A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

A Wish for a Reflective and Restorative Break

Dear SAIC Community,

As the semester draws to a close, I hope that you were able to appreciate some of the fantastic art and design that we enjoy at this time of year. The Fall Undergraduate Exhibition, Critique Week, the Data Viz Exhibition, and all the projects installed in hallways, display cases, and classrooms throughout campus are a tangible reminder of the amazing art, design, scholarship, and education that we make at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I marvel at the great variety of ideas and diversity of individuals who find their expression at the School we all share.

This is particularly heartening as too many in our world do not seek the same inclusiveness we strive for on campus. Several times this semester, I was moved to write to you to reiterate SAIC’s unwavering support of all members of our community, regardless of race, sex, gender identity, disability, ethnicity, citizenship, sexual orientation, or any difference mistakenly perceived to undermine our collegiality. And yet I know that even as we reject the grossest injustices of the wider world, we also strive to be even more welcoming for all on campus. Our School is a place where we give each other permission to make mistakes and explore all ideas. When we have differences of opinion, we voice our objections clearly and strongly, yet also constructively, remembering that it is their ideas, not our classmates and colleagues themselves, we reject. This is an aspiration shared throughout the world.

Last week saw the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the International Bill of Human Rights, which declares that everyone, in every country, “has the right to freedom of opinion and expression” and “the right to life, liberty and security of person.” We reflect these values throughout our School. Just this semester, Dean of Faculty Martin Berger, his staff, and elected faculty leaders undertook a number of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives among the faculty. Professor and Director of Academic Affairs for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Christina Gómez convened a meeting to rethink classroom critique in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion with many of our peer schools at the 2018 Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design Symposium: Artists, Designers, Citizens that we hosted last month. Additionally, the action groups of NEXT: SAIC Strategic Plan —including the groups of faculty, students, and staff dedicated to the initiatives Continue to Cultivate Diversity and Inclusion and Enhance Belonging—have begun to meet and will eventually propose a host of concrete initiatives to introduce in the years to come.

Energized by these efforts, and inspired by the talent of our community, I am heading into winter break looking forward to reflecting on how our School is a place that embraces the liberty of speech while supporting everyone in feeling at liberty to speak. The academic context thrives on being a secure place for bold ideas, and maintaining this ecosystem requires us to periodically negotiate how we balance these complementary values.

In the spring, I hope that SAIC will embark on a semester of public thinking about the freedom of speech, academic freedom, and the necessary conditions that colleges must build to ensure everyone in the academic community can participate. Though I have been in conversation with faculty and deans about these ambitions, the precise format for this programming has yet to be finalized. No matter the outcome, I encourage your participation.

If you care to share any feedback or ideas about which aspects of freedom of speech and security of self-expression you want to see the community discuss next semester—or formats you would like to see those discussions take—then please let me know by responding to this email.

And then, while you enjoy the winter break, please take time for rest and restoration alongside your reflections. We need everyone to continue to pursue the novel, audacious, and revelatory ideas that will enlighten our art, our campus, and our world in the New Year.

Joy, light, love, and art to you,

Elissa Tenny