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Face-Off in Florence

May 6, 2013

Alan Pascuzzi has been what you might call a regular on the adjunct circuit in Florence: a sculptor and painter with a Ph.D. in art history from Washington University in St. Louis, he has taught at no fewer than a dozen study abroad programs since 1997. He had, however, found something of a stable academic home at New York University’s study abroad site, where he’s taught since 2001 and which he described as “the best place to work in Florence. The pay was the best, the place was the best” – five historic villas on a 57-acre estate bequeathed by Sir Harold Acton to the university – “the students were the best."

“Within six months it became the worst.”

Pascuzzi and two other part-time colleagues teaching studio art at NYU in Florence are among those whose positions have been eliminated in a shake-up that the university says was instigated by changes in Italian labor law. The details here are in dispute. Some of the affected professors argue that NYU’s interpretation of the law is overly strict and that it is being used as a pretense for bringing about significant changes at the site. In any case, they say, the changes have not been handled well.

Meanwhile, the situation in Italy has attracted increasing concern back in New York, where the faculty of the College of Arts and Science recently cast a no-confidence vote in President John Sexton’s leadership, a vote that was partially fueled by concerns about the university’s rapid global expansion.  On Thursday, the American Association of University Professors sent NYU administrators a letter expressing concern about the reported situation in Florence and advising them of the association’s standards on faculty hiring and firing. NYU's response to the letter can be found here. (This article has been updated to include NYU's response.)

The Background

Prior to last year, NYU Florence hired its part-time professors as freelancers on term-to-term contracts, as was the norm for many other American study abroad programs in Italy. However the change in Italian law last summer required American universities and programs to enter into permanent contracts with their employees. NYU was left with a little more than a month to determine who would get permanent contracts and who would receive contracts that expire in May. Regardless of which contract they received, faculty, by virtue of entering into an employee (rather than an independent contractor) relationship, saw a reduction in take-home pay – of 20 to 30 percent, by some faculty members’ accounts – as NYU recouped the cost of benefits it was suddenly paying on their behalf. The university concedes that take-home pay for faculty decreased but maintains that total compensation marginally increased, as it absorbed about a third of the additional cost of benefits, while passing the other two-thirds on to employees.

It is the interpretation of the university’s  lawyers that the one-year contracts cannot be renewed, creating an all-or-nothing situation; at the end of this year, a professor who received a temporary contract can either be hired on as a permanent employee or let go. This is the interpretation that some professors object to, arguing that in fact term-limited contracts can be renewed for up to 36 months, or three years. However, based on its more stark interpretation, NYU says that it has awarded permanent contracts to just under half of the faculty to whom the provisions of the new law would apply (as NYU is not required to extend permanent contracts to adjunct professors who are employed full-time by another university or organization). About 10 faculty members fall into the category of having temporary contracts that NYU does not intend to renew, while there is another small group of faculty whose futures at NYU in Florence are still under consideration.

According to John Beckman, a university spokesman, most of these decisions are being made in concert with the relevant departments in New York: “For some of the people who are being evaluated or who aren’t getting permanent contracts it was a departmental decision about whether or not that was an individual who the department wanted to be teaching that course [in perpetuity], or whether they wanted to have somebody different or a different course,” he says. Studio arts, however, is a different case, in that NYU’s Office of Global Programs determined earlier this year to stop delivering the studio arts curriculum on the Florence campus – thus severing the university’s relationship with the three studio arts professors, all of whom have been affiliated with NYU in Florence for more than a decade. Academic departments in New York were not involved in that initial decision.

Studio Arts

The original plan, which administrators say was never finalized, was to outsource studio arts instruction through a relationship with a stand-alone institution in Florence, Studio Arts Centers International, or SACI.  However, after faculty and students raised objections to the plan, the Department of Art and Arts Professions in New York got involved and determined that the off-site option wouldn’t work after all. The department will be working with the Office of Global Programs to evaluate the various alternatives for delivering studio arts instruction over the next few months. In the meantime, there will be no studio arts courses offered at the Florence site this fall, with the exception of courses in photography.

