As the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary at the end of the month, the prestigious school has become embroiled in one of the largest crises in its brief history. Over a tumultuous two weeks, what began as social media outrage over the content of a live-streamed faculty talk quickly led to allegations of abusive practices on the part of faculty members Marrikka Trotter and Tom Wiscombe, and called into question longstanding practices that place control over student grades and scholarships with a small group of high-ranking faculty-members.
In a school-wide email sent Tuesday, SCI-Arc leadership announced a number of policy changes to address student allegations of abuse of power by high-ranking faculty. Among these are the formation of a “working group” composed of students, alumni, and faculty, to reorganize the structure of internships and “examine scholarship policies to ensure fair access to funding.”
Many of the issues raised by students—from pressure to take poorly paid internships at faculty-owned firms, to abusive studio culture—speak to longstanding, endemic issues in architectural education. But the allegations, several of which RECORD confirmed through interviews and school documents, also suggest that SCI-Arc’s countercultural ethos and disdain for administrative oversight have enabled a nepotistic culture to thrive. The school—which director Hernán Díaz Alonso boasts in an online message is “not constrained by stubborn bureaucracy”—often leans into its image as a scrappy alternative to the stodgy architectural pedagogy of the east coast.
The present crisis began on Friday, March 25, when Trotter, SCI-Arc’s history and theory coordinator, led a live-streamed discussion titled “How to Be In an Office” with faculty members Margaret Griffin and Dwayne Oyler. The trio advised students to accept low pay and poor work-life balance—Griffin recommended students to take low-paying jobs in boutique “ateliers” rather than corporate firms where “you’re just going to spend a year drawing bathrooms.” Over the weekend, students circulated the video via social media. It touched a nerve within a wider set of architecture professionals, who criticized it for framing architecture as a calling rather than a career, and for suggesting, implicitly, that abusive working conditions should be tolerated.
The Monday following the panel, SCI-Arc hosted a tense town hall in response to the criticisms. Soon after, a student petition began to circulate that alleged that undergraduate chair Tom Wiscombe, husband and business partner of Trotter, used his institutional clout to convince undergraduates to take time off from school to work for their firm, Tom Wiscombe Architects (TWA). After withdrawing from their courses, the students worked 18-hour days for TWA; they eventually quit after being told to deep-clean the studio, reported The Architect’s Newspaper. “Tom Wiscombe has also practiced misconduct in his position in a multitude of other scenarios,” reads the petition, “perpetuating toxic and exploitative culture at his office and studios”—and even “appropriating student works as his own.”
Wiscombe did not respond to RECORD’s request for comment, but he did post an apology to his Instagram page that seems indirectly to address the allegations of misconduct. “People who work with me, especially past students, are here because they believe in what we do and want to both learn and contribute,” he wrote. “We’re listening to you, we value you, and we are sorry we let you down.”
On Wednesday, an emergency faculty meeting stretched to a fraught five hours. Later that day, SCI-Arc announced that both Trotter and Wiscombe had been placed on administrative leave pending an independent investigation. A SCI-Arc representative says the school was only made aware of the allegations in late March.
“The overwhelming majority of the faculty at the school believe the students,” says Russell Fortmeyer, a SCI-Arc faculty member and global sustainability leader at Woods Bagot who is a former RECORD editor. “The incidents have opened up a lot of dialogue in the school, with faculty sharing their own stories of being bullied or otherwise subject to similar abuse in their careers. It’s interesting to me that the students have had to lead on this, but it benefits us all.”
A second, alumni-organized petition began circulating on April 2. “We had endured similar abuses under various faculty that remain to be held accountable,” it reads. “The expectations of unpaid or underpaid labor cannot be isolated to any faculty or staff member and are systemic and long-standing in manners that have only perpetuated inequities.” Listed demands include a public apology from the school and Wiscombe’s immediate removal from his position as Undergraduate Chair; the petition currently has over 600 signees, including a designer in Wiscombe’s office.
Two alumni called attention to a 2010 incident, where they say they were physically assaulted by a SCI-Arc professor at a graduation event. According to an official written account of the incident from the time, which the alumni shared on social media, the school’s then-director Eric Owen Moss suspended but did not fire the professor. SCI-Arc declined to comment on whether it will revisit the incident.
One fifth-year undergraduate student, who spoke to RECORD on the condition of anonymity, described working at another high-ranking faculty member’s private firm without pay last summer, hoping to get a recommendation letter for an application to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The first day in the office, says the student, the architect, who was his former studio instructor, stopped by his desk. “Don’t f--- it up,” he said, and walked away.
The student says he went on to work 12-hour days and describes being “brainwashed” into thinking that this was the only way to gain approval. One day, he says, he arrived at work to find 30 bags of metal accessories piled on his desk; the faculty member had ordered them for use in his private home but they needed to be refinished. The student says he spent two weeks sanding down each piece to the appropriate polish.
Later in the summer, when the student considered leaving the firm, his supervisor told him that his reputation “would be ruined” if he did so, the student says.
According to the SCI-Arc student handbook, “Faculty often hire students during or in between academic terms to work for their architecture firm or on other outside or professional projects,” but, to avoid any “potential conflicts of interest,” faculty are prohibited from hiring students while they were currently enrolled in a class they were teaching. According to an administrative email obtained by RECORD, this latter stipulation was only added in April of last year.
But according to the student and Fortmeyer, there is no administrative oversight in place regarding student labor at faculty’s firms. The handbook refers students to the “Internship Guidelines” on the school’s student portal for more detail. At the time of publication, the school has not responded to RECORD’s request for the document.
In addition to potentially leveraging recommendation letters for graduate school or future employment, senior SCI-Arc faculty are in a position to dictate the terms of scholarship awards. According to the student handbook, first-year students with scholarships who maintain a cumulative GPA of 3.7 or higher will retain their scholarship amount for the next two years. After this time, they must submit a separate “Continuing Student Scholarship” application for funding; these applications are awarded based on several weighted factors, several of them subjective assessments of design ability.
In practice, the process is opaque and open to abuse, critics say. “When I had Tom [Wiscombe] as my studio instructor, he would forcefully inject his own agenda into my design thinking process. I would say no,” the student told RECORD. “But I faced consequences. My scholarship got cut immediately the next semester.”
Documents signed by Wiscombe show that the student’s scholarship was cut by $10,000 between his fourth and fifth year despite his having a 4.0 GPA. SCI-Arc representatives have not responded to RECORD’s request for more information about how scholarships are meted out.
The ongoing investigation into allegations against Trotter and Wiscombe is estimated to take six weeks. A SCI-Arc representative told RECORD that the school could not comment on the scope of the investigation, saying only that the school is “committed to leading and reimagining industry culture, which is why we’re looking at potential areas where we can make meaningful change.”
Yesterday evening, another email was sent to the school on behalf of SCI-Arc’s Board of Trustees, announcing that the school’s 50th anniversary gala on April 30 will be postponed: “While we take this moment to reflect rather than celebrate, our commitment to support our students and their needs is not diminished,” it reads. “We will continue through this time to seek funding for scholarships, especially around our programs of diversity and inclusion.”