An email from Hofstra’s president’s office informing us of his fall semester open-office hours for faculty arrived in my in-box today. Twice yearly—once in the spring and once in the fall—our president, Stuart Rabinowitz, sends out this invitation. Today’s email reminded me of last spring, when I took up his offer and went to his office to bother him about something I knew was not on his list of priorities—namely, the future of painting at Hofstra.
Currently, our Hofstra painting faculty consists of two full-time painting professors (my long-time colleague, Doug Hilson, and me) and one adjunct. We three share the load of teaching the several introductory, intermediate, and advanced painting and drawing courses offered each semester. Come spring, however, Doug will retire, to be replaced by an adjunct teaching two, instead of his three, courses. That means we’re shrinking—and this on top of shrinkage caused by getting rid of a second adjunct a few years ago. That will leave one lone, full-time professor in painting and drawing—me.
Having signed an early retirement contract two years ago, however, I’m slated to sing my swan song at the conclusion of the 2014 academic year. Because I know that even in flush times painting is a luxury for a university, and not a necessity, I went to President Rabinowitz to make as eloquent a case for painting as I could muster—to argue that a real university must have in residence one full-time painter. I figured better to go right now, while I still have some clout (at least nominally), rather than wait until I evolve into a professor-shaped cloud whispering Prospero’s last speech into the wind.
Three of us sat at a small round table in a corner of the president’s office, several feet from his desk. (Hofstra’s senior vice president for planning and administration, Patricia Adamski, joined us.) Our president is a serious man with a good sense of humor. He makes you feel at ease, and can make you laugh. But I didn’t have a clue how he’d take my painting pitch. I didn’t even know what he thought about the fine arts, or the fine arts department in general—or if he thought about them at all. All I could think while I sat there in that room was that the art department must seem like a pesky, picayune troop of semi-misfits that’s in the way of what really matters –our burgeoning engineering department, for example, or our brand new medical school. All of a sudden, I felt like a dust mite.
Nevertheless, I had my rhetorical ducks lined up, ready to go. I asked Stuart if he minded if I opened my laptop. “Not at all, go right ahead.” I flipped it open and began ticking off my points—the upcoming retirement of my colleague, my own impending retirement, crunch time for the university, how convenient it would be to get rid of the one remaining full-time painting line and simply hire adjuncts, how this would be a mistake because painting was at the heart of Western culture. I then began my list of the ways painting is relevant—how students learn to think outside the actuarial box by studying drawing and painting, how there’s a big, wide, multi-billion dollar art world out there, how my students have gotten jobs in animation and product design based on their painting and drawing portfolios, how…
Suddenly, Stuart interrupted.
“Painting?” he said, as if he were exasperated. “Who said anything about painting? Who said anything about getting rid of painting?” Stuart then leaned forward in his chair and, looking me right in the eye, added, “What do you think we are around here? Barbarians?”
I still don’t know what Stuart Rabinowitz thinks about the art department as a whole, but somehow that no longer worries me as much.