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Poor leadership, escalating tuition, and the corruption of fashion education

By Jackie Mallon

Jun 22, 2022

Business |Exclusive

Credit: Pixels by Pixabay

Fashion schools had already been suffering from a steady decline in enrollment, astronomical tuition fees and speculation that a third level education was no longer a prerequisite to a successful career. Then the pandemic came along and exposed the cracks in fashion education's very foundation. The Great Resignation dominating headlines has not spared our field with such recent high profile exits as Simon Ungless, Director of Fashion at Academy of Art University in San Francisco; Shelley Fox, Director MFA Fashion at Parsons School of Design in NYC; and Walter Von Beirendonck from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. FashionUnited speaks to Ungless and others in a wide ranging conversation about the state of education today. Some instructors who we interview end up pulling out for fear of reprisals from their institutions as we explore the impact of school leadership during the worst months of Covid.

“If I wasn’t leaving, I’d definitely get fired. I no longer care. I’ve been sat here for two years watching the bolstering of the executive team, patting themselves on the back for how they’ve survived the pandemic, but chipping away at the foundations,” says Simon Ungless. “You may as well just build your house on quicksand. There’s no understanding of how this pyramid of education works.”

Ungless’s distress at having to reduce faculty hours, remove weeks from contracts, eventually terminate positions altogether was detailed in our first report. He acknowledges that there was no precedent to follow in March 2020 when Covid hit, but his unique position made him realize the extent of the problems that it brought to the surface. “When you are a teacher who is also part of the management you are in the trenches and in the boardroom,” he says. “I’ve always been more in the trenches than wanting to hang out in the boardroom.”

During lockdown Ungless continued to do his utmost to make opportunities happen for his BFA students who were creating their final collections. He arranged Zooms with renowned journalists such as Suzy Menkes or Sarah Mower, Fashion Critic at Vogue Condé Nast Americas; scheduled critiques with designers such as Andre Walker, Lutz Huelle, Giles Deacon; organized photoshoots with models that summer. “In some ways we were potentially risking our health to make all the assets to help students have the material for their portfolios,” he says. “I didn’t feel that was reciprocated from the management. I don’t think it was valued.”

Recent studies show that senior leadership and management style is more likely to drive teachers out of the profession than working hours, pay or conditions. Due to the practical nature of fashion studies––drawing, sewing, pattern making– many courses had little to no online learning component two years ago. But as classes became remote faculty members, often entirely removed from the decision-making process, unquestioningly executed the mandates of those in higher office. They adjusted their curriculum, accepted the extra hours of prep, developed performative skills to keep students engaged virtually, purchased second cameras, tripods for demos, relaxed their grading and attendance requirements. One adjunct says he burned a scented candle on a shelf over his right shoulder; the smell soothed him while the gentle flickering flame soothed the students. Faculty became the boots on the ground, the verbal punching bag, the on-screen reassuring face, even the IT department for students struggling without the classroom experience. Work/life balance went out the window.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight and reflecting on the past five semesters, many are left questioning the authority behind those mandates.

Credit Benjamin Child

The importance of effective educational leadership during a crisis

David intends to apply for Full Professorship in the fall at his large midwestern public university after having spent 30 years in academia. He applied 2 years ago but says his application failed because the new director had a career in the field of arts funding, not academia, and didn’t understand the rules. She has since been ousted from the role in a vote of no-confidence but that doesn’t help David who says his future remains on hold. “Reasons not to promote me were against the Union guidelines, but, even though I knew that, I didn’t want to create a stink,” he says. He was afraid using Union help would be held against him when he applied again.

According to glassdoor.com the salary range for a Fashion Design Professor is $47,064 to $93,375 per year. According to comparably.com the middle 50 percent of University Deans earn between 111,459 and 123,249 dollars, with the top tier making 174,280 dollars plus annual bonuses. Presidents of private schools typically earn more than those of public schools, often reaching the threshold of one million dollars, while according to Forbes, the salary of Paula Wallace, President and Co-Founder of Savannah College of Arts and Design, has been “more than 2 million dollars annually for many years.” According to the Washington Post university executive salaries rise every year by 9 percent, which is by no means reflective of general pay increases in higher education but instead of salaries in the corporate sector. At the very opposite end of the ladder, part-time/adjunct professors, the lifeblood of NYC’s top fashion schools, earn an average hourly rate of 44 dollars.

