Kennedy to students: don't accept O'Neill report

Former NSCAD president speaks out against student apathy

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Garry Neill Kennedy stands in front of an Andy Warhol painting in his Halifax home. (Photo: Ezra Black)

Garry Neill Kennedy says students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design need to show stronger opposition to the O'Neill report.

If the report's recommendations are implemented, NSCAD students can expect higher fees, reduced government funding and a possible merger with Dalhousie University.

"I don't know how the students take it," says Kennedy.

Kennedy was appointed president of NSCAD in 1967 at age 32. He was the youngest person to ever get the job. Over the next 23 years he transformed the relatively unknown institution into one of the most highly regarded art schools in the world.

Submissive students and higher fees

Kennedy says that today's students are allowing their tuition to increase without a fight.

"In the seventies I think there would have been some protest. I mean students protest here but that doesn't work because they don't know what a protest is."

Kennedy says a student protest should disrupt the normal functions of an institution. He says today's examples are weak attempts at civil disobedience that fail to change policy.

Elise Graham, vice president of the Student Union of NSCAD (SUNSCAD), says the culture of protest that was prevalent in the seventies is returning. She says the protest movement will gain momentum because of simmering resentment over rising debt.

"I feel like the anger is there, the frustration is there," she says.

SUNSCAD has organized several campaigns to oppose the tuition hike.

On Nov. 5 they presented the board of governors with 250 signed postcards asking them to take a stronger stance on tuition.

On Nov. 16, they organized an event called "Tuition Fee Cuts, Haircuts, Not Funding Cuts," where NSCAD students gave free haircuts as part of the Reduce Fees-Drop Debt campaign.

According to the Canadian Federation of Students, Nova Scotia's students graduate from university with an average debt of $31,000.

Merger versus program cuts

Kennedy says a merger with Dalhousie would damage NSCAD, reducing it from independence to a mere department within a university. But despite all the talk of a merger he doesn't think it's going to happen.

"I don't get excited about it," says Kennedy.

In 1967, the provincial government wanted the arts college to merge with Dalhousie. But Henry Hicks, then president of Dalhousie, scrapped the proposal.

The O'Neill report also suggests reducing the number of programs. Kennedy says this would be preferable to a merger.

"If they've got programs that aren't carrying themselves then cut them," he says. "That's a way of saving money."

NSCAD's financial predicament

When Kennedy became president, NSCAD was a small institution. The operating budget for the entire university was $60,000. It has since grown to more than $21 million.

But according to the 2009 President's Report NSCAD is facing serious financial challenges.

The university went into debt when it built the Port campus, a 70,000 square foot property built near the Halifax waterfront. It was opened in 2007 at a cost of $14.25 million.

According to the university's 2006 annual report, a government grant provided $4.75 million for the Port campus’s construction, but the university had to take out a $10 million dollar loan from the Bank of Nova Scotia to pay the remaining cost.

Their financial statement from March of 2010 shows that the university will be about $10.5 million dollars in debt by the end of this year.

"They got themselves into a hole with this," says Kennedy. "In my time it would be unheard of to go into debt."

NSCAD’s golden age

Listening to Garry Neill Kennedy wax nostalgic about NSCAD in the 1970s will make the current student body wish they'd been born in another era.

A positive financial situation buoyed a spirit of hope among young people. Modern art was sweeping away the assumptions of a previous generation.

It was during this decade that NSCAD forged its reputation.

Kennedy says Nova Scotia was isolated from the center of the art world in New York City. So he brought in artists and designers from Europe, the U.S., Montreal and Toronto.

Soon the university was a hotbed of activity, a vanguard of modern art. Big names like Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and Michael Snow accepted honorary degrees. The party scene was legendary.

"There was a great deal of optimism then," says Kennedy. "Less so now. I mean then if you tried to bring a grading system into the art college, the students would shut you down."

At the time there was no grading scheme at NSCAD. All classes were pass or fail.

"That made sense in an art school," says Kennedy. "I mean how do you judge art?"

Kennedy says the 1970s were good times for education.

"It was a relaxed, optimistic time," he says. "There were none of these stories about money problems."

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