NEW YORK — There’s controversy brewing on campus.

A major curriculum change, initiated two years ago in the fashion department at Parsons School of Design here, has erupted into a heated disagreement between faculty and students over the presentation of a minority of its senior class members’ designs during an industry benefit planned for tonight.

A group of disgruntled seniors, who said they felt misled by the Parsons division of the New School University, organized a complaint last week to Timothy M. Gunn, chair of the department of design, after they realized their works would not be among those displayed during the school’s annual benefit and fashion show, which this year honors Liz Claiborne chairman and chief executive officer Paul Charron. The department held a meeting with the class on Wednesday morning to diffuse some of the tension, but several students remained hostile toward the administration, with one senior threatening to pull her nonjuried contribution from a special-project portion of the benefit show.

A band of seniors also issued a press release last Friday charging Gunn and associate chair Andrew Volpe with falsifying information and deceiving them with regard to the opportunity to show their designs at the benefit, since the curriculum was changed after they enrolled at Parsons. They said several seniors who were not selected to show have stopped attending class and presented a formal petition against the logistics of the show that was signed by 75 students. There are about 110 seniors in the class.

The level of complaints came as a surprise to the faculty, although Gunn, a 20-year faculty member and chair of the department for the past three years, acknowledged he had expected to see many disappointed students as a result of changes made to the benefit show beginning last year. However, he said, those changes were necessary to improve the quality of the program and to better prepare students for careers in the real world of Seventh Avenue, as Parsons has lost some of the luster and prestige it once held.

Rather than designing one garment in their senior year under the direction of a member of Parsons’ designer faculty, seniors now are required to independently create their own collections, which are then judged both by a panel of industry members and a group of 13 working designers who select the annual Gold Thimble awards. There are also group project segments that were assisted by sponsorship from companies like Saga Furs and were not juried."We have changed the curriculum to help build and develop the young designers to become individual in their thinking and confident in their work," Gunn said. "We feel it is critical for their survival in this field. It’s very different than it used to be. The students were never allowed to make their own decisions. The designer faculty made their decisions for them. When they leave this school, they also need to know who they are and that’s what we’re giving them."

As a result of the changes, the scope of the benefit show was scaled back last year to include the work of the top designers in the class, totalling about 150 pieces, rather than presenting one look from each student as the benefit has for the majority of its 55-year tradition. The event draws a heavy-hitting crowd of designers and Seventh Avenue executives and raises on average of between $1.3 million and $1.7 million for the school.

But not many designers were ever discovered there, until Proenza Schouler designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez last year presented their work as the "designer of the year," another distinction granted to a senior class member and decided by a panel made up of Peter Arnold and Lisa Smiler, from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and Harold Koda, the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"The students have gone from making one garment under the heavy hand of one designer to making a thesis collection on their own," Gunn said. "They were underchallenged. They can handle this."

While the industry reaction to the shortened show was generally positive, Gunn immediately was under fire over the move from angry students, parents and board members, but has stood his ground on the issue. Students also have complained that an industry-wide jury process, where as many as 200 professionals attend daylong seminars at the school and grade their collections, does not appear to have the same impact on the selection of students who show as do the Gold Thimble awards, which are individually selected by designers such as Peter Som, John Varvatos, Michael Vollbracht, Cynthia Steffe, Badgley Mischka, Yeohlee, Stan Herman and Michael Kors. Gunn said that by coincidence, the designers selected the same 13 students who happened to get the highest scores from the industry panel, so it wasn’t really an issue.The students, however, didn’t buy that explanation and also are skeptical about the school’s support of a more inclusive senior class show scheduled on May 13.

"There is a very loud central contingent of students who say ‘You’ve deceived us,’" Gunn said. "I say with impunity that you have not been listening. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but I mean it like a parent would, with tough love. The way in which they are portraying the facts is largely fictional."

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