Individual Statements, Uncategorized

Letter from Art History Graduate Student Douglas Cushing

Douglas Cushing
March 19, 2018
Fine Arts Library Task Force
University of Texas at Austin
Dear Fine Arts Library Task Force,
In June 1896, the first permanent president of the University of Texas, George Tayloe Winston, gave a commencement address in which he insisted that public education and robust universities are essential for generating progress, prosperity, and happiness for the nation and its citizens. “Great is the commonwealth whose foundations are liberty and learning,” he proclaimed. Winston cautioned, however, “In the twilight of knowledge chimeras stalk . . . There is no cure for darkness but light; the twilight will not be gone until the sunrise.” The Enlightenment principles that constitute Winston’s attitude—inherited from the philosophes as well as our nation’s founders— considered the library, as a living repository of knowledge, a source of ignorance-dispelling light. Under the aegis of Enlightenment philosophy, education’s value resides not merely in the promotion of economic growth, but to a greater degree as its own virtue for both individual and community. Out of such traditions arose the humanities, whose aim it is to understand and improve society, and whose experimental laboratories have long been the writing desk and the library.
Given Winston’s statement on the foundational principles of our public university, I regard it to be incumbent upon me, a doctoral student in art history, to write this letter calling for the preservation of the Fine Arts Library at the University of Texas at Austin. I deem it necessary to argue for immediate, unhindered access to those books, journals, and those other materials that form the cornerstone of our historical and critical research. The fact that I feel compelled to write this letter stands as an indictment of what has already come to pass in the repurposing of the library’s third and fourth floors for the School of Design and Creative Technologies, as well as propositions, which, if realized, promise to see the fifth floor dismantled. This missive’s existence should be read as my censure against what is, at best, well-intended folly, and, at worst, constitutes institutional malpractice. I understand Dean Dempster’s eagerness to establish a new, technologically driven program; surely it is a worthwhile addition to the offerings of the College of Fine Arts. Nevertheless, grounding that program upon the ruin of established and esteemed programs within the school is an act of academic parasitism. Such practices cannot be defended ethically without assuming a radical revaluation in which the primary value to an education resides in its economic utility.
The administration’s response to criticism has thus far been disappointing—amounting a litany of spurious, problematic, and misleading claims. I’ve read insinuations that those opposing the administration’s plans are Luddites or book fetishists; I’ve seen straw man arguments (choosing to dispel counterfactual rumors as a means of dismissing a wide range of well-grounded concerns); I’ve witnessed the bandying about of metrics that offer the appearance of empirical, objective surety yet collapse under scrutiny (e.g., circulation numbers that do not account for the tens of thousands of pages I and others have scanned from volumes that remained within the library or were simply read in that space); I’ve encountered specious assertions that the diminution or dissolution of our library will have no repercussions for the reputation of our programs.
We are not Luddites. We are quite the opposite, I assure you. For instance, I requested access to an online auction databases so that I could track the movement of works of art that had slipped out of view, into private collections—provenance being an important part of art history, and a database being more more efficient than combing hundreds or thousands of auction catalogs. I was told my request was too expensive. Should I therefore conclude that digital technology is the answer only when expedient to the administration’s goals, rather than when it supports our work? In addition to my art historical studies, I have a studio background that includes both manual and digital media, and I welcome new technology as a supplement to the old. I even embrace new technology as a replacement for old methods when it offers a fully-fledged substitute. For the moment, however, physical books remain necessary tools for our research. The whole of the library has not been digitized. And while digital-only research offers novel means with new efficiencies, it also curtails others.
Everything we need for our work is not available via new technology. Retrieval of individual volumes from offsite is not a viable answer for the majority of the collection’s usage. I chose the University of Texas for my masters and doctoral education because it promoted itself as a research university with commensurate resources that included a dedicated fine arts library. The ability, for example, to check a footnote immediately, or to turn to a book’s bibliography and promptly go about gathering the volumes that I find there, is a core requirement for our discipline. The administration’s argument that two–to-three day retrieval of volumes (or the possible twenty-four hour turnaround mentioned in a recent memo) is sufficient, amounts to the imposition of an impedance upon our work, an inefficiency where there was none before a series of discretionary changes were wrought upon us. We are being asked to shoulder the burden created by a program that was founded without the facilities it required, or, put otherwise, we are being asked to see our work suffer because of questionable planning and execution on an administrative level. For all intents and purposes, the School of Design and Creative Technologies is feeding on our still-living body. This situation is in many ways a breach of trust, the breaking of a promise; students and alumni expect their university to be a steward of a program’s reputation, to strive to maintain or improve the value of every degree it awards. And we recognize an obligation on the part of administrators to continue to offer the resources presented to us as features of the program we chose.
