by Mark Van Proyen
“This is called the snow card exercise. We are going to break into four groups for about 40 minutes, and each group will have a leader and a note-taker. Everybody will have two sets of ten cards. You will be asked to write one sentence on each. On the pink cards, we want you to state your best hopes for NCSAD and on the green cards, you will write your worst fears. The note-takers will compile these answers and then will be presented to the larger group at the end of the exercise. The goal is to find out if there is an unspoken consensus about what the future of the school should look like, and if we can accomplish that, then we can start to identify the next steps and best practices that will help get us to that point. Does everybody understand?”
The question was asked by a middle-aged woman wearing a trim grey skirt and a dark green blouse, both setting off her elegantly dyed red hair. Her palsied smile looked like it was welded onto her face, a likely effect of the multiple bouts of cosmetic surgery that were further suggested by a noticeable excess of loose skin lurking behind her jaw. Her eyes blinked at alarmingly rare intervals, and there was something oddly deliberate about the way that her upper torso swiveled, making it seem like an orthopedic device constrained her. A plastic medallion proclaiming her to be Laurel Margolis, Retreat Facilitator rested like a badge of honor on her silk blouse. Despite her Spanish surname and her oddly unfashionable yellow footwear, she perfectly conveyed the image of an Irish schoolmarm of classic lace-curtain vintage. She was the very same woman who introduced Helmut Zyklon at the Citadel Lyceum meeting in February, and that fact made my skin crawl.
From across the large room, Vic Thorsness stood and raised his hand. “Are we going to have enough time for that discussion before we go into the accreditation briefing?” Several of the other board members looked toward Vic, seeming to share his concern about the hour’s lateness.
Laurel shot Theda an inquiring glance. Theda responded by looking at her watch. She then whispered something to Toby, who dutifully nodded and walked toward the table upon which large urns of coffee and tea were set next to stacks of Styrofoam cups and plates of pastries. Turning back toward the whole group, Theda said, “It does seem as though we are running a bit late. I think it might be best if we skip the snow card exercise and take a short break. But before we do that, I want to remind everybody about tonight’s dinner and dance and make sure that everybody understands the details. I am told that the basement garage is open late, and since your parking is already part of the in-kind donation given to us by the hotel, the best thing might be for all of us to just walk to the party site. It is located about eight blocks south on Van Ness, and one block over on Franklin. There is no sign on the outside of the building, but you should know that it’s the prop warehouse for the opera. I am told that Anita worked with the opera’s propmasters to provide some special treats for our party environment. We will have great food courtesy of Café Appreciation, music by DJ Getit and lots of really nice wine donated by Afrownow Vineyards. “
Glancing around the room, Theda found herself greeted by 30 pairs of eager eyes. Twenty of these belonged to members of the Board of Trustees, who were attending the Saturday strategic planning retreat out of a sense of noblesse oblige and a reasonable desire to show that some small portion of their wardrobe consisted of something other than business attire. An additional pair of eyes belonged to Ms. Margolis, and five belonged to the members of the school’s executive staff, including Anita, Toby, Rhoda, Hobie and Jessica Dobey, Hobie’s rather mousy executive assistant. The remaining four pairs of eyes belonged to the contingent of “faculty representatives,” comprised of myself, Vic, Pepo and Photobitch.
Sensing nothing other than sighs of relief about the change of agenda, Theda played to the sentiment of the moment. “Okay, lets take a break and then reconvene at 4:15 sharp.”
Seconds later, two lines formed at the coffee service table and the room filled with the murmur of polite small talk. As I took my place in the coffee line, I looked upward to avoid making eye contact with any potential source of irksome chit-chat, noticing a large plasticine chandelier hanging high above our heads. Aside from a grand California landscape painting by Thomas Hill, it was the only piece of distinctive décor in the Henry Irving Hotel’s large meeting room and was an exact doppelganger of those in the two meeting rooms at the San Jose Convention Center. This similarity had me imagining low-wage workers in Indonesia or Brazil working their fingers to the bone to make ostentatious plastic chandeliers for corporate hotels. No doubt, their business was booming at the end of the second week in March of 2001.
