‘A Profound Act of Self-Preservation’

City College of New York's new dean of architecture quits after 10 months, saying that structural racism and a lack of support made for a crushing workload and climate.

October 13, 2020
 
City College of New York
Lesley Lokko

Lesley Lokko, dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College of New York, a part of the City University of New York, was ready to bring transformational change to the institution when she arrived in 2019.

Ten months later, Lokko’s ready to leave Spitzer for good.

“My decision to leave Spitzer after less than a year is fairly straightforward: I was not able to build enough support to be able to deliver on either my promise of change, or my vision of it,” Lokko said in a public resignation letter. “In an incredibly bureaucratic and highly-regulated context, change is as much administrative as it is conceptual.” And so “lack of meaningful support -- not lip service, of which there’s always a surfeit -- meant my workload was absolutely crippling.”

No job is worth one’s life, she said, “and at times I genuinely feared for my own.”

Lokko, who is Ghanaian and Scottish, also wrote that race “is never far from the surface of any situation in the U.S.” Having previously established the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, Lokko said that coming straight from South Africa didn’t prepare her for the way race manifests here, and “quite simply, I lacked the tools to both process and deflect it. The lack of respect and empathy for Black people, especially Black women, caught me off guard, although it’s by no means unique to Spitzer.”

Summing up her thoughts, Lokko wrote that “I suppose I’d say in the end that my resignation was a profound act of self-preservation.”

The resignation is effective at the end of January, giving Spitzer some time to look for a new dean.

Prior to Lokko’s arrival, Spitzer had been without a permanent dean for several years. That was part of the problem, she said in an interview Monday.

“It was almost like the second coming of the Messiah, they’d been waiting so long for a dean that was going to solve every problem and do almost everything, and I remember being a little wary of that. No single person can solve everything. That’s not possible.”

In the absence of a clear leader over time, organizations also become “dysfunctional,” Lokko said. In one example, Lokko said she spent much of her time at Spitzer building spreadsheets to improve the school's record keeping, including about its finances -- not typically a dean’s job.

“The management culture was nonexistent,” she said.

In additional to the actual, everyday work of being a dean, Lokko had a huge task ahead of her: radically transform Spitzer’s curriculum by trading single courses taken over a semester for a more fluid, yearlong unit system that better helps students make connections between ideas, and that highlights issues of diversity in design. Lokko had successfully stood up this curriculum at Johannesburg and thought -- based on conversations with those who hired her and the general moment -- that there was the same appetite for change at Spitzer.

She quickly encountered resistance, directly from students and more indirectly from faculty members, though, she said. Students questioned her curricular plans, to the point of “vitriol,” while emails to faculty members asking for help with various aspects of the new curriculum and other service needs went unheeded.

Lokko said she had some recourse for lack of faculty buy-in in South Africa: she could terminate those who rejected change. But “you can’t do that with tenured faculty in a unionized institution,” she said.

Soon Lokko was working 18-hour days, seven days a week to get everything done, she said. And while some have accused her of “playing the race and gender cards,” she said, “in reality, this is so familiar to so many women, and women of color, who wind up literally working themselves to death, trying to achieve what they said they were going to achieve without infrastructural support.”

COVID-19 only made things worse, of course, diverting attention and resources away from the new curriculum. It’s harder to build rapport with team members over Zoom than it is in person. And Lokko also lost a supporter in Michael Sorkin, a distinguished professor at Spitzer who’d worked hard to bring her on board before his death from coronavirus in March.

While George Floyd’s May death highlighted the importance of the engaging diversity through pedagogy, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer further increased Lokko’s workload. As an international expert in how diversity strengthens design, external groups were calling on her to consult on plans and comment. Still, few colleagues were willing to help out -- or ask how she was doing, Lokko said.

“My emails are all follow-up, follow-up, follow-up,” she said of “chasing” colleagues. “Nobody would step up to the plate and share the burden, but it was OK for me to keep on serving.”

Lokko said that in retrospect, this was perhaps not the time to proceed with a new pedagogical agenda. On the other hand, she continued, times of crisis are often fertile ground for new ideas.

The new curriculum did debut this year. But Lokko, who recently lost two members of her family, said she’s seen the writing on the wall: keep working under these conditions and face her own health crisis.

Lokko said she doesn’t seek to leave Spitzer in anger, but rather by making a point: as colleges and universities make statements about how diversity matters, they must also work to create “a much more empathetic environment in which you support people who are trying to make change -- practically, emotionally, even at times physically.”

Lokko’s letter has hit home with many academic women of color, working across fields, who say that too many institutions still see diversity as a matter of recruitment, not climate and retention. Roxane Gay, writer and associate professor of English at Purdue University, said that “Nearly every black faculty member in this country could resign like this.” Monica Cox, professor of engineering education at Ohio State University and career consultant, said Lokko’s story reminded her of how institutions “play” diversity without really engaging in it.

The letter also shook April De Simone, a student at Spitzer who said Monday that she saw “toxic” attitudes developing with respect to Lokko in real time. Fellow students “conflated” their questions about the new curriculum with questions about Lokko’s qualifications in a way that diminished her -- and in a way they should have recognized as being gendered and racialized, De Simone said.

Sixteen Spitzer students published a letter addressing some of Lokko’s statements, saying she faced questions about her vision because “there had been no adequate explanation of the particulars of the new curriculum. These questions were raised in order to provide clarity of the new course of study and to allow for more student dialogue in the transition.”

After a meeting between graduate students and Lokko late last month, they said, “we were hopeful of a collaborative approach to enhancing Spitzer’s curriculum while accounting for the ambitions and realities of CUNY students. Unfortunately, these hopes proved unfounded.”

Lokko said she tried as hard as she could to communicate with students, but she wondered why all the onus for explaining and answering questions about the new curriculum fell on her.

De Simone said that she was disappointed that Lokko’s letter didn’t spark more self-reflection among her critics.

“This is something that should not go quietly into the night,” she said. “This is a human being who said she was dehumanized, and if we were sincere about our disgust with racism and gender discrimination and classism in this country, then all of us would be raising our voices, and not allow for the gaslighting of someone’s experience, particularly a Black woman’s experience."

Spitzer’s faculty chair, June Williamson, declined comment.

Vince Boudreau, president of City College, said in a statement that the college was saddened by Lokko’s departure.

“During Dean Lokko's brief time at City, she introduced her colleagues, students, and alumni of the Spitzer School to a vision of a new and reimagined architecture curriculum,” he said. “The vision was expansive and ambitious and required a series of sweeping changes to the current curriculum. That these changes were occurring at the onset of a global pandemic certainly complicated her plans. We would have been thrilled had she been able to see these changes through to their completion, but have accepted her resignation with deep regret.”

Boudreau added, “We will use the remainder of Dean Lokko's tenure on campus to engage with her on the issues she's raised and continue that work as part of our commitment to making our campus everything it should be.”

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