CalArts VP-IT: 1 Year In

Yesterday, November 23, 2021, marked my 1 year work anniversary here at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), here in southern California (Valencia, to be specific). I’ve observed a lot in this time, many things about CalArts uniquely, and many about art (and design) institutes, more generally. And, of course, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about myself, my leadership style, and my growth over the past year.

First and foremost, I love it here. It’s been a wild ride, but I work with a great team in IT, am part of an amazing leadership group, and work for a fantastic president, Ravi Rajan, that is supportive and understands technology and its role in higher education success. When we meet (any of the aforementioned groups), we make decisions, we address issues realistically, and we just flat out get stuff done. The faculty are tremendous and exciting to work with, the Deans all get it, and the staff are top rate. Everyone cares about success. I had a personal situation which would have forced me to fly back and forth to northern California each week. My absolute first reactions were “I want to be here” and “I still have work to do.” I never actually considered leaving.

CalArts is a unique place. Truthfully, I find every higher education institution unique in their own way(s). But CalArts is even more unique (yes, I know uniqueness is a binary trait, but I’ll bend the rules a bit nevertheless) than most places, in my estimation and experience. CalArts is still a maturing organization in many ways. We have done things “as they come up” for some time. It is not a disorganized place, but process and procedure remain conceptual rather than actual in many ways, and the place is ripe for business process improvement. Even compared to other institutions in the same vein and of the same age, we have a few challenges. CalArts also has a different structure than most places. Despite being small (1424 FTE), we have 6 fairly independent schools (Art, Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Music, and Theater). There is a “collaborative friction” between the schools’ long-standing independence and the centralized services such as IT. We work together and we have common goals, but there is some tension there that is not to be ignored.

CalArts is an art institute, which presents challenges that are different than other institutions. Some of these are high level – the faculty and students are just wildly creative across the board. At most institutions, maybe 10% of faculty are the “wild” ones with the ideas that challenge centralized organizations such as IT. At an art institute, 100% of faculty fall into this category. And the students follow along in terms of the challenges they present with their ideas and questions. Consequently, many staff that support these individuals can push us as well. Sometimes it’s quite a direct connection – staff X is supporting faculty doing creative work, and they must be just as inventive (and understandably demanding) in getting the resources they need. In other cases its a by-product – student affairs (what we call Student Experience at CalArts) exists within a culture where students won’t wear shoes on a regular basis. So how do we get them to wear ID cards on lanyards as evidence they have been vaccinated? It’s not that Student Experience is supporting the students in their iconoclast nature. It’s the reality of the population they serve. I would suspect that other art and design institutes face similar challenges.

Another, much more “in the weeds” example for IT is the annual computer refresh. I have done this everywhere I’ve been before, and it’s usually pretty straightforward. Prep new machine, centralized documents on old machine, move documents to new machine, install new machine. Voila. At an art institute, however, faculty might have filled their hard drive to the brim with media files, and might have 20 truly specialized software about which we could never know enough to properly support. Sometimes we can’t even figure out how to install and configure the license. But we don’t want to give out administrator-level rights to users, and we find ourselves in a dilemma. How do we handle this efficiently (we’re working on it and perhaps a topic for a future blog post)?

Finally, what about me? What have I learned, in general and about myself?

First, a small institution is a small institution is a small institution. Truth be told, I haven’t run into that many surprises at CalArts compared to other smaller schools I’ve been at. Sure, we have more deferred maintenance on our older building than at Muhlenberg, but it’s about the same as at Menlo. We don’t have the buying power of a larger institution nor the weight to throw around like at a Cal State institution, but that’s nothing new from the smaller schools I’ve been at in the past. We are more selective than other places I’ve been at in the past, and we have a higher profile in many of our metiers. This means that while one company might not want to play ball, another might.

