Dear President Gerth

CSUS President Donald Gerth (Ret.)

CSUS President Donald Gerth (Ret.)

November 21, 1994

Dr. Donald R. Gerth. President
California State University, Sacramento
6000 J. Street, Sacramento CA. 95619

Dear President Gerth

I was delighted to hear your comments in the Faculty Senate meeting last week (November 17th), both about the substance of your response (saving the redwood trees) and about the process of responding to letters (giving them your thoughtful attention).

I hope this letter elicits a similar clear and forthright response without imposing undue burdens. I am asking you to act in accordance with the provisions of the Memorandum of Understanding for Unit Three. Article 11.12, appealing the decision of Dr. William J. Sullivan, Jr., Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. By the Dean's Memorandum of November 15, 1994, letters from two students have been included, I believe inappropriately, in my Personnel Action File.

Both of the student letters were addressed to Dr. W. (Department Chair), and not to me; therefore, I did not enjoy the courtesy of being able to respond directly, in writing, to the students concerned.

For many years Dr. W. and I have disagreed (for my part, anyway, in a collegial spirit) about content and method in teaching. I sensed that Dr. W. might be losing her grasp of collegiality when, on the occasion of a Curriculum Committee Meeting last Spring, she reverted to a shouting, ad hominem attack, plainly audible to departmental secretaries across the hall. This I was willing to let slide at the time, chalking it up to strongly-held positions expressed in the heat of debate. Unfortunately, Dr. W. seems to be having continued difficulty with these principles of collegiality. Since I am, as a matter of record, the only full-time (tenured) faculty member in the department--or, I believe, on campus--with a Ph.D. degree in Art History (formally, artibus elegantioribus et archaeologia, you know, with summos publicos honores probe mereatur, and so forth), I am inclined to regard Dr. W's instructions to me about my academic competence and style of teaching as at least an affront to collegiality, if not as constituting a prima facie violation of several provisions enumerated in the Addendum to the 1987 American Association of University Professors Statement on Professional Ethics.

I would expect better of the Dean who, as a humanistic scholar, surely should recognize in the biographical aspects of the incident the grand theme of memento mori, famed in art and letters (as when Albrecht Durer depicts Saint Jerome with the skull on the desk of his study), or in the recurrent notion of ars longa vita brevis. The Dean very well ought to concern himself with the status of the art history discipline on our campus. I know he has an extraordinarily difficult job, but the simple consequence is that for several years he has failed to support us. In the 1980s we had four art historians; I alone remain. This semester the Dean allowed cancellation of two graduate art history seminars, turning away intending students to other institutions, and causing me to be assigned four separate lecture classes, two at a late date, with punitive scheduling: for the first time in my 25 years at CSUS being directed to teach an eight o'clock class and being required to be on campus five days a week, adding some 150 miles to my usual commute.

Since I am the only full-time instructor with such a schedule, it does not make me feel very much better, as the third senior full professor in our department, to be told in condescending tones by the Chair that I should be grateful to have a job at all. That does seem to be Dr. W's wish. She has deliberately and methodically excluded me from virtually all operative decisions about art history scheduling planning, while engineering certain of my colleagues to support her agenda of "traditional art history." This, you must be informed, is a code-word that identifies a reactionary, Eurocentric intellectual movement, meant to repudiate the critique of gender bias, and intent upon devaluing moves toward cultural diversity. In the discipline of art history this academic, professional and ideological struggle has come very much to the forefront in the last quarter century. Although betraying a profound ignorance of the literature and legitimate substance of this discourse, the position advanced by Dr. W asserts the extreme position of those who would mandate highly-restrictive definitions opf the "fine arts," while disparaging the so-called crafts, graphic design ("commercial art"), and the development of new media including performance art and electronic modes of expression. The "traditional" art history camp seeks to impose its elitist, sexist, racist views by claiming for its authoritarian methods the only academic validity: indoctrination with names and dates of the canonical works of art as memorized by rote. One might as well teach sculpture by copying from plaster casts of the antique, or painting by not allowing students to set up their easels outside the studio, nor their work to show brushstrokes. This institution deserves better. Our students deserve better. And, if I may hazard a prediction here, posterity will not buy this offering of mouldy, stale bread and watered-down, sour wine.

My appeal to you comes with the understanding that you are a teacher of distinction as well as serving in the capacity of our current chief administrator. You must know that many students come to the University in ways not fully prepared for their encounter with different styles of teaching, and whole new disciplines, perhaps for the first time in their lives meeting serious challenges to a range of their habits and conventionalities. Awakening the capacity for critical thought while maintaining respect for the privacy of personal beliefs is often a delicate and dicey business. In the traditional modes of teaching throughout most of the world, the Master first tests and only then accepts a pupil for "initiation," that is to say-­literally--the beginning of teaching and learning. The individual master cannot afford to waste time on students. who are not fully prepared to learn. Here in the democratic West, of course, we have a different tradition: largely exoteric and collective instruction in contrast with esoteric individual tutoring. We must, more or less, accept any student who (having paid the fees, and so forth) walks in the door. Who knows who they are And beyond all that, especially when one teaches between one and two hundred students each semester, there are bound to be natural affinities and antipathies.

The study of Art and of Art History sometimes have a particularly strong effect on us because, like drama and music, they awaken in us a recognition of archetypal consciousness. Literature, and certainly poetry, do this as well--but rather more abstractly; and psychology, which studies consciousness itself, in many ways more abstractly still. Getting in touch with subconscious levels of meaning is what allows art to work at all, and great art somehow manages to transcend the merely personal, expressing and appealing to the archetypal level of consciousness shared by all of humanity. This can be heady stuff. The presumption that distinguishes education from therapy, however, is that all students come with essentially healthy minds, capable of some order of abstract thought, and with the resilience that finds its highest realization in the senses of humor and compassion. But these capacities are not shared in equal measure by all the students in a given classroom. Our Western emphasis on paradigms of competition and stressful evaluation processes further configure the general structural circumstances that frequently produce student anxiety generating complaints and protests. Of course it is inappropriate to blame individuals for problems that are structural in nature, whether in an educational institution, medical care facility, or as a matter of public policy (so painfully expressed, in recent example) by Proposition 187. If I were exceptionally good at explaining this to people who were not prepared to admit they knew it already, perhaps I would have important work to perform in the offices of Governor Wilson, or in those of Newt Gingrich in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, within my considerable limitations, my dedicated intention is to work with all students who respect the forum of the classroom and its common conventions. It is my hope that all may succeed.


Kurt von Meier, Ph.D.
Professor of Art