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Alumni Input for Preservation Program

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To: Dr. Jorge Otero-Pailos

Columbia University

Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

1172 Amsterdam Avenue

New York, NY 10025

CC: Dean Amale Andraos

Dear Director Otero-Pailos,

We are writing because we are hopeful. We sincerely hope that both we, as alumni, and you, as director, have the same general goals for the Historic Preservation program and have its best interests at heart. The program has always been at the forefront of the preservation field, and we want to ensure that it remains that way. However, we are concerned about the direction that program has been taking, particularly with the recent departure of Dr. George Wheeler. While we do not know the details of why the decision was made to terminate the Director of Conservation position, we would like to express our disappointment. Dr. Wheeler has been an instrumental figure in many of our lives and careers. He has provided us with knowledge, connections, and a friendly ear, always willing to listen and advocate for students and alums. In addition to the decision itself, we are disappointed with the way it has been handled by the department. The official announcement was made as an aside in a longer letter from you touting the achievements of the program though this choice clearly undermines much of the conservation curriculum. Regardless of intention, it was upsetting to see such a flippant disregard for the massive impact Dr. Wheeler has had on the program during his tenure.

However, the purpose of this communication is not to argue with your decision. You have heard from many of us on that front already. Instead, we would like to focus on the plan for the future of the program and work with the administration to give input on the most beneficial direction given our perspective as alumni and active members of the preservation community, both in New York City and beyond. Below we have laid out our concerns and requests so that all communication can be as clear, succinct, and transparent as possible.

Our concerns are as follows:

  1. We worry who will be taking on the responsibilities held by Dr. Wheeler. We cannot think of any other professor on faculty who is qualified and has the time available to coordinate between the adjunct faculty. Whoever is to take over the responsibilities of shaping the conservation program should have an adequate background to determine the best course of study and decide who is best equipped to serve as professors of the various conservation courses. In Dr. Wheeler, we had a well-connected resource to the conservation industry. He understood the breadth of subjects that needed to be covered and, perhaps more importantly, was humble in understanding the limits of his own knowledge and identifying where others’ expertise was needed. His duties went far beyond teaching classes and maintaining the laboratory.
  2. We are also concerned about the administration’s definition of conservation and conservation science. We fear that there is a confusion between learning a piece of technology and actual scientific understanding. The former is merely an instrument; a tool to be used by those who understand the principles behind the technology and can interpret the data to provide meaningful results. The solid scientific foundation provided by the conservation courses in the past has always been one of the key features of the program that sets Columbia apart from other graduate preservation programs in the United States. Though it is interesting and exciting to learn to use certain tools, it is much more important for students to understand the why rather than simply the how.
  3. In your communication about the status of the department, you mentioned the goal of moving toward a more interdisciplinary program. It is our understanding that the program has been quite interdisciplinary for the past five to ten years. By this, we mean that students have been able to form their own course of study and take whichever classes they choose from across the wide variety offered by the program. Declaring a “concentration” has not been required for some time. That being said, many students with an interest in conservation have generally chosen to maximize their materials knowledge by taking a more rigid course of study filled with conservation courses. This has not been mandatory but rather an available option. The director was able to schedule the courses in such a way that students had the opportunity to take all of the provided materials courses during the short two-year duration of the program. Additionally, the courses were scheduled in certain semesters and time slots so that students could take them in a logical order that would build upon the knowledge learned in other coursework. This seemingly small task of organization was instrumental in providing the best understanding of these subjects in the limited time frame of the graduate program. We hope that someone will be consulting faculty and students on the timing and availability of the conservation courses, so that students can get the most out of the conservation courses if they so choose.
  4. It is also our understanding that the required first year courses are becoming less focused on the technical understanding of buildings. It is true that the course (known as “Structures, Systems, and Materials” around 2010) was continually being developing and reorganized to increase its effectiveness. However, it is imperative that all students have the basic understanding of how historic structures are put together and the materials involved in their construction. We are concerned about the diminishing role of this course because it is paramount to the foundational knowledge of any preservationist. The scaling back of this course from twice a week for two semesters to once a week for one semester is troubling and makes us worry about the administration’s ideas of what is needed for a basic understanding of this field. We would like to advocate for this course being strengthened rather than cut back. It is of the utmost importance for any practitioner actually working on a building – conservator, engineer, architect, consultant, advocate, or historian.
  5. In addition to concern about the long-term direction of the conservation courses without the oversight of a director, alumni are also worried about the disruption of knowledge in the short-term given the abruptness of the transition. We are afraid that technical academic and administrative knowledge has been or will be lost moving into the next semester.
  6. With that said, another concern is the misrepresentation of the program to current and incoming students. Many of us based our decision to attend Columbia on the strong direction of the conservation program and the confidence we felt in its continuance. We are worried how these changes will affect the current students who enrolled in the program expecting one thing and will graduate receiving another.
  7. There is also concern that this decision has and will continue to adversely affect the reputation of the program at large. We are certainly concerned that prospective students might be more inclined to choose other schools over Columbia because there is not only a financial incentive but a diminishing confidence in the conservation program.
  8. Finally, we would like to express our dissatisfaction with how communication has been handled by the administration throughout this whole matter. There has been an upsetting lack of transparency, and it has become less and less clear what is intended for the future of conservation and for the direction of the program at large. We also feel that there has been a gross disregard of the intelligence of the graduates. As a result, we are losing confidence in the program and the persons in charge. In fact, the reasoning behind this communication is so that we can ask direct questions and receive direct answers. This is why we have laid out a list of information we would like from you to reassure us of the state of our beloved HP program.

Our requests are as follows:

  1. What is the general trajectory of the preservation program and what are the goals of the administration?
  2. Please provide us with a clearer picture of the goals for the conservation program. What do you feel was lacking? What is the plan for making it better?
  3. In addition to the more general goals for the program, please help us to understand the current and future curriculum and the material covered in the courses. Our understanding is that there have been ongoing changes under the direction of the outgoing position that have been made in an effort to improve the program. What were those planned changes and will those be enacted? If not, what is the new direction and how is it different from the plan set forth by the outgoing director of conservation?
  4. Who will be assuming all of the responsibilities of the position? Who will be coordinating all of the adjunct professors? Who will be managing the laboratory?
  5. How will this affect beneficial relationships with other institutions who have contributed resources to Columbia classes, students, and faculty throughout Dr. Wheeler’s tenure?
  6. Will the conservation faculty stay otherwise unchanged? Or will there be a departure of other well-respected and indispensable professors?

We hope that this letter has offered you insight into our concerns and served as a useful method for addressing our questions. Please feel free to respond to this communication by sending a reply to We believe our thoughts have been laid out directly and deserve direct responses. We are looking forward to continuing this open communication so that we can ensure the preservation program at Columbia continues to be something of which students and alumni can remain proud.


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