“Are you as bored as I am?” I turned toward the familiar voice to my right and found Vic standing right next to me. I wondered if anyone else heard his question, and I wondered if I should care if anybody did. Since a response was called for, and since I was unsure of who might be listening to our conversation, I decided to channel the evasive voice of my old friend Captain Diffidence. “I think that much of the day has been taken up by everybody getting to know each other a little bit. The next hour should be better, or at least more to the point. Accreditation is something to which we need to pay attention.” Without realizing it, I had begun to use language like Laurel had been using throughout the retreat. It was a measured tone of voice that confidently deployed the strategies of deflection, circumlocution and pseudo-statement. How could I have let myself speak in such a degrading way? How strange was it that these little modalities of speech could move so freely through a group of people, rather like an infectious disease. Then it hit me: The very same woman who introduced Helmut Zyklon a month earlier had just infected everybody in the room with some kind of linguistic virus, and I was the only one who had taken cautionary notice of the ensuing fever.
But then, maybe I was not the only one. While I took my turn at the coffee dispenser, Vic leaned over to whisper something truly frightening. “That woman running this circus is my ex-wife. Either she doesn’t recognize me or is trying very hard to pretend that she doesn’t. I think she’s pretending.”
Even though I was stunned by Vic’s ghastly news, I did manage a quip. “I think everybody in this room needs to stop pretending.” I knew that Vic had been financially devastated by what he called “divorce number two,” and deductive reasoning assured me that the retreat facilitator, Laurel, could not have been divorce numbers one or three. To be treated like a faceless toddler by the devastator must have been much worse than merely galling. Nevertheless, Vic was keeping his cool. My spirit rose with the thought that all in attendance might stop pretending, although I could not imagine how we might get to that point. If Pepo made a T-Shirt graphic containing that injunction, he could claim that it would have magical powers, protecting us from the evil language virus being spread by typhoid Laurel.
There was a timely clinking of spoons on glasses, which silenced the room and sent everyone back to their seats. Toby and Rhoda took their cue to start passing out packets of documents, which prompted several Board members to reach for their reading glasses. When I received my document set, I noticed that the top page had a rubber stamp embossment proclaiming its contents “confidential,” meaning that they were for the eyes of Board members and no one else. Laurel gathered up her materials and quietly removed herself from the room without saying goodbye or anything else. I felt like I was in a James Bond movie.
When the room was quiet, Theda spoke up, and the tone of her voice was urgent. “As you all know, NCSAD is currently undergoing a routine accreditation visit in three weeks, and as part of that visit, the team that will write the report will want to interview the Board, both as a group and as individuals. We must pass this review, because good status with accreditation is what allows us to give government-backed financial aid to our students, a large majority of whom could not afford to attend NCSAD without that support. It is also important to know that PASC — the Pacific Association of Schools and Colleges, which is our chief accreditation agency – has been put on notice by the new Secretary of Education to be more vigilant and stringent in its evaluation of schools. We will be among the very first to be evaluated under the new criteria. Does anybody have a question before we begin?”
A Board member wearing a red plaid sweater vest raised his hand. “What is PASC?”
“It is the Pacific Association of Schools and Colleges, which is chartered by the Department of Education to oversee all institutions of higher learning in the five states that abut the Pacific Ocean, plus Nevada and Arizona. That is indicated on the top page, as a subtitled topic under the heading of 2001 Accreditation Strategy. Are there any other questions? Okay, let’s proceed to page 5. The first three pages are simply statements about the rationale for accreditation. Now on page 5, we see that our preliminary report was sent out on time and that it identified three areas of further concern, including Institutional Capacity, Program Assessment and Governance. Program Assessment is being worked on by the faculty in conjunction with the Dean’s office, while Institutional Capacity and Governance are particular concerns for the Board. “
The man in the plaid sweater vest again raised his hand, and Theda stopped to hear his question. “If Alfred Uhl is leaving, and we don’t have a Dean, how will we respond to any questions about Program Assessment?”
Theda struggled to sustain patience, and at that moment, I realized that Dean Alfred was not in the room. His absence from this particular meeting was troubling. She looked over at Toby, and then back at Hobie before saying, “Yes, it’s unfortunate that Alfred is not here, but he couldn’t make it because of a family issue. And just for the record, I would like to say that Tom Lawrence has graciously agreed to accept the position of Interim Dean until the search process identifies a permanent candidate. Tom could not make it to the meeting today, but he will be at tonight’s dinner and dance celebration. Alfred has assured me that he and the leadership of the Academic Senate have already put together their part of the report. Jay, can you add anything to the topic?”
I was taken off guard by the question, so I made the near-fatal mistake of answering with complete honesty. “This is the first I have heard about any report about Program Assessment.”
Instantly, Vic chimed in to snatch credibility from the jaws of my innocent gaffe. “Actually, Alfred, Tammy St. John, Tony Landini, Pepo McNally, Russet Vodavich and I all worked on the report—we finished while Jay was on sabbatical before joining the board.” The fact that the report had never been circulated to the full faculty seemed unimportant to everyone except me.
