One Year Later: SOFA's Turn Around
by Liz Peterson | published Jan. 31st, 2019
In the fall of 2017, former RIT professor Peter Kiwitt was arrested for child pornography. It was discovered that Kiwitt had two Title IX reports filed against him. Multiple female students had also reported unpleasant and uncomfortable interactions with the former professor via their SMART evaluations. Speculation was made that the old administration of both the School of Film and Animation (SOFA) as well as the College of Art and Design (CAD — formerly CIAS) had turned a blind eye to the issues occurring within the program and fostered a disregard for current women of the program.
A year later, it is evident that both SOFA and CAD have made some serious adjustments to prevent such events from happening again.
College of Art and Design Initiatives
Progress began when familiar faces were brought onto the administrative team. Robin Cass, previously a faculty member in the Glass program at RIT, was brought in as the interim dean of the College of Art and Design. Cass had a vision of equality — something that has recently become the focus in the arts industry. She hoped to watch the college grow to be a well-balanced environment with plenty of opportunities available for all students, especially in leadership roles.
"We’re trying to make progress. It can be a problem,” Cass said.
To change the way things have always been done doesn't occur overnight. There is bound to be some resistance. That being said, today CAD's student population is 60 percent female. With women being the majority, the topics of sensitivity and inclusion have to become key to achieving an environment where female students are respected by their male professors and can work alongside the male students.
Since assuming her role in Spring 2018, Cass mentioned that CAD has been working to be a leader for the RIT community. Faculty are mandated to attend workshops that teach them how best to handle certain situational conversations, such as handling student discomfort during certain class discussions and how to be more conscious of how their students feel.
All colleges have been invited to partake in monthly Title IX meetings so they can be aware of new training and approaches. As more women join the film and animation school, Title IX has become more relevant and reminders needed.
Recently, the program AdvanceRIT made its debut, a program financed by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant. It specializes in assisting women faculty working in STEM-related majors. One of the foundation's biggest focuses is increasing awareness of unconscious bias and working to eliminate it.
CAD faculty members attend numerous workshops in hopes of encouraging the well-practiced open door policy, allowing their students to feel comfortable approaching anyone on any issues that might be affecting their time at RIT.
There is the student advisory council as well — an initiative implemented last semester where students can be critical of how the college is performing. Another idea Cass is working on is the creation of a new position surrounding gender equality in which conversation will be able to be facilitated and mediated.
School of Film and Animation Initiatives
On a similar but smaller scale, Interim Director of the School of Film and Animation Adrianne Carageorge is working to improve the learning environment for her students and ensure women feel equal to their male peers. This is a movement rippling across the entertainment industry, especially in regards to the practice of film.
“If everything’s not functioning, then it’s not working,” Carageorge said. “I’m not going to lie about the dark times; it was bad, but it’s over.”
"I'm not going to lie about the dark times; it was bad, but it's over."
Since she was appointed by Cass, Carageorge has been actively working to make faculty and staff more accessible to students and to ensure their voices are heard.
There are town hall meetings orchestrated for just film and animation students, as well as town hall meetings where the entire school will get together. Student representatives, elected by their peers, are expected to attend faculty meetings in hopes they will relay information to their classmates and bring questions or concerns to the faculty's attention.
Carageorge even granted a requested item by students: a bulletin board where information could be shared and students could be kept in the loop, as communication used to be scarce. She has taken the initiative to make sure such incidents of communication occur in the future.
“This school is moving at a fast pace, a lot is changing — which is good. We're progressing forward,” Carageorge said. “Academically, a lot of initiatives are driven by the MAGIC building.”
The MAGIC building serves as a new pillar for all programs in CAD — a motivator for students to push the limits when it comes to their work. Any major on campus can utilize the MAGIC building, though some still prefer the labs located in Booth and Gannett.
All this change is exciting and promising as CAD and SOFA work together to pave the way for students. However, students have yet to really sense the change in atmosphere. While newer students in their first and second years are unaware of what occurred last fall, older students are not oblivious to the direction the college wants to take.
“Women who try to make a difference, don’t make a difference,” said Jesse James, a fourth year Film and Animation major, with a concentration in Live Action Cinematography.
James believes that, though women faculty can have great intentions, they’re still a long way from making the kind of change that turns heads. She reflected on how the mindset of certain male faculty and students remain the same: men are in command.
“Guys have special privileges,” James explained.
Preferential treatment is still present within her classes. James painted the picture of an environment where male students look down on their peers and male faculty underestimate the abilities of their female students. For example, how the program handled the situation pertaining Kiwitt left students feeling very unsure of their intentions. Their methods suggest the idea that men in this field are placed on a pedestal while women have to fight to be heard.
“Men who have made terrible decisions get to sit on their throne,” James said. "They were tight-lipped and everything was handled on the hush-hush. It made it that much worse."
"They were tight-lipped and everything was handled on the hush-hush."
Students and alumni would make inquiries about the status of his employment and nothing in regards to the investigation or his absence was revealed. In the meantime, according to James, the program cleaned house with a lot of male faculty and staff.
In one class she had with Mark Foggetti, a former professor in the college, James revealed on the first day he had made a statement about “dumbing down the course as there are females in his class.”
While she believes in the push to be more sensitive as more women join the ranks in the film program, James stands by the notion that the efforts doesn’t necessarily change the root of how the men of the program feel. There’s an underlying competition between opposite sexes, mostly on the women's side of things. Female students are looking for recognition and praise, which James claims is often rare to achieve.
Student evaluations were never respected in her eyes. She had mentioned in one, after having Kiwitt, that she had notified him the very first day of class that she did not like being touched by strangers, something he was allegedly known for doing towards female students. He only laughed off her request and continued to touch her regularly throughout the semester. Upon submitting her evaluation at the end of the semester, indicating her discomfort, her evaluation was dismissed and claims were made that Kiwitt had a quirky personality.
Though the program and its parent college have worked to change what Carageorge dubbed as the “dark days,” James feels more could be done — especially to improve the attitudes some male students have toward their female peers.
“The environment is better as you don’t have the [problematic] professors; however, the mindset is still present,” James said.
James hasn't had the best experience with Carageorge as she depicts the interim director as being too harsh on her students when she was a professor, and being very old-schooled in her mentality. However, she has acknowledged some of Carageorge's decisions, such as the inclusion of student representatives in faculty meetings, have helped keep students in the loop as to what is happening not only in the school, but in the college as well.
Some suggestions James had for improvement included working on course structure to ensure they are inclusive for all students and bringing in younger professors to adjust the current outdated mindset some students and professors have.
Change is something that does not register overnight. As time goes on, new students and new faculty will come in. The old will leave. What happened will be remembered by those who were a part of it, but it seems it won’t become a part of SOFA’s and CAD’s future.