School of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Toni Oliviero Reflects on 12 Years of Leadership Before Stepping Down
About a dozen years ago, the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences (SLAS) had 20 full-time faculty, was testing its new writing major with 12 students, and was working to earn approval from the Institute and the state to offer a bachelor of arts degree in cultural studies.
Since then, the school has more than doubled its number of full-time faculty, grown the writing program into one of the most prestigious undergraduate writing programs in the U.S., created its cultural studies major, now called critical and visual studies, and is planning to offer an M.A. in media arts pending approval from the state. This would be Pratt’s first M.A. program.
The growth of SLAS comes not only amid Pratt’s overall expansion, but also amid a growing understanding that a well-rounded liberal arts education is crucial to training architects, graphic designers, and other creative professionals.
“Students who study architecture, communications design, or any of the other professional practices must have a solid grounding in the liberal arts,” says SLAS Dean Toni Oliviero. “The goal is to create a wholeness of education, so that thinking, reflection, practice, and production are not all separate from one another.”
Oliviero will step down as dean at the end of this school year, having served in the position for 12 years. Oliviero recalls first considering the dean’s job more than a dozen years ago, when she was an associate dean at the New School.
“I had a stereotype of the way colleges of art and design deal with the liberal arts and sciences,” she recalls. However, she says after visiting the school she changed her mind.
“Faculty here had the freedom to invent courses and make connections to the arts that they might not in more traditional university settings,” Oliviero says, remembering her excitement about Pratt on that first visit.
The role of SLAS at Pratt is two-fold. First, it offers the liberal arts courses such as English, history, and math that are required of all undergraduates.
“Twenty five percent of the credits every undergraduate needs to take in order to graduate are offered through the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences,” Oliviero explains.
In addition, SLAS offers two majors: writing, and critical and visual studies. The writing major has become popular over the years, and now enrolls about 45 new students each year. Undergraduate creative writing programs are usually part of English literature programs, which makes Pratt’s program unique.
“Students who come to Pratt to do the writing program see themselves as artists who make their art out of words,” Oliviero says. “They want to be among the creative practitioners that Pratt trains.”
SLAS’s other major, critical and visual studies, Oliviero explains, “enables students who do not see themselves as professional artists, designers, or architects to reflect on the significance of the arts in the world.” Graduates of this B.A. program, which enrolls 15 new students a year, often go on to work in arts organizations and other cultural institutions.
Oliviero considers her chief accomplishment at SLAS to be doubling the number of full-time faculty in the school, thus allowing SLAS to compete with top liberal arts universities to attract the best professors and students.
Oliviero also credits Provost Peter Barna with much of SLAS’s success.
She recalls their first meeting and being prepared to convince Barna of the importance of liberal arts at a school of art and design. Instead, he stopped her almost immediately to say he wholeheartedly agreed.
He said, “‘If designers and artists in an era of globalization don’t reflect on how their work is connected to political theory, history, and literature, they will not be the most successful practitioners they can be.’”
Barna, in turn, says Oliviero has upheld this ideal.
“Under Dean Oliviero’s leadership, the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences has allowed thousands of artists, designers, and architects to enrich their art by developing this global perspective. Also under her leadership, SLAS has grown the writing and critical and visual studies majors, helping hundreds of students achieve their goals of becoming writers or analysts and critics of the arts.”
Oliviero also credits her own faculty, and also the faculty of the professional schools, many of whom, she says, have “jumped at the chance to collaborate and brainstorm with their colleagues who mostly think and write for a living.”
She says the result has been an increasing number of educational collaborations, including the expansion of the Writing Across the Curriculum program, and the creation of the innovative course Double Operative/Language Making, an English course designed for architecture students, that explores landscape and spatial construction as a narrative device.
Oliviero will take a sabbatical next year, during which she plans to work on a memoir, pursue her research on nineteenth-century U.S. slave narratives, and develop courses to teach when she returns. She says she is looking forward to returning to the classroom to vitalize the curriculum she has been so instrumental in developing.
However, with possible new programs on the horizon, an accomplished faculty, and all the ongoing academic collaborations, she says, “I envy my successor.”