Architecture academia’s latest controversy has all the makings of a shit show, but we need to look past the spectacle

Salvage Job

Architecture academia’s latest controversy has all the makings of a shit show, but we need to look past the spectacle

(Alejandro Zaera-Polo)

This past summer, architecture professor Alejandro Zaera-Polo was dismissed from his position at the Princeton University School of Architecture (PSOA), where he’d been teaching since 2008 and where he also briefly served as dean. (Full disclosure: I earned an AB in architecture from PSOA in 2003.) The would-be context for the dismissal spans several years, beginning in 2014, when Zaera-Polo was accused of plagiarism by the university and encouraged to resign as dean. In 2016, he sued on defamation grounds. Then in 2020, he was barred from contact with current architecture dean Mónica Ponce de León. Still, what could have been a quiet resolution to a sticky professional situation—a sacking given the euphemistic dignity of a “resignation” or “lateral move,” which happens more often than you might think—has instead, thanks to an enterprising approach to Dropbox, the desire for total transparency (more on that in a minute), and the bottomless energy of Architecture Twitter to jump on the news of the moment, become a flashpoint.

I’ll list a few highlights that I’m aware of, for which I have relied on three sources: Choire Sicha’s great Curbed piece, a Princeton Daily News article from 2016, and Twitter. There are allegations of plagiarism, resulting from Zaera-Polo’s relying on/possibly paraphrasing Wikipedia entries in a 2014 public exhibition he worked on with Rem Koolhaas. Things escalated from there, with Princeton apparently asking for his resignation as dean and Zaera-Polo releasing a statement to that effect and subsequently suing the university. Part of his defense, as he stated in a letter to Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber, was a professed preference for “non-academic” rather than scholarly practices—i.e., not directly citing sources, which, frankly, could go either way. (I remember reading OMA’s explanatory wall texts at the Guggenheim Countryside exhibition last year and wondering where all the citations were. I also know that accusations of plagiarism are pretty unsurvivable. In fact, academics take them so seriously that even self-plagiarizing—for instance, quoting something you already wrote and thought, but without attribution to your past self—is basically career suicide.)

To cap it off, there are general whispers of some generally not ideal behavior on the part of Zaera-Polo toward his colleagues. Nevertheless, he had, until this summer, remained at the school as a professor of architecture.

an infographic with lines and arrows representing various actors involved in a university controversy
This complex diagram was among the gigabytes worth of material that Zaera-Polo made available through Dropbox. (Alejandro Zeara-Polo)

Then there is Zaera-Polo’s side. In a number of self-published videos (which I have not watched, relying instead on the herculean efforts of The Hustle Architect Twitter account) and disclosed documents (which I have skimmed), as well as in a number of tweets, the architect and professor has, as a seeming result of this successful dismissal, alluded to a profound lack of transparency on Princeton’s part; has complained at length about the institution’s move toward a sort of “woke” attitude that he disagrees with; and has derided what he alleges is a practice of certain professors of interfering with thesis advising (at the graduate level). Also in the mix are power dynamics within PSOA and the wider university, which Zaera-Polo has painstakingly mapped in diagrams or highlighted in documents made available through Dropbox in order to point up questions ranging from why certain committees are formed and by whom to the influence of trustees’ money. Zaera-Polo’s practice here seems to be a commitment to disclosing every possible piece of information he has access to, in the hopes of swaying public opinion and bringing to light other people’s bad behavior.

Honestly, I kind of get where he’s coming from. In 2016, I filed a Title IX complaint at UC Berkeley and found myself in a three-year process that got only more arcane and stressful as time went on. I often regretted having even said anything and found myself doing such things as googling members of the Privilege and Tenure Committee to see if they had any relationship to anyone who had any relationship to the person I had reported; looking up the salaries of everyone involved; wondering why they had chosen X professor as interim head of a particular committee when it was a well-known rumor that this professor wasn’t really on the side of women, and trying to draw connections where, maybe, there were none. I talked about my case—about what I perceived as the institution’s failure to protect me and other women, to the point where it did start feeling like a cover-up—almost relentlessly. I took three full minutes of a public UC Regents meeting, at which former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano presided, to talk about how I had been asked in the Privilege and Tenure Committee hearing about how quickly I’d slept with my various boyfriends. I firmly believed that the institution was waiting me out, hoping I would graduate and give up, and I said that to anyone who would listen. Honestly, I probably sounded paranoid, but that doesn’t mean I was wrong. And I only wonder how I would have acted had I also had the stressors of a one-and-a-half-year pandemic to contend with.

In thinking through what I wanted to say about the Princeton–Zaera-Polo situation, I kept returning to what has happened to academic institutions in the past few years. Almost every professor I know is struggling. The reasons vary: fear (justified or unjustified) of their students’ reactions to being asked to read certain texts over others; unsustainable working conditions owing to the transformation of adjunct positions that were once filled by established practitioners but are now the only option for many talented, dedicated doctorate holders with no chance of tenure; and what we could call the deanification of the collegiate institution, in which layers and layers of middle management, following practices set down by consulting firms, pad their own pockets while decimating academic programs. There has been extraordinary pressure put on academics to teach through the pandemic, often at very real risk to either their lives or the lives of the unvaccinated children they might have at home. Meanwhile, as an increasingly politicized student body creates new demands of seemingly every administration, there is ever more pressure on deans, chairs, and provosts to keep big donors happy, often over assuaging the very real concerns of students and faculty. In short, the university has changed, in many ways for the worse, and Zaera-Polo’s desire to shed light on these changes and tighter concentrations of power is, on the face of it, good.

I don’t want us to litigate the facts or the interpretations of Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s particular situation, nor to do what so many of us have been inclined to do, which is to enthusiastically spectate from the sidelines at what is easily perceivable as a shit show turning into an even bigger shit show. What I do want us to do is look for the kernels of truth in his troves of documentation and see that, while these particular events may have one particular set of facts behind them (facts we will probably never have full access to, which is part of why I appreciate his dedication to transparency), this experience has much more to say about the quiet whisper networks of academia; the way in which friends do look out for friends; the way in which the formation of committees often is a way of getting someone to eventually leave; and the way in which, instead of being a place for collegiality, teaching, and the shared drive for knowledge, academic institutions are often sites of fear, avarice, and infighting for small scraps of power. I think it’s worth reading much of what Alejandro Zaera-Polo is making public because it’s worth actually seeing some of these mechanisms at work. Maybe instead of throwing everything out wholesale, we can take what we need from this document dump and leave the rest behind.

[Postscript: I reached out to Zaera-Polo, emailing a few questions. He requested approval of my entire text if I were to quote anything. In lieu of complying with his demands (which are unreasonable), I will wait for him to publish my questions and his answers, as he said he may.]