A group of 25 architecture graduate students voiced their disagreement with the selection of Alejandro Zaera-Polo as the new dean of the School of Architecture to University President Shirley Tilghman Wednesday morning.
A Spanish-born architect based in London, Zaero-Polo has been a visiting professor at the University since 2008. The group of graduate students gathered at Tilghman’s open office hours to present a letter explaining why they contested Zaera-Polo’s appointment.
“We believe that the selection of Zaera-Polo, with his previously stated objections to the core of Princeton’s pedagogical tradition of the thesis, as well as his poor course evaluations as a professor, puts the School of Architecture’s future in danger and should be reconsidered,” the letter reads.
A graduate student in the School of Architecture who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely about the school said in an email that students are uneasy about the new dean’s prior statements. Specifically, the graduate students disagree with statements Zaero-Polo has made about his pedagogical approach, most notably his statements in a 2002 interview conducted while he was serving as dean of the Beulage Institute in Rotterdam.
The graduate student noted that they were particularly upset with “his disbelief in the concept of a thesis project in architecture.” Students’ concerns also include “his statements that he is ‘uninterested in architecture as a critical cultural practice,’ which is one of the things that distinguishes the idiosyncratic Princeton School of Architecture from others around the world.”
Zaera-Polo said in an interview that he is “itching” to discuss the students’ concerns, adding that he was relatively unaware of why his appointment was controversial.
“It’s very difficult for me to know exactly what their concerns are and why they have them,” Zaera-Polo said. “I am looking forward to meeting them and answering to their concerns in person.”
The idea that he is opposed to the architectural thesis is “a rumor being spread without reason,” Zaera-Polo said. “I believe the thesis is actually one of Princeton’s most distinctive qualities as a school,” he explained.
Students in the architecture program have been resistant to the possibility of a Zaera-Polo deanship since the search began in October. Amid rumors that Zaera-Polo was under consideration, two different groups of graduate students sent letters to the School voicing their disagreement earlier this spring.
After Zaera-Polo’s appointment was announced Tuesday afternoon, an email survey was sent to the 68 master’s and Ph.D. candidates in the program asking for their thoughts on Zaera-Polo’s appointment. At press time, only five of the 58 students that had responded indicated support.
Despite the students’ concerns, Tilghman reaffirmed her support of Zaera-Polo’s appointment, saying that the 2002 interview did not necessarily indicate his current positions.
“Given that the interview was almost 10 years ago, I hope that the students will be willing to engage the new dean in conversation about his current thinking about architectural pedagogy and how they relate to our school before jumping to conclusions,” Tilghman said in an email. “I know that Mr. Zaera-Polo is eager to have those conversations.”
In addition to disagreement with Zaera-Polo’s approaches to architecture education, students are “nearly unanimous” in their concern over the secrecy of the selection process, the graduate student said.
The graduate student said that students’ only involvement in the process was a meeting with a few members of the search committee in fall 2011. At the meeting, they were asked to submit a statement describing values they sought in the new dean and were asked “not to fan the rumor mill.”
“Of course this mysterious process only serves to intensify rumors,” the graduate student explained. “At this point, the students are looking forward to talking with [Zaera-Polo] to discuss our concerns, since we have not heard anything else from the dean search committee, Stan Allen or [Zaera-Polo] other than the email we received of the announcement and the University press release,” he added.
Outgoing dean Stan Allen GS ’88 said the search committee met with students on a number of occasions to solicit suggestions for the next dean.
“I can be pretty certain they took those suggestions and any concerns very seriously over the course of their deliberations,” Allen said in an email.
Once the committee arrives at a short list, however, the list is made confidential and “the door is closed,” Allen said. Tilghman interviewed all three candidates on the short list and made the final decision, he said.
“[The students] need to understand that they had exactly the same voice and input in the process as the other [School of Architecture] constituencies — faculty, alumni and advisory council,” Allen said. “Nobody left them out of the process.”
Art and archaeology professor Hal Foster, who served on the search committee, said in an email that he was pleased with Tilghman’s selection.
“When there’s a change in deanship, even in chairmanship, there’s always some anxiety. And sometimes there’s some disappointment too. That’ll pass,” Foster explained. “Debate, on the other hand, is always a good thing — and I believe Alejandro will foster an excellent dialogue with all parts of the school.”