What is going on at SCI-Arc?


What is going on at SCI-Arc?

League of Shadows installed in front of SCI-Arc for the school’s 40th anniversary celebration (P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S/Via Wikimedia Commons, accessed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Last week, SCI-Arc undergraduate chair Tom Wiscombe and history and theory coordinator Marrikka Trotter were teaching, grading, and attending meetings. But as of yesterday they were both placed on administrative leave and will be subject to an investigation into abuses of power at the school. Here’s what we know so far:

A live-streamed roundtable for undergraduates on professional norms and expectations in architecture ignited anger among students, former students, and others in the profession, and prompted affiliated individuals to share their experience of troubling working conditions in the studio of two prominent faculty members. During the March 26 talk, three members of the faculty—Margaret Griffin of Griffin Enright Architects, Trotter of Tom Wiscombe Architecture, and Dwayne Oyler of Oyler Wu—shared lessons from their careers and advice for new architects.

The panelists advised students to work before going to grad school, and take a pay-the-bills job while you search for a job you really like. Other statements seemed to encourage students to accept exceptionally long workweeks and lower pay if they opt to work for smaller firms with better design sensibilities.

Noting the compensation disparity between large corporate offices and boutique firms, Trotter urged students to consider if they’d want “a 40-hour workweek that you can barely get through? Or is it a 60 hour work week that you can’t wait to start every day?” (Gensler was the implied example of a boring office with a standard workweek.)

Olyer noted the buzzy design-forward firms students may want to work for straight out of undergrad “hopefully” pay a living wage.

“If you’re going to be happy, your life and your work essentially have to become the same thing,” he added. “Disliking your job and then getting home at the end of the day and saying ‘I can finally live my life!’ is a horrible way to be.”

While architecture is known for its demanding work culture, and architecture schools are obligated to prepare students for the realities of the profession, the panelists’ comments were widely criticized as tone-deaf, condescending towards students, and out of touch with demands from emerging practitioners for fairer working conditions and healthier work-life balance.

The roundtable kicked off a larger and more public conversation around an academic culture at SCI-Arc that many current and former students describe as nepotistic and exploitative.

The talk prompted others to share their experiences with Wiscombe, including how he invited students to work for his firm on a competition entry during the spring semester in lieu of normal classes. (Students would take their classes during the summer, instead.) According to individuals familiar with the situation, students were asked to work 18 hour days with no lunch breaks. They quit en masse after Wiscombe instructed the students to deep-clean the studio, a task that was described as humiliating and not relevant to the educational aspects of the roles for which they were hired.

AN contacted individuals currently and formerly affiliated with SCI-Arc who are familiar with the situation at the studio. They stated that, during conversations with students before they resigned, Trotter allegedly intimated that students could ruin their professional reputations if they quit. They also noted that these and other internships with faculty functioned as quid-pro-quos for academic scholarships that were given based on the results of the internship experiences. Sometimes scholarships were revoked if a student declined to participate in an internship.

The individuals AN spoke with emphasized that most instructors do not engage students as Wiscombe and Trotter did, but as the undergraduate chair and history and theory coordinator, respectively, Trotter and Wiscombes actions exert considerable influence over the academic environment at SCI-Arc.

Days after the faculty roundtable, students started a petition to remove Wiscombe and Trotter from their roles.

“Tom Wiscombe has also practiced misconduct in his position in a multitude of other scenarios, the petition states. “He has the ability to make final decisions on who receives scholarships, and they both share the final say on who receives Undergraduate Thesis prizes. This presents a conflict of interest and a complicated power structure which they have consolidated as partners.

Former students are also weighing in. This week alumni convened a counter-roundtable on Twitch to address the remarks from the March 26 event. At the beginning of the event, Natou Fall, a creative director, artist, and instructor at SCI-Arc, read a statement from non-administrative faculty that requested the suspension of Trotter and Wiscombe and called for an independent investigation into the allegations of abuse of power. The letter also states that faculty will cover classes and responsibilities for faculty during their suspensions.

Yesterday, on March 30, SCI-Arc director and CEO Hernán Díaz Alonso sent the following statement to the school’s community, revealing that both Wiscombe and Trotter had been placed on administrative leave:

Dear SCIArc Community,
We would like to express gratitude for all who attended or shared their voices and experiences at Monday’s Town Hall. We hear you and are taking your concerns seriously.
As a result of the allegations of misconduct against Tom Wiscombe and Marrikka Trotter raised by students, the school is retaining the services of an external firm to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations and to report on the findings.
Tom Wiscombe and Marrikka Trotter have been placed on administrative leave until the investigation has been completed. Relevant updates will be communicated by the school as they are made.
In parallel to the investigation, SCIArc will immediately review both its studio culture and internship policies and practices to identify actionable items of improvement and reform. These will also be shared once completed.
We recognize SCIArc’s role as a leader in the field of architecture and architecture education, whose responsibility it is to lead by example. We will embrace this as an opportunity to learn and grow for the benefit of the entire SCIArc community, chiefly our students.

AN will keep readers updated as the story develops.