Michael Martin, the previous director of the Black Film Center/Archive at IU and current editor-in-chief of Black Camera, wrote an open letter to IU Media School Dean James Shanahan. In it, he said the BFC/A had experienced a pattern of budget cuts, low retention of professional staff and a lack of support from the university. He also said Black Camera, a scholarly film journal, had also suffered from budget cuts.
“Moreover, and of greater concern, your devalorization of the BFC/A foregrounds the presence of a double standard and an insidious racial hierarchy in the Media School,” Martin wrote to Shanahan in the letter on March 9.
The Black Film Center/Archive is a facility where scholars, researchers and students have access to films and related material by and for Black people, according to its website. It is located in the basement of Herman B Wells Library. Black Camera is an international scholarly film journal that studies and documents the Black cinematic experience. Black Camera was formerly sponsored by the BFC/A but separated when Martin resigned from the BFC/A in 2017.
Martin said the then-executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Larry Singell, attempted to reduce the funding of the Black Film Center/Archive on multiple occasions in 2010. In 2015, when the BFC/A and Black Camera were moved to the Media School, Shanahan reduced the BFC/A’s operating budget by 15% and Black Camera’s operating budget by 20%, Martin said.
In May 2020, Black Camera saw more budget cuts, with a reduction in Martin’s summer salary as editor-in-chief and an 18% reduction in the operating budget.
Shanahan said the university asked the Media School to cut its budget by 5% because of universitywide cuts during the pandemic. He said the budget cuts were made as equitably as possible across all programs.
IU’s budget does not provide specific enough information to independently verify these cuts, and Shanahan declined to provide specifics about the Media School’s internal budgetary allocations.
Martin said when the university wants to invest in new buildings, schools or programs, they find a way to fund that investment, and budgetary allocations show which investments it does and does not value. The cuts in BFC/A and Black Camera funding show they are not a priority for the university, Martin said.
“We’re sort of taken off the shelf and presented to promote the institution and then starved of vital resources,” he said.
An operating budget is used to pay staff salaries as well as production costs, Martin said. Shanahan also replaced positions for graduate workers with hourly staff. This means graduate workers are less likely to work with the BFC/A because, in hourly positions, students don’t receive fee remission and tuition waivers, Martin said. Not retaining graduate students destabilized the program and a new group of students had to be trained, Martin said.
Martin said he believed the Media School’s actions indicated the BFC/A isn’t important and that it should just be grateful to exist.
“I reject that premise. I find it insulting. I find it patronizing, and I find it racist,” he said.
Martin said when he raised concerns about the 2015 budget cuts, a senior administrator told him he could accept the budget cuts or resign. Martin would not name the administrator. In 2017, after accepting the cuts for two years, Martin resigned from his directorship of the BFC/A in protest, he said.
“To the extent that we are complicit in our own second class citizenship is the extent to which you give license, then, to continue a practice that denies you equal status to counterparts,” Martin said. “And I didn’t grow up that way.”
Shanahan said the claim that the Media School doesn’t value diversity isn’t true. He said there is always room for improvement in the Media School and that diversity is no exception.
In 2016, there were three Black staff members at the Media School, according to the Media School’s annual report. In 2020, there were four. This does not include staff of two or more races, which the Media School put in a different category.
When he resigned, Martin said he was given verbal confirmation that an interim director would be appointed until a national search chose a senior level scholar to direct the BFC/A. Instead, untenured associate professor Terri Francis was appointed as the director for three years and her contract was renewed in 2020, Martin wrote. Francis did not respond to a request for comment.
Martin said he wasn’t frustrated with Francis, but he was frustrated at the way the appointment was handled and the institutional problems her appointment represents. Martin said he didn’t believe the university would appoint an untenured professor or mid-level professional to the directorship of other university arts programs and top research institutes such as IU Cinema or the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art.
IU Cinema and the Eskenazi Museum are led by professionals with previous directorship experience, and other comparable institutions Martin mentioned in his letter are led by tenured professors. He said this again indicated to him that the university didn’t value the BFC/A the way other programs are valued.
Shanahan said the Media School values the BFC/A just as much as other programs and Francis is a qualified film scholar with a national reputation. He said he believes she’s doing a fantastic job running the BFC/A.
Martin said two of the BFC/A’s archivists, who help collect and organize film, filed two complaints with the Office of University Compliance during Francis’ directorship, one against Shanahan and one against Francis. The archivists declined to comment, and the Office of University Compliance could not say what the complaints were filed for. Both of these archivists resigned, one in 2018 and the other in 2019, he said. The former associate director left the BFC/A, acquiring a new role in the Media School.
This means 75% of the professional staff have resigned from the BFC/A, Martin said, calling it a serious and alarming staffing trend.
Future of the BFC/A
Martin said the BFC/A has ceased to function as a research center and has instead become a platform for the exhibition of film that occasionally hosts filmmakers and scholars and recycles material from previous collections.
In the past, the BFC/A acquired multiple film collections for research, teaching and exhibition, he said. In the past three years under Francis, he said he is unsure if any new collections have been acquired. While the BFC/A has shown many exhibitions in the past, the status of new exhibitions in the past three years is also unknown, Martin wrote. Similarly, the BFC/A’s e-newsletter and a print publication, Yearbook, were discontinued.
At the end of the letter, Martin provided recommendations he believed Shanahan could use to improve conditions for the BFC/A and “Black Camera.” These included restoring all budgetary cuts and approving an external review of the BFC/A to determine appropriate levels of staffing and funding. He also requested a national search for a senior level scholar to serve as director of the BFC/A, which he said Francis should be invited to compete for.
Shanahan said there will be a review of the BFC/A next year. He said it was already scheduled but was postponed due to the pandemic.
Martin said the budget cuts and the way Black Camera and the BFC/A have been treated are reflective of larger issues within the university, which says it values diversity while not following through in practice.
“There’s more lip service than actual, concrete commitment,” Martin said.