The conversational ball bounced back to Theda, who seemed eager to seize it. “I think it best if we focus on the aspect of the report that concerns us, especially insofar as governance is concerned. I think that PASC will give us big points for having faculty members on the Board, and they will also see the vital role that our Academic Senate plays in our curricular operations. Capacity may be a more serious concern, in that there is an expectation that the school’s fundraising operation needs to cover at least twenty percent of our annual operating expenses. The fact is, our current efforts in Development and Marketing only cover about a third of that, and that even includes the money that we bring in for specific parts of our exhibition program. But questions about capacity also go to the issue of deferred maintenance to the building, and there we have some good news: our landlord has agreed to match any money that we put into the place if we commit to a long-term lease. And as luck would have it, we will be receiving two pieces of major philanthropy at the start of the new fiscal year. I am happy to report here that we will be getting a 5.5-million-dollar bequest from the Dyllis Wallis Family fund and another bequest of just over a million from the Dunning-Krugar foundation. We all must understand that the money coming in from both of these sources is dedicated to specific projects or scholarships, so we can only use a little bit of it for operations, but it is still great news. It is especially great since it gives us a big boost in capital projects and institutional development.”
It took about five full seconds before the start of a slow rise of applause, followed by another five seconds of silence after it ended. It seemed that Theda was hoping to squeeze more drama out of the moment and appeared miffed when it was not forthcoming.
The man in the plaid sweater vest changed the subject by posing yet another question. “Given the soft state of the real estate market, is there any way that we might be able to borrow money to buy the building from the landlord, or maybe even another building? And I see here in the report that one of the points being made about capacity is our lack of a residential facility. How is that being addressed?”
It looked as though Theda was being challenged, and I wondered about the man the plaid vest. I didn’t catch his name at the beginning of the meeting when we all introduced ourselves, so I turned to Vic for guidance. “Who is that guy?”
In a conspiratorial whisper, Vic said, “He is Jerry Singer. He is a real estate developer, one of the new board members that Theda brought into the fold. The thing that you have to understand is that he is asking all of the questions that Theda wants him to ask. This little drama of antagonism is all according to the script.”
Theda was playing the role of “being on the hot seat” reasonably well, and it seemed that she was on the defensive in front of the very people to whom she had to answer. “Jerry, you’re asking the right questions, but they really go to the issue of strategic planning rather than passing an accreditation visit that takes place in less than a month. On the other hand, if PASC sees that we are ambitiously tackling these problems, they might weigh that against our poor fundraising performance.”
Gingerly, Hobie raised his hand. “Perhaps we can figure out a way to collateralize our endowment. It has performed pretty well for the last seven years, even better than the NASDAQ. Now might be the time to move it over to capital allocation and jump-start an aggressive capital campaign. The two big bequests could be perfectly timed to help jump-start the move.”
Photobitch’s hand shot upward. “I think that it is important to remember that the money from the endowment goes to student scholarships. Would it be ethical to take that money and put it toward building projects?”
Theda’s prepackaged retort was the essence of pure predictability. “I haven’t run any numbers, but it seems to me that students might benefit more from a dormitory, especially in a city with high rents like San Francisco, and especially since they could fund their education with low-interest government loans. And once, or I should say, if we have secured a new property, we could use its equity to secure more loans at an even lower interest rate. I think Hobie’s idea is a good one, but I am curious about the rest of the Board?”
After the ensuing silence stretched beyond everybody’s comfort zone, Theda offered a proposal. “Since we have some nuts and bolts to go over about the accreditation visit, it’s best if we form an ad hoc sub-committee to study the possibility of translating some of our endowment money into a capital campaign for building improvements and a residence hall. Can I have a motion to that effect?”
Photobitch: “So moved.”
Jerry Singer: “Second.”
Theda: “All in Favor?”
Twenty hands shot into the air, including those of Vic, Pepo and myself.
Theda turned to Hobie and asked, “Can you and Jerry be co-chairs of the new committee?” Without waiting for a nod of agreement, she appointed Photobitch and two other Board Members to the task force.
Skipping the agenda document about public programs, Theda said, “we are running out of time here. So, I would like to have everybody form groups of about 6 or seven people so that we can streamline the accreditation briefing in a way that gives each Board member a specific set of answers for questions that are bound to come up. Hobie, you are in charge of finance, and I will be in charge of governance issues. Russet, can you put together a group about program assessment?”
