The School of Fashion at Parsons is known the world over as a prestigious institution — the former academic home of Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui, Alexander Wang and Tim Gunn. The jewel in the School of Fashion crown is the David M. Schwartz Fashion Education Center, designed by noted architect William Lescaze in 1963 and located at 560 Seventh Ave., in the heart of the Garment District.
A studio on its second floor may not be well-known to many New School students — let alone to fans of the mega-successful reality show “Project Runway” — but to Parsons fashion undergrads it carries a certain renown. They call it “the Dungeon.” The studio is dimly lit, poorly ventilated, and often crowded late into the evening. Over the past year, however, Parsons fashion students have had more to complain about than the Dungeon.
Since last spring, when the administration announced a new curriculum, a debate has emerged over the future direction of Parsons’ flagship program. The change in curriculum has led to what some among the faculty deem an internal crisis, while at least one administrator termed it an “internal reshaping.” At the heart of the debate is a conflict between the administration and the adjunct faculty, intensifying after the part-time faculty passed a vote of no confidence in the administration and the new curriculum last fall.
Parsons sophomore Andrew Shields summed up many of the student and faculty concerns. “It is ridiculous,” said Shields. “We have to take classes at other schools to learn basic technical skills, like sewing. We are paying $40,000 a year to go here and they want us to spend even more money outside of school.”
The School of Fashion’s new course load calls on students to take a more conceptual approach to their work, rather than emphasizing the rigorous technical aspects of design. Under the old curriculum, students learned how to construct clothing — via sewing, pattern-making and draping — in some classes, while learning how to design in other classes. Taken together, the courses were intended to give students the necessary skills to construct their own designs.
The new curriculum, however, focuses more on allowing students to experiment with design elements and concepts. The intention is for students to learn about design, in part, by sculpting on dress forms using materials like paper and fabric. The pedagogical model is similar, as both students and faculty noted in interviews, to that used by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, and Central Saint Martin’s in London.
The curriculum still requires students complete a total of 134 credits — which will drop to 120 credits for all students entering Parsons in 2013 — but the courses have changed. Some classes, like Studio Methods and Concepts, are now combined as Integrated Studio, so students learn how to both make clothes technically and design them in the same course.
Parsons administrators contend that those complaining are in a minority. “If we don’t change and improve our curriculum, then we’d be doing our students a disservice,” said Provost Tim Marshall. “The industry is constantly changing, and we need to keep up with it.”
Parsons Dean Joel Towers seconded the need for alteration to existing programs. “We see this city as a living laboratory for our students,” said Towers, who stressed that the recent changes are only one aspect of a long-term effort to reform the greater Parsons curriculum. “We need to intentionally change the curriculum to make learning from the city possible,” he added.
Since they went into effect, the changes have received praise from some instructors. Genevive Jezick, a part-time fashion design professor, described the results as “mind-boggling” and “fantastic.” “It’s pushing students in a creative mode,” she told the Free Press last September.
Not all agree. The no-confidence vote came on September 27, 2011, when some of the BFA fashion program’s part-time faculty members met at showroom at 347 W. 36th St. On hand were 27 professors, while an additional 24 part-time professors voted by proxy. For the adjuncts who organized the vote, the curriculum changes represented a misguided and irresponsible move by the administration.
“Our curriculum has been stripped down to ‘play, explore and experiment’ without the basic skills students will need to get a job in a very competitive American and global marketplace and volatile economic environment,” read a declaration on the voting ballot. “We are concerned that industry professionals would be reluctant to hire a Parsons fashion graduate.”
Of the 51 part-time professors who voted, 42 voiced “no confidence” in the administration’s ability and direction of the program. Eight voted in support of the administration and the changes, while one abstained.
The vote was the culmination of discontent that began in the Spring 2011 semester after school administrators announced the new curriculum. On May 5, roughly 50 adjunct faculty members attended a meeting arranged by Marshall, Towers and School of Fashion Dean Simon Collins. At the gathering, held in the Schwartz Center’s second floor auditorium, faculty questioned the administration’s changes and expressed dismay about their lack of involvement in the decision-making process.
“We have a situation where the faculty has been forced to teach a curriculum,” said Marie Dormuth, a printmaking professor, at the meeting. Dormuth chairs The New School’s adjunct faculty union ACT-UAW Local 7902. “This wasn’t a curriculum change,” she said. “It was a curriculum earthquake.”
Parsons administrators interviewed for this article contend that the moves are necessary. Collins told the Free Press that faculty and students should always expect changes in the school’s program. “We’ve got an ever-evolving curriculum,” he said. “Every year it should change and it will change. We’re a design school; we’re about designing better solutions.”
Fiona Dieffenbacher, who last July took over as director of the BFA fashion design program, was one of the administrators who helped to draft the new curriculum. “We now offer students the freedom to explore their own identity as designers from the onset of their educational experience,” Dieffenbacher wrote in an email to the Free Press. “Design is embraced from day one and students make connections between 2D and 3D under the umbrella of design. Our curriculum now fully supports a variety of design methods since we have moved away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.”
Collins insisted that the new curriculum was not influenced by either the Royal Academy or Central Saint Martin’s, but rather was in line with existing models at Parsons. “The curriculum is based off our own curriculum,” he said. It is only “ironic,” Collins said, that he and Yvonne Watson, director of academic affairs at the School of Fashion, “happen to both be English.”
Marshall, who served as dean of Parsons from 2006 to 2009, agreed that the new curriculum is not imitative. However, Marshall acknowledged similarities to other leading programs. “Central Saint Martin’s is a great school and we are looking at what they’re doing, just like they’re looking at what we’re doing,” Marshall told the Free Press.
