A School Divided

Internal conflicts, crisis of management, and despair among staff and students. A new report paints a dark picture of Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Art.

The Royal Institute of Art is situated on the island of Skeppsholmen in Stockholm.

That there has been significant upheaval at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm has been known for some years now. This has now been confirmed by an internal organisational inquiry that Kunstkritikk has gained access to. The report paints a dark picture of the situation at the school, which is said to be characterised by high staff turnover, demoralised employees, and distrust of management. Other problems with the school culture mentioned are lack of responsibility and lack of respect and loyalty within the organisation. This applies to both students and staff.

Nevertheless, the report finds that that the situation at the school today is an improvement compared a few years ago. The problems allegedly stem from Marta Kuzma’s (currently dean of Yale School of Art) tenure as vice-chancellor, 2014–2016, which are said to have led to a depletion of the school’s resources as well as a number of other problems that current chancellor Sara Arrhenius has had to deal with since her appointment in 2017. In addition, the school premises were decimated by a fire in 2016. In the fall of 2019, Arrhenius took a leave of absence and today Deputy Vice-Chancellor Fredrik Ehlin is the interim vice-chancellor. He also sees the events of 2014–2016 as crucial for the school. Ehlin told Kunstkritikk:

“When Sara Arrhenius took office in 2017, she arrived at a college and governmental agency in a dysfunctional state. There were practically no up-to-date policy documents. Several key management positions were vacant. The previous years had been characterised by conflicts that were played out in the media, a vice-chancellor who resigned prematurely and a devastating fire in which we lost a quarter of our premises. At the same time that we have been developing the content of our educational programmes, we have also had to devote ourselves to getting basic structures in place and creating a better working environment.”

Two parallel schools

The students and staff members to whom Kunstkritikk has spoken to do not wish to make any public statements about the investigation or the situation at the school, which is also known as “Mejan.” But the majority of them confirm an image of a dysfunctional learning and working environment. Many also believe that the crisis runs far deeper and describe a conflict between new and old structures, between formal and informal exercise of power. Some go so far as to talk about “two parallel schools”: “workshop-Mejan” and “professor-Mejan.”

The division refers, on the one hand, to working in workshops and seminar rooms, and on the other hand to the teaching of professors, whose influence over their student groups, in which supervision and criticism take place, is substantial. The different parts of the school are described as isolated islands without any coordination and communication.

According to a petition compiled by Nicole Newsha Khadivi, representative for the student union board, these rifts trickle down to the students. The petition is critical of inequality at the school, which is said to result in different students ultimately receiving different educations. The petition also demands “common teaching guidelines, compulsory for the professors to follow … should be established as soon as possible in order to reduce the gaps that have been created between the groups.”

Ehlin agrees that the current teaching practices make it hard to plan things together, and that differences between the professor groups make it difficult to guarantee that students are given equal opportunities to achieve learning outcomes. “To put it simply,” he said, “a non-transparent arrangement can give rise to the problems described by the students.” Ehlin believes that this is something that will be addressed after the curriculum is revised in the future, while emphasising that artistic freedom must be embedded in the teaching structure.

“Our quality assurance efforts and the forthcoming adjustment of the organisation are intended to, among other things, develop transparent forms for the planning and critical review of the education,” he said. “In the meantime, I can only say that I understand the students’ frustration at the same time as I am very happy that the union has recently begun to get involved in this process.”

Fredrih Ehlin (left) is interim vice-chancelor at the Royal Institute of Art during Sara Arrhenius (right) leave of absence.

Crisis of leadership

But the divisions at the school are not only the result of a lack of guidelines and vague practices. “Inequality and conflicts” also arise from poor management, according to the organisational inquiry, which is based on individual interviews with staff members who work more than 50 per cent.

Several sources confirmed that the current management is not without responsibility. In addition, criticism of the leadership was a prominent feature when the inquiry was presented at the school in the spring of 2020. The presentation contained wording about the vice-chancellor’s staff as “isolated from the rest of the school,” and failing to sufficiently communicate  the school’s vision and official mandates. It also described a vice-chancellor who “unilaterally made decisions on guest professors, courses and projects.”

Although these passages were subsequently cut from the final version, they are addressed almost verbatim in the final report, under the heading “Concrete recommendations.” According to the authors’ presentation, the appointment of international professors occurred at the expense of internal processes and the school organisation.

Ehlin, however, questions the relevance of these statements. “The claims about visiting professorships, courses and projects sound odd,” Ehlin said. While acknowledging the decisive role of the vice-chancellor in recruiting processes, he also emphasised that the school’s methods comply with the Higher Education Ordinance and are approved by the Swedish Education Authority. “The vice-chancellor has not unilaterally made decisions on courses,” he continued, “all the syllabi have been approved by the Study Programmes and Research Board, which is a collegiate committee with the pro vice-chancellor as chair.” Ehlin also explained that the part of the inquiry that criticised the management, as well as other information that pointed to individuals, was removed in the final version in the event that the report would be circulated in the media.

Bloated bureaucracy

Several sources describe an overall increase in university bureaucracy that has negatively impacted the working environment for several years. Some go so far as to describe the increased emphasis on quality assurance, monitoring, and artistic research as a “state of emergency,” in which there is a perpetual shortage of time and new responsibilities are constantly being added.

According to Ehlin, the school’s problems are hardly a result of the evaluation society sinking its teeth into the administration. “Monitoring is a matter of course in higher education today,” he said, but stressed “what a minor role evaluation plays at the Royal Institute of Art.” “Personally,” he added, “I would love to see that we devoted more effort to utilising student feedback in improving the school.”

Ehlin also doesn’t see administration as s a particularly large chunk of the teaching staff’s responsibilities. “We now have a well-dimensioned administration that provides great administrative support to our teachers and students,” he said, adding, “our professors actually have an annual research budget, which makes it less necessary to waste energy on the very time-consuming work of writing grant applications.”

Ehlin’s view was confirmed in a statement by the student union which points to a general top-down approach being greater problem than bureaucratisation:

There’s this idea that things take longer because of university bureaucracy, but in fact it’s just a handful of people who are making all the decisions, and those who’ve understood this know who to approach = a huge workload for the decision makers (formal and informal) and lack of confidence in the decision making processes at the school as a whole.

Fourth vice-chancellor in five years

Nor does it seem that less bureaucracy will be the management’s response to the crisis. At least, not if it follows the recommendations of the inquiry, which, in addition to solving the staffing crisis, delaying further internationalisation efforts, and strengthening trust between staff and management, emphasises the importance of further expanding the organisation by adding to the management. According to the investigators’ proposal, one or two department heads should be recruited, who together with the vice-chancellor, pro-vice-chancellor, university director and human resources manager are to be part of an extended management group.

Ehlin did not wish to comment on how he will devise the reorganisation proposal that he will present to the board this summer. Afterward, he will be going on parental leave, and a new interim vice-chancellor will take over. They will be the fourth person to take up that position at the Royal Institute of Arts in five years. Voices from staff and students testify that the crisis at the school is far from over.

Interior view from The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm.