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Amid wave of resignations, fashion educators tell of burnout, lack of support and cancel culture

By Jackie Mallon

8 Jun 2022

Business |Interview

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Students today are graduating into an historically unprecedented environment of social and climate unrest amid a once-in-a-century global pandemic. It will have an effect on this generation of young professionals. When Covid struck and classes were taught remotely, academic leaders in fashion schools nationwide focused discussion on the mental health of students and rallied to create resources for those struggling with this new reality. But educators were struggling too. Were similar resources put in place to make sure faculty was coping? FashionUnited speaks to educators across the US and UK to find out. Some request anonymity, others are happy to attach their name to the rarely discussed topic of educators’ wellbeing.

“In my opinion our mental health was not taken care of,” says a tenured fashion professor from a large midwestern school whom we’ll name Luis. “Leadership talked about it, but more responsibilities were thrown at us and while we were praised for taking on those additional responsibilities it didn’t help our mental state or our pocket books. We were all just so stressed out and those extra responsibilities continue even now with Covid not as pervasive.” While the extra duties no longer make sense to his job, Luis, eight years from retirement and with hopes of a promotion, feels powerless to go up against his director.

“There’s absolutely nothing for instructors,” says Simon Ungless, Executive Director of the Fashion School at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University since he built the program over 25 years ago after working with Alexander McQueen in London on his first ten collections. “Mental health for the faculty has never ever been considered at all.” He recalls during the various stages of the pandemic, being forced to eliminate positions, reduce professors’ hours, remove weeks from their contracts, all while increasing the number of students in classes and decreasing the number of classes. “Everything was designed to undermine us,” he says. “I went from a department of over 30 full-timers down to 7 overnight. That weighs very heavy on me. I have resentment. I have anger. I probably should see a therapist. None of that is discussed.” Ungless announced his resignation in the spring and leaves his post this month.

A wave of resignations is sweeping fashion academia. In December Shelley Fox left her role as Director of the MA Fashion & Society program at Parsons, a course which she built from scratch fourteen years ago. She recalls when Covid hit, the school was taking spring break to figure out next steps, and all she could think of was if it would allow her to spend an extra week in her upstate home to recuperate. “I'd been giving it 150 percent, 6-7 days a week,” she says. She answered emails at any time of day and was always just a phone call away for students. “Because I didn’t want them to fail, or have their time wasted," she says. "If I can answer that question now it’s going to save them 3 days. I know because I’ve been there.”

Fox says she was in burnout a year before Covid happened. She couldn’t have imagined how much worse things would get.

Schools prioritize student mental health, neglect educators

National Student Surveys (NSS) were introduced in the UK in 2005 allowing students to provide feedback on all aspects of their higher education experience. About ten years ago Andrew Groves, then-Course Director of BA Fashion at University of Westminster noticed that school management was “suddenly desperate to know that 100 percent of the students were happy at all times. As if happiness was the only measure of success in a very complex educational environment.” He believes that prioritizing student happiness above all else can impede the growth which comes from confronting those challenging and even uncomfortable moments in education that stretch young people in unexpected ways. Regarding the mental health of faculty, says Grove, “Ah, well, there’s not an NSS for staff.”

Instead Groves had to meet annual KPRs (Key Performance Indicators) a system which logs data such as the number of applicants, conversion rate of applicants, whether the program was the student’s first or second choice, number of overseas versus home students, how many progress from first to second year, and finally how many earn a degree.

“Every time your measurables improve, next year you’re judged against that much higher standard,” says Groves who got a 100 percent satisfaction rate one year but questions how much impact he even had on it. He carries out similar duties in the same way every year. “Actually that success set me up for failure, and that’s very hard,” he says. If he didn’t continue to get 100 percent he knew he would have to explain himself, and even when he did, management was quick to draw his attention to student comments which weren’t “positive”. “We spent 3-4 years together,” says Groves. “If I’m going to be critiquing them, I expect them to critique me back.”

All of the educators interviewed possess a student-centric approach to education. Many of them experienced international success before entering academia, some still work in the industry, and all are familiar with the pitfalls and rejection associated with being a fashion professional in this complex field and feel compelled to pass on what they know. But the job of passing on their expertise to the next generation has begun to feel like stepping through a minefield. 85 percent of educators we interview have been reprimanded for their language, tone, or demeanor after students filed complaints.

