By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A nonprofit foundation that raises money for the Fashion Institute of Technology cut student scholarships by $200,000 while splurging on a plush renovation of college president Joyce Brown's penthouse residence, the Voice has learned.
The Educational Foundation for the Fashion Industries reduced its funding commitment for scholarships from $2 million to $1.8 million in 1999the same year it allocated $234,000 to refurnish and renovate Brown's apartment. The foundation, which serves as a fundraising arm for the school, is headed by Brown, wife of state comptroller and gubernatorial candidate H. Carl McCall. The group raises the bulk of its funds from fashion industry luminaries, such as Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta, many of whom also sit on its board.
One of the nation's premiere fashion schools, FIT is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system and has 11,200 students. State residents pay $1300 to $1500 per semester, while out-of-state students pay an average of $3500. School officials acknowledge that FIT receives far more scholarship applications from needy students than it can handle. There is also a chronic housing shortage for students, many of whom are forced to commute long distances.
College officials said the scholarship cuts and penthouse spending were unrelated. "That was purely coincidence," said Edwin Goodman, chairman of the college's board of trustees. "We have finite resources. We are doing our best, trying to allocate among contending priorities."
Earlier this month ["High on the Hog," April 10], the Voice revealed that the college spent a total of $529,000 refurbishing the apartment for Brown, who was named president in 1998. In addition to the foundation grantwhich was used to renovate the private section of the apartment, including three bedrooms and a library$295,000 was drawn directly from school operating funds to renovate "public" portions of the 4254-square-foot penthouse: a living room, dining room, office, and kitchen. Included in the outlays were more than $46,000 for new drapes, $41,000 for rugs, and $45,000 for furniture for the 18th-floor apartment, located atop a student dormitory on West 27th Street and Seventh Avenue.
Brown, who earns $149,000 as FIT's president and $36,000 from the foundation, has refused to answer questions from the press about the spending spree or to allow outsiders to view the penthouse. FIT officials have described the costs as appropriate, since the apartment serves as a full-time residence for Brown and her husband as well as a site for receptions for faculty, staff, and potential donors.
"We are hoping she will be president for 10 years," said Goodman. "I think she is doing a great job."
FIT spokeswoman Loretta Lawrence Keane said the apartment was long in need of repairs. But a former FIT president, Allan Hershfield, who lived in the penthouse for five years, said it was "fairly lavish" when he retired in 1997.
The revelations about the costly renovation have prompted outcries from students, many of whom said they sit on broken chairs and endure faulty lighting and outdated classroom technology. In addition, several students who live on floors below Brown said they have had trouble getting the school to make basic repairs in their living quarters. And some former students said they were forced to leave FIT because of a lack of housing and tuition aid.
"It is extremely upsetting to me that she is living so lavishly," said Lynnae Savage, 25, a senior. "She could have used the money for scholarships and other things."
"It does add up to a ridiculous amount of money." Joyce Brown chalked up the totals to the cost of "construction in New York."
In a meeting with more than 100 students last Tuesday, Brown brushed off the charges as politically motivated. Brown told students that the Voice had described the apartment "in terms of opulence that doesn't exist," adding that it "is furnished tastefully, and people have come there and we have raised money and we have used it for the purposes for which it was intended."
In response to a student's question about the expenditures, Brown acknowledged: "It does add up to a ridiculous amount of money." She chalked up the totals to the cost of "construction in New York."
Brown insisted that money for the apartment hadn't come at the cost of any other programs, including scholarships. "We spend $1.8 million on scholarships," she said. "We spend more when we can, [although] there is an ever-growing need, no question about it."
School officials concede, however, that after the amount available for scholarships reached $2 million in the 1998-99 school year, it fell to $1.8 million in the next two years. The decline occurred despite record fundraising by the Educational Foundation and the bull market in which much of its $30 million was invested.
In October 1999, the foundation raised a record $4.5 million at its annual black-tie dinner dance, sponsored by May Department Stores, which owns Lord & Taylor, Filene's, and other chains. The $500-per-ticket gala usually yields between $1 million and $2 million.
"That was an extraordinary year," foundation executive director Jacqueline Venable told Women's Wear Dailylast December.
Indeed, this year's fundraiser, held at the New York Hilton Hotel and Towers, raised less than $1 million. Brown told partiers that their contributions would be used as a "gift of opportunity" for deserving students.