Construction Began On The Eighth Floor Of 215 Lexington To Convert A Portion Of The Space Used To House The SCW Studio Art Department Into Space For The Katz School Of Health And Science’s New Cybersecurity Program Without Notifying The Studio Art Department, And An Apology Is Issued

By: Fruma Landa and Shayna Herszage  |  July 17, 2020

By Fruma Landa and Shayna Herszage

Yeshiva University began the construction to convert a portion of the eighth floor of 215 Lexington on the Beren Campus into a cybersecurity lab for the Katz School of Health and Science’s new cybersecurity MS program, shared Traci Tullius, chair of the art studio and associate professor of art, with the YU Observer on July 10. This statement was later confirmed on July 15 by Randy Apfelbaum, chief facilities and administrative officer at YU. “We have begun prep work on the 8th floor,” he commented to the YU Observer. This floor had previously been set aside for the Stern College studio art program, but the space will instead be shared by both programs following the construction. Students who have yet to recover their artwork can retrieve it before construction continues by scheduling a time with art instructor Mary Therese Creede.

Studio art major Rocky Pincus, SCW ‘20, described her experience picking up her artwork on the eighth floor on July 14. “I was scared that they started construction where my stuff was … no one asked us if we wanted to come and pick up our stuff or if they could move it.” After arriving on the eighth floor, Pincus stated, “I was looking through the pieces of my work that were there, and I noticed that a lot of it was missing … it turns out that all of my portraits were there [in the room closed off for construction]. In the meantime, they had knocked down at least two walls … I know that they did construction there, and my work was still hanging up, which alarms me because I thought they would have taken better care of everything in general … It was just very disheartening to see everything piled up the way it was,” she concluded.

On July 17, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Selma Botman and Dean Karen Bacon issued an apology: “The exodus from the campus back in March was extremely stressful for everyone, but even more so for our artists who left behind the fruits of their creative energies and passions. Of course, in hindsight we should have realized that everything needed to be packed and stored for the possibility of a protracted absence from campus. Not only did we not imagine such a possibility, but even if we had, the confusion was too great to allow for this kind of measured thinking. This miscalculation has impacted our graduating seniors in particular, and it is certainly not the way we hoped to celebrate the culmination of their achievements. We are truly sorry this happened.”

On July 1, Apfelbaum informed Tullius that the renovations were going to take place over the summer without providing a timeframe for the construction. Similarly, on July 7, Botman shared: “We are hoping to work on the art studio and the cybersecurity lab over the summer so that they will be ready for students in the fall,” but he did not expound on a timeframe for the renovations. “The Katz School has agreed to make the cybersecurity lab available for multiple programs so both graduate and undergraduate students can benefit,” she continued. “The project is privately funded.” She later clarified that “[t]his project was specifically funded by donors, prior to the [COVID-19] outbreak, and separate from the [u]niversity’s annual capital projects budget. It is, therefore, not subject to the frozen capital projects statement mentioned previously.”

On July 10, Tullius was informed by one of her students, who had tried to schedule a time to pick up her artwork and was told she could not due to construction on that floor, that the renovations had begun. On July 13, two students went to retrieve their artwork and confirmed that construction had begun. The demolition began in the video lab (room 808), and in room 810, a studio space, students used to work on their senior thesis projects and to store art supplies and equipment, shared Tullius. 

On July 13, Creede shared with the YU Observer that “[i]t’s unfortunate that the administration chose to move forward with this project without meeting with student representatives. I can’t say that I have much hope for a positive outcome for the studio art dept. if this project continues to proceed in the current manner.”

Toby Sandhaus, a recent studio art major graduate, pointed out that the coeducational cybersecurity program is a concern for some students’ modesty preferences: “Having the [eighth] [f]loor be co-ed is really distressing. Students often wear other clothes to work on their art, and having male students on the floor while students are working is a real concern when it comes to modesty. Additionally, I know I’ve personally stayed late working on projects, until security comes upstairs at midnight to tell me it’s time to leave. I probably would not feel comfortable staying so late to work, knowing that there are boys just down the hall and virtually nobody else is around.” The YU Observer has reached out to Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Mordechai I. Willig, Rabbi Menachem Penner and Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky for a comment on the matter but received no reply at the time of publication.

In her July 7 statement to the YU Observer, Botman explained that “[d]iscussion[s] with the SCW [a]rt [d]epartment and the Katz School continue in order to maximize the space for both programs on the eighth floor. … The new upgrades for the SCW [a]rt [d]epartment will include enhanced audio visual capabilities, an expanded graphic design lab and a new multi-disciplinary studio for media studies, photography and video.” Yet on July 10, Tullius expressed that there are no plans of expansion — the new equipment will be housed in a studio classroom. Last February, the YU Observer learned that most of the left wing of the eighth floor, including the computer room, video and photography lab, room 810, and Tullius’ office, will be renovated into a classroom, lab, lounge and pantry for the cybersecurity department, sequestered from the studio art program’s space. The current space on the eighth floor “used as a collaborative space for critiques, projects, and sinks for washing brushes,” will be converted into a computer lab, smaller than the current one, for the art department. The current storage area will be renovated into a video and photography lab. The studio art department would be left with a storage room, painting, sculpting and drawing studio, along with a studio for elective classes, the YU Observer learned. Tullius shared that she is working on a pledge (as of July 10) to receive space for the displaced photo and video equipment and courses, due to the renovation. 