Second, I am finding myself a lot more comfortable in my role. Not complacent nor am I forgetting to challenge the status quo, etc. And I get the jitters now and then and imposter syndrome is always lurking. But, for the most part, when something comes up, I’ve seen something at least somewhat similar in my past, and I can reflect on that experience as I go through the decision-making process on the new one. I might make the same decision, the polar opposite, or something in between. But I have learned, and I think I’ve grown as a leader. For example, we are working on a strategic plan. The last time I tried to do this, I simply bit off more than I could chew; I was too ambitious and tried to write the greatest plan ever. This time, I’m really focused in on one theme, and zeroing in on how we can make an impact within those boundaries.

On the one hand, it’s only been a year. You can lay the groundwork for things in that time, but it’s hard to have everything achieve lift-off. On the other, we have accomplished a lot in this time, and I look forward to what we can do over the next 12 months.

Being a Better Ally (but sometimes failing)

I struggled with the title to this post. It’s too generic and almost seems purposely attention-getting. But it’s also on point, as you will hopefully see. I’d also like to say that I have struggled with writing this for a while now, because it’s a sensitive topic, I’m not an expert on it, and because, well, maybe I’m just wrong in what I’m saying. For all I know what I think I should have done in the situation outlined below is still wrong and I’m still unintentionally supporting some “bad” thing or another.

I’m currently reading Better Allies (yes, I’m at least a year behind on my reading, though I have been getting the weekly newsletter for a while), which is both a book (2, actually) and a movement, and am thinking about a difficult past experience I had. I’ve been debating whether I was trying too hard to be a Knight, an Ally, or just messed up at both, regardless. Either way, the intention was sound, but execution almost certainly not.

My point in this post is, first, to express a relatively recent (within the last 5 years) struggle to be a better Ally and Upstander (see first point in this Code Like a Girl page). My second argument is that it’s just plain hard to know how to be a good ally sometimes, even when we are faced with what seems like blatant actions and words. If anything, I would argue that the examples in the Better Allies book of inappropriate jokes and micro-aggressive discrimination by race are far easier to handle because they are small (but significant) situations. I’m not sure if things are usually more complex in the “real world,” (I use quotes because Better Allies is very much “real” in its examples) but I sure struggled with this one, and for all my good intentions and intentional actions…I did not handle it well.

The not-so-short story is that our IT department decided to do a campus survey – using both a survey instrument and just talking with people – about how we were doing. As an organization operationally (were we doing our jobs), as part of the community (were we being good neighbors), and as a contributor to the culture of the institution (were we being good listeners, supporters, and change-agents towards a positive work place). However, as we gathered this information, we started getting some concerning feedback. We were being told that IT supported a masculine environment that was not friendly to women, for example. Some more extreme examples included that we were blatantly sexist and discriminatory in our departmental culture to other departments.

Not surprisingly, this worried me and the department leadership team. One Director was even brought to tears at the thought that he or his teammates were contributing in such a negative way to a community that he valued so deeply. I expressed that we probably needed to do something, and went home to a restless night.

In what I see now as trying too hard to be a Knight, I acted “decisively” the next day and called a team-wide meeting (I used to call them “all-hands” meetings but now know that that is a term that is not inclusive). I expressed firmly to everyone that these kinds of behaviors and the culture they propagated were anathema to my expectations, and that “that’s not how we do things here.” I used words that were tough to say (because I’m more of a “servant leader” – quite the hot term these days – than a top-down one and tend to choose my words accordingly) and difficult for others to hear. To make things worse, I did this basically right before Thanksgiving break. Which was just plain old bad timing and kind of stupid (I won’t even say bad practice or poor leadership or anything. It was dumb and insensitive).

I say that I was being a Knight rather than an Ally because it was only later (though at least right after the all-team meeting) that I offered to meet with everyone individually and to express more deeply my desire to erase these kinds of cultural contributions at a systemic level. I was trying so hard to be action-oriented and make an immediate difference that I didn’t think about how to make a deeper, lasting one. So I failed there.

