Artistic Expression or Harassment?

Two professors resign from MassArt following harassment allegations. Are art schools taking a harder line against professors in era of Me Too? Are academic and artistic freedom at risk?

April 6, 2018
 
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A frame from Saul Levine's "Notes After Long Silence"

Students don’t go to art school expecting a conventional education. Most expect or even hope they’ll be pushed beyond their creative and intellectual limits. But the recent resignations of two well-known professors from Massachusetts College of Arts and Design signal that boundaries do exist, even in art school -- perhaps increasingly.

Technically, Saul Levine, a longtime professor of film, and Nicholas Nixon, a professor of photography, have both said they’re retiring. But they did so only after they were accused of sexual harassment by students. And both have defended their alleged improprieties, citing artistic and academic freedom.

“I’m not ashamed of my work -- I’m ashamed of my colleagues. I’m ashamed of the institution I work at. They beat me up,” Levine said in a recent video post to Facebook announcing his early retirement. “You took away my artistic freedom. You drove me out of the school. Fuck you.”

Explaining the circumstances behind his planned departure, Levine said he’d received an email from his provost, department chair and head of human resources in January regarding “concerns” about his senior film production class. Levine said he had no idea what those concerns could be, until his colleagues “berated” him during a subsequent hourlong meeting about his decision to show one of his films on the last day of the fall semester.

The short 1989 work, called “Notes After Long Silence,” shows abstract, brief and grainy images of Levine and a woman he’s described as his partner having sex, interspersed with scenes of domestic life, music, television, nature, transportation and construction.

Levine said he decided to show the heavily edited, deconstructionist film during the last class meeting of the semester because most of his students were about to go into extensive postproduction on their own film projects. It never occurred to him that the film would “harm” his students, he said, and he still doesn’t understand that claim. But anonymous complaints were lodged against him, he said, leading to what Levine described as a weeks-long standoff with his administration following the initial meeting.

Levine said he decided to retire rather than spend thousands of dollars legally defending himself against the harassment claims. The college says that Levine is not being investigated for harassment and that he remains employed. Nevertheless, Levine said that if MassArt “harasses” him further, “I will fucking sue their asses.” (Levine said earlier in his video post that he has a genetic neurological condition that causes tremors and that MassArt had used his disability against him.)

The second MassArt resignation involves allegations of harassment that are both pedagogical and personal in nature. The Boston Globe reported that Nixon created a highly sexualized classroom environment, asking, for example, that students take pictures of people they wished to sleep with and even photograph genitalia belonging to members of the opposite sex -- including each other’s. He also allegedly asked a class to analyze pictures of his own penis.

Beyond that, Nixon is alleged to have asked students to pose nude for him, commented on one student’s “amazing ass” and hinted at starting sexual relationships with others.

MassArt president David Nelson announced last month that Nixon was no longer teaching on campus, saying in an email to students and faculty members, “We take reports of any form of sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior or misconduct seriously.”

Nixon initially referred requests for comment to his lawyer, Bruce A. Singal, who said that the professor was “widely known for a provocative teaching style in a creative art school environment that he believed was inspiring to his students.” He urged waiting until the end of the college's investigation to draw conclusions. In additional emails to the Globe, Nixon reportedly said he never touched or "hit on" anyone, but that he realized "I should have censored myself more."

Is Fair Warning the Answer? Maybe, Maybe Not

Clearly there are differences between the two cases. Levine showed students art some found inappropriate, while Nixon is alleged to have engaged in conduct that many would consider harassment. Yet both instances suggest that MassArt is taking a hard line on harassment, despite the historical “anything goes” stereotype about art schools.

Levine, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has garnered some support online, including sympathetic responses to his Facebook post and from the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Suggesting that MassArt had taken too hard a line against Levine, the anticensorship group said on its website that teaching post-1960 film and art “is bound to involve nudity, sexually explicit content and other provocations,” some of which could -- or even should -- “disturb” students.

So Levine’s case and other like it raise serious concerns, the coalition said. “In an age of heightened awareness around sexual misconduct, college administrators need to draw a clear line between sexually explicit classroom content and impermissible sexual misconduct directed at students. Failing to do so will gravely imperil academic freedom.”

Ellen Carr, a spokesperson for MassArt, said via email that an investigation under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit gender-based harassment in education, continues over the claims against Nixon, even though he is no longer on campus.

By contrast, and contrary to other reports, she said, Levine is “still employed by the college, continues to teach his courses and is expected to be on campus until the end of the semester.” MassArt is not investigating harassment allegations him, she said, and he was not forced to retire or otherwise disciplined in ways that abridged his academic freedom.

“MassArt is committed to academic freedom and creative expression, and faculty approach to particular art instruction can vary from course to course,” Carr said.

Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators and a campus safety adviser, says his organization tells college clients and faculty trainees that “prurient” topics can be pedagogically appropriate but that they must either offer students an “opt-out opportunity” or clearly disclose such content in the course catalog and syllabus so students know what to expect.

That’s “stickier” for courses required for certain majors or programs, Sokolow noted, so “colleges have to evaluate carefully, in this day and age, whether those should be amongst the required courses in a program, or whether alternatives like independent study can be offered.”

It would be obviously inappropriate for, say, a chemistry professor to show video of him or herself having sex in class. But art schools have different standards. Asked about guidelines to help professors manage student safety and artistic expression, Carr said that “many faculty do use an opt-out option, while others provide detailed course descriptions so that students may make informed choices.”

In addition to sexual or otherwise controversial content, art school is also known for sometimes brutal critiques of student work. But that tradition might be shifting, too. The University of Central Florida last year warned Walker Gaudnek, an esteemed professor of art, that he needed to keep his critiques to the point after he allegedly told a student her work would be better if she'd just painted "a vagina" on it.

Sokolow said he and his colleagues have been dealing with “scandalous” art school cases for years. What’s changed, he said, is that there “seems to be a new level of sensitivity, or even intolerance, from some art students, and a resultant hypervigilance from administrators in response.”

That’s all the more reason why faculty members “need to give fair warning” to students, he said. And once given, “as long as the content is germane and pedagogically appropriate, I think it’s wrong of a college to hold that faculty member accountable for sexual harassment.”

At the same time, Sokolow added, “it’s also wrong of faculty members to use academic freedom as a shield to insert gratuitously licentious content into a course.”

Clara Lieu, an instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design who blogs about teaching art, said she wasn’t convinced that advance notice and opt-outs are a good solution.

The concern, she said -- both disagreeing with and echoing Sokolow -- is the potential for such notice to “become a license for a professor to behave in any manner in the name of academic freedom. In my opinion, a situation like that can become dangerous territory that could be quickly abused.”

Instead, Lieu suggested that faculty members might provide students with the option and resources to screen boundary-pushing content independently, outside class.

"This allows the student to interact (or not interact) with the content on their own terms, as opposed to having the content imposed on them in a class setting," she said via email.

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