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An Interview with President Bronet

Community

I recently had the great pleasure and privilege of interviewing Pratt’s newest president, Frances Bronet. Beyond her clear drive and eloquent reflections, President Bronet is the epitome of leadership. As we talked, there was a distinct level of engagement, open-mindedness, and above all, excitement for the future of Pratt. Following is an edited transcription of our conversation.

Aaron Cohen: You have extensive leadership experience in art academia. How have your previous positions prepared you for the title of Pratt’s twelfth president?

President Bronet: Well, I have been in education now almost 40 years in some way, shape or form, and I’ve gone through sort of every domain of both learning from the students and then becoming a leader—I would say a co-leader with the students. You probably know a little bit about this, but I have been a faculty member from assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, associate dean, acting dean, dean, provost, and then ultimately, president.

But my greatest joy has always been in being with students and understanding where their curiosity comes from and exploring that, seeing it as a kind of cauldron of investigation: looking at the unpredictable and developing strategies for understanding it. So, I have to say, coming in to being president is a real gift, because now I get to see all the various levels of how learning occurs: the kind of learning that occurs at the student level, but also the kind of learning a faculty member does every day in order to engage the students where they are.

AC: What hopes do you have for advancing this institution during your term, and what initiatives do you most look forward to being involved with?

PB: Well, I have an interesting background. I studied architecture and I studied engineering, and I opened an architecture practice, and then I went back to school to get a graduate degree in architecture, and my most recent work is building large-scale dance installations, and so my world has always been in these interdisciplinary interstices. I think one of the reasons that I came to Pratt is there was a desire to think about what [it is] to be a deep disciplinarian and understand the kind of work that it takes to encourage a particular kind of learning.

One of the things that I learned in all of those journeys is what [it is] to have a fully embodied education, and I don’t know what you know about me but I use that word a lot—embodied learning—because it uses every mode of inquiry that we know, whether it’s making, sculpting, building, writing, thinking, listening, and includes other disciplines as well. Let’s say electrical engineering—they inquire about the way that we’re investigating, through design and iteration. Investigating is sort of a fully holistic model, so for me, learning about every kind of model that’s going on here is actually critical.

This is only the beginning of my third month and I’ve been lucky enough to learn a little bit about what’s going on here. I’ve gone out to all of the domains that we have here, from the people who maintain the place to actually going into the studios, meeting with faculty, [and] talking to students. [What’s] critical for me is understanding where everybody is at and beginning to pull out that knowledge and seeing how it would make sense at an institutional level. One of the great things that I have learned about being here is how central Pratt was to creating this environment in which we sit. So, my journey has both been internal, even in this last couple of months, to an external journey. I’ve started to meet with other not-for-profits that sit around Pratt, other for-profits that are emerging around Pratt, those that are actually sitting in Manhattan, and understanding our relationship and the role that an institution like Pratt can play in both understanding deep intrinsic learning and the kind of learning that we do that is extrinsic, or as other people would say - instrumental: connected to the environment in which we sit.

I think that what’s interesting to me here is that we are able to navigate what often are seen as dissonant or contested territories, and how we actually live in all of those domains and have the opportunity to learn in those very focused environments that may not have an immediate application, and other environments that are very much about the application. That’s a fascinating arena for me: to take what we have and think about How does it position itself in the world?

AC: We’re a historic institution and we’re evolving constantly with our context. How would you like to see Pratt interacting with our neighbors in Brooklyn and how do you think Pratt does interact with the surrounding communities as we grow?

PB: We stand on the shoulders of many, many, many collective giants, but one was President Emeritus Thomas Schutte, who really did make an impact in connecting to the other institutions that surround us so that you can occupy this place in a very different way than alumni from 30 or 40 or 50 years ago would have. It was a very concerted, collective effort to make Brooklyn the place to be, and it has become that. I think it’s an essence of having a place where you feel connected, you feel safe, you feel welcome, you feel that it has a level of diversity and inclusivity that allows for multiple people to occupy it simultaneously, and that was clearly a mission of this institution. Of course, Dr. Schutte did not do this alone—many groups and cohorts here worked together to make this the extraordinary place it is now where people feel that their creative capacity can be tapped because the very basic things that they were worried about before—walking around, engaging with the community—was not as easy, so continuing that is going to be critical.