Tenured faculty members like David know that they only way to make more money is to move around. As a result he has taught in Southern Illinois University, Kent State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Nebraska, and picked up a PHD along the way. “It’ll be 10 to 20,000 dollars more whereas if you stay with the same university you’re only ever going to get 3 percent every two or three years.” Relocating meant making sacrifices but David accepted it as a job requirement. Now, closer to the end of his career, the promotion is integral to his retirement, and he says, “I shouldn’t be punished for someone else’s mistakes.”

Leadership’s effect on morale during the pandemic is at the heart of the Great Resignation among educators. The importance of top down communication and the understanding that everyone is moving towards shared goals is essential at the best of times. David experienced this with his previous Director who left before Covid struck: “He had a vision for the school and it was very clear, and so that was the focus I had. Whatever he was saying I believed and understood. We did not agree on many things but we both wanted what was best for the school.”

During the pandemic he watched as new courses were introduced and roles with new titles created. “An Associate Director, then an Undergrad Design Curriculum Chairperson, all these admin positions, and why did we have them?" asks David. "Because they were jobs the Director didn’t want to do while instructors were being pulled out of teaching to do administrative tasks.” The repercussions of the previous Director’s maneuvers will be felt into fall when David is teaching a course in which he has no experience or knowledge. “But they have me in a 1-week workshop so I guess I will stretch that week into a semester’s teaching–– if that’s possible? I’ll give it a try!” he says. “Covid didn’t have anything to do with this. I didn’t have a choice. I had to trust leadership.”

Leadership appointments in education are often announced with great fanfare after long international searches. Fundraising ability has become an important qualification on the resumes of shortlisted candidates, but faculty say there are too many without experience in the fashion industry, who therefore don’t know how to navigate creativity or foster it. Their short-term moneymaking schemes can have detrimental long-term consequences on a program. “Our graduate school was really changed a few years ago by an overnight decision by the then Chief Academic Officer to make an MA out of the first few semesters of our MFA and offer that to people who had no background in fashion,” says Ungless. “It completely destroyed the program, but the thinking was if you have a shorter program, we can get the same outcome and we will make more money.”

Fashion education is big business

“The pandemic was the final straw for fashion education, but you can’t blame it for everything,” says Ungless. “I’m pretty sure studying fashion had become not as attractive as what it was in the early to mid 2000s. I think the glow of fashion had started to tarnish.” Fashion schools benefited from the Project Runway phenomenon (the show premiered in 2004), when every celebrity had their own line of clothing, and the previously aloof fashion industry aligned itself with reality TV. Those were the days before working in fashion became synonymous with contributing to environmental destruction, labor abuses, and overconsumption.

“At some point in time, somebody realized just how much money you can make and when education turned into a business that was the beginning of the end,” says Ungless. He describes it as "feeding the beast." While he believes that hingeing a degree on a graduate fashion show is outmoded and unnecessary, it brings the school fundraising opportunities, publicity, and even attracts celebrities. Madonna and FKA Twigs were seated front row at the recent CSM BFA show.

The month of May sees the rollout of graduate fashion shows. During Covid, schools showcased their top talent via virtual magazines, short films, or digital presentations, but the in-person runway format has now returned. Before the turn of the millennium, the UK set the trend for global fashion education, and a wave of British graduates, including Ungless, were drafted in to set up programs in the US. John Galliano’s 1984 graduate collection at London’s CSM was bought in its entirety by London luxury retailer Browns. Graduate Fashion Week launched in the UK in 1991 with former Burberry Creative Director Christopher Bailey its first winner. In the years that followed marquee names like Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Proenza Schouler, Christopher John Rogers, launched successful businesses on their graduate shows. Understandably, freshmen entering a fashion program dream of their own final year runway moment. But over the years the competition for a spot in the shows heated up. Considering the high cost of tuition all students deserve a place but only about 30 percent make the cut. Runway shows from Parsons or FIT are high production red carpet events, and even second tier schools located far from fashion capitals typically stage an afternoon or matinee show for friends and family, and another VIP evening show for big donors and honored guests. The Academy of Art University BFA and Parsons MFA both secured a spot showing during New York Fashion Week.

"When did the shows stop becoming a platform for students to get recruited and became a platform for schools to recruit more students?” asks Ungless. “Suddenly it all became about having to do it because it brings in this number of students. So are we servicing the designers or the industry? No. I see what the reality is. I see the path education is going on purely to make money. I’m out.” True to his word, Ungless’s last day was June 1st.

International students are another important revenue stream for fashion schools in the US and Europe. But Ungless says recent political leadership, changed regulation in terms of visas and a new xenophobic outlook makes American fashion schools a less attractive option.

