The following letter by Bard Graduate Center Dean Peter N. Miller was sent to all BGC alumni on June 24, 2020.


Dear Alumni,

This past month has witnessed an earthquake in many Americans’ perception of themselves. I am writing to you today because, while it has been an awakening for me, personally, it has also been one for Bard Graduate Center as an institution. And in this period we have been confronted by challenges we heard directly from you. The criticisms have been fair, and we are grateful to you for holding us accountable.

Over the past several years, many of you have told us that BGC has a whiteness problem, and that we have not done an adequate job of supporting people of color in our institution. It’s true that BGC is a more than predominantly white institution, and it’s also true that we have let you down by not responding sufficiently or quickly enough when you shared your concerns. I am sorry we have not done better, sooner.

I want to use this moment to think about what we as an institution have done badly, and also to begin to lay out a vision of a different, better future. I’m told, that to do that, I should give you a bullet-pointed “action plan.” It’s at the end. But I feel you deserve more than that—a full and detailed account—because you are our community, and you need to know what we have been thinking and doing, as well as what we plan for the future, if you are going to trust us. So although this is a long letter, I do hope you will read to the end because it is important, and I want to share some changes that have been ongoing (but were not so visible) and others that BGC is making as a result of this reckoning and the rethinking that it is justly prompting.

For a very long time, we as an institution did not see anti-racist work as a high priority. We’ve put on no exhibitions about African or African American arts or artists, have had no faculty members who are Black and only a handful of BIPOC students and staff members. We’ve done better, at least since 2010, with Indigenous peoples and traditions, and have made some small strides in improving diversity in other areas. But if we are to live up to what this moment teaches us, then we have to honestly say that it is still nowhere near enough.

Some of our failures were on us—we could have done a much better job at seeking out BIPOC staff members, for instance—and some reflect failings of our field. Similarly, our attempts to recruit students of color have been largely unsuccessful: very few applications and even fewer matriculated students. Even when we have offered maximum funding as an enticement to choose BGC over another graduate program, it hasn’t been enough to overcome the fact that there would have been few, if any, other BIPOC students here.

In spring 2016 a group of students challenged us to put more African American scholarship into the curriculum, more African American topics into the seminar series, and more African American faces into the institution. None of that happened, and it may have seemed like we weren’t listening. Some things that we are doing now—see below—we could have done then, and I’m sorry we didn’t.

But those students spoke well, and compellingly. They led us to think hard about what we needed to do. In the fall of that year, while reading about the Mellon Foundation’s efforts to widen the BIPOC pipeline going into art history graduate programs and the museum professions, I thought about what our students had pointed out and what my experience as an administrator had shown me. I knew that the pipeline had to be a lot broader in high school and in college if there was going to be sufficient width at the graduate level. I felt strongly that we had to find a way to reach students in the public high schools before college. Since Bard had a network of high schools in New York City, it made sense to build on an existing relationship. (My daughter attended one of them, and I had lectured there.) We decided to create a program that would expose public school students to “museum studies” early enough that it might affect their choice of college major and, even, professional orientation.

The first of our efforts in this area, The Lab for Teen Thinkers, launched in the summer of 2017 as a paid internship program in which the students conducted object-centered research and gave presentations at the end of the summer. Since then we have hosted 32 students, approximately 11 each year, of whom 50% have been BIPOC. Alumni of this program are studying anthropology, art history, Medieval and Byzantine art and material culture, philosophy, and urban studies and architecture at University of Rochester, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, UPenn, Duke, and Columbia. This summer, we are expanding the program to 24 students, of whom 60% are BIPOC, with a curriculum based around Seneca Village, a nineteenth-century settlement of mostly African American landowners that was forcibly dispersed to create Central Park. Next summer we intend to add still more students and an additional concentration on cultural heritage science. Our numbers are only limited by our ability to fund each student’s participation.

In spring 2018, as we looked to BGC’s 25th anniversary, we held a community-wide event to establish priorities for the future. At the top of that list, generated by students, faculty, staff, and board members, was greater racial diversity, sensitivity, and openness. That fall we began a series of trainings on diversity, equity, access, and inclusion that led to the establishment of a working group of faculty and staff tasked to make formal reports and proposals.

Concurrently, Mellon was making serious investments in community colleges, where the vast majority of Americans receive their higher education. But was object-based teaching possible there? After further investigation, it appeared that LaGuardia Community College already had a strong focus on the humanities across their curriculum so a partnership with them was a great match. We advanced a collaboration modelled on our Focus Projects: a two-course sequence in which students do research on material evidence and then help develop exhibition materials. Because of Covid-19 we were unable to present this exhibition in our galleries, as planned, but it is hosted on our website. Roughly 30 LaGuardia students, more than half of whom are BIPOC, participated in this collaboration. This will be an annual project.