Pratt had an engineering school until 1993—it was also part of its core in thinking about How do we actually make lives better for the people who lived around Pratt? And that was actually a motto that was consistent with many institutions. My last institute was like that—Illinois Institute of Technology—they started at about the same time, and they were all about creating worlds for people to just have a little bit more social [and] economic mobility than they had at the moment. We are doing the same thing in much the same way, looking at What is the creative economy and how do we develop a way for people to engage? So let’s look at the environment around us. We’ve got downtown, the Navy Yard, which is exploding as well and going to create 20,000 jobs in the next few years. We’ve got a robotics lab down there, [and] we’ve got people really thinking about how we develop jobs. We can begin to imagine ourselves in a technological domain by coming out of the very disciplines that we hold dear to us right now around art and design and information, [and] thinking about what those arenas are and how we position them in the next circle of influence. We have a lot of collaborations already that are going on amongst our faculty and students that connect to the Tandon School of Engineering, that is NYU. Very shortly, Tisch is going to be moving over from NYU to downtown Brooklyn—what’s our relationship with performing arts? There are some really wonderful things, but they’re going to actually emerge from the grassroots: What are our faculty and students doing already, and how can we imagine them cultivating the seeds of that kind of interaction?

AC: You mentioned collaboration a few times. I think it’s vital that we keep this a keyword in our neighborhood so that the focus is on building and supporting communities. One could validly say that Pratt has contributed to the gentrification in Clinton Hill and the surrounding areas of Bushwick. Are there any thoughts you have on how we can sustain a healthy community around us?

PB: There are multiple things we have to think about in a reciprocal way. How do we share well with any community? How have we grown because of the community, and what do we offer? There’s always a kind of reciprocity, and that’s actually how you build a healthy relationship. We invite the community, and the community—we are the community! We are part of the community, and we’re part of that ecosystem. When we have events on campus, when we open our library, when we have memberships to the gym, people actually think of this place as their park, as their place of intellectual and visceral stimulation.

Everyone wants to see the art that we generate, and we want to see how communities evolve and are sustained by this mutual engagement. We have to be very vigilant about it, because if we aren’t, the very complexity and diversity that we sit in could vanish. I think that working very hard in that ebb and flow is going to be our collective responsibility. So how do we do it? Well, we have many events on the campus that we invite people into, and of course, there are many events that exist from the Navy Yard to Myrtle Avenue that we’re invited to.  

What are the projects that we work on that require input from our neighborhoods? Architecture is working on those kinds of projects, design is working on those projects, many of our artists are engaged in the space, and our alumni live in this area and contribute back with their own studios and the work that they do in the community. There are multiple not-for-profits from Myrtle Avenue to the downtown collectives that we’re involved in and numerous members of our faculty, staff, alumni and trustees are engaged in their boards as well as ours.

AC: As the first woman president of Pratt, how do you plan on advocating for women and minorities on campus, and moreover, how do you plan on supporting students and providing them with the resources they need to succeed, from facilities to curriculums?

PB: Of course, I’m deeply honored to be in this position as you can well imagine. We have to advocate for all beings. Let’s start with all of the people that occupy this campus, whether it’s staff, students, or faculty. Because I’m a new president, as is often with new leadership, we are building a new strategic plan. We have just launched putting the committees together to build Strategic Plan 2019 on, and it will again have students, faculty, and staff, and there are right now five pillars that will define that plan. These can morph, of course —just as in design, we start a proposal and then iterate, sometimes we may find out that our initial moves can be totally transformed through the design process itself -—and if we find out that they’re not exactly right, we’ll adjust them. They are around Student Success, Academic Excellence, Diversity and Inclusion, Global Engagement, and Civic Engagement. […] I don’t think there’s an institution or a university in the world that wouldn’t say that they want to have student success and academic excellence, but we would probably say in our academic excellence that we’ve been founded on creative and cultural inquiry and a mission to address all people from all walks of life. I encourage all of you—all of the students—to please join the committees and/or the subcommittees, and if you cannot make any of those, we will be having fora throughout this year and next year to get input of what’s salient to your own success and your own aspirations and ambitions for your time here, but also for your time beyond here.

