Peace Project organizer to meet with university officials

Daily Sundial

A professor who organized an antiwar art display outside the CSUN ROTC office will meet today with administrators to discuss how much freedom students had in participating in the project and whether there was ample discussion time of opposing viewpoints.

The Peace Project installed hundreds of physically altered war toys and miniature communities outside the ROTC bungalow near Sagebrush Hall on Sept. 27 in an effort to convey the importance of peace and an end to global conflict, specifically addressing the war in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Shawn Buck, head of the CSUN detachment of the UCLA Army Reserve Office Training Corps battalion, made an informal inquiry to the administration about the project, organized by art professor Edie Pistolesi and other professors in the department. At the core of inquiry was whether students were forced to participate in the project, which centered on a political theme that some students said was elevated by its installation near the ROTC office.

“At this point, I get a lot of hearsay, so it’s best for me to speak to the professor and the dean (of the College of Arts, Media, and Communication) directly,” said Harold Hellenbrand, CSUN provost and vice president for Academic Affairs.

Pistolesi has said repeatedly that every effort was made to reach out to students who might have had a concern about the Peace Project before its installation, and that no such concerns were brought to her attention. Many students in her 400-level class, which focuses on preparing students to become teachers, said they approved of the project, especially after class discussion about the ROTC’s presence on campus and military recruitment in general.

Concern centers on a few students from two of the classes who said they felt uncomfortable with the Peace Project, specifically the display near the ROTC office and the project’s origins in politically themed instruction. Some claimed insufficient information was available to students before the project’s installation, and that they would have been more comfortable had it been.

One student from the 300-level art class taught by Professor Violetta Blunt said she was never informed about the full scope of the project, specifically it being a Peace Project to be installed outside the ROTC bungalow. Another student from Pistolesi’s class said students did not have ample discussion time before the installation, and that students might have been more comfortable with things if the project were more openly discussed.

“We really didn’t go in-depth about the project until the next (class) meeting afterward, when suddenly there were (Daily Sundial) newspaper articles to reflect on,” said a student in Pistolesi’s class, adding that she was unsure of whether other students were clear on the full scope of the project.

No students have lodged a complaint with either Academic Affairs or Student Affairs. Hellenbrand said his meeting today with Pistolesi and William Toutant, dean of the College of Arts, Media, and Communication, was prompted internally, not because of a student complaint.

The only inquiry made to the administration was from Buck, who called the Provost’s Office a day after the project’s installation.

Additionally, no students went to the College of AMC to discuss the project either officially or unofficially, according to Toutant.

One student who expressed concern about the project said she should have spoken up during class, but did not know if her grade would be affected.

The syllabus for Pistolesi’s class alerts students to the option that projects can be changed with consultation with the professor, and students confirmed that Pistolesi and Blunt offered private discussion time with students if they had concerns about the project. Pistolesi and her students also discussed the project beginning the first day of class.

“The question is, how much more can I do?” Pistolesi said.

She said every art project begins how the Peace Project did.

“There is a creative process that starts off with being uncomfortable, until you reach an interesting turning point where exciting things happen, and then something incredible occurs and something creative comes out,” Pistolesi said.

“The idea of being uncomfortable at the beginning is part of being at the university level, and part of critical thinking,” Pistolesi said.

She said many students might not be in the habit of speaking out in class, and that during class discussions after the installation a lot of students spoke for the first time.

She added that the Peace Project provided a wide “umbrella” for student views, meaning students who were pro-war could still want returning soldiers to have peacetime jobs and express that by converting toy soldiers into firefighters or other civilian workers.

Sirena Pellarolo, professor in the Modern and Classical Languages Department, said she is very outspoken during classes, and personally very political. She said it is important for students to speak up during class, even if it means disagreeing with a professor.

“Those students who felt intimidated, who stayed silent instead of voicing their opinions (concerning the Peace Project), let it be a lesson to them so that next time they can speak up,” Pellarolo said. “If they are afraid, they need to step up to the plate and do something.”

“The No. 1 thing we need to do for students is challenge them” so that they can become agents of change in the world, she said.

Dave Ballard, president of the CSUN chapter of the California Faculty Association, said he had not spoken to Pistolesi or the other professors yet, but said if a professor wanted a CFA representative at a meeting, he or she could be provided with one.

Ballard reinforced the CFA’s official position on academic freedom in the classroom, specifically the “right of faculty to teach, conduct research or other scholarship, and publish free of external constraints other than denoted by normal scholarly standards.”

The student from Blunt’s class, who preferred to remain anonymous, said her concern about the project extended beyond just a lack of information.

“My feeling is that I just have a hard time having to do a project that is based on a professor’s political point of view,” she said. “I really have an issue with that. I just think it’s wrong, and it doesn’t belong in the classroom.”

Another student from Blunt’s class said opting out of the Peace Project was never an option, and that she did not speak up during class because it was “clear where the professor stood.”

Pistolesi, who said the serious reaction to the Peace Project has not reflected the amount of fun students had while working on it, said she is moving the class forward with another project focusing on the primal needs of humankind. This time, it’s food.

Still, Pistolesi said art plays a crucial role in any society.

“Art is political. Art comes from cultural context,” she said. “So what’s happening (in our world)? Are we going to paint a little still life and ignore what’s going on in our country?”

Ryan Denham can be reached at