On January 17, the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) sent out a letter to the student body titled, “Our Pledge to You.” “In recognition of the unique political moment we find ourselves in,” the letter began, “we, the undersigned SAIC faculty write to affirm our commitment to you.”
The letter, signed by more than 370 SAIC faculty members, was drafted as a way of acknowledging the overwhelming response — largely fearful, angry, and upset — from the student body following the November presidential election. Students and faculty gathered twice in the Neiman Center to publicly process the results of the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. The faculty convened separately to discuss post-election issues concerning students.
There were several conversations held by SAIC faculty and staff that primarily circled around ways to support students. The faculty felt a special pull in finding ways to advocate for students with undocumented immigrant status. Throughout his campaign, Trump loudly and persistently promised to deport undocumented immigrants in the country.
“Someone suggested that maybe the faculty could write a letter that basically said, ‘We’re your faculty and we have your back,’” Chair of Faculty Elizabeth Wright said. “It wasn’t the only thing we were talking about, but people really liked that idea, so I brought together a group of people to draft it.”
Wright wrote the letter with faculty members Adam Greteman, Allie Stephens, Benjamin Erskine Nicholson, Seth Kim-Cohen, and Richard Deutsch. The group met in person to construct an overarching draft and then hammered out specifics over email before soliciting signatures from other faculty members.
“I believe in fate, and the fact that we are all cast into a historic period that is not going to be of our own making. As artists, we have to come to terms with that baseline, and then do something about it,” said Nicholson, who was interested in working on the letter in order to shed light on the responsibility artists hold in times of change. He added, “I don’t see this as a good thing or a bad thing; I just see it as one moment in time that tests the artist’s mettle. Times of strong upheaval can be fertile for artists, whose unique way of life gives us the tools to turn both hurt and pleasure into searing truth.”
Stephens said that working on the letter was important because students needed to see faculty being visibly willing to take a stand.
“I know from talking to my students how upset many were after the election and how terrified many are who are vulnerable,” Stephens said. “As faculty, we are not backing off, we are not afraid to speak our minds, and we are not afraid to speak truth to power,” Stephens added.
Wright said that many faculty reported intense reactions from their students immediately following the election. Students arrived crying in some classes. Some faculty said that they had students who just wanted to talk about what happened and what they could do, while other faculty reported having students who wanted to focus on making art about the experience.
The massive turnout at both post-election discussions at SAIC is another indication that the election results have been of deep importance to many students. Given the relative subjectivity of emotions around a political election, it can be difficult for an academic institution to know exactly what to do. The faculty spent a lot of time deciding on an essential message for a unified letter to the student body.
“The primary thing that we wanted to have happen from this letter was just to have students know that they’re not alone. They have people on their side. We are in this together,” said Wright.
Nicole Del Rio, a senior BFA student, said that she was glad the faculty made an effort to bring people together.
“Being allowed to voice our concerns, fears, and anger with our peers was great,” said Del Rio, who attended the first post-election gathering at the Neiman Center. “It felt good to know that everyone else felt the same way, too. I think with our school, with so many different students, voices, and people who have different interests in art, this was one of the few times I felt somewhat unified with everyone.”
Rui Carlos da Cunha, who was an MFA candidate in the writing department in November, had mixed feelings about the faculty’s response to the election. He said he appreciated a professor who allowed a class to have a post-election discussion. He also recalled an adjunct professor who told students “not to assume that the students at SAIC are all in solidarity with one side of the political divide, and to presume that there are no politically conservative students at SAIC is ignorant and patronizing.” Cunha added, “What were we expecting the faculty or administration to do other than assist in processing emotions and keeping the peace?”
But Cunha was disappointed with the tone of the letter the faculty sent to students. Since he is no longer a current student at SAIC, he didn’t feel included in the letter’s intended audience.
“Everything only applies to those who can afford the patronage of their professors. It is curious how quickly people forget to inquire about those not immediately present at an institution or a place of business,” Cunha said.
The letter was installed in the window of the Neiman Center on the first floor, and in the doors of the MacLean Building. It will remain posted there until Sunday night.
“I’m proud of the faculty,” Wright said. “People don’t necessarily spend a lot of time over email on breaks, but we are still receiving emails from faculty who want their names added to the list of signatures.”
Stephens went with faculty and students to attend Friday’s protest of the inauguration. She sees the letter, which was written from a place of unity, as a sort of jumping-off point.
“I want to be able to build a sense of camaraderie amongst students and faculty so we feel like not only do we create together in the classroom and in our work together, but also in our social and political lives,” Stephens said.