Are we there yet? Absolutely not. Do we have a lot of work to do? Yes. And we have a lot of work to do together. Much of my own work for decades has been about social justice, from the very projects I gave my architecture students in thinking about what it is to work in communities of desire and need. I’ve worked in collectives that really think about who has access. I’ve worked on multiple initiatives around inclusion that were really looking at: Is the curriculum western focused? If we’re truly vigilant about multiple modes of inquiry, we’re going to look at diverse populations and how we all learn, both from our own communities and from a collective community, and it requires creating a rubric for healthy and open discussions and action to take place. It’s going to be all of us partnering together, because we will not be successful unless we are partners.

We are very pleased to announce Nsombi B. Ricketts as the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Pratt Institute. Social justice and equity are fundamental to the institute’s mission, and Nsombi is the ideal person to ensure that our campus climate embodies a culture where everyone feels included and inspired to learn and create compelling work.

AC: What do you admire most about Pratt as it stands?

PB: There isn’t a day I don’t pinch myself. It gets better and better every minute I’m here. I came at a peculiar time, which is the dead of winter—but I got to meet everybody on the campus, and I was able to meet […] the people who maintain the campus and make it this beautiful and healthy place for students to learn. All our staff from those who might be fixing a boiler, walking across the campus, seeing a student who looks, let’s say, completely involved in thought and who may be worried about the review they’re going to or what just happened at a review—a kind word, saying, “Hey, how are you doing?” [and] realizing that these students are precious family together—everybody understands that. That is the faculty prerogative—they deeply understand that their guidance, their setting up a place of inquiry is their job, and their engagement with the students is absolutely critical.

I just came back from three alumni events in Dallas, San Francisco, and in L.A., and it’s one thing to know what you’re learning here is important, and your teachers are telling you, “This is really critical and you should know what I’m telling you,” and you kind of believe it, but you’re sometimes wondering, “Why am I doing this?” Well, having gone and met with alumni, whether they graduated a year ago, five years, ten years ago, or all the way to 70 years ago—because I met somebody who was turning 90—they all say that Pratt made a mark on their lives that they could not have predicted. […] You’ll hear this from other people, that “it was the best time of my life,” but Pratt graduates say, “What I learned at Pratt has guided my entire life—it was one of the best times of my life, because the grounding I had at Pratt created a lifetime of extraordinary experiences.” The dedication of your faculty, the depth of the knowledge and the ways that they want you to look at things will have an impact on you for the rest of your life. I can say that with total confidence.

AC: How do you think art and design education interacts with our changing world, and what role do you see Pratt playing in that development?

PB: Pratt is one of the absolute top institutions in art and design education and creation in the world—internationally recognized, and we know that. With the quick movement of artificial intelligence, we’re going to see many jobs, many positions, many fields actually be transformed, and perhaps, lost, because artificial intelligence will take them away, but if you’re in creative arenas, it will be very difficult to move out the creatives. The difference between what happens at a creative institution and one that may not be as focused on creative inquiry is: we’re not just saying, “Let me solve the problems.” We’re asking, “What are the questions?” And if we stay there and constantly ask, and then move into action at iteratively solving what we set as the questions, and be willing to constantly evolve the questions, then we will be, I think, a very critical partner in the world.

