May 16, 2011

Outraged by Dismissal of Staffer, Architects Doubt Dragon Day’s Future

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Correction appended

Dagmar Richter, chair of the Department of Architecture, blasted the University Thursday for its decision to lay off Brian Beeners, AAP tech shop supervisor, and said that the annual Dragon Day celebration could not continue without Beeners’ help.

After more than 100 student protesters demanded on Friday that AAP Dean Kent Kleinman reverse the decision, Kleinman said Monday he will consider rehiring Beeners. He added that, regardless of whether Beeners is rehired, the Dragon Day tradition will continue.

Still, Kleinman’s announcement Thursday that Beeners would leave AAP generated an outpouring of dissent.

“The students and faculty are visibly shaken by your unilateral decision to let our most trusted and hardworking staff member, Brian Beeners, go. I am appalled by how this decision has been handled,” Richter said in an email to Kleinman, who laid off Beeners. “As the chair, I must protest vehemently against such an un-thoughtful move that again has damaged the department to [its] core.”

Beeners oversaw manual woodcutting in the tech shop of Rand Hall, where he worked for 24 years. Without Beeners, who trains many students in AAP to operate machinery in the shop safely, several AAP courses will have to be entirely reorganized, according to Richter.

Kleinman said that Beeners was laid off because of “restructuring and administrative streamlining measures.”

The dean noted that an IT supervisor in the Department of City and Regional Planning, which is part of AAP, was also laid off as part of the college’s attempt to reduce its operational costs.

Kleinman defended the decision as a necessary measure to cope with budgetary constraints while preserving AAP students’ education.

As protesters staged a two-hour sit-in outside his office Friday, Kleinman and Assistant Dean for Administration Peter Turner met with 10 AAP student representatives to discuss the decision.

“What I promised to the students is to do everything possible to not hurt their academic experiences,” Kleinman said.

But several of the students said they were unsatisfied with the administrators’ explanation.

“Kent doesn’t really have a satisfactory answer for us, and that’s a big issue, because they’ve made an important move,” said Jake Rudin ’14, one of the student representatives. “There’s no consideration for the future.”

Kleinman rejected such a characterization, arguing that AAP was making needed structural adjustments to align itself with a national shift in the focus of architectural programs. Increasingly, digital methods of building models — such as computer imaging — are replacing more traditional, “analog” methods, which typically involve working directly with wood and metal, according to Kleinman. Beeners’ job focused on such analog methods.

“The use of the shop has changed pretty dramatically in the last couple of years and the use of digital work has increased a lot,” he said. “We’re trying to respond to that in an environment of constrained resources.”

Kleinman added that staff working in the shop should be competent in both digital and analog work, while Beeners’ expertise was in analog shop work. Still, he said that despite the rising prominence of digital work, he will not eliminate its analog counterpart from AAP.

“The ability to understand and directly work with material is really important, and I would never want to see it go away,” he said.

Kleinman also said that, in accordance with Cornell’s Strategic Plan, AAP was striving to protect its academic excellence by maintaining faculty over support staff.

This prioritization mirrors a similar effort University-wide, as more than 700 staff positions have been cut, while, in some cases, new faculty hiring has continued.

AAP reduced its support staff by eight percent from the 2008-09 fiscal year to 2009-10, according to Cornell’s 2010-11 Financial Plan, although some colleges, such as the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the College of Engineering, cut their staffs by approximately 14 percent over the same period.

That may be of little consolation to AAP students, who said that Beeners played an essential role in their ability to design architectural wood models, to learn proper safety training in the shop and to build complex projects.

Kyle Schumann ’13, who has worked with Beeners for two years as a teaching assistant, said that students receive many studio assignments that require them to use the shop. Without Beeners, there would be no one to oversee the shop, he said.

“The students need him for safety reasons. Brian’s responsible for running [the shop], and it wouldn’t function without [him],” Schumann said.

An online petition circulated by Melinda Zoephel ’13 also highlights Beeners’ role in providing safety instruction in the shop.

“[Beeners] always keeps a watchful eye out to make sure everything is done in a safe manner and all the machines are used correctly. It is our belief that without Brian’s training and supervision there will likely be more accidents in the shop,” the petition, which has gathered about 270 signatures, states.

Though students insisted Beeners’ knowledge was crucial to their safety in the shop, Kleinman said the college will continue to provide staff to oversee student work in the shop.

In response to the protesters’ concerns, Kleinman also promised that Dragon Day will continue, even in Beeners’ absence.

“Dragon Day is an 110-year-old tradition,” he said. “Brian has been a huge part of it for the last two decades, and the tradition is not going to go away.”

Still, Richter and students maintained that Beeners’ long history of assisting with Dragon Day is integral to keeping the tradition.

“We will not be able to undertake this responsibility from now on and I will … request that the construction of such a dragon must stop,” Richter stated in her email to the dean.

Zoephel’s petition also says Beeners is essential for the production of Dragon Day.

“Brian is the only person in the College with knowledge of all the history and tradition behind Dragon Day … No one else has the relationships to make it work,” Zoephel’s petition states. “[Dragon Day] is an indispensable experience in our education, and Brian is integral to its success.”

Beeners is also a beloved mentor for students and represents a foundational aspect of AAP education, the protesters said.

“Brian’s the only shop person I’ve ever met who’d stay up until 3 a.m. to help you with a project,” Ryan Glick grad added.

Echoing students, Richter criticized Kleinman for not consulting faculty members.

“To not ask the faculty of their curricular needs and advice in this respect before such a decision is made, to not inform the chair of any of these plans and then, as a surprise announcement, make such a unilateral decision for the department … shows a lack of understanding of how the department of architecture actually works and teaches,” she wrote.

Many students joined Richter in accusing Kleinman of not sufficiently understanding the needs and demands of architecture students.

“It’s incredible that they didn’t realize how important Brian is for us. There’s been a lot of changes this year, and I think at this moment, it’s time for the communication to begin,” Relicque Lucia Lott ’15 said.

Kleinman said he valued the input students gave him at Friday’s meeting.

“I told them that I heard their message and I took it to heart. I want to make it clear that I would rethink my decision,” he said.

Students also criticized administrators for the way they made their decision.

Erin Pellegrino ’14 said that the dean did not formally announce the decision to lay off Beeners.

“I walked into shop, saw the look on Brian’s face and asked him what the problem was … and we went outside and talked about everything,” Pellegrino said.

Online, on a page titled “Support Brian Beeners,” alumni recalled their experiences with Beeners and expressed their dismay at the administration’s decision.

“There may be new machines to buy, new techniques of fabrication … and new, younger and cheaper bodies to do the job. But what about all the knowledge, skill and experience of those who have helped build the school into what it is?” Arthur Liu ’06 wrote. “Brian is not the fat — he is part of the foundation.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dagmar Richter is chair of the Department of Art, Architecture and Planning. In fact, Richter is chair of the Architecture Department.

Original Author: Akane Otani