What happened next, as I dug deeper into the situation, was where things both got interesting, and embarrassing. As we looked closer at he comments, we discovered that he specific words being used were not as damning as I had feared. They pointed at things we could do better, but there were not, in fact, any specific examples of us being discriminatory to the point where should have acted as I did, with the immediate calling of a meeting and drawing a line in the sand. I want to emphasize that again, because I don’t want to diminish the fact that legitimate complaints were being made. But we didn’t have a smoking gun here. Which leads me to my second failure.

My second mistake was that I was too quick to bold action. If I had simply but emphatically said in IT leadership that this wasn’t okay and that the directors should spread that message to their teams as per their individual cultural norms, that’s one thing. I could have made that my first move. If I had waited until after the break, that would have been more sensitive, certainly. But if I had simply waited in general, I would have realized that I was trying too hard and over-reacting. I had gotten the information somewhat second-hand, after all – people looking at and somewhat interpreting surveys of what others said. But I reacted like I had just been handed what looked like a bomb and had simply and hastily thrown it back from whence it came without taking a second glance.

Again, my point is not that Better Allies is misleading in presenting what I feel are more clear cut examples. If they were in fact clear cut then they wouldn’t happen nearly as often because those wishing to be good Allies would catch them all the time. Micro-aggressions and discrimination by all manner of aspects happen all the time, without question, and they should be called out. I am writing this because it’s an example of how I, personally, struggled, despite my goal to be a good Ally, and it’s an example that I chose to share, even if it makes me look stupid or anything else.

Maybe I was in fact right to have tackled the problem head on (don’t let it slide, right, even if it was Thanksgiving break coming up). Maybe sentiments expressed even mildly should be taken as if they were a bomb dropped in my lap, because those kinds of concerns and actions, whether big or small, should be treated the same.

I write this post because, even though I try so hard, even though I read the books, even though I get the newsletter(s)…I still struggle. I still get things wrong. And I still think about it every time I’m asked to make a decision on almost any issue of any kind today. But I will keep trying to be an Ally and Upstander. I will keep reading and refining. And, surely, I will keep making mistakes now and then.

the curve of the baylands

the curve of the baylands

Originally uploaded by kaiyen

This is the last, non-travel, just-because-I-like-photography photo I took. It’s from 2010, and last summer, at that. Almost 7 months ago.

It’s not particularly impressive, to be honest. I like the colors in it, but the curve of the water didn’t turn out the way I wanted and I’m not sure if I wanted a longer or wider lens. Just not quite right. But when shooting on 5×7 and you only have 1 lens you don’t have much choice or mobility.

My love of photography is just coming back now, but it’s been, figuratively and literally, a dark time for my hobby – my passion – for a while.

Maybe I’ll go back to the baylands and see if I can get this done better with different equipment…



Originally uploaded by kaiyen

There is a really great spot north of the Golden Gate Bridge, to the eastern side, that offers a really spectacular view that is not photographed nearly as often as from, say, the Marin Headlands. Not that it’s inaccessible or anything. It’s on the grounds of Fort Baker.

This particular night, the sky was not cooperating, going from a solid gray in evening to a very slightly textured look as the night went on. While I’m happy with some of the photos of that night, they didn’t feel like anything different than what I could get on most nights.

So…I decided to try something different.

I had to use a flashlight to even see these plants in order to focus on them. And I opened the lens wide so that I could blur out the bridge just a bit.

I’m not sure it’s even a good photo, but I like it, and it’s different, and sometimes we have to make ourselves try something in order to keep our minds fresh.



Originally uploaded by kaiyen

It’s funny how one can get so bored with the same thing that he or she starts seeing it in whole new ways.

As I’ve mentioned before, I walk to and from work most days. I bring the camera along, but I have also mentioned before that it’s not exactly the most exciting of routes and I kind of run out of ideas at some point.