I am somebody who deeply believes [in] community collaboration and partners, because we’re not alone, and solving some of the very complex problems of the world will require the collective. If we look carefully at what it is to solve a problem, you have to have an ecosystem. I may be an inter-disciplinarian and happy to cross domains, but I will rely on you, who might say “I actually want to investigate this problem for 30 years, or 50 years, and I’m going to look very deeply into my own explorations, my own craft, and I’m not necessarily going to be creating pathways for everybody to join me.” A true ecosystem allows for those who want to be very, very deep, for those who want to be broad, [and] for those who will change from being deep to being broad in a day, in a month, in 30 years. My job as president, with the various teams that collate around me at some level, is to create a place where multiple modes of investigation can occur. And if people want to join together, that we’ve created a fabric for that coalescing.

AC: Art has long been a haven for the marginalized and the misunderstood, and within our current political climate, numerous identities are under attack, including that of the artist. Do you think art has the power to save the world?

PB: It’s an interesting question about the world and how we imagine that world. If we think about the world as itself an ecosystem and how we all contribute to it—imagining ourselves as contributing to the visceral condition of making a place that we all want to live in that connects the intellectual, the social, the economic, the aesthetic—to make a place where we are all welcome. The minute we start to peel away any of those aspects, we’ve diminished the world that we inhabit. What does it mean when we […] have a world we all have a place in? How are we all valued? And how do we feel valued?

Sometimes we ask the questions as artists before other people have even realized that there might be an issue. It was artists who actually, perhaps, lifted the veil on what [it is] to have war. It was artists who thought about how we co-make the world, and how we inhabit this place together. I think the issue that you’re asking is: How do we make sure that others understand our value? And it will require […] constant conversation, and to not be afraid of engaging in a powerful and meaningful way, and some it’s going to require conflict, and to be part of that conflict. Artists often are the ones who expose the dissonance and make us aware that that dissonance itself can bring us to another level of exploration and place. I look forward to understanding more about what’s going on here. The passions and the willingness to work of our students, faculty, staff—to make this place a better world—is critical. Herbert Simon said, “To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” That’s what we do.

AC: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much.

PB: I know you’re interviewing me, but I’d rather interview you! I’m kind of blown away by your own magical engagements, and I don’t mean magic in a world like, "Yeah, it’s not going to happen.” It’s actually in a world that will happen. What’s happening in the world today with teenagers running for governor, with teenagers leading conversations—very difficult conversations—around gun violence, with teenagers and young adults thinking about hierarchies and how somebody in power can actually use it well… We all worry about the future, but I have to say: in handing it off to you, I have absolutely no worries at all. I’m a parent of two—I have a 19-year-old who’s studying math and economics on the West Coast, and I have a daughter who is a writer and a maker here in New York, and I’m so moved by your commitment and desire. I have no doubts—the last question you asked me, of making this world better—that you will do that.

AC: I think so too.

[…]

PB: You’re in a community of people who are exploring with you, and it’s harder to maintain in the rest of your life, to have that density of exploration all the time, every day, with all of these people looking and searching and finding and demanding—that’s hard to hold onto. Because when you go out in the world, you’re in multiple locations and experiences, so it’s a little bit more diffuse, and in some ways, maybe richer in terms of the composition, but the depth and the precision and the investigation with so many people looking at the same kinds of problems together—that is hard to find again. I was with alumni at Pixar and Disney and I think they’re in cauldrons of creativity as well. So, why Pratt? There isn’t a studio I walk into where I don’t hear a discussion going on about creative craft and thoughtfulness. That doesn’t exist in very many places. It’s really quite profound.

AC: That’s something I also appreciate about being here. The amount that I’m constantly immersed in art—outside of the classroom too. The community of artists and the conversations that they sustain is—

PB: Always present—

AC: It’s nourishing.

PB: I think if people understood that it was foundational and nourishment—it was core to our being—I mean, why do people go to museums and studios and cities that evoke a kind of visceral presence? It’s because they feel alive! And that is what we do here. It’s this panoply of full immersion, and that is what you’re experiencing. And some of it is painful! Because you want to have all the experiences, right? Because that’s what makes us whole.

Click for President Bronet’s full bio and the official diversity and inclusion press release.

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Photography by Samuel Herrera

written by
Aaron Cohen
April 26, 2018