Regardless of its origins or influences, the new approach at Parsons has not sat well with many students. A major issue of discontent is the lack of coursework focused on technical skills, including sewing. In the Fall 2011 semester, according one professor, instructors were discouraged from demonstrating sewing in classes. Instead, students who wished to learn how to sew had three options: take workshops outside of class time taught by Parsons faculty, get help from private tutors at their cost, or learn on their own with the guidance of YouTube videos.
“I expected the program to be really structural,” said sophomore Andree Ciccarelli. “But we have had to teach ourselves much of the subject matter.”
“We’ve basically been serving as the guinea pigs,” said sophomore Caitlin Suarez. “It was a big shock.”
Others are incensed about the shared class structure and other alterations to the program.
“I think the old curriculum offered us a very hands-on experience,” said senior Cindy Chen, who studied fashion under the previous approach. “Not only did teachers give us a syllabus, but we had to do everything ourselves. It taught us to be practical. The new curriculum? I’m not sure.”
Michael Johnson, a part-time professor of fashion design since 2001, spoke of how the new program has detrimentally affected students and their work.
“One of my students who didn’t know how to sew told me that her class met on Mondays and the workshops were on Saturdays,” Johnson said. “So she was idle for five days and left trying to cram all her work into two days. If they’d just taught her to sew in class, she would have had all week to practice and prepare. Instead, they played.”
“[The program] should try and integrate more of the rigid sewing,” said junior Allysha Fabe. “It’s almost that your naïvéte allows you to produce more innovative things, but without those skills they are harder to realize.”
The changes have also caused confusion among students and faculty, with some complaining of classes that feature ever-changing syllabi.
“I don’t think everyone is on the same page — the teachers, the administration and the students are all on different pages,” said sophomore Alexis Fournier. “They kept changing the syllabus while we were in class, so no one could get ahead if they so desired.”
Parsons leadership downplayed any discontent at the school. Collins, the dean of fashion, said he first found out about the September vote of no confidence in “a very informal way, like a corridor conversation.” He was not able to recognize it, however, because the adjunct faculty union ACT-UAW Local 7902 did not sanction it. “I am only interested in things that are dealing with genuine representation,” he said.
Marshall, however, did not dismiss the significance of the vote. “I think that [the vote is] an issue,” he said, “because my understanding is that we’ve done the best to express everyone’s concerns and we do our best to get [faculty and union representatives] involved. As many as possible.”
They note, too, that the new curriculum was drafted in several phases. Starting in 2010, the fashion curricular committee led the process until the spring of 2011. Yvonne Watson, the director of academic affairs at the School of Fashion, the then-associate director of the BFA program Kyle Farmer, and other academic coordinators created the initial documents for the sophomore and junior curricula. Coordinators then led meetings with some part-time faculty members to create the syllabi for the Fall 2011 semester.
“The key thing is that we are still at 134 credits, so we didn’t shift anything,” Watson told the Free Press. “We imagine what we did as an internal reshaping of the curriculum, and the key thing is that we really wanted to offer the students creative choice.”
Watson and Farmer, however, were targets of part-time faculty discontent. “Our administration, mainly Ms. Watson and Mr. Farmer, is under-qualified, inexperienced and shows poor academic planning,” according to another declaration on the part-time faculty’s no confidence ballot from September.
In October, Collins sent an email informing all faculty that Farmer would no longer serve as associate director of the BFA program.
“Drawing on his roles teaching the Parsons MFA and as BFA senior 2D coordinator, Kyle Farmer will work with students who are interested in applying for this highly selective program,” Collins wrote in the email. “Fiona Dieffenbacher will continue her excellent work and assume sole responsibility as program director.”
Farmer stepped down from the position, according to Collins, because of time constraints on his schedule. The MFA program, Collins said, requires more hours from the staff, and administrators felt it best for Farmer to concentrate on that aspect of his role.
“[Farmer] wasn’t demoted,” Collins said. “It became clear that it was unfair to ask him to take on these additional duties as associate director. We talked to Kyle and he was very keen to apply his talent where they were best used, and that’s how we came to the decision to adjust his role slightly.”
Dieffenbacher has embraced her role as the program’s director. “I now count it a distinct privilege to lead the BFA fashion design program,” she said. “Having been a student, adjunct faculty and now director I have a unique perspective to bring to the position.”
During the Fall 2011 semester, the administrative hierarchy pledged to adjust the curriculum in response to student and faculty complaints. The School of Fashion now offers five sewing workshops for the Spring 2012 semester, after previously offering three. Other changes, however, have yet to be implemented. Integrated Studio, which is currently scheduled in a nine-hour block, will not get rescheduled until Fall 2012, where it will meet in a six-hour block one day and a three-hour block another.
“The administration promised to make changes, but they said they couldn’t do anything about it until next fall,” said Michael Johnson, the fashion design professor. “This was back in October or November. I remember thinking at the time that the Obama administration is going to bring all our troops home from Iraq by the end of December, but our administration can’t make these changes by the end of January? It wasn’t physically impossible; it wasn’t their priority.”
For many students at the School of Fashion, there is still much confusion and uncertainty over the future of the program. Parsons sophomore Juliana Gibbons recalled how when she arrived at Parsons, she believed she was attending the “top design school in the country.”
“If you have one of the top programs in the country,” Gibbons said, “why on earth would you change it?”
Additional reporting by: Heather Pusser, Danielle Small and Harrison Golden. Photo by Danielle Balbi. This appeared in the March 4 edition of The New School Free Press.