Andrew Groves, Fashion Professor and former Course Director at University of Westminster argues that the more money pours in, the more students lose out. The average annual cost of tuition at an American fashion program is 35,000 dollars, but private schools are much higher, and that’s before accommodation, food and the the memory-making social life previous generations of students enjoyed. “It stops a student being able to embrace failure,” says Groves. “When we were at college we might be annoyed if something didn’t work out, but it hadn’t got all the weight of financial investment or parents remortgaging the house.” Students nowadays are caught in the middle of instructors pushing them to take risks and challenge themselves in their work and parents who see earning top grades as the only immediate return on their investment.

In the early 90s both Groves and Ungless were part of Alexander McQueen’s small design team, mostly working out of a South London flat with no money and dependent on the facilities at Central St Martins to make the collections. McQueen was the son of a London cab driver. Says Ungless, “If there hadn’t been affordable education, I could never have gone to school. Same with Lee McQueen.” Perhaps more than any other designer of our lifetime, McQueen’s influence consistently reverberates through students’ work. Andrew Bolton who curated the record-breaking Met Museum’s 2011 Savage Beauty, a retrospective of McQueen’s work, compared the designer to Byron, Beethoven and Delacroix. Fashion history will record him on a par with master cutters such as Cristobal Balenciaga, and Hubert de Givenchy. Yet the fashion education system as it is today could not produce another McQueen.

Many faculty we speak to, from course directors down to part-time professors, mention feeling a sense of guilt over tuition fees that fuels them to rope in their industry contacts to critique students' work, to fight for paid internships, and arrange features in magazines, all things which the school does not offer as part of the tuition package. These requirements are not in the Course Director’s job description either, yet they are expected by students entering a top fashion program.

School leadership effects almost every element of a student’s experience yet students rarely see the individuals who pull the strings. So the target of their frustrations tend to be the quotidian faculty. One course director of a program known for its starmaking graduate shows, who requests anonymity, reveals that he has never received an official fashion show budget in his 20 years in the role. “They never said this is what you’ve got now go and put on a show. So there’s the inability to plan on one hand, and then on the other, you have to go to the students and pretend it’s all going as normal which means all the pressure and stress resides with me,” he says. “I’ve got to deliver to the students, because I’ve got to keep them happy, but I’m not empowered to do that because I’m not in control of the budget, and I’ve also got external industry audience to impress every year.”

Some fashion professors who have managed their own business before teaching, and dealt with factories and showrooms, then subsequently navigated the academic environment, admit to feeling more qualified than their superiors.

Credit: Pexels Karolina Grabowska

Social justice and the cost of fashion education

“They’re all talking about social justice,” says Groves,” but if you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend university, surely social justice starts there.” Diversity, equity and inclusivity are hot topics as schools try to reflect the times and needs of the new generation, but is leadership just paying lip service?

Parsons, which is regularly voted the number 1 US fashion program according to reputable industry journals, holds an annual benefit to raise instrumental funds for student scholarships. Held in May, this year’s 73rd benefit event, which honored designer Tory Burch and artist Kehinde Wiley, raised 2.6 million dollars. It is one of several top schools which has begun incorporating design projects into their syllabus which involve working with incarcerated youth, with homeless LGBTQ+, with Universal Bodies, with aging, and disability. While this seems like progress in an industry historically built on exclusion and elitism, there is a sense among some faculty that it is driven by less altruistic concerns. Despite these projects dealing with sensitive issues and the lives of real people, the schools trumpet their details for fundraising purposes and self-promotion.

At peak, Ungless had to enroll 200 students, but he says, “I don’t feel there are 70 people who need to do a degree.” He condemns ‘all the liberal arts nonsense” that students must fulfill to acquire a bachelors qualification leaving them no time to explore new technology and the possibilities within their field. “It’s killing itself. It’s eating itself. I could train an incredible textile designer in two years, easily. I don’t need four. An amazing tailor/draper engineering new shapes on the stand, might take longer because it’s a different skill set but, still, it is what it is.”

Professors with industry experience know there is something rotten in the state of education and the mass exodus has left a brain drain. The guilt that many confess to feeling is now impossible to justify, but it's the wrong people carrying that guilt. For Ungless the number of unhoused sleeping rough in the city’s bay area where the Academy of Art University is located perhaps best exemplifies the chasm between social justice and fashion education. Expecting students to pay thirty grand a year to step over homeless people at the door of school is a step too far.