Says Fox, “Professors are feeling very insecure about being named or checked as something they’re not, and then it becomes their word against yours. And it’s terrifying.” Schools attempting to course correct for centuries of institutional racism naturally must take all complaints seriously, together with reports of misogyny, microaggressions or any other perceived injustice occurring in the classroom. But inevitably students do not always act in good faith. Some schools have established Bias sections in their student portals for reporting offenses. It has been said that university is a model for society, but in some ways the reverse is occurring: the phenomenon of cancel culture has penetrated the classroom, and some students have identified it as a way to retaliate for a poor grade or their personal dissatisfaction in their academic performance. Suddenly, the apparatus of overturning centuries of bias can descend upon an unsuspecting individual instructor’s head simply because they gave a student a C+.

Some professors observe that students post-Covid engage less and are communicating differently. They text each other even though they are in the same room, even across the desk from one another. Meanwhile instructors are being pushed to adapt their personalities to suit. Luis, after a 32-year career of teaching, was asked to “be more personable” so he initiated chats at the start of class. One dialogue led to a student enquiring if he had children, if he would like to have children, then the rather odd follow-up of what sort of children he would like. He responded that some years ago he and his partner had looked into adopting an “Asian or African American baby.” He was promptly reported for racism. He’s not sure if it was a set up and doesn’t understand the exact nature of his wrongdoing, but the complaint is currently progressing to the top level.

“They are very sensitive to social issues but they don’t talk to me to clarify, they go over my head,” says Luis. “Because communication was really damaged during Covid they don’t know how to navigate through situations that need proper communication. Go to the person you have an issue with.” Still, Luis says he loves teaching, and loves the students and that has kept him going for three decades. However, in his current circumstances, he feels he has been “left to fend for myself.”

In the hurry to nip in the bud any suggestion of bias on the part of staff, management might overlook a core feature of everyone involved. Humanity. Professors are feeling as vulnerable as students because they know that, even with the utmost self-awareness of their inherent biases, they will make mistakes. “Students expect us to be these fully resolved, clearheaded people who always know what they’re doing,” says Groves. “We have to present that to them but of course it’s not like that, it’s completely chaotic because they don’t understand what we have to deal with on the institution level.”

Manhattan's Garment District Ph. Jackie Mallon

Does the fashion industry care how you are feeling?

When a perplexed Ungless felt he wasn’t reaching a group of menswear students, one of them, an older student, informed him that the problem was that he didn’t enquire about their wellbeing. “They want a dialogue about how they are,” said the student, but added the proviso, “you’re also going to have to change that up every week because they’re never going to be the same person twice.”

Attention to how students are feeling consumes a larger chunk of class time than ever before yet classes that were taught by two instructors before Covid are now often taught by one. These overworked professors have had no particular training in the specialized field of mental health. Ungless scoffs at any expectation that professors should be a species of groundskeeper picking up the litter that has lined a student’s path to his classroom. “Playing some kind of catch up for all the things they’ve experienced before and preparing them for an industry that doesn’t exist. I mean, come on,” he says. “Professors shouldn’t have to compensate for a student’s inadequate high school education, or parents telling them everything they do is wonderful, or that every time they’ve gone to an event they walk away with a goodie bag.”

He says there is a lot of that now in school, whereas in the recent past, feelings had no place in industry. “It’s not so much about what you do, it’s how you feel about it,” he says. “Whereas I still think it’s about what you do.”

The fashion industry has released many mea culpas over the past few years and a slew of industry executives have been toppled after years of unchecked misbehavior. Luxury brands like Prada, Gucci, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, to name a few, have been accused of racism, cultural appropriation, homophobia. A recent documentary outlines how 90s behemoth Abercrombie & Fitch was built upon an ideology of misogyny and racism. In 2020 the CEO and founder of Reformation resigned after accusations of racism. Alexander Wang’s label no longer occupies the hot spot it once did after models came out detailing sexual misconduct by the designer. Yet fashion schools tend to be liberal strongholds and there are many motivated change agents working within the industry. Most of them will admit the industry is still rife with problems. Educators argue that the character-building aspect of a university education is in jeopardy and that entry level professionals must be equipped to navigate the challenges associated with climbing the ladder of this problematic, rewarding, frustrating, unique system.

