Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Right now, Randolph is not a peaceable kingdom

There is something profoundly sad about the spectacle of an institution shooting itself in its institutional foot -- in the case of Randolph College, repeatedly.

Let me say here that I haven't perused the college financial records. I don't know how badly in debt the college might be, or how badly the board of trustees needs to sell off part of the art collection for the school to survive. Nor do I know for sure how Randolph got itself into this situation, or whose fault it was (if anyone's).

I do, however, know Karol Lawson and Ellen Agnew, the director and former director of Randolph's Maier Museum, and how dedicated they were to the museum's collection. The fact that both of them have resigned -- Lawson today, Agnew a few months ago -- tells me a lot.

For this is not just any art collection, but part of what has always given the college its unique identity. Not many schools the size of Randolph have their own museum, much less a collection of American art considered one of the richest in Virginia -- if not the nation.

Moreover, this is Lynchburg's museum, as well. The city has no public space in which to view art, and the Maier and the Daura Gallery have filled that gap. Central Virginia schools regularly bus students to the Maier on field trips, and the museum often hosts concerts and speakers for the public's enjoyment and benefit.

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that selling part of the collection is the only possible avenue left for the college. Either George Bellows' "Men of the Docks" and Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom" must go, or the school is doomed.

Even if that's a given, it seems obvious to me that the whole affair has been handled badly. The school did everything but send in a SWAT team to remove four paintings on Monday, after notification had been sent out to students, alumni and faculty by e-mail. Right after that, Karol Lawson quit.

The equivocation about the art collection, the notification by e-mail and the unannounced removal (under cover of a bogus bomb scare) all seem to point, rightly or wrongly, in the direction of a guilty conscience.

I feel for Brenda Edson, a former co-worker who is now the director of public relations at Randolph. She's just doing her job, and from what I've seen, she does it well.

And on the surface, she had a point when she told our reporter Christa Desrets: "Those are four pieces out of 3,500 pieces of art."

Unfortunately, two of those pieces -- the Bellows and the Hicks -- were the "faces," if you were, of the whole collection.

It's as if Virginia Tech were to announce it was saving money by eliminating football scholarships, but then reassuring students that they would still have a team on the Division III level.

Not knowing Randolph's finances, I don't have any easy solutions to suggest. The logical step, perhaps, would be to ask the alumni to collectively "buy" these paintings and then donate them back, but the school has only recently gone to these same folks for the money it will take to convert the college into a co-ed institution.

As it stands now, though, the heavy-handed manner with which the school is going about its art sale lays bare a public spectacle of an administration at odds with many of its students, some key staff people, and more than a few alums.

Not the image you want to project when you're trying to grow.

24 comments:

Laura said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Also, with the way the administration of Randolph College has managed to drive the place into the ground, I'm not convinced alums want to give them money to further feed the monkeys that seem to be running the place.

My apologies to any monkeys offended by my unfair comparison.

Clara said...

Thank you for writing this. It's important to see a community perspective that is not a mere echo of the bull---- press reports that come out of Randolph College.

It is sad that a place that, as short as three years ago, was the very embodiment of integrity and class, is now selling off its greatest treasures to add a few bucks to the endowment. The Maier Museum has too rich a history to be treated with such disrespect.

Frank said...

First, $25,000,000+ is not a small amount of money. To put something to work that was essentially inert in a time of need is a sensible strategy. The hysteria over going coed and retrenching the school's finances is the problem--not the actions themselves. Even the very top women's colleges have slipped in the average quality of their applicants and the handwriting was on the wall for all to see.

After a few years when these hard decisions and the anger over them have subsided, Lynchburg will have a stronger, larger more vibrant college as one of its crown jewels.

Ann said...

I have given some big bucks to R-MWC over the years on behalf of my familial alumnae. I myself am not an alumna. I have been in favor of this institution's going co-ed for the last ten years and more. Having witnessed my own alma mater's going co-ed many years ago, I realized that R-MWC would wither on the vine as a single-sex school harbored in remote Lynchburg. Lynchburg is not Boston. I suggest that the protagonists use their energies to go out and raise some really big bucks. Those people did not open their pocket books in the first place, and this is reason that we/they are in this mess. I predict that you will see Hampden-Sydney go co-ed within ten years in spite of fact that they adamantly deny it today. The role of single-sex schools has become obsolete, and you will find that better students no longer will want to attend these institutions. Colleges which claim to be single-sex, and they mostly are on the female side, really are not, because they sit in geographical locations where they have lots of interaction and sharing of classroom courses, not to mention sociability. R-MWC does not have this luxury of location.

Laura said...

Ann,
I would NEVER attend a failing coed institution in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Yours from the state of Ohio,
Laura

KT said...

Perhaps a benefactor could step forward, purchase the paintings, then gift them back to the school...which could in turn then put them up for sale again. This cycle could repeat until the college endowment reaches a level considered sufficient, or until the paintings are lost or destroyed in the shuffle, whichever occurs first.

