledging the fact that I refused to sign it and wouldn’t come back and teach.

Most importantly to me, it’s counter-productive to my students. It’s against the whole notion of what education ought to be. Students who are there ought to be able to understand what the philosophy of the school is. And what actions they’re taking to impede it or advance it. But since they don’t ever say anything beyond boiler plate, ‘We want the finest in education and so on,’ and since no one can encourage … in fact everyone is discouraged from talking to teach other…

HANDOUT: Do you mean the school does not have academic policies?

STAVIS: Academic policies are pretty well spelled out. They couldn’t get Middle States’ reputation without that. It’s a philosophical matter. Where does the school want to be in 5 years? If the school gets many more students how are they going to cope with that? What is the long term goal of the school? It seems to me that the school has to have that kind of long term philosophy in order to know the steps that go towards building that. And if they make decisions as they made the decision about me, seemingly at the spur of the moment, it doesn’t speak well for the eventual survival of the school.

HANDOUT: Do you think the students care about these things?

STAVIS: They don’t care as a principle, but they care about that in the way that the school is implemented. There are rules and regulations at the school which are impenetrable. And they are discouraged from taking courses in other departments. And a lot of them want to, because in the real world the arts are melded together. And while they [the school] give some kind of lip service to it, they do absolutely nothing at all to encourage it. Now my suspicion is that that was an excellent way to build a school 30 years ago. But it’s a very bad way to prepare a school for the future. I think that they are stuck in the philosophy which was implemented to consolidate their power and to prevent any internal dissention. But now that the school has become bigger than any one of the people, it is creating dissension, because everyone is dissatisfied with the decisions. The decisions are made by the administration, they are never discussed with anybody. There is no discussion. You know, it’s an absolute monarchy.

HANDOUT: What was Silas like?

STAVIS: Silas was a visionary in many ways. He was a monster in many ways, too. Particularly monstrous as a parent. Because the way I was treated and the way he treated his kids …. He gave them enough rope, but never enough authority… Most of the …. Sort of allowing people to …. I said to him once, “Don’t you think it would be nice to encourage [your son].” He said, “I don’t do encouragement.” I said, “Oh, why?” He said, “My father treated me like shit. And I don’t do encouragement.”

HANDOUT: But even Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, answer to somebody.

STAVIS: Goldman Sachs is a public corporation. This is not. Goldman Sachs is responsible to shareholders. And they have fiduciary responsibilities as well. The school is a mom-and-pop store. I mean they don’t have to answer to anybody. …Alumni give no money to the school, the Alumni Association is deplorable. …They have an effective placement service. …. The thing that struck me was that the divisions of the administration that are supposed to service the school – public relations, culinary, fiscal plans, security services, all that kind of stuff – don’t. The kind of personalities that this kind of structure attracts are Yes Men. So no one makes waves. And what they do is they build these cocoons of bureaucracy around them so that it’s extraordinarily difficult to get them to say anything but No. And they see that as an advantage, because saying Yes means ‘That’s a good idea.” It’s encouragement.

The attitude  of everyone in the administration is so locked into kind of looking at David to see if David approves that they’d much rather go through a complex process that would cost ten times as much so that they had a paper-trail they could show him. …He has an extraordinarily inefficient administration, which wastes a great deal of money. And they lose out on synergy. I said to him once, “You need someone who can look at this school and say what’s good for the school as a whole, and how can every element of the school contribute to that?” Rather than having every element of the school be at kind of war with each other, protecting their interests and not daring to do anything lest they be head-chopped.

HANDOUT: Why do you think the school acts this way?

STAVIS: That calls for rank speculation since everything is played out in secrecy. Maybe there’s something in the makeup of the school that would not bear examination. And maybe their theory is: ‘Keep a low profile, nobody investigates too much and nobody cares.’ And maybe there’s some skeleton in the closet. I’m not suggesting that there is… I don’t think they’d like it to be known that they’re a for-profit college. Most people who hear that do a double-take. They say “Oh really?” They just assumed it was a not-for-profit. But the more it gets known, the more people who will know that …. Total speculation, but maybe that’s what it is.

HANDOUT: Do you think it’s wrong for the school of be profitable?

STAVIS: I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a corporation to make money. … I think that, at least from the outside, the way they operate there is not consistent with producing the best education results or of producing the most profits. Even a for-profit educational institution requires creative leadership and some input beyond the executive suite. Making the school more open, less authoritarian seems to me the best way to ensure both quality education and high profits.

……….

Anat Vovnoboy, another former student of Stavis’, recently completed a short film about the Professor, called ‘Reel Life.’ Stavis jubilantly called it a ‘living obituary.’

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