Art fight! Digital Animation Students Battle For Space, Respect At San Jose State

After years of bubbling under the surface, the tension over the future of San Jose State University’s Animation/Illustration program erupted into protest this week and a series of petitions and letters. The problem comes down to this:

The program has become too successful. too fast. The boom in enrollment comes at a time when San Jose State is in all sorts of financial and educational turmoil. The university is making sweeping cuts while this particular corner is growing like gangbusters, thanks to the demand for students who have skills to work in digital animation and video game designers.

But worried that the future of the program is in jeopardy, a group of Animation students marched Monday to the office of University President Mohammad Qayoumi to present him with a letter requesting that the program be elevated to departmental status, a designation they believe would give it access to more resources and more influence in the battle for space and class schedules.

“There’s a growing demand for people who do what we do,” said Katie Heckey, president of the ShrunkenHeadMen, the program’s student club that organized the protest. “If nothing changes, it could be the end of our program. We can’t go on with the current conditions.”

The student’s letter to the president lays out how they see the situation:

“From Spring 2008 to Spring 2012, Animation/Illustration enrollment grew by 295%. During the same 4-year period, enrollment within the Graphic Design department grew by 70%, while enrollment in the Art Department fell by 64%. Clearly the needs of these majors have fundamentally changed. The University has done nothing to accommodate changing enrollment. With 566 students currently enrolled in the major, Animation/Illustration is the fastest growing major in all of the College of Humanities and the Arts, yet we are forced to squeeze into 3 classrooms and 2 labs. With only 4 full-time faculty, there are over 100 students to every advisor. Animation/Illustration students are denied access to galleries and display cases and, starting this semester, students are banned from using empty ART classrooms for figure drawing sessions.”

Heckey said in an interview last weekend that the situation came to a head this month because students were told there were new limits placed on class sizes, and that their use of certain spaces would be restricted. That, Heckey said, left many of them in a panic that they would not be able to schedule classes needed to graduate on time.

In support of the request for departmental status, they’ve gotten 3,588 people to sign a petition on their behalf at Change.org.

I contacted the university for a response, and spoke with media relations director Pat Lopes Harris (disclosure: she’s a former Mercury News colleague). Harris acknowledged the success of the program. “I’m surprised to see the growth,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything grow that fast in my time here.”

However, Harris said that growth and success create challenges. Before a program can grow to the next level, Harris said the university needs to study the elements and structures that are necessary to help it succeed, things such as which classes need to be offered and when; how many faculty and facilities are needed; and what the long-term demand for the major will be. Moving too quickly could saddle the university with legacy costs down the road if demand for the major wanes.

Beyond that, Harris said many of the pressures being felt by the Animation students are not unique. She noted that the university has been enacting sweeping cuts and restructurings since last Spring in the wake of a $40 million budget deficit. It’s not surprising the Animation program is feeling pressure, she said, because everyone is.

“There are tremendous changes going on throughout the university,” Harris said. “We’re facing these changes and they are big ones…It’s a zero-sum game. If we add to something, we have to take away from something. That’s not a simple decision.”

Students and their supporters, however, don’t buy the budget argument. They insist they are not asking for more resources at the moment. Instead, they see their requests as reallocation of existing resources. The old art department is in decline. The animation program is ascending. Just shift those resources over.

“It’s kind of interesting because this is not an issue of lack of state budget,” said Alice Carter, a professor in the Animation program. “This is an issue of using the current budget fairly for all students. It’s mismanagement of what we have not that we need new resources.”

It’s hard to believe that the university won’t find a way to support the program and work to resolve the issues. Even more than that, figure out how to stoke that growth. It seems like the Animation/Illustration has the potential to become one of the university’s signature offerings.

While the university needs to be smart, betting on a digital future seems like a no-brainer. And even in a time of crisis, one has to believe there are a lot of large corporations — aka, Dreamworks, Disney/Pixar or Electronics Arts and Zynga — that would be willing to pony up big donations for signature facilities.

Surely the Mark Pincus Center for Digital Animation and Illustration is not an unreasonable dream for San Jose State to dream.