“Yes, but I only have a preliminary draft of that part of the report, and it’s on my laptop. I think that Alfred amended it before sending it out. Is there any place that I can print out copies?”
Hobie said, “the hotel has a business center on the second floor. I need to go up there myself to check email.” Turning toward Theda, he asked, “can we get a five- minute break to put these documents together?”
“Okay. Five minutes, but only five minutes.”
While other Board members were milling around, I made for the lobby so that I could make use of the less crowded men’s room near the concierge desk. After returning to the lobby, I saw something that had me circling back for cover. Photobitch and typhoid Laural were conversing near the front entrance of the hotel, and it looked like Photobitch was being scolded for something. I was too far away to hear what they were talking about, but I did see Laurel reach into her trolley bag to produce a large envelope, which Photobitch squirreled into her spacious black leather tote bag. They both looked about to see if anyone was observing them after this exchange, but since I was hiding behind a ficus tree and a tall wingback chair, they couldn’t see me. Then, a cab driver barged into the lobby, prompting Laurel to wheel her trolley bag out through the hotel’s revolving outer door. To evade Photobitch’s detection, I briefly returned to the hallway leading to the men’s room. I noticed that it had a high-quality print of Ma Yuan’s View From the Pavilion decorating a wall, a comforting evocation of a happier place far away.
After a few minutes, I returned to the lobby and saw Toby, Rhoda and Photobitch caucusing near the entrance to the meeting room. But since I was in no position to spy on them without detection, I walked right past them, offering a polite salute of recognition. They stopped talking and smiled back at me, resuming their conversation only when I was beyond earshot.
Upon returning to the room, I saw that those remaining had formed into three groups, each of which had a leader and a note-taker scribbling onto sheets of newsprint perched on flimsy aluminum easels. Without detection, I wandered over to the coffee serving area to discover that both coffee urns were drained, leaving lukewarm water and weak tea as the only beverage options.
“Jason! Come over and join us!” The voice was Theda’s, who bid me to sit at the only empty seat in her group, which was right next to her. Not far away was a miserable looking Vic Thorsness, slumped in his chair flashing sad puppy dog eyes. As I took the seat, Theda brazenly put her hand on my knee, sending a shiver down my spine. “We were just talking about our organizational structure, about which some of the newer Board members seem to have questions. Maybe you could try to explain it?”
“Well, as I see it, the upper administration reports to the President, and the President answers to the Board. The Dean’s office is part of the upper administration, and in collaboration with the Academic Senate, it formulates, organizes and evaluates the curriculum. How did I do?”
Before Theda could answer, one of the new Board members spoke up with self-righteous agitation in his voice. “I don’t understand why we need to have an Academic Senate. I think that the Dean should have more power, including the right to hire and fire anybody.”
The Vic piped up. “Even in the corporate world, there are all kinds of possibilities for wrongful termination. At an academic institution, the free exchange of controversial ideas needs to be protected. Otherwise, it’s not really free. That’s why we have tenure.”
The chubby man was undeterred by Vic’s logic, which seemed to hit a sore point. “Academic freedom is overrated, and more often, it is used as an excuse for poor performance. If there were more accountability built into our system, the teachers would work harder and more students would be willing to pay our high tuition costs. I also think that we could leverage a more streamlined personnel policy into improved fundraising performance.”
Vic kept his cool. “Given what we do get paid, and given what we are paid for, I think it’s safe to say that we work hard enough. Especially since we are required to be leaders in our respective fields, which also takes a lot of work, as you can no doubt imagine.”
Theda went into gracious hostess mode. “Perhaps we can just say at this time that all of us have to recognize that we are all in the same boat. The important point is that we need to commit to what we have to do to create a successful institution.”
Chubby Man: “If the boat is going to sail, we all need to know who the captain is, and also know that the Captain is the Captain, rather than the chair of some committee of entitled freeloaders.”
I could tell that Vic was growing incensed, but his composure remained intact. He knew that having the last word on this topic was important. “We need to remember that we already are a successful institution, and have been so for a long time. Why talk about fixing something that’s not broken?”
Now it was Theda’s turn to assert the superiority of her position, which she did with a certain amount of camp theatricality. “Well, Vic, to answer your question, yes, NCSAD is and has been a very successful institution, no one disputes that. But I also have to tell you that success will not last very much longer unless we make some changes. For one, our cost of doing business is going up—largely because the landlord has thrown a hefty rent raise at us, lease or no lease, and also because we have a much larger overhead than was the case even ten years ago. Much of that overhead cannot be avoided because much of it goes to hiring specially trained compliance officers to perform a variety of legally mandated tasks. Preparing for PASC accreditation is but one of those tasks, but at the moment, it is the most challenging. We need to provide them with every assurance that we are a stable and professional organization. And for that, we need your help, and everybody else’s help as well.”
