UT College of Fine Arts struggles to move on after library dustup

Douglas Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, has run a number of marathons, including those in Austin and Boston. But the last several months of his 10 years as dean have been perhaps his most exhausting test.

Some faculty members have essentially been in open revolt against him after the relocation — without adequate faculty consultation, they say — of 75,000 books, journals and other materials from the Fine Arts Library to off-campus storage to make room for the college’s new School of Design and Creative Technologies.

Their ire culminated earlier this month with a 55-11 vote in favor of a no-confidence resolution that called for Dempster to be replaced. It was the first no-confidence vote regarding an administrator at the Austin flagship in many years and perhaps was unprecedented in targeting a dean, according to longtime members of the university community.

Maurie McInnis, UT’s executive vice president and provost, said in a note to the College of Fine Arts that she and UT President Gregory L. Fenves “continue to have full confidence in Dean Dempster and his leadership” but are counting on him to lead efforts to improve internal communication, trust and collaboration in decision-making. Although many faculty members feel they were excluded from important conversations, others strongly support the dean, she said, adding that she is “saddened and concerned by the lack of respect that has occurred between faculty colleagues.”

The turmoil reflects not only a sea change in the fine arts curriculum with the rising popularity of gaming, three-dimensional printing and other technologically based arts; it also illustrates the twists and peculiarities of university politics.

At turns, the debate got ugly, with tweets and posts likening the relocation of library materials to Nazi book-burning. Some students and faculty members protested outside a talk Dempster delivered this spring at South by Southwest. And the Faculty Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for no further removals from the library.

“It stings quite a lot,” Dempster, 62, said of the no-confidence vote, “but it also reflects the high anxiety or apprehension among the most senior faculty in our college to whom these changes are most disruptive. Bringing the college back to a place where we put the highest value on collegiality and evidence-based disagreement is going to be my highest priority for the coming year.”

School officials weren’t sure at first how to handle a no-confidence vote against a dean, for which there is no provision in the university’s rules. A handful of people, including Steven Hoelscher, chairman of the Faculty Council, initially agreed to help count the votes. But when some said this would create the impression that the council was in charge of balloting it had no authority to conduct, that plan was dropped

Patti Ohlendorf, vice president for legal affairs, said Fenves and McInnis then asked her office to perform the count. “It doesn’t have any standing in terms of university rules and processes,” Ohlendorf said of the vote, adding that she instructed someone on her staff to perform the count. “I’m not going to involve myself in a process that doesn’t exist.”

Ohlendorf nevertheless wrote a memorandum spelling out the results as well as the unofficial and selective nature of the vote. Ballots were not distributed to all 160 faculty members who would ordinarily be entitled to weigh in on matters for which votes are authorized under university rules, she wrote.

Instead, the faculty members who organized the vote gave ballots only to 107 tenured faculty members in the college’s four academic units: the Butler School of Music, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Theatre and Dance, and the School of Design and Creative Technologies. Of 76 ballots returned, 10 couldn’t be confirmed as coming from eligible voters or had write-in language that didn’t constitute a vote for or against the no-confidence resolution.

In any event, McInnis said, she and Fenves “take the concerns raised by the resolution very seriously.”

Stephennie Mulder, an associate professor of art and art history, said, “We decided that (ballots) should be distributed to tenured faculty only so as to protect untenured faculty from being placed in the difficult position of having to vote to censure a dean who will eventually decide their promotion, rehiring, and tenure cases.”

Mulder said she and other critics of Dempster’s didn’t oppose the design school but objected to the “nontransparent and nonconsultative manner in which the decision was made” to take over library space for it.

The library occupies the third and fifth floors of the Doty Fine Arts Building. It previously occupied the fourth as well. In late 2016 and early 2017, 75,000 items were transferred to UT’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin and the Joint Library Facility shared with Texas A&M University and located at A&M’s Riverside campus outside College Station. The fourth floor was converted to classrooms, offices, artistic space and lab space for the School of Design and Creative Technologies.

The third floor boasts something of a grab bag of library resources, with numerous art and music journals, desks for quiet study, computers with gaming software and a section dubbed the Foundry with 3D printers, sewing machines and other tools, as well as a recording studio.

But it was the fate of the fifth floor that turned into the greatest flash point, a dispute that continues to resonate in divergent narratives. About 213,000 books, musical scores and other items occupy its shelves.

“It’s very good,” Jeremy Ney, a postgraduate researcher from King’s College London, said of the materials the other day as he was browsing musical offerings. Adjacent to the stacks are dozens of carrels — three-sided desks where students store volumes they are studying.

A stroll through the stacks reveals a rich and varied collection with such titles as “AC/DC: Maximum Rock and Roll,” “Berlin in Art Now” and “Michelangelo: Complete Works,” a lavishly illustrated volume that must weigh at least 5 pounds.

Mulder and Linda Henderson, a professor of art history, said they welcome Dempster’s commitment to collegiality going forward, but they said it was apparent that he intended all along to appropriate the fifth floor for the design school. That’s how it also looked to Francesca Balboni, co-chair of the Graduate Student Art History Association.

“The idea of getting rid of the stacks on the fifth floor seemed to indicate to us a deep misunderstanding of what we do and the resources we need access to,” Balboni said.

“We saved the fifth floor, but it was a huge struggle,” Henderson said.

Dempster and his defenders deny that a decision had been made to move the fifth-floor materials or that the repurposing of the fourth floor for the design school was done without alerting faculty members in advance. McInnis announced in April that library materials would remain on the fifth floor in accordance with a recommendation from Dempster and Lorraine J. Haricombe, libraries director and vice provost.

“You had to be living in a cave” to be unaware of plans for the fourth floor, said Doreen Lorenzo, assistant dean overseeing the School of Design and Creative Technologies.

Minutes from a meeting Dempster held in October 2015 with his department chairs and program directors show they discussed plans to consolidate the collections to the fifth floor and repurpose the fourth floor, said Alicia Dietrich, a spokeswoman for the college.

Brian Pope, chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance, said the dust-up over the library reflects underlying anxiety among some faculty members about the rise of digital technologies. The design school, which was launched last fall with 337 students, is projected to have about 500 students this fall, rivaling enrollments in the other three academic units of the college.

“The library is a metaphor for traditional scholarship in art history, music history and theater history,” Pope said. “It has outsized importance because it is a symbol of the way faculty have worked with students for 100 years. It is self-evident to any forward-looking leader that digital technology has exploded the world for young people. If an arts college ignores the arts and entertainment industry and gaming, you’re a bad dean and you’re a backward-looking college.”

In one sense, the dispute comes down to a lack of physical space. The Doty Fine Arts Building, which houses the library, and some of the other buildings constituting the College of Fine Arts are decades old and in need of replacement or major renovations.

“Attracting external dollars and an institutional commitment to build a $100 million building is a very long shot for our college when the university has very important prior commitments to the medical school, the engineering school and the Welch science building,” Dempster said. “Raising money for capital improvements will be a high priority for us during the university’s next capital campaign.”

Meanwhile, some fine arts faculty members say it’s time to take a deep breath.

“I just think we all need to go off somewhere and calm down and think about going forward,” said Martha Hilley, a music professor who joined the faculty 36 years ago.

Said Charlotte Canning, a professor of theater and dance and incoming chairwoman of the Faculty Council, “I have a lot of faith we can get through this.”



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