Fashion Studies Overhaul Draws Ire of Students, Faculty at Columbia

Part-time faculty and students at Columbia College Chicago have sparred with school oficials over proposed changes to its fashion studies department. (afunkydamsel/ Flickr)

A proposed overhaul of the fashion studies curriculum at Columbia College Chicago has upset some students and part-time faculty, who’ve criticized what they see as a move away from strictly manufacturing and design courses and toward a more marketing and business-focused program.

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Department leaders are working to finalize the shift into a new Fashion NEXT program at the liberal arts college located in the South Loop, which will offer students two concentrations: merchandising and design. But critics of the switch feel they weren’t adequately involved in the review process and have claimed the program is being overhauled to allow school officials to bring in less-experienced, lower-paid faculty.

Fashion NEXT has already been unanimously approved by the school’s Curriculum Committee and department Dean Onye Ozuzu. It has since been forwarded to the Academic Affairs Committee at the Faculty Senate for review before going to the provost for final approval.

If approved, the program would launch in the fall of 2018.

Ozuzu said an initial proposal included a plan to phase out the program’s bachelor of fine arts degree – an idea that sparked outrage among some students and faculty, but was eventually dropped in favor of a dual-track curriculum.

“In the fashion industry, being successful in business and being successful in design isn’t a question of either/or, it’s a question of how creatively you put the two together,” she said. “So my perception is, if we think about this productive juxtaposition of the different values, the product design/business focus of Fashion NEXT with the art practice/making process of the BFA, we have a very strong and intrinsically diverse offering for our students.”

Though it will remain, the BFA will still undergo review and revision in accordance with Columbia College's Strategic Plan.

Students in the Fashion NEXT program would get a grounding in both business and design courses before making a decision to concentrate in one or the other. Ozuzu said changes such as these at the department level do not have a direct effect on student tuition, and added that these new courses can be taught by existing faculty, though those professors may be teaching classes they haven’t taught before.

P-fac problems

Members of the college’s Part-Time Faculty Association – known as P-fac – have also called out fashion studies officials following an internal review that suggested diversifying the department’s predominantly white female teaching staff while lamenting a collective bargaining agreement from 2013 that “ignores credentials, in exclusive favor of seniority.”

The self-study program review by interim fashion studies Chairman Jeff Schiff and department staff breaks down the full- and part-time fashion studies staff of 44 by gender (35 women, nine men) and race (three African-Americans and three Asians, while the rest are white), further noting that 25 of those employees, roughly 57 percent, are “older than 50.”

“Sentiment is high about further diversifying our faculty – in terms of age, ability, sexual orientation, philosophical bent, socio-economic background, etc.,” the review states. “Given the de facto hiring freeze and the strictures of our collective bargaining agreement (‘CBA’), such will likely not come to pass any time soon.”

The self-study was conducted early this year, but P-fac members did not see the review until this fall.

P-fac President Diana Vallera called it a disgrace that administrators are using age and gender bias to advocate for staff diversification, saying this suggests there’s something “very wrong” with the school’s approach to diversity and equity.

“This report is an insult to our experienced women faculty who have worked so hard to become the best teachers they can be and also stay current with all the developments in their field,” Vallera said in a release issued in response to the report.

The department responded to P-fac’s claims in a statement of its own, saying it strongly disagrees with the union’s attempt to mischaracterize portions of the report.

“P-fac has either misunderstood or willfully distorted the content of the diversity section in the self-study,” the statement reads. “Although that section is written informally, it does advance a basic observation at the college which is that our faculty are disproportionately less diverse than our student body.”

Columbia College spokeswoman Cara Birch added that no P-fac representatives approached administration with their concerns prior to issuing their press release.

The fashion studies department, like many others at Columbia College, uses a rollover schedule to keep the same teachers in each course from year to year. But P-fac claims administration officials have been side-stepping its 2013 CBA with P-fac by redrafting or renaming courses and then offering teaching spots in them to less-experienced, lower-paid faculty. The union goes on to allege some of those assignments were offered to friends or family members, which they say is a violation of federal labor law.

But again, the fashion studies department denied that claim, saying it’s not looking to remove current faculty from their positions, but rather add on additional staff.

“The college is dedicated absolutely to the quality of our curriculum and its effectiveness in getting our students the best possible education,” Ozuzu said. “We are proud of our part-time faculty and we are in no way re-writing curriculums in order to affect part-time faculty course assignment. We are rewriting the best possible curriculum for our students and the future that they face.”

“In the fashion industry, being successful in business and being successful in design isn’t a question of either/or, it’s a question of how creatively you put the two together.”

–Onye Ozuzu

Columbia College Chicago currently has about 600 students enrolled in its fashion studies courses, including about 400 already focused on fashion business and another 200 in fashion design, according to Ozuzu.

Under Fashion NEXT, freshmen interested in the BFA program would still take the same courses as students going for their bachelor's degree in fashion. They would then be eligible to apply for entry into the BFA program in their sophomore year. 

Rachel Hentrich, a 29-year-old senior fashion studies major, said she and other students have become frustrated while seeking out answers from department officials as to why the overhaul is necessary to begin with.

“I think that having a balance in the program would benefit us,” she said. “Like having some business classes is certainly … no one can deny having some business knowledge is good, but that’s one of the big things that’s been a complaint is that it’s being cannibalized and I think we have a pretty strong program now.”

Hentrich said students have met with Ozuzu and Schiff, but added those meetings have been “less than productive” and tend to become “rather aggressive.”

But Ozuzu said the conversation between the sides remains ongoing and that her door is always open. She claims the program review process is being handled in accordance with the school’s curriculum policy manual, and chalked up concerns over Fashion NEXT to what she called a “profound” level of change.

“So the unsettling nature of what is being proposed, how profound the level of change is in the Fashion NEXT curriculum, has elicited very strong debate amongst stakeholders – faculty members, full time and part time, as well as students,” Ozuzu said. “And so I think that has created a perception that unprecedented things are happening in the process, whereas the process has actually been pretty standard. But the level of conversation and reaction to the proposal itself has been, certainly, unusual.”

But with the new program seemingly on the way, Hentrich has already heard from classmates who have planned, or at least considered, transferring out of the school.

“There was a lot of talk of that afterwards,” she said. “I’ve asked a lot of them why they’re leaving and a big complaint you hear all the time is integrity. There’s a lack of integrity from our administration, and why would they want to be at a school that doesn’t demonstrate integrity?”

Follow Matt Masterson on Twitter: @ByMattMasterson

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