Nearly a week after a petition started by alumni of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts called for the “immediate termination” of its president and sweeping changes to increase diversity at the school and museum, the board of trustees on Wednesday released a statement backing president and CEO David Brigham and announcing the creation of a committee to speed up change at the institution.
“We unequivocally believe that Black Lives Matter. The board firmly stands with PAFA’s June 1 statement that condemns racial injustice and discrimination of any kind, just as we lament that pervasive systems of racial oppression have existed since our nation’s founding and persist in the present day,” read the statement from the board.
As of Wednesday evening, 1,100 alumni and members of the arts community had signed the petition, which was posted June 25 on the website changeatpafa.com. It denounces a June 12 memo to faculty and staff from Lisa R. Biagas, vice president of human resources, “reminding” them not to state their PAFA affiliation in petitions and protests supporting Black Lives Matter, as first reported by Billy Penn on June 19.
The alumni petition that demanded Brigham’s ouster also called for the review and possible termination of two deans, the addition of more people of color to the board of trustees and the women’s committee, and reviews of previous public statements by board members on matters of racial justice and equity.
It further called for reassessing the curriculum with an eye to having it reflect a more diverse and inclusive sense of art and its past.
In their statement Wednesday, the trustees made no mention of Biagas’ memo or the June 25 petition. The board’s executive committee announced it had created the new committee, to be led by trustee and board officer Reginald M. Browne, “to recommend changes that will ensure that PAFA is a truly diverse and inclusive learning environment.”
The board of trustees said it “acknowledges that to accomplish this, we must engage in tough conversations and learn from honest feedback from our students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”
The board said it “remains committed to PAFA’s senior leadership team led by David Brigham. At this time of urgency, the board is committed to working in close partnership with them to accelerate the implementation process for the needed change.”
“As a business leader and father of two college seniors, I have an obligation to address unjust systems and promote fairness, especially when it comes to our young people,” Browne, who is the board’s assistant treasurer, a member of the executive committee, and the chair of the technology committee, said in the statement. “Systemic racism, conscious or unconscious, has no place in our environment of creative expression and instruction or in our workplace.”
Browne, who is Black, is one of five people of color on the 51-member board. People of color made up 24% of the student body for the 2019-20 academic year and 17% of the faculty, according to a PAFA spokesperson.
“We recognize there are serious concerns at PAFA. And I am disappointed that we have not shown our students that we live our core values and for that, the board accepts full responsibility,” said PAFA board chairperson Kevin Donohoe in the statement. “We can and will do better. Our core values of community, traditions, stewardship, diversity, and inclusion are not just words, they are essential to the mission that we live every day.”