As we began our initial work with LaGuardia, in spring 2019, we began developing a fellowship designed to promote new voices in the field. We sought counsel from the Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Dean for Diversity, Access, and Inclusion of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory University. We knew that “a cluster hire” of several BIPOC faculty members would be the best single move we could make to change our landscape, but it wasn’t financially possible for us. Instead, we decided to develop a new fellowship program and asked for advice about how to insure a broad applicant pool. The dean worked with us on the announcement and provided names of key people in the field, as did other colleagues we consulted. Of the four fellows initially selected for 2020/21, two were African American and while only one accepted, this felt like an encouraging first try.

In just the way that one thing leads to another, one of the people to whom I sent notice of the fellowship asked about BGC resources for African American scholarship. I turned to the faculty and we compiled a list of lectures, events, and course readings on the subject from multiple faculty, courses, and seminar series. It made clear that while we had no single, visible platform for the study of African American material culture, we had been building a good foundation on which to have more conscious conversations about expanding this work.

A second development, also coming from the fellowship outreach, brought us into discussions with the directors of the Alliance of Museums of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities about launching a summer intensive at BGC similar to those they organize annually with University of Delaware, Princeton, and Yale, among others. We will begin this collaboration in summer 2021. In conjunction, we will offer two pre-doctoral summer fellowships for HBCU students to do research in New York, based at BGC.

This spring, after months of work and consultation, the faculty sub-committee of the Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion (DEAI) Working Group presented its report to the Graduate Committee. Among other recommendations, it proposed that faculty pool resources and expertise to add discussions of diversity, race, and culture in their course offerings, and specifically African American material culture, where possible, especially in the required courses. A group of faculty have begun compiling a resource guide, and I am committed to supporting them in this, whether through professional development, facilitated group discussion, or collaboration with colleagues outside of the institution. This will start immediately; it has started immediately: we had a faculty discussion about it last night. I myself will begin the required “Approaches to the Object” with a class that looks at history and material culture through an African American lens.

There is still one more project we are hatching, a really big, exciting initiative that will, among other things bring a new seminar series devoted to African and African American art and material culture to BGC in the next academic year. As there remain some details to be ironed out, we’re not able to announce this just yet, but please stay tuned for news later this summer.

All of these initiatives—the Lab for Teen Thinkers; the LaGuardia collaboration; the research fellowships; the DEAI Working Group; our partnership with HBCUs; the push to expand our curriculum to include more diversity, specifically in African American material culture; and more—are part of our Fields of the Future Institute, a new think-tank within BGC that supports diversity and the development of next generation scholarship in decorative arts, design history, and material culture. It explores what our intellectual landscape could look like a generation from now by posing new questions and suggesting new ways to answer old ones, and most importantly, by bringing diverse and underrepresented voices into the scholarly conversation. It focuses on those not yet in graduate training and seeks to build the recognition that whether used in scholarship or not, research also provides tools for citizenship and effective participation in the global knowledge economy. All of this represents our aspirations for the next quarter century of our institutional existence.

I’m not saying that we can pat ourselves on the back. Far from it. But all of this was set in motion by your comments, four years ago, and we are grateful to you.

I have been talking about curricular matters, but in addition to this, I want to acknowledge that we need to listen more (and more intently) and do better with regard to BGC culture. The DEAI Working Group will begin working in earnest with current BGC students in the coming year. If there is a way you can envision yourself participating as an alum, please be in touch with me directly.

In the meantime, we have adopted the DEAI Working Group’s first set of recommendations. Specifically, beginning this fall:
  • We will program racial justice training for all faculty, staff, and students.

  • We will develop a hiring toolkit of best practices for ensuring our searches are equitable and attract a diverse pool of applicants.
  • We will provide professional development opportunities for faculty and staff on an array of DEAI topics like interrupting micro-aggressions, racial justice, and compassionate leadership.
  • We will support faculty in researching and sharing best practices in the classroom around DEAI issues.
Above all, we are committed to change. As the history I narrated shows, we did not move fast. We absorbed the challenges, thought about where we could make a real contribution, and then moved, one step at a time. Maybe you’re skeptical, reading a lot of letters of this sort, about an institution’s ability to go from doing nothing to the long lists of things to be done. I would be, too. But we’re not talking about some “bolt on” solution in response to a crisis; this is rather the result of student concerns prodding us to expand our work over time. Wearing my historian’s cap, I’m pretty confident that our way of making change is the one that is the more long-lasting.

We may still act with the energy of a start-up rather than a settled bureaucratic corporation, but the fact is we have attained the leadership position that we aspired to 26 years ago. With leadership comes responsibility and, in this case, it’s to a future that is bigger than any curriculum. As I’ve tried to show, changing a culture—really making meaningful change—is slow work. But when I think of what we have put in place in these last few years it makes me feel more confident about our ability to sustain change and advance it. I have no illusions that we can, overnight, become the institution that we wish to be. There remain things we have to do better. But I also have no doubt that we will get there, here on West 86th Street, and together, wherever you are.

The director always describes you, our alumni, as our best ambassadors. For that reason, you need to hear from us about what we do well, and are proud of, and what we are not proud of and need to do better. I write this letter to continue the conversation, so please be in touch if you have any questions or ideas you would like us to consider.

With my best wishes for a summer of reading and thinking.

Yours,

Prof. Peter N. Miller
Dean