SAI ends after four-year tenure

The School of Arts and Innovation was dissolved because of varying visions

Photo courtesy of Delaney Mallory

Senior Digital Innovation in Film and Television students are required to make a short film their senior year. The program, which was a part of the School of Arts and Innovation for four years, will now operate on its own.

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, the decision to dissolve the School of Arts and Innovation (SAI) was made by its faculty members after a four year run of varying visions among the four departments and administration.

The school was home to the art, Digital Innovation in Film and Television (DIFT), theatre and music departments. Theatre and music will continue to operate together, while the DIFT department and the art department will operate separately. The current structure is a return to the previous setup before SAI was implemented.

SAI was an unprecedented institutional structure created by Xavier faculty that went into practice in the 2014-15 school year. Two professors, including current music theory professor Dr. Kaleil Skeirik, proposed the school as a way to create common experiences and shared classes between the four disciplines. They hoped this would to foster creativity and innovation.

“In my mind, SAI would have created opportunities for collaboration that doesn’t exist in many places,” former SAI director and art chair Johnathan Gibson said. “Seeing students involved with theatre learn about sound design and music was an idea that excited me.”

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. David Mengel said that the SAI aimed to help students understand what innovation was through studying fine arts.

“We were noticing the creative benefits of fine arts for what we call innovation,” Mengel said. “We looked to help students understand innovative thought through art and to develop the skills and habits that are transferable.”

Mengel went on to say that another goal of SAI was to allow the separate departments more visibility than they could have received individually.

One example of collaborative work was a $500 SAI grant program that encouraged collaboration between fields of study. One of the projects was a senior art show that featured an original score composed by a music student. The idea was for students to meet, share their experiences and work on projects.

The challenges for SAI brought up by Mengel included the lack of a central location on campus, differing ideas by faculty members and an unclear vision for the institutional structure of the school. The school had no common courses or expectations.

“Not everyone agreed with the direction of the school. Different people had different goals,” Mengel said. “It was an interesting and hopeful idea that did not have enough buy-in from faculty.”

Mengel stated the main divide among faculty was between those wanted to maintain separate institutional identities and those who viewed collaboration as a higher priority. Other faculty thought that physical space and distance were impossible to overcome. He also went on to say that the departments never fully merged.

“The faculty didn’t know what to do with the idea,” Gibson said. “I saw it as a green light to work together and define our own structure. I don’t think (the other faculty) wanted to take the opportunity of a blank canvas to create opportunities for students.”

According to Gibson, some faculty thought that there was top-down coercion by the administration to make structural changes happen, causing individual departments to lose status to the larger SAI umbrella. 

Mengel noted that the school never created a common purpose and failed to achieve success because of it.

“Some saw the new structure as a larger umbrella that would take away autonomy from the separate departments,” Gibson said. “There were concerns over shared budgets and shared decision making.”

“Because the school never coalesced, most students didn’t think about it,” Mengel said. “It wasn’t much of a reality for those involved, and students held on to their academic program as their primary affiliation. The art department did not use the SAI name when presenting shows whereas DIFT did on occasion.”

According to Mengel, the College of Arts and Sciences is always looking for natural synergies between academic disciplines that make the experience stronger for students. Regarding the possibility of trying a similar idea in the future, Mengel said, “It’s always good to see if the institutional structures are supporting student learning. As different faculty develop ideas we’ll keep an eye out for potential changes. Internal change is important as we adapt and grow as a university.”

By Joseph Cotton | Staff Writer