In agreement with Tullius, Creede shared her doubts (on July 13) about the upgrades and expressed the studio art department’s needs for an upgrade. “We have heard about improvements but have had no clear guarantees as to their fruition. […] We are working with completely outdated Macs for our video, photography and graphic design classes. While this is an ever present liability,” she continued, “this seems a fortuitous time to replace these while our graphics classroom is being rearranged to accommodate the overflow from the video/lab classroom that is being appropriated by the Katz School in addition to room 810.”

Creede shared that Room 810, currently under construction, was used as the film studio and “needs to be replaced, either on the 8th floor of 215 or somewhere else on the Beren Campus.” Additionally, Creede is worried about the studio art department’s storage space with the loss of room 810. “Our storage issues are now even more compromised with the loss of that room,” she said. She also expressed the need for “a guarantee that adequate solutions will be installed.” Aside from storage space, “[t]here’s a need for a fully outfitted multimedia studio that can be used by media studies and studio art for video and photography.” Creede points out that “[t]his space could also be beneficial to on campus student groups as well as the communications office,” and shared that “[t]he space needs to be large and soundproof with controllable lighting.”

Talks of renovating the eighth floor were in the works since the Fall 2019 semester. On February 26 of the past semester, Traci Tullius held a meeting in which she informed the twelve undergraduate students present of the construction plans. In a protest against the diminishing of various components of the art program, undergraduate art students at Stern College covered all art pieces on the Beren Campus that were made through the art program with signs reading: “No art floor? No art.” Additionally, flyers were posted throughout the campus explaining the plans for construction and how it will negatively impact the studio art department and requested to meet with Senior Vice President Josh Joseph about these plans. Creede shared that “[she] was so proud of the students and their activism and the truly brilliant form their protest took was art itself. What troubles [her] is the disillusionment the students have experienced as a result of the fruitlessness of their objections,” as at this point, this protest was never formally addressed by the YU administration. 

Tullius shared her concerns about the current renovations due to her experience with renovations to the art floor in the past. In the summer of 2018, Tullius was told that the carpets of two studios were to be removed, and the rest of the carpet was to be removed the following summer. Art department faculty moved the artwork from the studios scheduled to go under renovation to the studios set to remain as they are, yet facilities removed the carpet in all of the rooms without notifying her. Tullius found the eighth floor in a state of chaos when she returned the following week to set up for classes. There were tables on top of paintings and many paintings and sculptures were ruined. To ensure this does not happen again, Creede considered overseeing the construction taking place, which, as Tullius pointed out, is a health risk. 

Aside from the health risk Creede faces while overseeing construction, Creede pointed out that “[o]n-campus COVID-19 safety requirements also complicate things. We are now accommodating more students in less space and the mission should be the opposite, at least for the coming school year.”

In response to students’ current concerns about the safety of their artwork due to the start of construction, Apfelbaum assured the YU Observer, on July 15, that: “We are working with the SCW [s]tudio [a]rt [d]epartment to ensure that all student art work is carefully taken care of before any additional work continues.” 

On July 14, A few days after notifying students that construction had begun and expressing her concerns, Tullius shared updated news with some of her students. “I spoke to Dean Bacon yesterday, and she is sincerely upset … about how all of this went down, particularly the outrageous [missteps] of the past few days by facilities. The way she put it was ‘we have to start rebuilding the art dept now, not later. We can’t change what’s happened, but we can do better from here forward.’ It sounded to me like she was completely cut out of the loop on the Katz project, but she’s going to be more involved going forward as it pertains to rebuilding what we’ve lost and making needed improvements. Mary is working with the [d]irector of communications [on Dean Bacon’s recommendation] on an actual plan for organizing your work and supplies, making a schedule for those of you who want to pick up work yourselves, and packing/shipping for those of you who can’t. … Mary and I are working on plans to [improve] the space we have left…We will prioritize more effective use of the space … (built in storage, expanding studios where we can) rather than trying to squeeze the video lab/green screen somewhere. I’m going to push for a guarantee and concrete plan for a NEW multi-media classroom for photo/video and NEW macs/equipment for 809 Mac lab (Dean Bacon says necessary updates to our equipment will be a part of the [improvements]). … Also, Dean Bacon said she and the provost will address your activism and your concerns formally and will reach out by the end of the summer.” Tullius concluded that “… in summary, things looked pretty bleak yesterday, but…we’re going to make it not just right, but better.” 

In Bacon and Botman’s July 17 apology, they shared: “As we know, during these summer months the art floor will be undergoing renovations in order to make it possible for the space to be shared with the graduate program in cybersecurity. This will involve a lot of initial dislocations followed by what we believe will be a reimagined and exciting layout that will support and enhance your creative energies.” 

On July 15, Creede emailed her students with information on how to pick up their projects: “For students who are not local and not returning please reach out to me so we can ship the items to you.  Students who are returning and choose to leave the supplies and works in progress at the department we will organize those and store and label them so they will be easily available when you return. […] Please respond to this email before Saturday so I can make a plan. If I don’t hear from you we will store your work and supplies away for later retrieval.”

“The artists at Stern College bring us enormous pride.” Bacon and Botman concluded. “In the past we have shared your accomplishments with the Stern College Board of Overseers and this year we presented an electronic gallery of your work to the staff of Institutional Advancement, the arm of the University that cultivates supporters for our programs. We expect to continue to showcase your work as we have done in the past, and we look forward to a spring semester when the chaos will be behind us and a new era will begin.”

Dean Karen Bacon and Vice Provost Dean Paul Russo of the Katz School have not responded to the YU Observer’s request for comment at the time of publication.


Photo: In response to the construction, various students have made memes which were then posted on social media.

Photo Source: Basya Goldstein