An absurd idea? It's no more absurd than what has already transpired, including the removal of the paintings from the museum under the guise of a bomb scare.

The sale of these paintings is an absolutely disgraceful act by a small group of scoundrels who clearly have nothing but disdain for RMWC's history and tradition.

A Man of the Docks said...

I'm sad about the art leaving the Maier, but it's not like we didn't know this was coming.

I took some time earlier this fall to visit the Maier and spend time with the Bellows, figuring this day would come. How many of the complainers bothered to do the same? Like taking the time visit an elderly parent you know isn't long for this world.

I wonder how many of those complaining loudly ever donated to the Museum or the College.

Did the City ever offer to chip in? After all, if it's a Community treasure, then shouldn't the whole community help support it? Or are we just welfare recipients on Randolph's dole?

We've all known that the College was seeking a financial solution to financial problems for an entire year. In that time, nobody stepped up and offered to help (read donate). Instead, all they did was complain, protest and litigate.

Personally, I don't have that kind of money - I'm just a consumer of the Maier - therefore I have no right to complain. What makes you any different?

KT said...

To "man of the docks,"

It's not the fault of the community that the school's finances were mismanaged and its assets squandered. For that matter, it is unreasonable to assume that any amount of museum patronage or local philanthropy could make up for reckless and irresponsible fiscal policy by the school's governing board.

A Man of the Docks said...

kt

You're right. The community isn't responsible for Randolph's finances. Never claimed they were. And no, I'm not an apologist for the administration - I don't like it any more than you do.

The "community" seems to want to the art in the museum. That's fine. What are you willing to do to keep it there? Idealists will believe that protests and raising "their voices" will do the trick. But the hard cold fact is "money talks."

I'm old. And it's taken me decades to truly understand the difference between what I wish for and what can be realistically achieved.

I also recognize a free lunch when I see it, and am happy to take advantage. I loved the Bellows and I am thankful that the college provided it for me while they could. But it's gone now. The free lunch is over.

Anonymous said...

I think everyone is missing what more than likely went on here... If I had to make a guess, the only reason the new president accepted the position was with the "understanding" that he was not going to be put in the position of having to be a revenue "rainmaking savior" rather than a college president (though 50% of any college president's job today is fundraising). The sale of the paintings should put the school on an even playing field regarding being able to catch its financial breath and move forward without the huge debt weight on its back. Also, just because the college has $50 million or more of endowment does not mean it can use any of it for operational use, unless donor intent was for that to happen in the first place. To use the endowment otherwise could put someone in prison...or at least the IRS would come down like a ton of bricks on the institution and all in the fiduciary chain.

Bedford Hawk said...

Yes, it appears that Randolph and many other institutions of higher learning around the Country are having severe management problems. Makes you kind of understand why our government is. Now to try to determine what is driving this trend is almost like trying to understand the evolution of the Universe but I sure have some ideas, which I won't share today.
In a nutshell I feel it is more about unintelligent decision making than rising costs.

Anonymous said...

R-Reckless
A-Arrogant
N-Negligent
D-Dumb
O-Oblivious
L-Liars
P-Playing
H-Helpless

Jennifer said...

The mismanagement behind the Red Brick Wall has caused pain far beyond its limits. From all the up in New Jersey I've been a consistent donor to and believer in R-MWC since my graduation in '86. All male schools will indeed probably go by the wayside. Women's colleges tho' are a completely different animal. They can and do thrive. There was no NEED for R-M to go co-ed, and despite the SACS warning, there is no need to increase the endowment by selling these paintings. There is a need for belt tightening and better management practices, and a MAJOR reduction in tuition discounting. The proceeds of the proposed sale here are plainly intended to accommodate the ill-advised transition to a co-ed facility -- especially in the athletic & housing depts.
There is no guaranty that the 4 paintings removed from the R-MWC collection will ever again be viewed by the public. They could in fact go to a private collector. And it should be recalled that until all lawsuits are finished, these paintings belong to Randolph-Macon WOMAN's College, not Randolph College. The Board has also unlawfully changed the charitable purpose to which the proceeds of their sale would be put -- a co-ed rather than a woman's college. So even if the Board sells them, they'd have to use the cash just for the girls!

Anonymous said...

Every university admininistration that sells off an 'asset' like this not only hurts their reputation, integrity, and donor base - but they also make it easier for other universities and museum trustees in general to do the same thing. Museums do NOT capitalize collections for these very reasons. Randolph Macon not only sold works from its museum's collection, they made it much easier for other universities to think its ok to raid their treasuries. That's not what university museums are for. This kind of think erodes the entire academic experience and scholarly possiblities. It puts pressure on the entire field in an effort that will, inevitably, fail to solve the problem. (This my first time responding to a blog - I am that put off by this!)

Anonymous said...