“Students think criticism of their work is criticism of them,” says Groves. “It’s not an emotional business, it’s a hard financial business and emotions are only used to sell things to you.” The fashion professor’s role has always been to evaluate the student’s work within the context of the market or the needs of a client or the student’s own pre-published criteria. Attempting to meet the commercial needs of the industry with emotional language creates a disconnect. Says Groves, “There is a lack of openness, an inability to be strategic in how to make change, and that’s through engagement.”

Fox says her work with the MFA students involved much more than just fashion design: “You have to get them to stand up for themselves, to get them to realize what their strengths are, their weaknesses, it’s about life lessons honestly. I felt that was what the MFA was about really, life lessons under this umbrella of creativity.”

The industry is changing, albeit slowly, and there are more ways to operate within it than before and no set path to success. Academia is changing too, with college enrollment’s steady decline over the past decade only exacerbated by the pandemic, and many questioning the value of an expensive university degree. Some veteran educators also notice a worrying trend of students coming out of their graduate programs and going straight into academia without ever having ran their own business, been independent, secured funding, or experienced anything that they could pass on firsthand to the group coming up. Knowing how to work with different people is essential, and classroom interactions between student and critic combined with industry collaborations have traditionally been a way to equip a student for that.

“Why is someone spending 50 grand a year to be pleased with themselves?” asks Fox. “You’d be better off buying a property, honestly, if all you want is to be pleased. If you don’t want criticism, if you’re not here to be challenged as a student, you are wasting your time.” But underperforming or disgruntled students who see an opportunity to set upon instructors by making unfounded accusations has created a toxic workplace. “You wonder why people are resigning left and right?” ask Fox. “People are straying away from leadership positions, they don’t want it. And why would they? Putting their neck on the line to be hung out to dry.”

If misspeaking is punished by censorship, it only discourages further speech. Then what is the likes of Luis to do, in order to "be more personable?" The most effective instructors consider themselves to be lifelong students and therefore want to understand why a word, a remark, an off-hand joke landed poorly.

Luis observes the student body to be vastly different than even two years ago and in tandem with the positive step of mental health being more openly discussed among students is the downside that it has become a way for a student to get out of situations they would rather not be in. “And there’s nothing that we can do,” he says. “Because the university asks us to side with the student when they say they have issues. It’s become an automatic excuse.”

Students face the daily challenge of separating fact from fiction in this era of disinformation. Performative outrage and virtue signaling are all over our social media feeds. Shaming is in vogue, nuance is no longer valued, and the noticeable rise in mob behavior on both the left and the right can’t fail but find its way into the classroom. This stomps out constructive dialogue, something upon which the creative industries and indeed third level education have traditionally thrived. Collectively students are immensely powerful as a force for change but when that power is misdirected, as many professors know, it can turn to bullying. Suddenly faculty and student body are opponents. Add to this the fact that schools are in an almost permanent emergency mindset of damage control and you have an academia in crisis. Shelley Fox became a victim of this crisis.

Well before Covid, Fox was having trouble getting out of bed due to debilitating backache. She would stand at the top of the stairs and cry with the pain but 40 minutes later she would be at her desk. She bought a special chair which she called the Rolls Royce of chairs and in between Zoom tutorials she’d swap out ice packs. Even after she finally made time for spinal surgery she reassured her students she would be back in a couple of weeks. But little did she know the worst was yet to come.

BLM protest in NYC June 2020 Photo Jackie Mallon

“This is the first time I’ve ever spoken about it on record, but the surgery was easy compared to this,” she begins. “But it’s about time and at least now I can talk about it.” In June 2020 when the MFA posted its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter nationwide protests on Instagram, a handful of graduates accused the program, and Fox, of racism in the comments section. One of them even tagged Diet Prada, the Instagram fashion industry watchdog account with over 3 million followers. Fox says she knew of the particular classroom incident which prompted the comments, and looked forward to getting that information out. A big meeting was called, and two young program administrators brought in. “They told us ‘as white people in power,’ ie. Directors, to sit with it,” says Fox. “So everyone was looking at each other, wondering what was going on, and the topics of racism in America and police brutality were discussed, which is, of course, all valid.” But when Fox offered to address the Instagram comments, with reference to specific events that she believes had led to disgruntlement among those graduates who posted, she was immediately silenced. She felt unsupported by the then-dean who has since been ousted in a vote of no confidence. Fox has also realized since that an external monitor should have been present at that meeting. “It’s never been discussed since, and I’ve been carrying that on my shoulders for 18 months,” she says.

