There isn't any sector of business or everyday life that hasn't been affected by the economic downturn, and higher education certainly is no exception. Regardless of whether it's a public or private entity, all academic institutions are feeling a similar squeeze—decimated endowments, salary freezes, smaller operating budgets, and more. For a subject like lighting, which is already a relatively small academic focus at many colleges and universities, this course of study is under even more pressure to hold its own for administrative consideration.
While many might be quick to say that current economic pressures put lighting students at greatest risk, I would argue that it is educators who are most vulnerable. There always will be individuals who are interested in studying lighting design, but that is irrelevant if there is no one to teach them. There needs to be a greater mechanism of support for lighting educators if there is to be a future for lighting education.
Around the globe, lighting education is at a critical juncture. Programs are set up in such a way that the responsibility usually has fallen on the shoulders of a single individual, sometimes two people, to lead a program. A big problem is: What happens when an individual retires, moves to another teaching position, or decides to change jobs and leave academia? What then becomes of the lighting program and the faculty who remain (if a program is fortunate enough to have more than one individual)? There has to be a way to buoy lighting programs so their fate can exist beyond its connection to a particular individual.
Two things need to happen to set lighting education on a sustainable course for the next decade and beyond: the creation of a master plan—an overall roadmap/agenda—for lighting education and the establishment of an annual conference for lighting educators.
To begin, educators should initiate a master plan effort and consult with various parties in the lighting community. This way, everyone from educators to designers and manufacturers can have a voice in setting up the program. Education needs to be viewed as a responsibility shared by the entire industry.
A master plan will help collectively set goals to reach a target number of educators, students, and lighting programs. It will help evaluate whether resources should be put toward expansion of existing programs or if new programs should be initiated. It also will help figure out if there are untapped opportunities for collaboration with existing design and engineering programs.
No matter the specifics of the institution and its local culture—whether someone is focused on a tenure track position requiring a Ph.D. or is teaching in an adjunct capacity—there are educational commonalities and concerns that cut across the specific differences. There has to be a way for everyone to be able to share their experiences. That's where an annual conference for lighting educators comes in.
The most recent major lighting educators' conference was held in the late 1990s and organized by David DiLaura at the University of Colorado. Although there have been a few smaller meetings since, as well as the occasional seminar at the various lighting conferences, there never has been a stand-alone follow-up to the Colorado conference. The idea of holding a new conference for educators was informally discussed at the IALD Enlighten Conference in early October and then again at the Professional Lighting Design Conference in Berlin at the end of the month. According to Jean Sundin, director of education for the Professional Lighting Designer's Association, one of the outcomes of the Berlin meeting was the decision to hold such a conference in June 2010. Details are still to be worked out.
Lighting education and support for educators is not an issue dependent on professional affiliation or home institution. Preserving this essential resource should be at the core of the lighting industry's priorities. With all academic design programs, as well as related scholarship and grant initiatives, facing increased pressure for survival, the creation of a lighting education master plan and educators' conference would seem to be a smart starting point. Otherwise, lighting education is not going to pass its final exam.