This particular day, I managed to get out the door a bit earlier than usual (which means I left on time) and the sun was still quite low. I have pictures of sun on knurled wooden fences, on rocks, etc. But this one of the shadows of grass on the sidewalk, which I apparently didn’t quite get right on the focus, stood out to me when I was scanning. I also did something during development that made it a bit grainier than usual.

But the shapes and light really did something for me, I’m quite happy with this. Perhaps there is still some creativity left in me…

tree monster

tree monster

Originally uploaded by kaiyen

There is a certain set of developers out there based on the agent pyrogallol – more commonly called “pyro” developers. No, they do not catch fire as a way of creating the image :-).

Along with being incredibly toxic (and absorbed directly through the skin – wear gloves!), they are also staining developers. The idea is that it gives excellent sharpness including sharp grain, but the stain then “fills in” the gaps between the grain. This means a very sharp image, with relatively low grain.

I took this image while walking through Stevens Creek County Park. Tri-X film is especially susceptible to the stain, and I decided to leave the brownish color in the scan.

What impresses me is that there really is a great amount of detail in this image – I think the “tree monster” still shows up quite well despite all the grass, branches, and moss. The tint is possibly a bit gimmicky – I’m not sure yet. It’s more than just doing sepia-toning.

I really do enjoy doing photography while hiking, and taking along a medium format camera, shooting basically with guesswork (sunny-16), is very satisfying even if some of the results aren’t great.

helicopter trails

helicopter trails

Originally uploaded by kaiyen

One of the wonderful things about film photography that I really enjoy is the kind of mystery about the results. You literally have no idea how it’ll turn out until you not just get home but develop the results. Unfortunately, that means that sometimes you missed the shot that you wanted.

Last night, even though I was shooting digital, I got the mystery, but sadly also got the disappointment.

Getting star trails – where the stars turn into lines streaking across the sky – via “stacking” is done by taking a series of photographs of a shorter duration, each with a little tiny streak. Then you put them all together and all those small streaks become long ones.

Once you get your initial exposure settings down, you just start shooting. Sometimes it’s 12 one minute exposures, sometimes it’s 60 one minute ones. Both are for an hour of time and star trails, but done very differently.

You don’t know the results until you get home, though, and use the software to stack everything together. Unfortunately, I did sometime wrong, I guess, and the trails aren’t that prominent. In this one, only Jupiter, which is far brighter than other heavenly bodies, came out and it’s a small streak at that.

The helicopter that was flying around looking for a wanted man (what a night) made for some interesting results, but the star trails bit didn’t work…oh well.



Originally uploaded by kaiyen

This is the fencing around a building that caught fire…probably a year ago. It’s been quite a while for the renovation, of course, and it’s been locked off like this for some time. They have finally started work, and the bricks in the background are from ones ripped out by the renovators and contractors.

I’ve had a chance to photograph this building quite a bit. It’s on my way to work, and it makes for good fodder when I’m carrying my camera around with me. I am pretty happy with with the sharpness of the image, with the fence in focus and the bricks much blurrier.

In this case, I think the combination of the low-grain film, shallow depth of field, and sharp lens worked really well.

for sale

for sale

Originally uploaded by kaiyen

As I have mentioned in the past, I bring a camera just about everywhere I go, and have one in hand while I am walking to and from work, in particular. I walk a relatively mundane, residential route to work, basically the same route, and the truth is that even when I’m in full “there is a photograph everywhere, you just have to look for it” mode, I do end up taking a lot of the same photos.

I’ve walked by this truck for sale a number of times, wanting to find a good way to take its picture. It’s at a gas station literally right at the corner from where I live – maybe 500 feet. It’s this big, old (but not classic-old) truck. Probably a major gas guzzler, and the kind that has little hope of selling unless a buyer is needing something to haul stuff.

I think I might have finally found an angle that works. I wish a bit more of the FOR SALE could be read, but it’s there. And it’s been fun doing straight black and white lately.

Slides will be next for my camera…