Fox often has dinner with former students and feels the greatest sense of job satisfaction when she sends graduates off into their future, knowing that she has helped them grow strong enough to fly solo and not need her anymore. Suddenly everything had changed. She has a knot in her stomach every time she thinks about it. “I felt ‘You racist, you white supremacist,’ even though that’s not how it was intended. It feels like that constantly.” Fox says her Achilles heels is that she gives all or nothing. After the meeting when she returned to the classroom she broke down in front of the students who were all watching the drama unfolding on Instagram, a couple of them even joining in. She received an outpouring of supportive messages from past students. No one in leadership ever followed up with her to find out what the post was about. She puts this down to the prevailing fear of misspeaking and an inability to ask the right questions. She prepared her resignation. “I thought it was going to be this long-assed convoluted email,” she says, “but in the end it was really simple, polite, professional.”

Future of fashion education unclear as schools lose creative leaders

For many it is an ideal time to leave education as there are so many moving parts and an educator’s role has become confusing and frustrating. Cynicism has set in. Ungless is returning to the creative field, having realized that he is first and foremost a designer who took what he refers to as “a 25-year detour into education.” He says, “I am going where I know the grass is greener.”

Tenured educators such as the aforementioned have traditionally enjoyed a level of protection that adjunct professors never attain. One jobbing fashion professor whom we’ll call Kostas, with an extensive prior career in brand building and fashion marketing taught courses across four different NYC institutions to make a livable salary. While his classes all moved to Zoom during Covid, the transition did not remove the tension headaches and exhaustion that teaching caused. He had noticed he was drinking heavier. Many educators admit to reaching for the glass of wine earlier during the pandemic.

If there are so few processes in place to ensure the mental health of full-time tenured faculty, who have a full benefits package with health coverage, then adjunct educators like Kostas don’t stand a chance. “You’re not part of the tribe, the educator’s tribe, and so you’re already floating by yourself anyway, free floating” he says. “Then you‘re progressively waiting for the semesters to end so that you get a three-week break before that begins all over again and you hope to God you don’t have to deal with the same kind of crazy.” In the beginning he appreciated student reviews because he considered their feedback part of learning the craft of teaching. Now he likens them to one last blow to the head at the end of the semester and finds himself searching through the comments for any positive takeaway, even if it’s just a compliment on his hair.

“I wasn’t trained in therapy or psychology or anything like that,” he says. “I like tools like Canvas where all the rubric, grades, comments are all in the one place and everything is visible for the student.” Occupying a lower position in faculty hierarchy, Kostas is attentive to the importance of a paper trail, in this case a virtual one, in order to not fall victim to students’ feelings or even worse, their memory.

“I went in to design education really wanting to change the world. Everything I got out of education myself I really wanted to bring to the classroom, and I was so excited to teach the process—design thinking, reflection, critique,” he says. “It came to the point where I realized this is a system and it’s all about money, so I’m going to treat it like that. I’m going to go in, do my work and treat it like a job at the end of the day. I’m a part time faculty, don’t expect anything more than that I show up, share the information and get out of there.”

A palpable disappointment runs through these interviews. Some of the professors had entered the field believing they would be lifelong educators. For all of them, it was about more than a career path and their dedication was all-consuming as they shared stories about forgetting to pay their credit card bill because a student’s progress was on their mind, working an extra 5 hours of unseen uncompensated labor many evenings, being afraid to take the sabbatical they were entitled to in case the students or program would suffer. Their shared passion of shaping the future of our industry, bringing to life the subjects they teach for the next generation, and opening the doors of the mind to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship just as their favorite teachers had done for them, was torn to shreds in the classroom.

“I genuinely worry about the future of creative education. Who are the next teachers, the next mentors?” asks Fox. “If we’re made to feel that we can’t do our job properly we’re stuck, we’re frozen in time, and I think it’s a disservice to the next generation. It’s a disservice to mentors, to creativity in all its forms, and to the industry. Everything just stops.”

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FASHION INDUSTRY
Mental Health