Students Suffer Whiplash as SFAI Decides to Offer Classes After All

The tower and courtyard of SFAI's historic Chestnut Street campus. (Courtesy of SFAI)

The San Francisco Art Institute has never been a dull place, and this is especially true as it struggles with financial solvency.

In a reversal of a previously announced suspension of regular courses and all degree programs, the 150-year-old school declared Wednesday it would reinstate its degree programs for the upcoming academic year. SFAI has resolved contract disputes with the school’s faculty union, and will keep all 15 tenured faculty employed through the spring 2021 semester regardless of whether or not enough students return to hold classes.

In order to do so, the announcement continues, the school will need to raise an additional $4.5 million. In a statement, Board Chair Pam Rorke Levy said SFAI has received an “outpouring of support” since their late March announcement of financial troubles, raising over $4 million in recent months—three times their normal annual fundraising efforts, according to Levy.

$1.5 million of that comes from gifts shifted from the school’s endowment to its general operating fund with the permission of the donors. While board members were involved in negotiating these shifts, sources close to the board expressed skepticism to KQED about the trustees’ ability to raise an additional $4.5 million.

The school is now engaged in a process of courting back 79 undergraduate and graduate students who would be eligible to complete their degrees by the end of the spring 2021 semester. Tenured faculty have been sending emails to those students at the administration’s request.

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“We can’t apologize enough for what you’ve been through,” reads one email forwarded to the San Francisco Chronicle. “As an initial inquiry, might (and I stress might) you consider returning to SFAI to complete your degree with us should classes be extended throughout the 2020/21 academic year.”

Just four months ago, these same students were told to pursue placement at other schools. Many have already transferred to California College of the Arts or put their academic careers on hold, unable to afford a move during a pandemic or unenthused about other institutions.

Part of the incentive to return to SFAI, the school hopes, is a tuition cut of 50% for both undergraduates and graduates. But as Mission Local reported last week, the school is also facing foreclosure on its Chestnut Street campus, which serves as collateral on a $19 million loan from Boston Private & Trust Company.

The 2018 MFA exhibition at SFAI's Fort Mason campus. (Courtesy of SFAI)

Yet SFAI says this issue will be resolved by the end of the summer. Classes for the fall semester would begin in late August; the courses offered would depend on who enrolls and what degree programs they’re completing. All fall classes would take place remotely, though SFAI hopes by the spring, the city’s health restrictions would allow in-person classes to resume. There are no current plans to rehire any of SFAI’s 69 laid-off adjunct faculty, who once taught 75% of the institution’s instructional hours.

But it may be too late to regain the trust of the school’s now-scattered students. In interviews with a half-dozen SFAI students over the past four months, all expressed frustration and heartbreak. Some characterized what seemed (then) to be the end of their time at SFAI as “a rollercoaster” at best, “an abusive relationship” at worst.

For many students, committing to art school—and specifically to SFAI—was a leap of faith, which the institution subsequently invalidated through its own announcements and reversals. Kavena Hambira, an MFA film student who began his studies at SFAI only in January of this year, left behind a job and life in Namibia to pursue documentary filmmaking. Touring various programs, SFAI alone met all his needs, and in the few weeks he enjoyed in-person classes and critiques before the campuses shut down due to the coronavirus, he felt he had made the right decision.

After so recently joining the SFAI student body, the school’s insistence he suddenly transfer elsewhere put into question his entire career path. “For years I’ve been conditioned to suppress my artistic side,” Hambira explained in April. “And when I finally emerged from that conditioning and take that plunge, this is the fear your loved ones have for you ... that you won’t make any money.”

Oscar Lopez, an MFA painting student originally from Mexico City, shared Hambira’s sentiments. Lopez also attended SFAI as an undergrad, and said the school helped him find his voice as an artist. “You are in that time in life that you find a thing you want to do and you’re doing it with all your soul because you really want to do it—and it’s just taken away,” he said in April of the school’s apparent closure. “My future that I tried to make here in America as an immigrant and a Latino is getting destroyed by someone else’s decisions.”

For Hambira and Lopez, the challenge of transferring into another graduate program partway through their studies was further complicated by the fact that they had both received scholarships from SFAI. How could they enroll in another school without the guarantee of comparable financial aid?

SFAI has approached Lopez about returning to the MFA program, but he says he needs the school to make its plan—and what they’re offering him—abundantly clear before he can make a decision. “Honesty and communication is not the forte,” he says.

For now, Hambira is taking summer classes at SFAI remotely and weighing his options between two different local grad programs—the re-enrollment offer from SFAI doesn’t match up with the three semesters he has left to complete his degree. He has also joined the new Committee to Re-Imagine SFAI, a volunteer group of students, alumni, staff, faculty and board members that will make a proposal to the board of trustees about their vision for the institution’s future.

Whether or not SFAI will have the ability to implement that reimagined future depends on its financial sustainability, its structure (a merger still isn’t out of the question) and its ability to attract a new cohort of students given its track record.

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After everything the school has put its students, staff and faculty through in recent months, Hambira’s words from April ring true once again: “You need to think about the ethics of this decision and how ethical it is to just rip the hearts out of people’s chests like that.”