Since much of the argument for the necessity of the new program falls upon assertions of the value of utility and marketplace, I will follow suit. The reputation of an academic program is certainly a complex phenomenon. Yet, we might readily acknowledge a few factors in its determination. Clearly, we should include here the ability of the school to attract and retain talented faculty and graduate students, the quality of the contributions of those persons within their discipline, the quality and quantity of resources available to scholars, the funding and opportunities offered by a given program, and the job or PhD program placement rate for MAs and PhDs within their field. The library should rightly be viewed as a locus upon which all of these aspects of our program depend. The University of Texas at Austin’s dedicated Fine Arts Library has attracted talent (a feature often offsetting meager financial funding) and it has supported quality research. Dismantling the Fine Arts Library is tantamount to denying lab space and equipment to researchers in the sciences yet expecting their program to thrive, that is to say, it is nonsensical. Decimating our library by dissolving it between storage and other on-campus sites is a de facto undercutting of our program’s reputation. Given my investment in my education at the University of Texas at Austin, I find these actions distressing and puzzling. As our program’s reputation suffers, graduates and alumni will experience difficulties finding jobs, which will likely feed back into a decline in reputation in a vicious cycle. Present MA and PhD students as well as alumni chose this program with the expectation that no dean of the College of Fine Arts, Provost, or other administrator would ever reasonably undermine the value of their education.
Plainly put, we need our books and journals to do our work. Full stop. We depend upon those dusty, dated books and journals to perform research and write historiography. We need unhindered access to books in order to work efficiently. We require access to stacks replete with real, material volumes in order to make discoveries, both explicitly sought and serendipitous. These are not dreamy, idealistic demands, I assure you. I am asking no more than that we have the tools of our discipline at hand, free from obstacles cast in our path by those whose charge it is to facilitate our education and work.
So my counsel to the task force, in no uncertain terms, is to recommend that Dean Douglas Dempster and the administration stop. Stop and take stock of a situation that is not some inevitable force of nature, but rather a manufactured predicament. Stop and freeze the new program with the currently enrolled students and do the development work needed to raise funds for launching the new program properly, in its own space. This may take time, but until then, stop acting autocratically and unilaterally against the will of students and faculty in the pursuit of a grand vision. Stop enacting changes furtively, in an attempt to circumvent feedback, and then once discovered, acting in open defiance student’s and faculty’s unequivocal statements regarding their needs. Winston’s terrifying apparitions inhabited the domain outside the university, hunkered down in the twilight. It seems to me that they have now crept within these hallowed halls. The new chimera, however, consists of the marketplace dressed in the regalia of the university. Stop the present course before you do more damage.
I understand that my letter will read as a negative, a prescription for non-action. It will appear a non-constructive missive. Let me then add that if the administration insists upon continuing this experiment in the so-called twenty-first century arts education (or the theater thereof) then practice some of the preached utility and hire a good architect to retrofit existing studio spaces for dual use as digital and analog design labs. Moreover, move the Office of the Dean of Fine Arts out of the E. William Doty Fine Arts Building and to a satellite location, and then convert that space into an open-plan digital design lab. Dean Dempster might thereby demonstrate his commitment to the School of Design and Creative Technologies by sacrificing his own space for a less convenient one. After all, we, the students and faculty of the College of Fine Arts, have already compromised (without our consent or input, I should add). Much of our revered collection is already gone. Stop and preserve what is left. Leave what remains of our library. The Fine Arts Library is an anchor for liberty and learning; it is a light that must not be extinguished.
Douglas Cushing
PhD Candidate, Art History

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