The reason we left Design Academy Eindhoven


10 July 2012

Design Academy Eindhoven was shaken last week after the shock resignation of the three heads of its masters programmes. Here, Disegno interviews Jan Boelen, Joost Grootens and Louise Schouwenberg about their reasons for stepping down.

Boelen, Grootens and Schouwenberg resigned from the school following discussions with the institute's board over plans to overhaul its masters programmes in time for the new academic year. Under the proposals, power over admissions and course content would shift from the heads of the masters programmes to management figures such as the school's dean of education.

The Academy, which alongside London's Royal College of Arts and Lausanne's ECAL is regarded as one of the world's finest design schools, will now begin searching for new designers to lead the masters department. A spokesperson for the school said that it was sorry to lose Boelen, Grootens and Schouwenberg, but that the institute would continue to run as normal.

"We would like to thank Jan Boelen, Joost Grootens and Louise Schouwenberg for their effort and expertise, and wish them all the best on their journey," the school announced. "Our priority at the moment is to reassure all students that Design Academy Eindhoven will continue to offer masters courses of the highest standard."

What led you to resign?

Jan Boelen: The board of the Academy has a completely different vision from us about how design education should be organised. They have introduced reform plans which will put managerial figures in charge of Eindhoven's masters programmes instead of the designers teaching there. Under this new system, I would have become a figurehead. I would have been responsible for putting on a happy face, inviting guest lecturers in to talks and little else. When management, administration and bookkeeping began to take over, I decided to move on.

Louise Schouwenberg: The Academy has always been famous for the education system it installed in the 80s, when Design Academy Eindhoven was just a "normal" provincial school of design. That new system was responsible, to a very large extent, for the success of Dutch design. It was revolutionary for two main reasons: it focused on "people", both users and designers, instead of products; and it placed faith in the designers who were attracted to teach in the academy. Now, a new managerial system, is in place. A system based on a distrust of professional designers and a desire to create bureaucratic hierarchies.

Resigning seems a very drastic step.

Joost Grootens: It was not an easy decision. We've been talking about and fighting this process since December last year, but it was only at the end of May that we realised that we could no longer guarantee the level of quality necessary for this kind of masters course. If we thought there was any way to carry on, we wouldn't have resigned. Teaching at Design Academy Eindhoven was an important part of our lives and one of our great loves. It's very difficult to say goodbye. It feels like we have lost.

Were the proposed changes to the masters programme a surprise to you?

JB: The changes weren't a surprise, but the manner in which they have come into effect was. When we first held talks with the board in September 2011, we were told that changes to the bachelors programme were being made and then, year by year, they would be implemented across the masters course. That was logical, because it meant we could look back year after year and see how things were working and adjust plans accordingly. Then, suddenly, we were told that all of the the changes would be made to the masters programme over the next six weeks. If there was any need for the the urgency with which these changes are being made, I would have agreed, but there's not. Even the board expressed has said that what we were doing on the master's course was excellent. So why change so suddenly? It's crazy.

Alongside your departures, the institution recently lost its head of masters programmes, the designer Gijs Bakker. Where does this leave Design Academy Eindhoven?

JB: As just another normal school. Design Academy Eindhoven no longer fights for the exceptional and the unexpected. Everything is now about fitting into the school's system and organisational criteria. The really provocative work will no longer have a chance to stand out.

LS: I have loved this school for too long to say it's in decline. But I fear that if this lack of vision goes on for much longer, Design Academy Eindhoven will become an insignificant, provincial institute again.

Are you concerned about the students you have left behind?

JG: Very concerned. The only upside is that we teach students for two years, so the students who are now entering their second year already have a strong foundation to work on. I think they'll be fine. But I feel really sorry for the people who are just entering. We promised them things and talked to them about the school, the structure and what they could expect. We told them what we thought we could offer them. But now we can't. I feel really responsible for all those students.

JB: This year I attracted 29 masters students from around the world to come to Eindhoven. Some of these people gave up jobs to come here, and all of them paid €15,000 in fees. Before accepting these people, I spoke to them over telephone, Skyped them, talked to them about their portfolio, invited them to come to Eindhoven for face-to-face meetings. Throughout this process, I made promises about the way we do research, the way we educate, what we expect and so on. But now, because of these new changes, I am not able anymore to fulfill the commitments I made to these people.

How do you feel about leaving the Academy?

LS: Heartbroken. Like I abandoned the students I had been teaching. It's a huge loss.

JG: Teaching at Design Academy Eindhoven has been one of my best things that I have ever done in my life. If I could see a way that I could come back and work there again in a different situation, then of course I would consider it. But so much has happened and been said, that it would be difficult to rebuild confidence. I'm not sure if that would even be a possibility.

What challenges will your successors face?

JG: My secret wish is that the Academy had heard the message and will find a better balance between the managerial structure and the designers who deal with content. Maybe the people who replace us will have better surroundings than we thought we would have.

JB: We were stupid to have left. Under the new structure we would have been paid to do nothing. The Design Academy wants three new heads who won't have to do anything. It's ridiculous.

Will you stay in teaching?

LS: I will set up a masters program in another school. I recently accepted a request from a school, so will take my energy and passion there. All three of us have had these kind of requests in the past, but we always declined them. We felt strongly that at DAE we could accomplish whatever high ambitions we had.

JB: I love teaching. It's such a great thing to do and so important to have a space where you can think, reflect and discuss. A space where you can even have fights with your students. If you can do that in a space where your colleagues share the same views about education as you, then nothing is better. And that's why it's so painful to have left Design Academy Eindhoven. The group of people and the students that we had in Eindhoven were so amazing.