Every university admininistration that sells off an 'asset' like this not only hurts their reputation, integrity, and donor base - but they also make it easier for other universities and museum trustees in general to do the same thing. Museums do NOT capitalize collections for these very reasons. Randolph Macon not only sold works from its museum's collection, they made it much easier for other universities to think its ok to raid their treasuries. That's not what university museums are for. This kind of think erodes the entire academic experience and scholarly possiblities. It puts pressure on the entire field in an effort that will, inevitably, fail to solve the problem. (This my first time responding to a blog - I am that put off by this!)

David H. said...

The biggest problem with what has happened at Randolph is that problems were going on without anyone paying any attention. It's like when Mark Warner took over as governor and discovered that his predecessor had totally screwed up the state's economy. The result? A readjustment of taxes and fees - and nobody really complained. At Randolph, it's like someone panicked, said let's allow men, let's sell a few pieces of art and all will be right with the world. Wrong. If the board of trustees would have said four years ago we're going to explore allowing men and gotten a student seat on the board, this whole thing could have been different. Did Randolph approach any local banks about getting a loan; or ask the city of Lynchburg to help; or ask the other private local schools to borrow money; or have a major fundraising campaign? It doesn't sound like it. This is a sorry situation in which the board thinks its right, the students think they're right, the PR is questioned, faculty and staff lose their jobs to save money, local editorials are uninformed (and yes, I am a former member of the local media) and nobody wants to shut the hell up and listen to everybody else.

So, what will the future hold? If the school isn't Liberty University North in five years - which wouldn't surprise me - then history will only be able to tell that story. That all being said, Darrell, I think this is an awesome post. It's about the only thing in this situation that has made any sense.

Anonymous said...

The art sale has been painful to watch, a bit like a slow moving hurricane out there that you hear is probably going to hit your area soon.

I love the art and am sorry it is being sold. Going coed is probably going to save the college; Lynchburg would be devastated by that loss both tangibly and reputationally.

If these two hard choices do not preserve the college, then I am not sure what will. I urge people to give this time to shake out and see if they end up in a better place.

Anonymous said...

As an alumna who contributed to R-MWC nearly every year since graduation (that's nearly 30 years), I was appalled when the College did not trust its alumnae enough to tell us it was in trouble. Burying that information in the annual report figures does not a plea make. Thus, when many of us learned that the College was in financial trouble (has anyone been researching the previous president's role in this?), it was too late for us to rally and attempt to change the College's course.

Now the art that so many of us lived with for four years--essentially in our home/living room--has become the sacrificial lamb for financial woes. I suspect that this will indeed further decrease any alumnae giving. The expressed hope that alumnae will cease to be angry and return to the fold will now be a myth. The College is seeking a short-term solution to a long-term issue. Our R-MWC economics professors would be ashamed.

Randolph College owes an apology to the residents of Lynchburg for what is undoubtedly only the beginning of the dismantling of the Maier Museum's collection. Randolph College must also own up to its lack of honor--for the Bellows painting was the first of the Louise Jordan Smith acquisitions, and her legacy to the college she loved has been betrayed by the very Trustees who should fight to retain it. For shame.

Anonymous said...

As a recent alumna I am ashamed of Randolph College. I am ashamed that the institution of so-called "higher learning" will not rest until whatever remnants of the wonders of RMWC are gone. I will never give money to Randolph College. I am sad to see the Bellows and Hicks go [oh so very sad . . .] however I hope that sommeone who appreciates the pieces as fine works of art, not just sources of revenue, will acquire them.

Anonymous said...

First of all "FRANK", gutting the art collection and desicrating the history and traditions of this all-women institution will not ultimately result in a "Crown Jewel" for Lynchburg.

Second, The only existing "jewel" Lynchburg has ever had is the Texas Inn.

Third, nothing George Bellows ever did could be called "inert" you dolt!

As a graduate who has donated every year for the last 22, I can say that every piece of mail I ever got from R-MWC, including those from the last several years, was optomistic, cheery and upbeat. There was no written warning to the alumnae that anything was amiss. I am still angry that we, the graduates, were not given the opportunity to offer solutions in the form of more money and/or creative ideas.

I went to college with more motivated, brilliant and creative women than I have met collectively since. A solution (or many) could have been found and worked on.

The trustees have behaved like lazy 10 year olds, taking all of the "easy-outs" without any forethought or true understandingof what they are destroying along the way.

Anonymous said...

Anon,
When I look for "hysterical" in the dictionary I will assume that is your picture next to it. Selling four pictures out of 3500 or so is hardly gutting the collection.

As to the "crown jewels" of Lynchburg, I never have set foot in the Texas Inn but would consider all the colleges major assets to the city. Maybe slumming it at the Texas Inn was exciting to the pampered suburban girls who attended RMWC in your day but to us who come from more gritty backgrounds it's just another greasy spoon you can find in the seedier parts of any city.

Anonymous said...

Does the Texas Inn have any art in its collection for sale?

Anonymous said...

4 out of 3500 is not correct.

Of the Maiers actual owned collection of painting, it is 4 of about 200.