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Trouble at the Design Academy

Disappointment and anger hit an all time high last week as the three heads of department in the DAE Master’s programme announced their resignations.   It all comes down to mistrust, power and a lack of vision.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 12-07-2012

Last Thursday, Louise Schouwenberg, Jan Boelen and Joost Grootens – all three heads of department of the Master’s programme at the DAE - announced their resignations.

The dramatic announcement came after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Chairwoman (and Director) Anne Mieke Eggenkamp.

The core issue concerns stripping the department heads of many of their decision-making powers and shuffling those duties between four new management figures – a Dean of Education, a Dean of Design, a Mediator and a Translator.

“It is unclear how we would work with a Dean of Education though,” says Joost Grootens. "That was the most contested point.”

Up until now department heads selected students, and picked research themes.  They were responsible for the evaluation of students, and empowered to choose and hire mentors.  They also spent up to eight hours a week in one-on-one sessions with students.

That would all change, but exactly how still remains unclear.  “They said we should not be teaching but doing ‘other things’,” Grootens says.  “We said teaching is integral and even suggested we extend our hours to twelve – eight for teaching and four for ‘other things’, but they said no.”

“Given the proposed changes I don’t see what my role would even be,” says Jan Boelen. “Am I here just for my name?  In the documents they gave me, they say my role will be to ‘advise and inspire,’ which I like, but I must also be able to make decisions about content. That is a basic need of a department head if we are truly about providing qualitative education and research.”

Heading a Master’s programme like what exists at DAE is very much about creating an interesting environment and guiding each student according to his or her needs.  It is a nebulous, non-hierarchical approach. “We make decisions based on how a student needs to be pushed and confronted,” says Boelen.  “We need to be trusted to make those decisions and follow through.  One decision like which student to accept leads to the next decision about what theme to pursue, and then what mentor fits best.”

Gijs Bakker, who also retired last week from his position as head of the Master’s programme, stands firmly behind all three resignations.

“For 25 years I have been protected by the directors,” he says.  “I have been able to dedicate 100% of my attention to the education of the students, but over the last three years I have seen that system slowly disappear.  I left one year earlier than my contract and that was partly because I was sick of the meetings.”

The reaction from practically everyone we spoke with throughout the design community was unanimous.

“I am deeply shocked, “ says Richard Hutten who studied at the academy in the 80s.  “It is really stupid for Eggenkamp to have let this go so far.  The department heads were always undefined and flexible. They have to be.”  

Rianne Makkink, who works as a mentor in the Master’s programme, is not yet sure what to think and has not decided if she will return after the summer.  “The strength and quality of the academy has always been based on the networks each department head brought in,” she says.  “That is why they are selected and that is why it works so well.  Each department head has a unique circle of professionals to draw on.  It is not clear to me why Anne Mieke is trying to change that or for what purpose.  I think in a situation like this you really need to know how to trust.  It is good to make a framework, but you can not try to control the people within that framework.”

Li Edelkoort, director of the DAE from 1999 to 2008 also says she needs to know more before she properly reacts. “But why dissolve a structure that has worked so well?” she asks.  “I think they are trying to get more control, which really just reflects where society is right now. We no longer trust anyone or give the individual the benefit of the doubt … and this is triggered by the Dutch government who is also about imposing more control.  If the move was essential, maybe they could have done it more softly.”

Ivar Bjorkman, who until this June was the head of the Konstfackskolan in Stockholm was a part of the governmental accreditation committee that appraised the DAE this March.  “We were very happy with what they were doing,” he says.  “Of course we heard talk of changes and we warned them … we warned them to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We told them not to lose their character because it is what distinguished them from all the other art schools that had become too bureaucratic. We liked the more informal atmosphere in Eindhoven, things moved more quickly because there were fewer lines of administration.  We said it was best to stick with that.”

A lot of people spoke off-the record praising Eggenkamp for her heartfelt commitment to education, but also stressed her lack of artistic vision.  “A lovely lady in the wrong job,” said one.  “She is really dedicated to this,” says another, “but she lacks big ideas that an institute like this needs.”

Nobody from the DAE responded to requests via phone or email for an interview.  This, however, was posted on their website. "The days of one figurehead who decides everything are over," Eggenkamp writes.

Over the past few years Eggenkamp has talked about the need for designers to be more entrepreneurial and cooperative.  She has emphasized a need for change – a response to the growing criticism of the school for being too focussed on producing big stars.  Her motivation here may also simply be uncertainty about the department heads.  They were set to inherit a system affording them unprecedented freedoms that was really created specifically for Gijs Bakker.

“She also says that the system lacked transparency,” says Makkink, “But really, I understood exactly how it worked before and now I do not.”

“We are in different times,” says Grootens.  “I understand that.  There is no doubt a lot of pressure on her to make big changes.  Students are criticized for taking too long to graduate and that is expensive. But we always received very good accreditation and it is so important to understand the difference between a Bachelor’s and a Master’s programme, which is about guiding research.  I don’t think these latest plans reflect that at all.”

The DAE is now reportedly trying to find replacements for Schouwenberg, Boelen and Grootens.  What would be preferable and surely better for the academy is for all parties to reach an agreement.  

“Actually I’d really like be asked back,” admits Boelen.  “All of us would … but under fair conditions.”

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