As for why the plan was conceived to outsource studio arts in the first place, NYU’s administrators frame it as an issue of priority and space constraints. “Originally, studio arts at Florence was delivered through SACI downtown,” says Beckman, the spokesman. “Subsequently when SACI indicated to the program in Florence that they couldn’t accommodate our students [at that point] we brought it in-house, but there was always a problem with the space. There was never really adequate space for it, and art space is specialized space.”

Patrice Lombardi, one of the studio arts professors, says that’s nonsense. "There’s certainly enough space on campus and two beautiful studios that we’re not using,” she says. NYU maintains that the two spaces that Lombardi is referring to are needed for other purposes. One serves as a classroom with videoconferencing capability, and the other, on the top floor of the main Villa la Pietra, as a restoration lab (NYU is the custodian of Acton's more than 5,000-object art collection). 

The studio art professors say the problem is not just that their jobs have been eliminated but also the way in which they’ve been eliminated. They describe a lack of collegiality and communication. Lombardi says she learned that her class had been canceled only when she realized it wasn't included on a university website listing course offerings for the fall. Pascuzzi says faculty requested a group meeting with the site's executive director, Ellyn Toscano, to discuss the situation, but she refused. (Toscano responds that she believed it was inappropriate to hold a group meeting about individual contractual issues but stressed that she extended repeated invitations to faculty to meet with her one-on-one.) 

Roberto Caracciolo has commuted from Rome to teach art at NYU in Florence for the last 15 years. Like Pascuzzi, he used to love teaching at NYU. But he has been disenchanted. “As for what has happened in Florence I am bewildered as I can hardly believe that the administration has decided to not have any communication with me and my colleagues,” he wrote in a letter to the chair of the art and arts professions department in New York.  “Wouldn’t [it] have been easier to simply invite us to lunch and explain the situation. If it is to improve the quality of what the students receive I would have nothing to say but bravo. Couldn’t we have been consulted? We know more about art and art education in Florence and Italy than the administration and I would have participated in whatever decisions with generosity, with an open and constructive state of mind. After fifteen years I had the feeling of being part of NYU and would have done all that is best for the students, without considerations for myself. But the Director of Villa la Pietra has preferred to first to tell us stories and then to ignore us....She wants everybody to agree with her and that there should be only one opinion: hers.”

Pascuzzi says that the criticisms of Toscano mirror those of Sexton in New York: “no consultation, executive decision-making, heavy-handed maneuvers.” He has pushed for a no-confidence vote in the leadership of Toscano and Sexton, but the vote, originally scheduled for last week, has been postponed. The legitimacy of such a vote has also been called into question. Giampiero M. Gallo, a part-time professor of economics at NYU Florence, raises the concern that the person who would be the administrator of the vote (Pascuzzi) would be an interested party, and says he had many basic unanswered questions about procedural issues. Furthermore, he argues that a preliminary discussion and vote on whether to even hold a vote of no confidence was a necessary precursor to the vote itself (as indeed is the norm). The overall impression, Gallo says, is “that the goal is to obtain a result at all costs, without adequate participation.”

To criticisms such as these Pascuzzi responds that it has been impossible to find a neutral administrator for the vote at Villa la Pietra and that he had no choice but to spring a vote upon everyone or else it would have been squashed. “This isn’t a normal academic environment,” he says. “Had there been a pre-vote or discussions of the vote, this would never have gotten beyond that.”

However, Bruce L. Edelstein, an art historian and coordinator for graduate programs and advanced research at the Florence site, says the description of the site as a closed or un-collegial place is just not accurate.  “I think all of us who in some ways have worked in the administration pride ourselves with being open to discussion,” he says, adding that one aspect of Toscano’s management style is her reliance on the advice of a large number of committees, including an academic advisory committee on which he sits.

“This is a very large, complex operation," says Toscano, “in the sense that it is a study abroad site for 350 students, 10 graduate students, and visiting fellows who have residences here. There is a large student services operation -- counselors, student activities -- and in addition to that we have 10 international conferences and meetings and faculty-driven symposia a year, in a fully functioning kind of conference operation, and we have very important historical and cultural property to maintain. 

“I manage that the way anyone would manage that, with committees of relevant people.” 

 

 

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