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We Can Do Better for the Arts

I don’t often publicize one of the main reasons I declared as an art major.  When someone–especially a Stanford someone–asks why you chose such an uncommon major, how can you possibly reply: “Well, I do love art, but in all honesty, I declared in large part so I would not get denied entrance to Stanford’s art classes.”  Unfortunately, this reasoning is not unique to my situation; two other recent graduates admitted to me that their primary aim in declaring was to guarantee admission to art classes.

In 2006, Stanford launched the Stanford Arts Initiative, a “university-wide effort to enhance strengths in existing arts programs [and] create new arts facilities and opportunities for students and faculty.”  Stanford has undertaken such admirable and ambitious projects as the construction of the Bing Concert Hall (completed in 2013), and the future development of an arts district with the McMurtry Building for Art and Art History (expected to be completed in 2015), complemented by the new Anderson Collection, which features the work of famed contemporary artists like Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning.

In spite of such impressive and flashy endeavors, Stanford has failed to address numerous issues within the Arts Practice Department, the most prominent of which is the massive over-enrollment of art classes stemming from an insufficient number of full-time faculty.

On the one hand, this is not necessarily a bad problem to have.  The fact that so many students are excited by the arts and interested in creating their own work implies that perhaps the humanities at Stanford do have a promising future; perhaps a liberal arts education has not yet been sacrificed to the start-up gods of Silicon Valley.

And yet, I fail to see the point of encouraging curiosity in the arts if Stanford then turns away the majority of students attempting to enroll in art courses.  In one drawing course during my sophomore year, 70 students showed up for a class that could handle a maximum of 15 students.  Other courses last year showed rejections ranging from 47 to 10 students, with many classes often rejecting half of the students who sought to enroll.

This overflow problem can be traced to a basic lack of full-time professors. There are currently 7 full-time visual arts faculty members, all of whom teach full course loads.  In 2003, there were 9 faculty members, but over the next decade the number of teachers dropped as low as 6.

One art professor shared that the Art Department faculty and staff feel strongly the stress and frustration of denying so many students access to the classes, but there is no way to accommodate more students without more teachers.

The Art Department has been forced to adopt a policy of seniority when choosing which students will be permitted to enroll.  While an understandable tact, I have to think that there may have been potential art majors and minors among the freshmen and sophomores turned away.  With only ten current majors and nine minors among all four classes, this is a huge loss. Furthermore, many non-majors miss the opportunity to develop or continue their passions in art.  A potential avenue worth exploring (which, like any viable solution, requires more professors) would be the introduction of more two-unit art classes geared toward the average student.

This problem seems to have bled over into other artistic majors at Stanford, specifically Architectural Design and Music.  Annie Fryman ‘14 explained, “Architectural Design is an “arts” program that gets engineering money and resources but still has trouble finding money for professors and classes.”

The Introduction to Architecture class, although an introductory seminar, is a prerequisite for much of the Architecture core.  This class usually sees 200+% enrollment.  Annie summed up the issue, “It’s basically a gateway to the department, so we have found it kind of frustrating that the number of majors we have has been limited to how many quarters of that class we have had the resources to teach.”

The Music department also experiences similar stemming from an inappropriate allocation of resources to flashier projects.  According to the Music students I have spoken with, classroom sizes are generally not adequate for the type of music being taught.  Sometimes the room is small and cramped, resulting in a room crammed with pianos to the point of poor acoustics.

Other times, the rooms are too big, which also causes acoustical issues. One junior in the Music Department expressed frustration with the subjective manner in which students are turned away.  In one class with 200% enrollment, the professor went around the room and asked students various questions, deciding on the spot who he felt “deserved” to be accepted to the class.

These issues are not the only ones facing the arts at Stanford right now, but it is a good place to start.  According to an Art Department faculty member, in order for Stanford to hire a new professor, there must be one million dollars in escrow.  The cost of all of these new buildings so far eclipses the cost of hiring a handful of new faculty for these departments that I would think it an obvious decision for an institution claiming a commitment to the arts and humanities.

When considering that the average residential college at Yale has its own artistic space (ranging from pottery studios and printing presses to woodshops), how can Stanford University not feel ashamed that the majority of its students cannot even be accepted to an introductory drawing class?

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