No doubt, Theda’s condescending tone reminded Vic of Typhoid Laurel, and he had enough. But he also remembered seeing Craig Andresen being hauled away in a police car, so he just stood up and said: “excuse me, I have to make a phone call.” Then he made an abrupt move toward the door.
Theda turned to me and asked, “Is he all right?”
“Yes, I think so. The retreat facilitator was Vic’s ex-wife, and I think he may have been upset seeing her here. I guess there is still some bad blood between them. Do you want me to go out and check up on him?”
Smug insincerity spilled from Theda’s mouth. “That might be a good idea. I am so sorry if he was offended. Please tell him that I had no idea of any history between him and Laurel.”
I stood up and walked toward the lobby, noticing that the other two groups were concluding their tasks and preparing to rejoin the larger group in what the agenda document labeled as the plenary session. I looked at one of the pieces of newsprint perched on flimsy aluminum tripods, and made out the word ReNEWall on one of them, scribbled and underlined in Photobitch’s distinctive looping script.
Upon entering the lobby, I saw that Vic was talking on the phone. When he saw me, he pocketed the device and waved me over. “Sorry to leave you in there, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I think that we just sat through the first movement of the grab-your-ankles symphony.”
“Seemed more like the overture to the grab-your-ankles-opera, but your point is well-taken. What just happened in there?
“I’m not sure. Looks to me that Theda and some of those Board yo-yos are using the accreditation preparation as a pretext for a covert screw-the-faculty campaign. While you were on sabbatical, Alfred met with a group of faculty to develop the preliminary report, which went out before Theda started. I heard she was furious about that, which might have had something to do with his decision to retire. It certainly has something to do with the fact that he didn’t come to the retreat. Anyway, I heard Theda sent a second, amended preliminary report in just a few days after she was hired in that report, some key facts and figures didn’t mirror the ones that Alfred sent in December. When the PASC team gets here, you can bet that there will be some serious questions about finances and other discrepancies. Many others. But my take is that if those questions get pointed at the Board, it will make good on any shortfalls only if the faculty gives up a pound of flesh in terms of contract concessions.
My mind raced to connect dots. “Grab your ankles indeed. Listen, there is something else I need to talk to you about. In February, when I was at the UAA conference in San Jose, I stumbled into a large meeting held by another organization called the Universal Association of Life Coaches. I bring this up because I saw your ex there — Laurel? Was that her name? She was running the first part of the meeting more or less, and then she introduced this guy named Helmut Zyklon, who called everybody assholes for 20 minutes.”
Vic looked off into the dark void of painful memory. “When she left me, it was for him. Back in the day, she worked for him, and they were having an affair. A couple of months after she left me, she got dumped in favor of a much younger woman, but she stayed on as one of his administrative assistants. I don’t even want to imagine what kind of sordid nonsense was going on, although I did hear some juicy gossip about Laurel being responsible for keeping Zyklon’s harem in line and fully staffed. But none of that stopped her and her lawyer from cleaning me out. Later, after a long and drawn-out courtroom battle, Zyklon was chased out of the country for tax evasion. So I am surprised to hear that he set foot in the country to make an appearance. He was chased out of France too, but that was a different story.”
“There was no advertisement of his being there, so maybe he came in under the radar. I found out later that the Universal Association of Life Coaches is a front for the Citadel Lyceum group.”
“One of many such fronts. Actually, the correct name of the group is Citadel Lyceum Global Initiative. It bills itself as a provider of managerial education services. Do you remember back to the seventies, when Zyklon was doing the ZEST training? After he got popped for tax evasion, he went to Paris, figuring that if Roman Polanski could get amnesty there for statutory rape prosecution, they would certainly protect him from an American tax problem. But after a few years, ZEST and Citadel Lyceum were tossed out of France because they have laws on the books that make it illegal for for-profit organizations to use volunteer labor. I also heard that the French government hit them with some obscure anti-Masonic legislation that dates back to the Napoleonic Code. I am sure that Citadel Lyceum has nothing to do with the Freemasons, but the fact was that their operation was closed down, either before or after it changed its name. The last thing I heard about Zyklon was that he was living part-time in the Cayman Islands, or maybe Bermuda. Rumor has it that he is within walking distance of the bank that holds, manages and launders his pile of loot.”
# # #
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.