SFAI Announces Return of Degreed Classes

The financially embattled San Francisco Art Institute is reinstating its degree programs.

The San Francisco Art Institute, which had suspended its degree programs for the 2020-2021 academic year while it searched for ways to stem a drastic financial position amid falling enrollment, announced yesterday that it will offer a small number of degreed classes for the upcoming academic year. 

The school plans to re-enroll undergraduate and graduate students who are within one year of finishing their degrees so they can graduate from the art institution, an internationally heralded school that has operated for 149 years but has been burdened by a $19 million budget deficit that stems from its 2015 campus extension at Fort Mason.

To teach classes in the 2020-2021 academic year, the school has retained its 15 tenured faculty, who will also be “assisting the college wherever appropriate,” the school said in its announcement. The decision to offer faculty-led, degree-counting classes follows what the art institute said were long negotiations with the school’s faculty union. The school said the retention of its tenured faculty will add “significantly to the need for additional fundraising in the coming year” – a reminder of the still-tenuous position of the San Francisco Art Institute, which has raised $4 million since its March revelation that it was considering suspending its degree programs. 

Yesterday’s announcement said the school needs to raise an additional $4.5 million to “make it through this fiscal year and cover the commitment to our faculty, staff, and students.” As SF Weekly reported in May, the San Francisco Art Institute is planning to raise money through benefit auctions of heralded artworks, like those of Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Mapplethorpe.  And the school is considering selling The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, the 1931 mural that acclaimed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted inside the institution’s longtime Chestnut Street campus and is valued at $50 million. 

Even as it welcomes back students in the fall, instruction will “likely be online” for the year’s first semester, the school said yesterday, with on-campus classes happening in the spring “pending the status of Covid-19 restrictions.” 

While the school is retaining its tenured faculty for another academic year, the majority of the art institute’s previous instructors — more than 70 in all — aren’t covered by the agreement announced yesterday, says Kal Spelletich, a longtime adjunct instructor who taught popular courses in robotics, hacking, and art and technology, and whose contract ended in May. Spellitch tells SF Weekly that the art institute’s continuation of degreed classes still won’t rectify the main issues that emerged in the 2019-2020 academic year: A distrust among students of the school’s administration and the abrupt way that it told students to find other options for the next year. 

“I am curious what students they would get back? After telling everyone to go away,” Spellitich asks. “So sad. How could they get any solidarity from staff, faculty and students?”

The art institute is also dealing with questions about foreclosure on its Chestnut Street campus, according to a report by Mission Local. So yesterday’s announcement may not stop the doubts that have swirled around the school since it said in March that it was considering suspending its degree programs. 

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